Booth, Evangeline (1865–1950)
Booth, Evangeline (1865–1950)
Booth, Evangeline (1865–1950)
Fourth general of the Salvation Army, daughter of its founder, who was noted for her eloquence. Name variations: known as Eva (1865–1904), then Evangeline (1904–50). Born Eveline Cory Booth on December 25, 1865, in the East End borough of Hackney, England; died in Westchester County, New York, on July 17, 1950; daughter of William and Catherine Booth (founders of the Salvation Army); seventh of eight children, all of whom were involved in Salvation Army work; never married, no children.
Preached from the age of 15; appointed field commissioner of the Salvation Army (1885–94); made envoy to America (1896); served as head of the Salvation Army in Canada (1896–1904); was head of the Salvation Army in U.S. (1904–34); appointed general of the Salvation Army (1934–39); retired (1939).
Evangeline Booth was a larger than life evangelist and organizer who directed the religious and social work of the American Salvation Army for the first three decades of the 20th century. Suspected at first of being an intrusive agent of British dominance, she soon quieted American Salvationists' fears and became the embodiment of the organization, rising at the age of 69 to world leadership.
Her father William Booth was an English Methodist minister who turned to preaching among the poorest and most degraded population of London. Her mother Catherine Booth was also a charismatic preacher of a more intellectual bent who preached in London's wealthier West End until late in each of her eight pregnancies. Eva, seventh of the eight, was born on Christmas Day of 1865 in the East End borough of Hackney and grew up in a lively, religiously supercharged household. She made her public debut at the age of seven, singing in a strong clear voice to follow one of her father's fiery sermons. She always had a histrionic streak and thrived on public attention. In 1878, when she was 13, her parents renamed their East End mission the Salvation Army. They adopted dark blue uniforms with red trimmings for men and plain dresses with poke bonnets for women, promoted brass band music and a semi-military approach to evangelical revivals, and published a newspaper titled The War Cry, all aimed at catching the attention and imagination of poor Londoners. From 1880, William Booth's assistant George Railton, with seven female volunteers, carried the Salvation Army's message to America, and it was soon thriving in both countries. Recruits enjoyed the music, the close family atmosphere, even the sentimental rhetoric in which women were "lassies" and to die was to be "promoted to glory."
As a teenager, Evangeline Booth's first regular work for the Army was selling The War Cry; at age 17, she also began preaching. She went to live in the Seven Dials district of the East End and, with a group of other volunteers, spread the gospel, visited sick and poor at home, and gradually converted local residents from an attitude of suspicion to one of gratitude. She preached with particular ardor against prostitution, "white slavery," and the liquor trade, which worsened the degradation of poor workers. At times, disguised as a match-seller or flower-girl, she lived the life of the people she aimed to help and made frequent visits to prisons to read scripture with penitent inmates. At the Salvation Army's Great Western Hall in Marylebone, she preached almost every night, sermons in which brimstone, arm-waving, and sentimentality jostled together, attracting larger audiences as word of her spellbinding oratory spread.
When her preaching and exhortation began to harm the liquor trade, publicans and brewers retaliated by using hired thugs, the "Skeleton Army," to break up her meetings and, they hoped, intimidate her into silence. Undeterred, she persuaded former gang leaders whom she had converted to act as her bodyguards. The 1880s witnessed a series of pitched battles between Salvationists and Skeleton Army soldiers, with the police often declining to intervene. Hurt in some of these attacks, overworked, and constantly moving among diseased people, she became violently ill in 1887, at age 22, and nearly died of scarlet fever. Recovering, she discovered that most of her auburn hair had fallen out. For the rest of her life, she was obliged to wear a wig. Like many notable women of her era, Booth fought a lifelong battle against disabling infirmities and refused to let them slow her down.
William Booth recognized that Eva, his favorite child, was also one of his most gifted. He promoted her to the rank of field general and in the following decade sent her to sort out controversies occasioned by the Salvation Army's unconventional methods. The seaside town of Torquay, for example, passed an ordinance against band music on Sundays; when the Salvation Army's band played anyway, its members were taken to jail. Evangeline went to Torquay and made a series of speeches on behalf of the imprisoned band members while organizing a relief fund for their families. Risking imprisonment, she led more musical parades (she played the harp, banjo, and accordion at Army meetings) and later gave testimony to Parliament which upheld the band's right to perform on Sunday. In 1892, William promoted her again to principal of the Army's International Training Home in Clapton, which prepared volunteers for service in the rapidly growing overseas missions. A master of the Army's military idiom, she declared in one farewell speech to graduates of the Home: "Be an enemy—a fighting enemy of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Be an aggressor; carry the war into the enemy' camp. Be a fighter, a soldier, a man or woman who has the fire of war against sin in blood and bone."
In 1896, Eva went to America to negotiate with her brother Ballington Booth and his wife Maud Ballington Booth who had seceded from the Army and renamed their followers the Volunteers of America rather than follow Father
William's command to return to England. There were already tensions between William and Ballington over the degree of independence from English headquarters the American branch could enjoy. Much of the American press saw the dispute as evidence that Britain, at least a corner of it, still had imperial designs on America, especially as the incident coincided with a foreign policy crisis which caused Anglo-American conflict. Evangeline, labeled a "minion of British despotism" by the local press when she arrived to arbitrate, tried to soothe ruffled feathers all round. Her first public speech in New York's Cooper Union on March 1, 1896, began with angry heckling and hissing from the audience, but by seizing and waving an American flag she silenced and then won round the crowd. She was able in the following months to retain the loyalty of nearly all the American Salvationists, many of whom had threatened to follow Ballington into the Volunteers, and then handed over American leadership to her sister Emma and her brother-in-law Frederick Booth-Tucker.
Eva went next to Canada where she succeeded another brother, Herbert, as national director of the Salvation Army. Two years after her arrival, the Yukon gold rush brought an influx of gold seekers to Canada. She made three visits to the gold country and sent a group of Army evangelists into the lawless camps to rescue them from the clutches of prostitutes and saloon keepers. In 1904, after eight years in Canada, she became commander in the United States where she changed her name to Evangeline and settled in to consolidate the work of her sibling-predecessors. One Salvationist historian, Edward McKinley, gave a harsh, possibly biased, view of her qualities as she arrived for the job:
Raised as a kind of junior princess in her father's hectic household court, she was allowed—even encouraged—to abandon herself to her strong inherited dramatic impulses. The young woman was placed in positions over thousands, in which she was responsible to no one save God and her father (who usually left her to the Former). Thus it is natural that at age thirty nine Evangeline was imperious and condescending. She was also vain of her appearance, which in fact was pleasantly unexceptional, impetuous, given to emotional flourishes, and something of a poseur.
McKinley is careful to add that she was an exceptionally talented administrator, speaker, and fund raiser. Quickly becoming involved in American politics, she campaigned for prohibition and for women's suffrage, without letting these issues distract her from her primarily religious mission. She set up hostels for homeless people, low-cost workingmen's hotels, soup kitchens to feed the hungry, kindergartens, homes where unmarried mothers could give birth, and an anti-suicide bureau to counsel the despairing. Two years after her arrival, the San Francisco Earthquake caused a housing and food emergency. With her chief assistant George, she organized rapid relief efforts to complement those of other volunteer and government agencies. The Salvation Army provided beds and food for 30,000 refugees, and Evangeline spent two weeks at work in the ruins of the California city, culminating in a mass rally at Golden Gate Park.
William Booth, her father, visited America twice in 1907, once en route to Japan but the second time for a long preaching tour. With him, Evangeline went for dinner at the White House at the invitation of President Theodore Roosevelt. The Army's Founder also opened a session of the Senate with a prayer, but his daughter took most of the important initiatives of the era. She established an annual event, "The Siege," a month dedicated to particularly vigorous work, as the War Cry explained, "to destroy every kind of evil work resulting from sin, such as drink, blasphemy, hatred, half-heartedness, shame, hypocrisy, cant, lukewarmness, jealousy, cowardice, fashion, pride, conceit, lies, and other enemies of God and man." The Army's volunteers concentrated on prisons and saloons trying to preach the gospel to the most recalcitrant population. Thanksgiving Day 1909 was also the first national "Boozers' Day," on which volunteers gathered as many drunks as they could find, attracting them with the promise of free food and a parade, whose central feature was a man chained to a ten-foot-high whiskey bottle made of papier maché. Reformed alcoholics preached to the crowd, and Salvation Army workers tried to keep in touch with those inspired to take the pledge.
The Salvation Army was in an anomalous position among American religious groups in the early years of the 20th century, most of which favored either a "social gospel" of aid to the poor and needy, or a strict concentration on gospel preaching. The Salvation Army aimed to do both—it was theologically fundamentalist but at the same time socially oriented. Evangeline Booth would never have said, as did such liberal Protestant contemporaries as Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden, that the road to salvation lay through social progress. For her, the supernatural was paramount and good works merely an instrument to help lead needy people to conversion and the promise of eternal life.
Evangeline's father died in 1912. Two years later, at an international Salvation Army Conference in London, she led the American delegation, riding a horse and wearing a cowboy hat instead of her regulation uniform. The First World War began a few months later, and she at once launched an "Old Linen" campaign, gathering fabric to be sterilized and shipped to Britain for bandages. When America joined the Allied war effort in April 1917, she reminded American Salvationists that their task was to care for suffering people on both sides of the battle-lines and that "there is only one war in which we can glory—that supreme struggle to triumph over sin and strife and death, with purity, peace, and life everlasting." During the war, the American Salvationists operated next to army camps at home and in France, where their freshly baked doughnuts became a symbol of Salvation Army work and an immense source of good will. For the Army's aid to the war effort, President Woodrow Wilson presented her with the Distinguished Service Medal in 1919.
In the postwar years, Booth was gratified by passage of Constitutional amendments which inaugurated Prohibition and votes for women but disappointed by the results of both. Alcoholism did not disappear, and the new legal situation facilitated the rise of organized crime. But Booth thought the price worth paying and believed that drunkenness among the poor was becoming rarer. She twice gave testimony to congressional committees in support of preserving the amendment and refused to accept contributions from sympathizers who opposed Prohibition (George Bernard Shaw had raised the question of the Salvation Army accepting "tainted" money in his 1905 play Major Barbara). In 1919, for the first time, she tried to shift the Salvation Army's financing from ad hoc local collections to a nationwide coordinated campaign. The Army's good wartime publicity ensured the success of the campaign which soon raised $16 million, three million dollars more than her target figure. The Salvation Army was now a permanent fixture on the American religious landscape, and from its small beginnings it had become a major property-owner. Its rate of growth, however, had slowed.
Prohibition dogged the Salvation Army during the 1920s. The presidential election of 1928 pitted "dry" Republican Herbert Hoover against "wet" Democrat Al Smith, and Evangeline Booth's support of Prohibition was so vocal that she appeared to be endorsing the Republicans, though she swore that it was, for her, a moral issue. Even when Prohibition was abandoned at the start of the New Deal, she remained adamant, declaring: "Long before Prohibition the Salvation Army was the greatest temperance organization in this country and will continue its unalterable opposition to intoxicating liquors." Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, Evangeline was still eager to appear on stage dressed in rags as a poor Cockney girl with an accordion, playing her former self as "White Angel of the Slums" before turning to the day's preaching.
In elite circles she was the Salvation Army.
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 coincided with a momentous change in the governance of the Salvation Army. Begun by her parents when she was only ten, it was now a worldwide organization and needed a new administrative structure. Imbued with democratic principles from her 30 years' work in North America, Evangeline argued at the High Council of 1929 for a democratic rather than autocratic system of government. She had been at loggerheads with her brother Bramwell, the current general, on this issue since 1920, when he had tried to dislodge her from permanent leadership of the American branch. Like her brother Ballington in the 1896 crisis, she had no wish to leave and pressure from her American supporters led Bramwell to relent. Strong willed, sometimes insecure and self-centered, like nearly all the Booths, she knew how to use her popularity as a weapon to get her way. At the 1929 meeting, she was part of a large majority which favored deposing Bramwell and moving to a democratic method of electing leaders. The reform prevented the Salvation Army from becoming a hereditary monarchy of Booths.
Evangeline was 65 in 1930 when the Salvation Army celebrated its 50th year of work in America. John Philip Sousa, the composer, wrote a "Salvation Army March" for the Army's massed bands and conducted them in the Jubilee parade. Evangeline rode down crowded New York streets in an open car and made a speech in Carnegie Hall on "Women Who Have Made History," then dedicated a new national headquarters building at West 14th Street. "To the American public Evangeline Booth personified the Salvation Army, and as its head she received the tributes paid to the Army," wrote Salvationist historian Herbert Wisbey. "Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, and Franklin Roosevelt each received her and endorsed the work of the Salvation Army."
The worsening Great Depression brought out the best qualities in the Salvation Army once again, and, through the long years of the 1930s, it gave away hundreds of thousands of free meals to the destitute and places to stay for the homeless. In the middle of the crisis, Booth was elected general of the Salvation Army, following the retirement of Bramwell's successor, Edward Higgins. Now 69, she was an internationally famous figure, and on her return to the United States from the High Council of 1934 was given an official welcome by the mayor of New York and a ticker-tape parade.
In England, Evangeline's generalship received mixed reviews. Some of the English Salvationists disliked her showy side; the huge Cadillac she had brought from America which could scarcely fit on London's narrow streets, her American staff, which had become a substitute family, and her liking for dramatic gestures during public preaching events. But as one biographer says, she was popular because she had inherited her father's magnetism. "Upon her, more than upon his other children, had fallen the mantle of his genius for striking fire in men's imaginations, of making them see visions and dream dreams." During the five years of her generalship, she traveled throughout the world, visiting India, Australia, New Zealand, all the European countries, and making frequent trips back to America and Canada. The Salvation Army suffered severe financial setbacks during the Great Depression and lost properties in several countries, but Booth took the view that material losses, though regrettable, could be borne so long as the Army retained its spiritual vitality.
After retiring as general in 1939, she decided to spend her last years in America and sailed through the submarine hazards of the North Atlantic back to New York in the fall of 1939. Booth lived in Westchester County, New York, until her death in 1950, surrounded by Salvation Army friends, still making frequent speeches to the faithful and honored for her life's work, but finding it difficult to let go of the Army's affairs. She was dismayed to see the Salvation Army absorbed into the United Services Organization (USO) during the Second World War rather than carrying out the kind of distinctive work it had achieved during the first war. Evangeline Booth was still riding daily on horseback until she was 81, and made light of the cancer pains which finally "promoted her to glory" at the age of 85.
Chesham, Sallie. Born to Battle: The Salvation Army in America. Chicago, IL: Rand McNally, 1965.
McKinley, Edward. Marching to Glory. San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1980.
Troutt, Margaret. The General Was a Lady: The Story of Evangeline Booth. Nashville, TN: A.J. Holman, 1980.
Whitwell, Wilson P. General Evangeline Booth. NY: Revell, 1935.
Wisbey, Herbert, Jr. Soldiers Without Swords: A History of the Salvation Army in the United States. NY: Macmillan, 1955.
Booth, Evangeline, and Grace Livingston Hill. The War Romance of the Salvation Army. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1919.
Lavine, Sigmund. Evangeline Booth, Daughter of Salvation. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1970.
Ludwig, Charles. The Lady General. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1962.
Sandall, Robert. History of the Salvation Army. 3 vols. NY: Thomas Nelson, 1947–55.
Salvation Army Archives and Research Center, New York City.
Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia