William Booth


The Christmas fool

The man and woman who launched the bell ringers defied their fears | Andrée Seu


A school of ministry in Redding, Calif., is a little off the usual model. Rather than kick you out if you mess up while trying some new way to expel the darkness, Bethel School of Supernatural Ministries insists you experiment, for the glory of God. "I don't know of any other way to learn but to fail," says the founder, Bill Johnson.

He didn't invent this, of course. William Booth did. The founder of the Salvation Army had his students do a few of the run-of-the-mill things—like circuit preaching; open-air assemblies; two-by-two evangelism teams; personal invitations to daily revival meetings; circus tents when the churches wouldn't have them; weekday assemblies in the back room of a pigeon shop; targeted prayer lists with the names of notorious townspeople; mentors for new converts; house calls; food and clothing to the poor; and joyful processions down the middles of streets (police kicked them off the sidewalks) to the chapel, in the derelict slums of London's East End.

But it got weird too. Some of Booth's workers dressed as John the Baptist or prison inmates. One placed an empty violin case on the sidewalk and shouted, "Stand back! It might go off!" He then preached his heart out to the crowd that gathered. They pursued the drunks from the Blind Beggar pub and put worship words to drinking songs, lifting their voices in praise to the accompaniment of dustbin lids and hunting horns. "Why should the devil have all the best tunes?" said Booth, who instructed his cadre, "When you give a gospel tract to a hungry man, wrap it in a sandwich."

Catherine Booth was the bookish type—she had read the Bible eight times by the time she was 12. One Sunday, a married woman, she was out for a stroll, and "chanced to look up at the thick rows of small windows above me, where numbers of women were sitting, peering through at the passers-by, or listlessly gossiping with each other. It was suggested to my mind with great power, Would you not be doing more service and acting more like your Redeemer, by turning into some of those houses, speaking to these careless sinners, and inviting them to the service, than by going to enjoy it yourself?"

The new thought startled her: "Trembling with a sense of weakness, I looked up to heaven, and said, 'Lord, if Thou wilt help me, I will try'. . . . I spoke first to a group of women sitting on a doorstep; and what that effort cost me, words cannot describe; but the Spirit helped my infirmities. . . . This much encouraged me; I began to taste the joy which lies hidden under the Cross. . . . I went on to the next group who were standing at the entrance of a low, dirty court. Here again I was received kindly and promises were given."

Mrs. Booth continued, "The blessed assurance so increased my courage and enkindled my hope that I ventured to knock at the door of the next house. . . . With a heart full of gratitude and eyes full of tears, I was thinking where I should go next, when I observed a woman standing on an adjoining doorstep with a jug in her hand. My divine teacher said, Speak to that woman. Satan suggested, Perhaps she is intoxicated. . . ."

Mrs. Booth was learning a secret: that a personal spiritual breakthrough comes in the act of defying our fears to make a public declaration of Christ; that "the sharing of your faith [is] effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ" (Philemon 1:6). Our full knowledge.

Just something to think about this season when you meet the eyes of the blue-clad bell-ringer and see the bright red kettle at the entrance to the mall. And as for the military get-up:

"We are sent to war. We are not sent to minister to a congregation and be content if we keep things going. We are sent to make war . . . and to stop short of nothing but the subjugation of the world to the sway of the Lord Jesus. We must bear that in mind in all our plans . . . our aim is to put down the kingdom of the devil . . ." (William Booth, 1878, from William & Catherine: The Legacy of the Booths, Taylor Yaxley).

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