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Stories behind Women of Extraordinary Faith
By Ace Collins Zondervan
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One CATHERINE BOOTH Faith to Stand and Speak
Catherine Booth was a dramatically shy woman who had strong thoughts about faith but chose to hide her convictions deep in her heart. Her journey from quiet woman of faith to the leader of a movement that has touched millions is one of the most remarkable in the annals of Christian history.
On a cold winter day in 1860, a small woman sat uncomfortably in a pew at the Methodist New Connexion Bethesda Chapel in Gateshead, England. Her husband had just concluded preaching to a Sunday morning crowd of over a thousand. On this day, a large number of pastors, some from churches in London, had also gathered to hear the Reverend William Booth present one of his dynamic, uplifting messages. After almost an hour of holding the audience spell-bound, Booth offered a prayer and took a seat behind the altar. Most thought the ser vice was over; no one could have guessed that something shocking and revolutionary was about to transpire.
Like many in attendance that day, Catherine Booth had been moved by her husband's words, but as he spoke, she never offered any encouragement with even a quiet amen. She was simply too shy to draw attention to herself in any way. In fact, she was so unsure of herself that she almost always became ill before teaching a children's Bible class. Yet on this morning, she felt the Lord's hand on her back. It was as if he were pushing her forward. Though painfully introverted, she wanted to stand up and speak from her heart, but the rules of the time prevented it. Even the boldest woman was not allowed to stand silently behind the pulpit, much less speak in church, and Catherine was certainly not cut from the sort of cloth that would allow her to voluntarily break convention. Yet in spite of this, she could not remain seated; she had to stand.
Quietly, on unsure legs, she arose and moved to the aisle. Taking a deep breath, the thirty-year-old woman moved unsteadily toward the front of the church. As her confused husband watched, Catherine continued beyond the first row of pews and climbed the steps to where he sat.
"What is the matter?" he whispered as she stood before him.
"I have to say a word," came her reply.
Shocked, William stood, walked back to the pulpit, and announced, "My dear wife wants to say a word." He then stepped back to his chair and, like the rest of the church, waited to hear what Catherine had on her mind.
In a voice so loud and strong it shocked even her, Catherine Booth began, "I dare say many of you have been looking upon me as a very devoted woman, and one who has been living faithfully to God, but I have come to know that I have been living in disobedience, and to that extent I have brought darkness and leanness into my soul, but I promised the Lord three or four months ago, and I dare not disobey. I have come to tell you this, and to promise the Lord that I will be obedient to the heavenly voice."
Catherine continued to address the crowd for several more minutes, then stepped down. As she walked back to her seat, everyone at New Connexion wondered what had gotten into her. Even her husband could not begin to fathom why his wife had chosen this time to speak her mind. Though Catherine herself probably did not grasp the significance, she had just fired the first shots in a revolution, a round of words that would lead to the formation of one of the greatest Christian armies the world has ever seen.
Catherine Booth was able to break down the door that prevented women from addressing men in church only because years of preparation had given her great biblical knowledge and tremendous faith. If she had been born to other parents or in different circumstances, it seems highly unlikely she would have been able to become the most important and influential Christian woman of her time. She fully believed that the experiences of her life had prepared her to be ready to accept God's call at that very moment. Still, she seemed an unlikely woman to make such dramatic church history.
Catherine Mumford was born in Ashbourne, in Derbyshire, England, on January 17, 1829. Her father, John, a coach builder, was a lay preacher and a local leader in the temperance movement. Her mother, Sarah, was a gentle, caring Christian woman who lived her faith through her actions. Sarah treated others with great respect, quoted the Bible as a way of teaching her children life lessons, and attended church every time the doors were open. Catherine was raised in a family much like thousands of others in the England of her day, but a series of seemingly unrelated events would soon set her apart from her peers.
Catherine's mother pressed her to learn in a manner that was more consistent with how the male children of her day were taught. Sarah felt it was important for her daughter to know more than just sewing and cooking, so she arranged for the child to have access to the best works of literature as well as the most recent Bible commentaries. The fact that Catherine was incredibly shy no doubt played into the furthering of her education. She often stayed inside to read rather than go out to mingle with other children her age. In a sense, she was hiding in her studies, using books as a way to escape a world that frightened her. Yet it would ultimately be the knowledge she found in God's Word that provided her with the courage to become a beacon of faith.
By the age of twelve, Catherine had read the Bible through eight times. Before her thirteenth birthday, she was able to quote large segments of Scripture and explain complicated theological doctrine better than her father. Steady and sure in her faith, she dreamed of finding a way to use her knowledge to lead others to Christ. She felt she was on that path when, with no warning, the bottom dropped out of her seemingly perfect life.
Catherine's father's business fell upon hard times. A move to the community of Boston, a port city in Lincolnshire on the east coast of England, did not turn his fortunes around. Unable to pay his bills, John left his faith behind and, in a move that shocked his family and friends, turned to the bottle. From that point on, John embraced a life that knew few sober moments. He would spend years drowning his woes in what was then called "demon rum."
Her father's fall, coupled with her own insecurities, placed a deep strain on Catherine's fragile spirit. At sixteen, when she moved with her mother to London, she even began to question if there really was a God. For months a sense of panic smothered her. She had problems sleeping, was all but horrified to be awake, and withdrew from almost all activities that took her outside the home. The one consistent social element she continued was going to church. Sitting through hours of worship brought her no solace. In the confines of formal churches, she found no excitement or any evidence of God's Spirit. Though the boring ser vices did not cause her to entirely give up on the idea that God might be alive, she now had no doubt that all the churches she attended were completely dead. At the very moment she was going to give up on practicing any form of Christianity, she happened to read the words of an old Wesleyan hymn, "My God I Am Thine, What a Comfort Divine." Though no sermons had touched her in years and no Bible verses had brought her any peace, for reasons she did not comprehend, the hymn's steadfast lyrics convinced her that God was alive and did care about her. On whether the church was really alive, she still had her doubts.
At the age of eighteen, when she had seemingly fought through her disappointment in her father's fall and her sense of doubt, Catherine was hit by an insidious disease. As it did with millions of others, tuberculosis forced Catherine out of the world and into bed. Convinced there had to be a purpose for her long convalescence, rather than simply sleep her recovery away, she opted to read in-depth articles on the effects of alcoholism on the body. Though she initiated her quest for knowledge as a way to help her father, what she read opened her to the fact that millions were suffering just as John was. She quickly became so alarmed by what she viewed as one of the Devil's strongest weapons, she began to write letters to newspapers and magazines arguing for prohibition laws. Her letters had such a unique slant on the problem that many of the editors requested she expand them into full stories. For a woman too shy even to pray in front of her family, writing gave Catherine a way to voice her knowledge and her passions without fear.
Within two years, Catherine had completely recovered from TB and was looking for purpose beyond her writing. She still believed that God had a special task for her, but she had no clue what that was. Nightly she prayed for guidance and answers, and daily she found neither. Then she attended a Methodist meeting led by an upstart minister named William Booth.
Booth had spent his youth in dire poverty. He had often gone to bed hungry and had few clothes he could claim as his own. He had beaten the odds by learning how to read, but even that education provided him with little upward mobility. His family was thrilled when he landed a job with a pawnbroker, yet Booth quickly grew to hate his work. Day after day, for six long years, he watched men, women, and children come into the store to trade away the last items they owned for a few pennies just to purchase bread or milk. Worse yet were the drunks who pawned their watches or rings to buy another night of alcoholic stupor. As a teen, thirsting for something other than money, he began attending the Wesleyan Chapel in Nottingham. Through the Scriptures, he learned that his vocation stood against what he felt Christ taught. So he walked out of the pawnshop and into the streets to preach to the very people who had once sold him the last valuables they owned. Twenty years old and a charismatic man, he latched onto the Methodist movement and was trained as a roving evangelist. It was in this role that he arrived at Catherine's church.
Booth's views and enthusiasm deeply impressed the quiet Miss Mumford. What he preached was radically different from what the other ministers she had known preached. Booth had no interest in building huge cathedrals or in becoming a pastor to noblemen. In fact, his stance was completely opposite the established views of most local clergymen. William believed ministers should be "loosing the chains of injustice, freeing the captive and oppressed, sharing food and home, clothing the naked, and carrying out family responsibilities." Finally, inside the walls of a church, Catherine had found a man who seemed intent on living out the message she had found in Christ's parables. Naturally, she was drawn to him, but her shyness kept her from rushing up to the man at the end of the ser vice. The two did meet and spoke a bit, but no real relationship was born at that time.
Catherine had always been most comfortable writing her thoughts. So she used letters to compliment Booth on his work and message. When he wrote back, she started to reveal bits and pieces of herself, things she never would have spoken in face-to-face meetings. In the next three years, Catherine and William wrote hundreds of letters. Their correspondence so tied them together that Booth proposed marriage. Surprising many, though she was now deeply in love with the minister, Catherine did not immediately accept.
Catherine had misgivings about some of William's religious views. She had embraced social reform before she had heard him speak. She wanted to find ways to help orphaned children, widows, and even drunken men in the street. Catherine saw this as a direct function of faith and felt that as long as poverty and despair existed, no Christian should rest. What blocked her from saying "I do" was that William always described women as the "weaker sex." He even felt that women should not be allowed to speak in church or to have any say in church business. For months they argued their positions in letters, but neither gave an inch. Finally, Booth agreed that Catherine could address a church if she wanted to, he would not stop her, but he still felt strongly that it was wrong for a Christian woman even to consider speaking out for God in this way.
William's compromise was enough to persuade Catherine to marry him. She felt she had, in a sense, won. What she did not realize was that her future husband had told her she could speak only because he knew she wouldn't. Booth realized that Catherine's shy nature would never allow her to address even a small group of women, much less a large congregation that included men.
On June 16, 1855, at Stockwell Green Congregational Church in London, Catherine Mumford became Catherine Booth. The ceremony was simple and few attended. For their honeymoon, Catherine accompanied William as he continued his speaking tour.
Soon Booth's reputation as a dynamic speaker had grown to the point that the couple's traveling days were over. In 1858, William was named the pastor of Bethesda Chapel, a London church that was part of the Methodist movement. Within months of his appointment, more than a thousand members, from both the lower and upper classes, turned out each week to hear the man's fiery oratory and verbal challenges. Week in and week out, he demanded that his flock become involved in ending the social problems that plagued England. He wanted everyone in his congregation actively living Matthew 25. It was during this time that Catherine, despite her lack of self-confidence, found the courage to teach children.
Since Catherine would still not speak to adult women, William had few worries he would ever see his wife publicly speak of her belief in equal rights for Christian women. Yet on that December day in 1860, everything changed.
Catherine did not know how William would respond to the confusing message she had briefly put forth to the congregation. Over lunch she expected him to ask her to apologize. Yet he didn't. In fact, he looked into his wife's eyes and urged her to explain what had moved her to come forward.
She explained she knew God had given her a message, and she had known it for some time. Yet she had resisted sharing her thoughts with anyone simply because of her introverted nature. As William concluded his remarks that morning, she felt as if she were being pulled from her seat. At that same instant, she heard a voice say, "You will look like a fool and have nothing to say." Catherine suddenly realized that this was the Devil trying to block her from what she had been prepared and called to do. She said she whispered back to that voice, "That's just the point. I have never yet been willing to be a fool for Christ. Now I will be one."
Impressed, William posed another question: "Where did your courage come from? You have always been too shy to share your thoughts in public. Why now? Why today?"
A now more confident Catherine explained that on one of her recent door-to-door visits to encourage people to come into the church, she had met a young woman living alone in a shack in the slums. This young girl had no food, no water, and no clothes except for the rags she was wearing, but she still invited Catherine in to what were the filthiest quarters she had ever seen. As they spoke, Catherine realized the woman was pregnant and in labor. With no time to get help, the preacher's wife delivered the woman's twin boys. She then raced back home to find clothes, food, and blankets for this new family.
"When I handed her what I had gathered," she explained to William, "I looked into her eyes and saw the Lord looking back. Then, after I came back home and studied the Bible, I noted that it was women who first came to recognize the divinity of Christ. They were the first to display their faith, the first to tell the story, and I realized that women still need to be telling the story today."
Nodding his head, William smiled and replied with yet another question: "What would you like to speak on tonight?"
Not hesitating for a moment, Catherine shared a message that had been placed on her heart many years before. As he listened, Booth nodded. The way the congregation had looked at the tiny woman in church, the way they had hung on her every word as they considered what she was saying had caused the minister to realize that she had not just touched them but had caused them to think. He had thought half the flock might have been sleeping while he was speaking that morning, but they had been very awake when Catherine had shared her short testimony. He wanted to see them stay awake!
Excerpted from Stories behind Women of Extraordinary Faith by Ace Collins Copyright © 2008 by Andrew Collins. Excerpted by permission.
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