A Victorian Love Story - The Romance of William and Catherine Booth
One of the great untold love stories of the Victorian era is the romance between William Booth and Catherine Mumford.
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The image most have of William Booth is that of an old man with tired eyes, white hair and white beard; however, there is also the image of an intense 22 year-old passionately in love with the young Catherine Mumford. We know much about their romance from the voluminous letters they wrote, many of which have survived and are now held in the British Library.
William and Catherine were real people in the fullest sense of the word and what comes through from their letters is a warts and all story of two young people, passionate for each other and passionate for God. There are obvious faults in their characters and flaws in their behaviour. But they still remain real and fallible, treasures in earthen vessels, authentic people whom God used.
In many ways their story is one of the great unpublicised love stories of the 19th century. This relationship was to change both of their lives in a momentous way, and the lives of millions around the world through the organisation they founded, The Salvation Army. Harold Begbie, in his book, The Life of General William Booth, eloquently writes "In a certain measure William Booth came into the life of Catherine Mumford as Robert Browning came into the life of Elizabeth Barrett. In each case there was a resurrection of the woman, and a beauty added to the man".
It would appear that there is very little romantic interest in William Booth's life before this point, apart from his interaction with the Dent family, particularly one of the teenage daughters, Anne, during his teenage years. Occasionally William would accompany them to the Broad Street Wesley Chapel, a place that was to become crucial in the spiritual journey of William Booth. For her part Catherine had received a declaration of love from a cousin from Derbyshire. Begbie writes that "he was a young man of somewhat striking appearance, and with more than ordinary capacity". Catherine’s heart responded. However, she turned him down as she doubted he was truly converted.
Their first meeting was at the home of Edward Rabbits who had offered to support the young William to launch out into Christian ministry. Whether or not Edward Rabbits was playing matchmaker or not, we do not know. However, against his better judgment William is persuaded by Rabbits to recite a poem "The Grog-sellers Dream".
The response is some discussion on moderate consumption of alcohol which is disrupted by the young Catherine Mumford, a believer in total abstinence, insisting that the Bible does not support the idea of moderate drinking. The debate that followed became more fiery by the minute only to be wisely terminated by Edward Rabbits announcing supper. If Catherine hadn't caught William's eye before this, she surely had now.
Their next meeting in April 1852 saw William offering to take Catherine, who had been introduced to him as being in delicate health, home in a cab. In his book The Life of General William Booth, Harold Begbie writes "It was one of those fallings in love which are as instantaneous as they are mutual, which are neither approached nor immediately followed by any formal declaration of affection, and which manifest themselves even in the midst of conversations altogether absorbed in other matters". Suddenly William Booth knew that he loved this woman.
Catherine was later to record "It seemed as though we had intimately known and loved each other for years, and suddenly after some temporary absence, had been brought together again, and before we reached home we both suspected, nay, felt as though we had been made for each other, and that henceforth the current of our lives must flow together".
In 1852 the then 22 year-old William Booth is a man on a mission from God but his encounter with Catherine Mumford is to completely upset his equilibrium. Something of William's dilemma is obvious in his letters to Catherine. He writes "God has of late been satisfying me with Himself, and I should fear setting up or creating another god, especially seeing that He has placed me in a position that my heart has so long desired and given me every comfort I wish".
Almost in despair William comes to the conclusion that perhaps marriage is not possible and the best he can hope for is some form of a platonic friendship. William Booth is hopelessly in love with Catherine Mumford. He is a man smitten, besotted and passionately in love. In his letter of 7 May 1852, where he speculates about a platonic friendship he declares "I honour you, I worship, I adore, I have loved you, oh, perhaps more than ..." and then goes on to say "I am rambling on to forbidden ground". Perhaps there is a sense in which he is aware of the contradiction he is expressing in this letter; the resignation to a platonic friendship and the sheer adoration of a star-struck lover.
Catherine, aware of the calling of God on William's life and not wanting to oppose God's will responds "Oh that we had never seen each other. Do try to forget me as far as the remembrance would injure your usefulness or spoil your peace. If I have no alternative but to oppose the will of God or trample on the desolations of my own heart, my choice is made. Thy will be done is my constant cry. I care not for myself, but oh if I cause you to err I shall never be happy again".
William and Catherine were able to resolve their dilemma of knowing God's will and on Saturday 15 May 1853, on their knees before God, committed themselves to each other and to God. In the years that followed that it was God's will for this couple to marry is borne out in the birth and development of The Salvation Army.
It was a partnership that lasted a lifetime. They were able to accommodate each other's failings and idiosyncrasies through huge dollops of forgiveness, understanding and love. It all came to a close with Catherine's Promotion To Glory on 4 October 1890. Immediately afterwards William wrote "Ever since our first meeting, now nearly forty years ago, we have been inseparable in spirit; that is, in all the main thoughts and purposes of our lives. Oh, what a loss is mine! It cannot be measured".