William Booth: Soup, Soap, and Salvation

Chapter 1
A Thorn in the Flesh

“Ahhheeeeee!!! Ahhheeeeee!!!” Elizabeth Geikie, a pretty, blue-eyed woman with a dark complexion from Dundee, Scotland, raced out of her tiny mud hut in the jungle near the village of Alady in Nagercoil, India, to see where the bloodcurdling noise was coming from. It was coming from the path that led to her dwelling.

Soon a group of men from Alady were approaching her hut. They carried a man who was the source of all the noise. At first Elizabeth thought he might be crazy and the villagers were bringing him to torment her. She waited anxiously as the group stopped in front of her hut and laid the man at her feet.

“This man has something wrong, and we don’t know what to do,” one of the men in the group said.

Elizabeth soon learned that the man was not mad at all but was wailing from excruciating pain. But what was the source of the pain? Had he eaten poison or been bitten by a cobra? She knelt down and began to inspect his body for clues to the pain. It was then that she noticed his left foot was swollen. She touched it, and the man let out another bloodcurdling yell. Gingerly she inspected the foot, where she found the source of the pain—a small point protruding from the sole. It was the end of a huge, embedded thorn.

From the hut Elizabeth fetched her medical kit, but inside it she found only petroleum jelly, Epsom salts, and castor oil, and not the forceps she needed to extract the thorn from the man’s foot. She would have to improvise.

To the horror of those gathered around, Elizabeth knelt down, leaned forward, and placed her lips against the dirty, callused sole of the man’s foot. She then clamped her white teeth around the protruding end of the thorn and slowly moved her head back. Bit by bit the embedded thorn began to slide out of the foot until her head jerked back and the thorn was out. Immediately the man let out a cry of relief as his agonizing pain began to subside.

With the thorn extracted, Elizabeth bathed the wound in coconut oil and then wrapped a lint bandage around it. Soon the man and the group that had brought him disappeared as quickly as they had arrived.

The next day the group of men were back. This time they did not have another injured person with them. Instead they wanted answers.

“Why is it that you, a white woman, would want to save the life of a man by placing your lips, the most sacred part of the body, against his foot, the most despised part of the body?”

“Because my God, who loves and values all men, asked me to do it,” she replied.

This was the opening Elizabeth Geikie had been praying for, and soon those in the group were clamoring to know more about her God.

First the man from whose foot she had extracted the thorn and his wife became Christian converts. Soon others from the village followed, until the nucleus of a small church had been formed.

William Booth laid the report from India that contained Elizabeth Geikie’s story on his desk and walked to his office window. As he looked out at the brick and stone facades of London’s buildings, a smile of satisfaction settled across his face. Elizabeth’s action was the kind of selfless demonstration of the power of the gospel that touched people and changed their hearts. Her action was more powerful than the words of any sermon. Despite the vicious persecution members of the Salvation Army had endured since setting foot in India, Elizabeth was a woman who would not allow the message of God’s love to be silenced.

Elizabeth had done what William and any other member of the Salvation Army would have done. They would have shown God’s love in whatever practical way possible. In the very streets of London below, people were out doing the same thing at that moment, helping the poor and needy, comforting the sick and the weak, and bringing the hope of God’s love into otherwise hopeless lives and situations.

That is what William Booth had striven to do all his life. From the first time he encountered those on the fringes of society in his hometown of Nottingham, he had been drawn like a magnet to them and their needs. They were the people God had given him to minister the gospel to, and now a vast army of people like Elizabeth Geikie was spread around the world doing the same.

William sank back into the chair behind his desk to continue reading the dispatch from India. Before he could pick up the paper, he found his thoughts wandering back to Nottingham, where it had all begun.

Chapter 2
“Always Seek the Advantage”

William Booth raced across the cobblestone street, leaping over a large, muddy puddle. The bell was just being rung as he reached the bottom step to Biddulph’s School for Young Gentlemen. Before he mounted the steps, William glanced down to make sure his jacket buttons were properly fastened and there was no mud on his shoes. As he did so, he spied a small leather pouch lying beneath the hedge. He walked over and picked it up. Inside were three coins—a shilling and two sixpences. William whistled to himself; it was a lot of money. He stuffed the pouch and the money into his trouser pocket. He would have to think carefully about how he might spend it.

All the other ten-year-old boys in his class were standing in line when William finally made it up the stairs and into the hallway. He quickly joined the end of the line, trying to make himself as inconspicuous as possible. This was difficult, however, since he was tall for his age—a good head and shoulders above anyone else in the class.

Soon the boys were all seated at their desks. As they recited Latin phrases, William’s attention wandered, and he began to stare out the window. It was a gray, overcast day in 1839, and Nottingham looked as drab and uninviting as ever. In the grimy, dank street below, a young girl holding a crying baby wandered by, followed by a coal merchant on a cart pulled by a scraggly, emaciated horse.

A ruler rapped on William’s desk. “I doubt you have listened to a word I’ve said, Mr. Booth!” the teacher exploded. “Students who do not listen in class fail in their homework. Tomorrow I shall be paying close attention to the work you do at home tonight.” With that the teacher dismissed the class for lunch.

William stuffed his books in his bag and joined the other boys leaving the classroom. “I think I’m in trouble now,” he said, half smiling to his best friend, Robert Powell.

“You’ll get through it; you always do,” Robert replied, and then his face darkened. “Besides, you don’t really have a problem compared to Harry and me.”

“What do you mean?” William asked.

“My mother gave me money this morning to pay our school fees. I know I put it in my pocket, but when I got to school the money was gone. I don’t know what I’m going to do. My father will whip me when I tell him.”

“My father would do the same to me!” William agreed. Then a thought flashed through his mind. He reached into his pocket and felt the money pouch. “Was the money in anything?” he asked.

“A small leather pouch,” Robert replied. “But there’s no use looking for it. Even if I knew where I dropped it, someone would have found it by now.”

William’s hand closed around the pouch in his pocket, but something stopped him from pulling it out. He heard the echo of his father’s voice: “Always seek the advantage, lad, always seek the advantage.”

So what should William do in this situation? He knew he would give the money back to Robert. It belonged to Robert, and William could not keep it knowing that. But how should he give it back? Should he just say, “Here, I found this?” or think of some other way to return the money that gave him an advantage over Robert and his brother Harry?

William released the pouch and pulled his empty hand out of his pocket. Patting Robert on the back he said, “Don’t worry. There’ll be some way out of this. I’ll help you.”

By the time lunch was nearly over, William knew what he would do. He put his soupspoon down and turned to his friend. “Robert, I have been thinking about how bad it would be to go home and tell your mother you lost the money. It just so happens that I have two shillings in my bag. I have been saving it up for a year. I was going to use it to buy myself a model train, but I don’t see how I can do that now, since my best friend is in need.” He reached into his pocket and emptied the coins out of the pouch. He then pulled the coins from his pocket. “Here, you take them,” he said.

“But I couldn’t,” Robert said, his eyes wide with surprise. “Really, I couldn’t. It’s such a lot of money. I never knew you had so much saved.”

“You must take it,” William said, putting the coins on the table between them. “If you don’t, you and Harry will both get a thrashing.”

“I’ll think of a way to pay you back. Honest I will!” Robert said as he scooped up the money.

William finished his soup with a sense of quiet satisfaction. His father would be proud of him. He had found a way to give the money back while getting the advantage.

Before they went home from school that night, Robert thrust something into William’s hand. “Here,” he said, “take this. My uncle brought it back from India for us, but I want you to have it, to say thank you.”

William looked down. There in his hand was Robert Powell’s pride and joy—a shiny sterling silver pencil case. He hesitated for a moment. Should he tell Robert the whole truth? No, it was too late now. Besides, he had always admired the pencil case.

“Thank you,” William mumbled without looking up. “I have to go now.”

As William walked over the bridge on his way home that evening, he threw the empty money pouch into the River Trent. On the other side of the river he noticed that a makeshift scaffold had been set up and a huge crowd had gathered around it. He stopped at the edge of the crowd to see what was happening.

“He deserves everything he gets!” an old woman said to a man in a baker’s hat and apron.

“That he does,” the baker replied. “Imagine, he killed his wife and children. Whatever he gets is too good for him.”

As William climbed halfway up a gaslight pole for a better look, a man was marched out onto the scaffold. A cheer went up from the crowd, and mothers held up their young children for a better look. A bag was placed over the man’s head, and then the man was dragged over to the hanging noose. As the crowd went wild with excitement, William felt his stomach turn. He did not want to be there. He did not want to see a man die with the echo of a cheering crowd in his ears.

Quickly William climbed down the gaslight pole and slipped into a side street. Tears streamed down his face as he raced to get as far away from the crowd as he could. He was glad to get home to his mother.

“What’s the matter?” Mary Booth asked as he came in the door. “You look as white as a sheet!”

William sat down at the kitchen table and began telling his mother what he had seen.

“Hush,” she said. “Don’t say another word in front of the little ones.” She then turned and addressed William’s two younger sisters. “Emma, Mary, you two go upstairs and put away your dolls.”

When they had gone, William continued recounting his story. He was nearly finished when his older sister, twelve-year-old Ann, burst into the room. “Mother,” she said, “have you heard the awful news? There was a riot at the hanging today. The crowd kept pushing closer and closer to the scaffolding until it gave way. Twelve people were crushed to death. Twelve people! They say one of them was Mr. Jamieson, our bootmaker.”

Mary Booth got up and put her arms around her daughter. “God help us,” she said. “The world is becoming a more brutal place every day. Imagine twelve people losing their lives trying to get a better view of such an awful sight.”

Following that event-filled day, things returned to the mundane for William Booth. During the week he attended school, and on the weekends he helped his father, Samuel, with his house-building job.

The following year Mr. Biddulph, William’s schoolmaster, invited the students to attend a meeting at the Broad Street Chapel in Nottingham. This was a Methodist church started three years before, in 1837. Everyone talked about how huge the building was inside. It had enough seats for two thousand people. William’s father told him it had cost the enormous sum of eleven thousand pounds to buy the land and build the church.