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100 Years Ago

William Booth's Final Witness

by Jack C. Getz

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When the Salvation Army's General William Booth "laid down his sword" at 10:33 p.m. on August 20, 1912, an international tidal wave of reverential tributes immediately poured into the Army's headquarters on Queen Victoria Street, London. Telegrams and tributes of "admiration and sympathy" spoke of both Booth's uniqueness and impact. Britain's George V said, "Today there is universal mourning."

For any who have not seen the 1912 vintage newsreel of the Founder's funeral processional, the word "multitudes" may sound like hyperbole. But in fact, millions viewed the Army of 10,000 selected singing soldiers and bandsmen waving colorful banners and reverently marching from International Headquarters to Abney Park Cemetery.

In his 1914 biography, General Booth, Commissioner George Scott Railton describes the scene: "More than 65,000 persons came to Clapton Congress Hall to look upon his face as he lay in his coffin, and more than 35,000 gathered for the great memorial service in the Olympia, the largest obtainable building in London, on the evening before the funeral. All the press commented upon the remarkable joyfulness of our funeral services-the 'note of joyous triumph'-and the funeral itself the next day was admitted to have been one of the most impressive sights the great city has ever seen ... all traffic was suspended from 11 till 1 o'clock. The millions who witnessed its passage along the 5 mile march ... seemed generally impressed and sympathetic .... people offering glasses of water to women in the procession, many of whom were on their feet for 6 or 7 hours before the service was ended. ... The memorial services held all over the world on the following Sunday were attended by unparalleled crowds."

What led to this public outpouring, considered the largest non-royal demonstration in British history? Perhaps the following samplings of the world's press corps will explain:

  • "Better than all, he lived his Christianity."

  • "No name is graven more deeply in the history of his time than that of William Booth."

  • "With him passed away one of the most vivid and most striking personalities the world has ever seen."

  • "This man was unique. In some ways he was the superman of his period. Never before has a man in his own lifetime won so wide a measure of deep and passionate human affection."

This tribute from the London Daily Telegraph could easily be William Booth's epitaph: "... during his 83 years of a strenuous life, he devoted himself, so far as in him lay, to the solemn duty of saving men's souls and extending the divine kingdom on earth."

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