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The poem that shaped our history

The poem that shaped our history

The poem that shaped our history

William Booth had the ability to recite large volumes of literature.

By Garth R. Hentzschel

A turning point in the history of The Salvation Army was when William Booth recited a poem at the home of Edward Harris Rabbits. The event led to William’s romance with Catherine Mumford and opened the way to William becoming a full-time preacher. While many authors have highlighted this event, there are still lessons to learn.

William Catherine BoothWilliam Booth coming home to his wife Catherine and one of their children.

In short, William was invited to Edward’s home, where a group of Christians, including Catherine, had gathered. When William arrived, he was encouraged to recite an American Temperance poem that told of a dream where the devil visits a hotelier. The poem showed the negative impact of intoxicating drink and inferred the dreamer was an agent of the devil. The recitation led to a discussion on what relationship a Christian should have to alcohol, in which Catherine played her part. After the recitation, or through the discussion, deep respect developed between Catherine and William.

This event has often been included in publications to show one or more of the following: how William and Catherine met, The Salvation Army’s early stand against alcohol, and women’s right to talk on topics important to Christian faith and practice. For these reasons, the events should be remembered.

What has not been previously identified is William’s ability to recite large volumes of literature. He could even remember poetry over 60 years later. Yet, William did not recite The Devil and the Grog-Seller in its entirety. What was excluded also reveals things about William.

William was able to use the ideas of others; however, he analysed these through his belief system and how it would impact The Salvation Army. He never just allowed programs or ideologies to infiltrate the Army. For example, William saw the Band of Hope [a temperance organisation for working-class children founded in 1847] and used some ideas in his Band of Love; he saw the Boy Scouts and used ideas in the Life Saving Scouts and Guards; he mixed military with civil ranks and organisational structures to make a progressive movement. The investigation of the poem shows that while William used the poem, he left out lines with which he disagreed.

It is clear William moved the poem away from the physical and material to the spiritual and eternal. While the early Salvation Army looked after people with physical and financial needs, William’s focus was elsewhere. The missing elements of the poem showed he cared more for the soul than the body and cared more for eternal rules than for man-made laws.

The removal of words also showed William’s theology on the devil. To William, the devil was a very real and dangerous enemy. Throughout the poem, he left out any language that made the devil look comical, friendly, a ruler, or regal. Financial elements such as financial injustice, property ownership, making money, unethical business principles and acquisition of wealth were also left out.  

The deeper analyses of the poem, therefore, showed William’s theology and methodology. It teaches that contemporary Salvationists also can borrow other’s ideas but need to change them to be in line with the Army’s belief and practice.

GARTH R. HENTZSCHEL is a Salvationist living in Brisbane and is Executive Editor of The Australasian Journal of Salvation Army History and President of The Salvation Army Historical Society of Brisbane.



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