General William Booth and a Poet’s Vision

on August 21, 2015

The staff at IRD did Morning Prayer as usual yesterday. To my surprise, in addition to the expected “Lesser Festival” commemorating the death of Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux (1153), the Church of England included a commemoration of William and Catherine Booth, Founders of the Salvation Army, 1912 and 1890. 

With three generations of Salvation Army blood running in my veins, and having just returned from revisiting my roots at the Army’s summer camp meetings in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, I was happy to see William and Catherine remembered by the Anglican Communion. And I was glad to be reminded that it was on this day, August 20, in 1912, that General William Booth was “Promoted to Glory” as they say in The Salvation Army.

I found a great newsreel of Booth’s funeral procession on YouTube. The genteel narrator, who sounds intriguingly like Clifton Webb, begins, “William Booth, God’s soldier, lay down his sword.” In similarly poetic prose, and with The Salvation Army band playing in the background,  the narrator describes the funeral procession. “The flags of nations invaded by the Army were carried proudly at the head of the column,” he tells, and the London city traffic was stopped “by one of the densest multitudes that ever thronged its thoroughfares.”

He explains that 10,000 men and women from the ranks of The Salvation Army had been selected as representatives in the procession. As I watched them stream by on the newsreel, I wondered how many of those handsome young bandsman carrying their instruments, and others marching alongside, would, just a few years later, be marching in the Battle of the Somme and other World War One trenches.

“No man ever finished his earth’s battle with so universal a triumph,” declares the narrator as the band swells with “Sweeping through the Gates of the New Jerusalem.” He then lists some aspects of that triumph:

  • Thousands of homeless men were finding refuge
  • Thousands of women, saved from the uttermost ruin, were mourning his loss
  • In countries as ancient as China and as new as America, tens of thousands were speaking of him as the man who had brought them comfort and strength

The newsreel was an extremely fitting tribute to Booth, but it is Vachel Lindsay’s poem about Booth’s death that captures the General’s life’s passion and the truth of the Gospel that remain more muted and coy in the newsreel. And just as the shadow of the coming Great War hangs over the young Salvationists marching behind their fallen leader, the shadow of suicide hangs over a poet who depicted Booth and salvation so well yet could not take hold of that joy and strength himself.

General William Booth Enters Heaven” was written in 1913 by Lindsay, an American poet from Springfield, Illinois, considered the founder of modern “singing poetry.” In this case, Lindsay evokes a gospel song written by Presbyterian minister Elisha Hoffman, “Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb?” with his singing stanzas.

The lyrical rhythm of Lindsay’s words not only complement the simple 4/4 meter of the song itself, but also the sense of the percussion introduced in the first, alliterative stanza. “Booth led boldly with his big bass drum.” The booming entrance is followed by a piercing question that is repeated seven more times in the poem: “(Are you washed in the Blood of the Lamb?)”

Unlike the controversy and unwelcome that sometimes met Booth on earth — mostly because his preaching disrupted the status quo, and resulted in less customers for tavern keepers — he is welcomed by the saints who, says Lindsay, “smiled gravely” and said, “‘he’s come!'” But it’s those who enter Heaven with Booth, the unlikely saints transformed by the power of Christ, that comprise the longest portion of the poem.

Walking lepers followed, rank on rank,
Lurching bravoes from the ditches dank,
Drabs from the alleyways and drug fiends
    pale—
Minds still passion-ridden, soul-powers frail:—
Vermin-eaten saints with mouldy breath,
Unwashed legions with the ways of Death—
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

Lindsay describes a crowd such as Jesus described to the Pharisees in Matthew 21: 31 , “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” And Jesus Himself is there. He has “stretched His hands above the passing poor,” to acknowledge that they are His and have the right to be there. Suddenly, we see them transformed, the way that Jesus sees them:

Yet in an instant all that blear review
Marched on spotless, clad in raiment new.
The lame were straightened, withered limbs uncurled
And blind eyes opened on a new, sweet world.

    [Bass drum louder.]
Drabs and vixens in a flash made whole!
Gone was the weasel-head, the snout, the jowl!
Sages and sibyls now, and athletes clean,
Rulers of empires, and of forests green!

In the Kingdom of God, these wretched ones reveal their true selves, washed in the Blood of the Lamb. They are royalty. They are “Kings and Princes by the Lamb set free.” Here Lindsay directs a cacophony of musical instruments, as he says, “tambourines Jing-jing-jingled in the hands of Queens.”

But in the last, hushed stanza, there are no instruments, just reverent singing. The stanzas leading up to this one might well have described a Salvation Army “open air meeting,” the Army’s evangelistic outreach on street corners with songs, brass bands, and testimonies of those who had been saved. And even in this stanza, it is as if the the General and his troops have been marching to such a meeting, and now stop to pray at the curb. (One wonders what kind of “curb” he finds in Heaven! Golden?)

Then, says Lindsay of the General who was blind when he died:

And when Booth halted by the curb for prayer   
He saw his Master thro’ the flag-filled air.   
Christ came gently with a robe and crown   
For Booth the soldier, while the throng knelt down.   
He saw King Jesus. They were face to face,   
And he knelt a-weeping in that holy place.   
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

“Some men’s ambition is art. Some men’s ambition is fame. Some men’s ambition is gold. My ambition is the souls of men.” William Booth wrote this in the autograph book of King Edward VII. “General William Booth Enters Heaven” is a beautiful demonstration of how the General fulfilled that ambition.

But poor Vachel Lindsay. His ambition for fame as an artist and increasingly, in the later years of his life, for financial security for his family, was only briefly realized.

After years of walking across the country, presenting his poems, singing poetry went out of fashion.  (Ironically, today “spoken word poetry,” largely narcissistic preening, but with some stylistic similarities to Lindsay, is considered cutting edge.) As his financial situation worsened, his depression and physical ailments grew. One biographer notes that he suffered from paranoid delusions. Finally, on the night of December 5, 1931, he took his life in the same house in which had been born.

I cannot claim to know what was Lindsay’s eternal destiny, but I do believe that the Holy Spirit can reach into the very last moment of consciousness of a man — even a man writhing in agonized death throes  from drinking lye. Second Peter 3: 9 assures that the Lord “is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”

The image of a wretched mob of sinners transformed when they enter Heaven may be poetic, but in truth, the  redeemed are filled with joy and the strength of the Lord in spite of the most tragic of circumstances while still on earth. Lindsay did not find that joyous transformation in life, but I hope and pray that as he entered Eternity, he heard the sound of the Booth’s motley band and followed it to King Jesus.

  1. Comment by Namyriah on August 21, 2015 at 5:07 pm

    Vachel Lindsay also wrote “Foreign Missions in Battle Array,” a great poem about missionaries, which was set to music and appears in some hymnals, although I’m pretty sure that the PC churches would never sing a hymn praising “colonialism.” He wrote the poem at a time of great confidence in winning the world for Christ.

    http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/e/n/d/endless.htm

  2. Comment by faithmcdonnell on August 21, 2015 at 5:58 pm

    Thank you for commenting, Namyriah. I think Lindsay would be amazed that now our foreign brothers and sisters are coming back to the US to win the West back to Christ! I thank God for them.

  3. Comment by Erica Cathers on August 24, 2015 at 4:03 pm

    Why would anyone wash themselves in lamb blood? That is really weird.

  4. Comment by Nohm on August 24, 2015 at 5:15 pm

    It cures obesity.

  5. Comment by Michael Snow on August 24, 2015 at 11:34 pm

    Wm. Booth always catches my eye. (And a forgotten mug from the 125th Anniversary of the SA just caught my eye yesterday!) I hope that his clear words about Christians and war caught the ear of those Salvationists marching in his funeral procession. If so we do not have to wonder about their role in WWI. https://christianpacifismblog.wordpress.com/2012/11/15/moody-spurgeon-bonhoeffer-witherington-cyprian/

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