Back-street evangelist

Blood and Fire: William and Catharine Booth and their Salvation Army

Roy Hattersley <em>Little, Br

I am, I confess, only a qualified admirer of the Reborn Roy, self-styled man of the left. It will take many more articles in the Guardian before all his old sins of equivocation about Labour's old values are wiped away. To keep his name forward in the grim days of Jim Callaghan's last stand, when everything had to be cleared by the Cabinet Office, Hattersley took to writing light essays. The NS published one on jogging. I wrote in promptly to defend him against sceptics, doubters and unbelievers; many had seen him jogging, but it was given to few to tell in which direction he was going. Warming to the lord's work, I called Hatters during his travail as deputy leader "the prince of weathercocks".

Now I am not going to eat my hat, but I will doff my cap and bow deeply, if a touch stiffly (I have returning back trouble), to the writer. Here is a great and serious story, splendidly told with empathy and only occasional, and then gentle, irony. He catches the remarkable characters of William and Catharine Booth, and sets out the social context of their times, yet without disparaging intent and eschewing entirely the "what-they-might-have-thoughts", and "stretch-the-sex" gimmicks of commercial biography.

How did a poor lad of 17, an ill-educated back-street evangelist in Nottingham with little formal education, become the leader of one of the most international religious movements in the world, especially when from the beginning he stirred up unusual enmity from the established church whose decorum and propriety he scorned? Partly it was his personality: brave, possessed and inspiring; he was a "church militant" indeed, always on the attack against the devil and all his works. Partly it was that he met a need. He refused - good man - to distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy poor. If there was need, there was need for help - soup, shelters, workshops, fellowship, comfort, not forgetting salvation. Partly that his followers came from the poor and dispossessed themselves: ex-convicts, former drug addicts, drunkards and whores all doled out strong tea and thin soup. Those who had been in deep need "in darkest England" knew the needs of others.

Hattersley makes clear that Booth's fame and influence might have remained local but for "his greatest good fortune" in marriage. Catharine Booth, self-educated but well educated in the churches and the free public libraries, was both more intellectual and a more able organiser than William. For many years she was the more famous preacher, when intolerance of women preachers was high, usually livid. She, too, saw only lost souls (but all redeemable in the blood of the lamb and the "fire" of the army), neither deserving nor undeserving poor. But she would preach against the system, the society that kept so many in dire poverty; he not at all. She stayed far short of socialism, but early socialists, not just Shaw, later Brecht, too, were fascinated by the Salvation Army for its success in mobilising the very poor. Socialism did, after all, as Eric Hobsbawm has often reminded us, remain very largely an engagement of and for the skilled working class. Had she not died in 1890, 22 years before him, slowly and enduring great pain, who knows what different route the Sally Army might have taken.

In old age, William Booth delighted in world travel and respectability, being received by "all the crown heads of Europe", deceiving himself that he was influencing them rather than received as a curiosity and an international celebrity. Never an easy man, he overbore, overburdened and alienated most of their children. Only with Catharine did he show affection and willingness to be persuaded. Other than in his marriage, "he lacked warmth, sympathy and understanding. Born leaders often do." But the biography of the author otherwise rarely intrudes so intriguingly into this fine and evocative double-biography, a rich slice of social history.

Bernard Crick is the author of "George Orwell: a life"

This article first appeared in the 25 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Why the old left is wrong on equality