Compassion & Commitment… Power &Principle
Florence Soper Booth
by Frances Dingman
By 1881, The Salvation Army was beginning to spread around the world. What a challenge, for a girl of 20 to be thrust suddenly into a position of leadership!
Florence Soper Booth was an important force in the Army from 1890, at the promotion to Glory of Catherine Booth, to 1929, when her husband, Bramwell Booth, was removed from the position of General. Next to the older members of the family, she was one who knew most about the basic aims of the Army, and the opposition that these provoked. For years, with other Booths of her generation dead, out of the Army, or overseas, she was the only influential one besides her husband at International Headquarters.
This remarkable woman was her husband’s counterpart. Clear-seeing, calm and unwearying, she not only understood his view and its effect on him, but was able to shed light on a new aspect of it. Though temperamentally his opposite, she was able to appreciate the emotional toll his work took on him, and give him the comfort of her understanding.
Florence Soper was born in 1861 into the well-to-do family of a physician. After hearing Catherine Booth preach, she looked up to her with a reverence bordering on awe. Previously indifferent to religion, she went home and offered herself to God.
A few days later, she saw an advertisement by Mrs. Booth in The Christian asking for a young woman who could speak French and would be free to accompany her daughter Kate to France. It took a visit by Mrs. Booth herself to persuade her father that she should go, with the provision that she stay only a few months and not take part in meetings. As a captain, she did everything else: researching Scriptures, selling En Avant! and even walking with a sandwich board to advertise appearances by Kate Booth.
Bramwell enters the scene
Florence had met the oldest Booth son, Bramwell, a few times in London and she had felt a mutual liking. But Bramwell, having devoted himself to the Army’s work most of his 25 years, realized he had met the woman who could be the “twin soul” his mother had assured him he would find. After consulting with his father and receiving encouragement, he crossed the channel and began by giving Captain Soper all the reasons why she should not marry him. When she realized his intentions, she was taken completely by surprise. “He had always seemed to me to be on a platform of holiness and service infinitely above me,” she recalled, “like some angelic being, but in those few moments he became human, a man who had suffered, who was lonely, and I felt that if I could but help him, I knew I could die for him there and then.
“When at last I was compelled to speak I rose and went close to him, and while speaking took hold of a button of his coat, which button I found wrapped in white paper in his breast pocket some months after we were married.”
Though not approving her choice, Dr. Soper gave her away. The small wedding they had hoped for became a large affair in Congress Hall, the first time the Salvation Army ritual of marriage was used. Those who attended the ceremony (excepting officers and leaders) paid a shilling each for the privilege, and this went to help pay for the newly acquired Grecian Theater.
All the Booths were happy about the marriage. Florrie wrote to his sister Emma, “I feel I have found a rock, and I only want now to learn how to help him and not be only a child.”
Though Bramwell had also found a rock in his new wife, there were lonely times ahead while he put in long days dealing with the affairs of an Army that had moved already to four more countries and added complications to Bramwell’s duties, the business and fund-raiding side.
Far from staying in the shadow behind her husband, Florence carved out her own place in the early development of Salvation Army social work. She had agonized from the first over the lives of the “poor harlots” of London.
Mrs. Cottrill, a soldier at Whitechapel, had became interested in the plight of young girls who, looking for work in the city, instead were lured into prostitution. She began opening her home to a few at a time, giving them a haven while finding employment. Soon it was clear that a larger place would be needed, with an officer in charge. Talking with Bramwell about the new development, Booth asked, “What about Florrie? She is very young, I know, but if she feels her heart drawn that way, let her have charge.” So at 20 she was duly appointed to supervise this work.
In 1883, when her first child, Catherine, was a few months old, Florence could be seen threading her way through the narrow Whitechapel alleys, the baby in her arms, the target of shouts and being hit by rotten vegetables. Undiscouraged, she said to herself, “God is going to make this work a blessing, and the devil is stirred up in opposition.” She was right on both counts.
She saw things that made her heart shudder. When Bramwell came home at night, she unburdened her thoughts on him, making him realize how terrible conditions were. At first he thought she might be exaggerating, but then decided to visit these streets, finding himself “wading through a sea of sin and defilement in others.”
Bramwell enlisted the aid of W. T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette and staunch Army supporter. Together they launched a scheme to bring these appalling conditions to the attention of Parliament. Though the path was not easy and both found themselves charged with pandering, the upshot was the monumental step of getting the age of consent changed from 13 to 16.
Florence was given the rank of commissioner in 1888, and for 28 years she directed the Rescue Work, as it grew to encompass the world and save thousands of women. Her success helped gain acceptance for the placing of other women in positions of high authority.
The young family grew to include three daughters and a son, then two daughters and a son. Their daughter Catherine did not recall a time when there was a difference of opinion between them on any subject in the children’s presence.
In the years when the children laid heavy claim on her time, Bramwell’s long hours at the office took their toll on Florence as well. Her good health and self-control probably kept him from realizing how much strain she was under. Like the elder Booth family, their children were educated at home. With their limited finances, the education of the first four children, as well as the making of their clothes, fell upon her. An inheritance from an aunt let her afford a governess for the youngest three. Except for asking her husband’s help occasionally with her sermon notes, she tried not to let business interfere in the few hours they spent together.
As a young wife she continued to hold her mother-in-law in reverence and awe, and though their lives had many similarities, she felt she could never measure up to the standards set by the Army Mother.
Florence did not rally right away after the birth of their youngest child, Wycliffe, in 1895. For a time they despaired of her life. Bramwell never ceased to think of her recovery as a particular token of God’s mercy to him and the children.
FAMILY IN 1890–Bramwell and Florence with (center) Catherine (known as Catherine Bramwell-Booth), (l – r) Mary, Miriam, and Bernard. Miriam was promoted to Glory in 1917 after a long illness.
Issues of the day
Florence continued public appearances on behalf of women and children, and at the Annual Meeting of the British Women’s Temperance Association in May 1905 gave what a London newspaper described as “the speech of the evening:”
“What will it avail our children if at great national cost they learnt facts about the world around them while at the same time we are legalizing and encouraging every facility for converting them presently into a drunken, drinking and besotted people? No system of education could succeed until the drink question has been dealt with.”
Investigation had revealed that during the day, the public houses were filled with women, most of them married, with their young children, who were dosed with gin to keep them quiet. At an important conference of medical and social experts held in London, a resolution was approved in favor of prohibiting children under 14 from going to licensed houses other than residential hotels. Mrs. Booth and Commissioner Alex M. Nicol represented the Army. Mrs. Booth seconded a similar resolution later that year at another large and influential gathering, and spoke on alcoholism at the International Congress [on Alcoholism] in the Imperial Institute, London, in 1909.
Presents Home League plan
Florence felt a real responsibility to the women and children both in and out of the Army world. “I see in it wonderful possibilities,” replied the Founder early in 1907 after Florence had revealed her wish to create a woman’s organization within the Army. Immediately plans were discussed with the wives of leading headquarters officers, and at a special gathering the new department was launched, called the Home League. What she had in mind was not simply a weekday gospel meeting, but a comprehensive program that, with Christian emphasis, would provide education in family living, fellowship for the aged and lonely, and an opportunity of serving the needy. “A happy home is the surest safeguard against all evil,” said Florence at its inauguration meeting, “and where a home is not happy the devil enters and generally finds his hands full.”
Mothers’ meetings had been held since the beginning of the Christian Mission, but this was the first effort to have them on a large scale. One afternoon each week the women received help in management of the home. Many who had failed before set up a family altar, praying with their children for wayward members of the family. Thrift clubs were formed so the members could buy at special prices. Some husbands, invited to meetings, were converted. As the League spread to other countries, meetings varied with the needs of the area. Women learned to cook, to sew, to care for their babies. Today, 90 years later, the Home League stands as a legacy of Florence Booth.
Upon the Founder’s promotion to Glory, the Army had “Mrs. General” as its first lady. She had always been one of the busiest women engaged in public life. She traveled far, wrote considerably, was thoroughly acquainted with every phase of Salvation Army warfare, conducted councils, led holiness and salvation crusades, and found time to minister personally to many who were distressed, discouraged and in danger. As her new position as the spouse of the General naturally added to her duties, she felt compelled to relinquish her much-loved work for women to Commissioner Adelaide Cox, her chief assistant for many years.
In April 1913, in her new capacity, she visited Paris, where she had served with Kate, and spoke part of the time in excellent French. The Finnish Congress that June, which she led, was reported to be the “mightiest thing in the history of the Territory.” Germany’s Congress followed in July. In the months following she led a triumphant campaign in Belgium and then was received by Queen Wilhelmina in Amsterdam in an unusually long audience.
Guards and Sunbeams
In 1915, Florence introduced the idea of Lifesaving Guards for girls as an extension of the Lifesaving Scouts for boys. Though some thought that athletic skills and pursuits would make the girls less womanly, the Guards got off to an enthusiastic start after she gathered the first 120 girls in eight troops at Regent Hall, London. Similar to the Girl Scouts, its Salvation Army connection has led many girls to become officers and soldiers.
In 1921, she announced the formation of a new junior girls’ organization, the Sunbeams, whose ages at that time would be 8 and 9. Girls in many countries now benefit from the recreational, service and skill-building projects of these groups.
When Commissioner Henry Howard retired as Chief of the Staff in 1921, succeeded by Commissioner Edward Higgins, Mrs. Bramwell Booth became British Commissioner, responsible for all the Army’s evangelical work in the United Kingdom. She held this office until November 1921, and again from June 1922 to March 1925.
Dispute about succession
Around 1925, rumblings began among certain factions of the Army about the Deed Poll’s stipulation that the General should appoint his successor. They felt that this choice should rest with the High Council of world leaders. In the effort to discredit the General, his wife and children also came under criticism of bearing too much influence on his decisions.
On the General’s previous overseas tours, Mrs. Booth had remained in England with power of attorney to signdocuments in his stead. In 1926, on his last tour to America, the General gave himself the pleasure of taking Florence with him, and she led some of the sessions. He left much encouraged, feeling an improvement of his sister Eva’s attitude about the choice of a successor.
His last tour, in 1927, took him to Japan by way of Canada, where his schedule was grueling and his welcome tumultuous. The unrest within the Army, however, continued to chip away at his peace of mind.
Bramwell’s mother had written to him when he was 21, “You are of my temperament. You are not elastic as Papa is, you cannot throw things off as he can…Mind my words…take more rest!” However, at 21 he couldn’t throw things off, and neither could he at 72. The General’s health failed and his doctors forbade him to jeopardize his recovery by attending to business.
During his illness Florence went from time to time to headquarters for conference with the Chief of the Staff and others, and in September led the annual councils for the Women’s Social Work officers. At Cox’s retirement she had resumed command of Women’s Work, then passing it to her daughter Catherine. She continued leadership of Guards and Sunbeams and was also a Justice of the Peace, a visiting magistrate of Holloway Prison, and was responsible for the worldwide training of officers.
Bramwell’s life ebbs
After much agonizing, the High Council was called in January 1929 and the General was removed from office. The council elected the Chief of the Staff as the new General.
On June 16, 1929, the anniversary of William and Catherine’s wedding, Bramwell was promoted to Glory. With him were his wife, his children except Mary, his sons’ wives, and his two faithful nurses. Florence retired to a quiet life, no longer the most influential woman in the international Army.
On June 10, 1957, within three days of the conclusion of the Home League Jubilee Congress, Mrs. General Bramwell Booth was promoted to Glory. In one sense the Congress was a fitting swan song to her life’s work, since she had been the principal force behind its organization.
Though widowed for 28 years, she had always remained faithful to that conviction which led her to become a Salvationist. Symbolically, even as her coffin was being carried at her funeral along one aisle out of the Clapton Congress Hall, a seeker was be moving toward the Mercy Seat along the other. In death, as in life, her dedication was honored by its continuing fulfillment.
Sources: Catherine Booth, and Bramwell Booth, by Catherine Bramwell-Booth; Echoes and Memories, by Bramwell Booth; History of The Salvation Army, Vol. V, by Arch Wiggins; Vol. VI and VII by Frederick Coutts
Photos courtesy of Western Territorial Museum.