Sources of Booth’s Reforming Ideas

WILLIAM BOOTH would accept good ideas from whatever source and, in fact, enjoyed reaching outside his Wesleyan tradition at times. Consequently, In Darkest England absorbed reform ideas from nineteenth-century populists and socialists. Perhaps to gain broad public support Booth chose to converge his ideas with those of popular secular reformers.

Booth acknowledged the influence of American reformers Edward Bellamy and Henry George, but he particularly noted the ideas of three British reformers, none of whom shared his Wesleyan-evangelical religious persuasion: Count Rumford, E. T. Craig, and the Earl of Meath. Here is what Booth gained from each.

Count Rumford had abolished beggary in Bavaria in the late eighteenth century, and his ideas had again become popular in the 1880s. As an American loyal to the Crown, he had served in the British Army “with considerable distinction in the Revolutionary War,” according to Booth. After the war, he settled in England and then moved to Bavaria to reform its army. While there he set up Houses of Industry in which, beginning on New Year’s Eve 1790, he compelled beggars to work. He discovered that when he treated them with justice and kindness, offered clean and orderly surroundings, and provided inexpensive provisions, they responded with hard work. Best of all for Booth and cost—conscious Victorians, Rumford’s program was self-sufficient. A military approach to unemployment, vice, and poverty impressed Booth, who agreed with Rumford that the poor need direction from a strong hand.

Like the Count, Booth would organize workers “not as a bewildered bewildering mob, but as a firm regimented mass, with real captains over them.” Booth’s city colony workshops reflected Rumford’s Munich workhouses, and, like Rumford, his autocratic leadership was thoroughly military.

E. T. Craig was an aged Robert Owen disciple who set up an agricultural cooperative experiment at Ralahine, Ireland, in 1831. With support from John Scott Vandeleur, a wealthy Irish landowner, Craig had induced unruly Irish peasants to increase production and improve living standards. Profits, after rent, belonged to the peasants. Craig, as would Booth, permitted no intoxicating drink or tobacco. Unfortunately, gambling by estate—owner Vandeleur led to the 1833 closing of Ralahine. When Booth established his farm colonies, he followed the Ralahine format (even though he was no ideological descendant of secularist Robert Owen).

The Earl of Meath was president of a rival social—evangelical organization, the Church Army, founded by the Church of England in 1882 as a Salvation Army clone. At the time, the Church was negotiating with Booth to merge his Army with the established church as its evangelistic arm.

In early 1889, a year before he published Darkest England, Booth acknowledged that Meath’s pamphlet on poverty expressed his own notions on individual responsibility exactly. Booth, for example, had opened a second self-supporting men’s shelter, in Clerkenwell. Men paid three pence for supper, a “homely talk on salvation,” and bed and breakfast. Unlike common lodging houses, Salvation Army shelters were free from “vile, demoralizing associations.” Booth said the Army did not encourage “soupers”; he would do nothing for a man “on condition that he did something religious in return.”

Meath also contributed to Booth’s ideas for the second and third phases of the Darkest England scheme, English and overseas farm colonies. Meath had pressed for state-directed colonization of the unemployed in “Greater Britain” in 1886. In 1890, Booth offered to become the state’s agent in selecting, preparing, and transporting poor but willing settlers for relocation in Britain’s overseas empire. Booth echoed Meath’s concern that the dominions would not accept London’s vicious paupers, and he agreed that prior training on an English farm colony could improve work habits and character and make paupers acceptable for emigration. He followed Meath’s prescription for successful emigrants: (1) character was more important than agricultural training; the government’s program had failed because it had not followed this plan; and (2) children could be trained on model farms in England to be apprenticed to colonial farmers.

Meath resented Booth’s use of his plan. His Church Army accused Booth of stealing social reform ideas from a pamphlet, “Our Tramps,” published in March 1890. The pamphlet proposed a three-fold scheme of city, farm, and overseas colonies.. Booth could have charged this alleged theft as repayment for the Church Army’s theft of his idea for militant evangelism as well as his hymns. Nonetheless, Meath wanted Booth to acknowledge his sources for Darkest England. He wrote in 1904 that a “great religious Nonconformist leader”—almost certainly Booth— had not mentioned twenty-two German labor colonies in existence in 1890. Was this due to ignorance or to a desire to “claim credit for an idea which was not novel”? Meath’s barb is an example of principled jealousy. Booth often found that the clergy, labor union leaders, social workers, and philanthropists were his most ardent foes in religion and in social reform.

By Norman H. Murdoch

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #26 in 1990]

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