Founder’s 150-year-old sermons still resonate
Written by Nicole Nicklin, online communications manager for The Salvation Army Northern Division
It is estimated that Salvation Army founder, William Booth, traveled 5 million miles and preached 60,000 sermons in his lifetime.1 To call him an evangelist feels like an understatement.
Booth committed his entire life to spreading the Gospel, declaring in his diary: “God shall have all there is of William Booth.”
Two common themes of Booth’s preaching were urgency for saving souls, and the undeniable connection between faith and works. It’s no wonder these became foundational values of The Salvation Army.
Much of Booth’s ideology was preserved through publications, which allows us to revisit his Biblical teaching about the most pressing issues of life more than 100 years after he first preached them.
“Teach your people,” Booth said. “Teach them sound doctrine; if you do not give them the truth, somebody else will give them falsehood.”
There is even a rare audio recording of him speaking to a crowd about helping the poor among us.
His sharp and poignant sermons are still relevant today. Below, we’ve paired some excerpts from Booth’s sermons with corresponding Biblical references, in hopes that it will invigorate your own faith walk.
Urgency for Saving Souls
From age 20, Booth committed to reading no fewer than four chapters in God’s word every day.2 His knowledge of the Bible made him an effective preacher, reaching thousands for Christ in his lifetime and leading him to start an organization that would reach millions more after his death.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus gave this command to his disciples in Matthew 28:18-20:
“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’”
Booth took Jesus’ command not just as something to make a part of life, but to make his purpose in life. Booth exemplified the worker described in John 4:35-36 who took action to harvest a crop for eternal life:
“Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together.”
Matthew 24:14 adds:
“And the gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
Booth’s life exhibited the same urgency to win souls for Christ that the Bible does. In one sermon, Booth said:
“Does salvation travel as fast as sin? See how wickedness spreads. Talk about a prairie fire – it is nothing to it! How it devours everything before it. Does salvation keep pace with the increase in population? Make the calculation in your most favored Christian cities, and you will find we are terribly behind in the race. Do we keep pace with the devils in energetic and untiring labor? Do we go as fast as death? Is he not always stealing a march on us? Oh, say no more! We’ll close our ears, my comrades, to this cold, unfeeling, stony-hearted utterance of unbelief. Let us go faster!”
Why the rush? The Bible makes it clear that there are consequences for unbelief. Romans 6:23 puts it this way: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Booth didn’t want to see a single soul perish and used the pulpit to guide others in a tireless pursuit of salvation for all:
“People die and go to hell because nobody will be at the trouble and expense to save them. Let the countryside turn out. Put a way through. Know no impossibilities. If you cannot reach the perishing souls one way, try another. Try every way, and then try them all over again. Never be beaten. You must succeed. Make your mind up to it, and it shall be done.”
The Intertwining of Faith and Works
The book of James is one of the Bible’s most clear-cut guides for daily Christian living. Most notably, James 2:26 says, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”
Jesus’ brother James wrote this book as a letter to Jewish converts to Christianity shortly after Christ’s death, as a guide for how to live a new life as His follower. Anyone familiar with the New Testament book will see its influence in Booth’s preaching and the “Soup, soap and salvation” mission of The Salvation Army that grew from his influence.
James 1:22-25 says:
“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.”
Booth artfully described the intertwining of faith and works in this sermon illustration:
“Faith and works should travel side by side, step answering to step, like the legs of men walking. First faith, and then works; and then faith again, and then works again – until you can scarcely distinguish which is the one, and which is the other.”
James’ lesson on faith spurring a believer to action was not lost on Booth, particularly in regard to the poor.
James 2:15-17 says:
“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
Booth never missed an opportunity to invite others to join him in action. The full audio recording of Booth preaching about the urgent need to help the hurting included such a call:
“So let us hasten to the rescue for the sake of our own peace, the poor wretches themselves, the innocent children, and the Savior of us all. But you must help with the means. And as there is nothing like the present, who in this company will lend a hand by taking up the collection?”
Booth not only preached, he contributed some of the most innovative solutions to poverty of his time and was quick to lay the groundwork for its implementation with his own two hands. His solutions affected the lives of thousands.
Seeds of Faith
Even greater than his role as Salvation Army founder, William Booth was a follower of Christ.
It’s no wonder that the organization born of Booth’s zealous following of God, love for all humanity, and hunger for Biblical truth has endured more than one and a half centuries and now thrives in 128 countries.
In a Salvation Army Song Book, Booth penned this song which sums up the salvation made available to us all through the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus:
O boundless salvation! Deep ocean of love,
O fullness of mercy, Christ brought from above,
The whole world redeeming, so rich and so free,
Now flowing for all men, come roll over me!
1 Revolutionaries, p. 168, Matt Brown, 2009; 2 Christian History magazine, Issue 26, p.7