They were unlikely evangelists. Eighteen-year-old Rose Clapham stood with her colleague, Jenny Smith, and invited hundreds of world-weary coal miners in Yorkshire, England, to a meeting at the local theater. At that 1878 meeting, Rose, an uneducated factory worker, persuaded 700 men to make decisions for Christ 140 of whom constituted the beginnings of a new church.
"Hallelujah lasses" were making The Salvation Army one of the most effective missions in England. The inspiration behind the ministry of these young, working-class women was Catherine Booth, co-founder of The Salvation Army.
Born in 1829, Catherine was raised in the pious, sheltered world of small town, Victorian England; her mother was a model of Methodist piety. As a teenager, Catherine suffered from curvature of the spine and was forced to lay in bed months at a time. She read voraciously, especially the writings of Charles Finney and John Wesley, who helped her recognize her own need for salvation.
When people suggested that a women's place was in the home, Catherine wondered if the Christian church, which preached a liberating gospel to both men and women, could keep women from expressing their gifts. She eventually concluded that an errant interpretation of Paul's comment about women keeping silent in church resulted in "loss to the church, evil to the world, and dishonor to God."
In the 1850s, she married William Booth, a young preacher who was making a name for himself. When she shared her emerging convictions with her new husband, he wrote her, "I would not stop a woman preaching on any account." He added that neither would he "encourage one to begin."
William began pastoring a small parish but soon resigned to begin an itinerant evangelistic ministry with Catherine. After visiting some of East London's gin palaces in 1865, William wrote, "I seemed to hear a voice sounding in my ears, 'Where can you go to find such heathen as these, and where is there so great a need for your labors?'" He immediately founded his East London Christian Mission.
Thirteen years later, he changed the name to The Salvation Army. Over the next few decades more social services were added to the evangelistic thrust. The Salvation Army was designed to minister, as one historian put it, to "wife-beaters, cheats and bullies, prostitutes, boys who had stolen the family money, unfaithful husbands, burglars, and teamsters who had been cruel to their horses"?the part of society no one else was reaching.
A great role model
As William developed his work, Catherine found an outlet for her talents. She first preached in 1860, and her audiences were taken with her gentle maner as well as her powerful appeal. As one man put it, "If ever I am charged with a crime, don't bother to get any of the great lawyers to defend me; get that woman." Catherine's reputation spread.
Though she cared for a household of six, her preaching schedule increased. She soon felt the pressure: "I cannot give time to preparation, unless I can afford to put my sewing out. It never seems to occur to anybody that I cannot do two things at once."
On top of that, her husband began falling ill, so she added the administration of The Army to her duties?and thus she grew into her role as "The Army Mother."
It's easy to understand why Rose Clapham and hundreds of other "Hallelujah lasses," as they traveled the wretched streets and alleys of industrial England, saw The Army Mother as their mentor. It's also not surprising that William, once lukewarm in his attitude toward female preaching, included statements like the following in his Orders and Regulations for The Army: "Women shall have the right to an equal share with men in the work of publishing salvation."
Some may think that the phenomenon of women in public ministry is a modern one, but it really is not. It started with a Victorian teenager who cared less about respectability and more about "publishing salvation" to as many as possible by any means possible.
Adapted from CHRISTIAN HISTORY magazine.
1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian magazine (formerly Christian Reader).
Click here for reprint information.