An Army of Compassion

Since the 1950’s ever growing numbers of people in the UK have adopted a meat-free diet. Going meat-free has very much hit the mainstream and indeed according to research carried out in 2014, 12% of the British population are either vegetarian or vegan.

Yet it has been said that if the Booths had had their way, an “army” of vegetarians would matched into the limelight during the 19th century!

sal_armyA Foundation of Compassion

The Salvation Army of today reports a worldwide membership of over 1.5 million, consisting of soldiers, officers and adherents known as Salvationists.

Its founders and General William (1829 – 1912) Catherine (1829 – 1890) Booth sought to bring salvation to the poor, destitute and hungry by meeting both their physical and spiritual needs. It is present in 127 countries, running charity shops, operating shelters for the homeless, and providing disaster relief and humanitarian aid to developing countries.

Originally founded in 1865, the inspiration behind the Salvation Army’s foundation was the practical expression of grace, kindness and compassion to the less fortunate, an ethic the Booth family extended beyond mere humanity.

Bramwell BoothBramwell Booth

The son of William and Catherine, Bramwell (1856 – 1929), and his wife, Florence, were committed vegetarians. Bramwell, who oversaw the movement’s officer training, insisted that a vegetarian “bill of fare” be provided for cadets who wished to avoid meat. In the 19th century, the majority of Salvationists were former Methodists, and so, following the example of John Wesley, many adhered to a meat-free diet.

Bramwell believed vegetarianism to be not only important for “robust health and strength” but also Biblically grounded; “according to the Bible, God originally intended the food for humans to be vegetarian – ‘Behold I have given you herb yielding seed. To you it shall be for food’.”

Salvation Army Food PantryPioneering Heathy Diets

Even though The Salvation Army did not come to embrace vegetarianism (though individual Salvationists did), the movement lead the way in regards to healthy eating.

Given today’s recent rise in obesity rates and the related illnesses of diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, perhaps the Booths were ahead of their time in seeking to cut out meat.

Indeed on a visit to Dresden, William Booth was asked by a journalist how he managed to endure so much hard work at his advanced age. The General replied: “I owe it to my careful vegetarian diet”.

Catherine Booth Catherine Booth

It was the “Mother of the Army” and wife of William who perhaps had the greatest passion for animals. As recounted by Harold Begbie in 1920, Catherine once told of how her heart “rejoiced greatly in the speculations of Wesley and Butler with regard to the possibility of a future life for animals, in which God might make up to them for the suffering and pain inflicted on them here …. ”

Catherine’s kindness to animals took a practical turn. “If I were you,” she would say to the donkey-boys at the seaside resorts, where in later years she went to lecture, “I should like to feel, when I went to sleep at night, that I had done my very best for my donkey. I would like to know that I had been kind and had given it the best food I could afford; in fact, that it had as jolly a day as though I had been the donkey, and the donkey me.” She would then slip the boy a coin or two by way of encouragement.

Then, turning to her children, she would press the lesson home by saying, “That is how I should like to see my children spend their pennies, in encouraging the boys to be kind to their donkeys.”

Sadly Catherine witnessed numerous examples of cruel animal abuse, including a young man wounding a donkey with a heavy metal hammer. Such scenes were greatly disturbing yet it was Catherine’s faith that proved to be her rock in the midst of such suffering:

Life is such a puzzle, but we must leave it, leave it with God. I have suffered so much over what appeared to be the needless and inexplicable sorrows and pains of the animal creation, as well as over those of the rest of the world, that if I had not come to know God by a personal revelation of Him to my own soul, and to trust Him because I knew Him, I can hardly say into what scepticism I might not have fallen.

It is well over 100 years since William and Catherine passed on. Yet their dedication to a compassionate, plant-based diet has been adopted by millions around the world who are concerned about cruelty to animals, climate change or their health.

Concern for animal welfare has grown hugely and this is to be rejoiced over. Nonetheless, pioneers of compassionate living are still needed, particularly in today’s churches where the norm is still very much to consume animals without a second’s thought.

ThinkingFurther Food For Thought

“Life is such a puzzle” said Catherine Booth. Witnessing cruelty in today’s world can be immensely challenging.  Where or to who might we go to draw strength?

Practical displays of kindness and charity stood the Booths out from much of society. In today’s society, how can individual Christians stand up for compassion living?

“God loves with a great love the man whose heart is bursting with a passion for the impossible.” ― William Booth


  1. The Life of William Booth. Founder and First General of the Salvation Army. Harold Begbie. 1920. Vol 1 Chapter 10.
  2. International Vegetarian Union (IVU) General William Booth.
  3. The Gospel of Vegetarianism. Lt-Colonel Maxwell Ryan
  4. General Albert Orsborn  The House of My Pilgrimage. 1980.