What climate change activists can learn from the founder of the Salvation Army
The past year has been hot, scary, and confusing. Confusing because as time goes by, the “it” of climate change becomes harder to define — and thus, how to solve it.
Is “it” a war or a crisis like Ukraine or Gaza? Is it like a pandemic, such as COVID and SARS? Is it like an invasion or comet from outer space, metaphors Hollywood has used with limited success? Is it even a new “age” following the Industrial and Information ages?
Will it end the world? Or is it not even a problem, as climate deniers insist?
The answer is none of the above, of course. The “climate problem” is the latest of many inadvertently destructive consequences of global industrialization that have – like lead in gasoline – become too obvious to ignore.
So, it is worthwhile to see how one man — William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army — confronted a related global “problem” more than a century ago.
A global problem
Go back to 1865 and to London. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, delivering unprecedented riches to a few and shocking poverty to many as machines took jobs, and even limbs, before society had worked out some protections. It was a period of immense discovery and exploration but also intensified exploitation and social conflict. Human ambition seemed limitless; human suffering was bottomless.
Enter the “General,” William Booth. He was a fiery, evangelical English Methodist preacher who founded the East London Christian Mission, later reorganizing it with a military structure and urgency that he named The Salvation Army.
A global mission
Booth made it a global mission to witness and address the human degradation brought by unchecked industrialization and extreme inequality. He may have also been the first person to understand that a global social problem required a global philanthropic response. He envisioned — and succeeded in building – the world’s first and largest philanthropic organization devoted to relieving poverty and human suffering.
More than a century later, his Salvation Army continues to thrive and is a testament to the power of global philanthropy at scale. Then, as some do now with climate, Booth sought to reveal and remediate the corrosive effects of extractive capitalism on individual humans that many sought to ignore. The hard evidence of those effects – like climate science today — could not be ignored, revealing that the exponential growth of wealth was accompanied by an exponential rise in economic inequality, and urban poverty and hunger.
It’s not just their problem
In 1890, two books that would go on to define the era were published with the word “darkest” in both titles. In Darkest Africa was Henry Morton Stanley’s lurid account of his explorations of the vast equatorial rain forests and “primitive races” of Africa. In Darkest England, and the Way Out was Booth’s passionate and best-selling retort, challenging his fellow Britons to help the “multitudes… wandering gaunt and hunger-stricken through the streets… in the midst of unparalleled wealth.”
They were very different men. Booth devoted his life, family, and religion to public service and eradicating human suffering. Stanley became famous after tracking down the legendary and long-missing anti-slavery missionary David Livingstone deep in Central Africa, greeting him with the infamous and probably fabricated,“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
But Stanley went on to help Belgian King Leopold II seize the Congo and its inhabitants as his personal property, and escalate the slave trade. He would be accused of wholesale brutalities, and helping Leopold launch what The Guardian called “the most inhuman of all 19th-century imperial projects.”
The global problem at home
Booth mimicked Stanley’s word “darkest” to alert the world that “cruelties…squalor… and despair” just as severe as Stanley claimed to have seen in the equatorial forest could also be found “at our own doors… within a stone’s throw of our cathedrals and palaces.”
“How close the parallel is,” Booth wrote, “dehumanized inhabitants, the slavery to which they are subjected, their privations and their misery… the blood boils.” Humanity desperately needed a “more comprehensive method of reaching and saving the perishing crowds.”
A family mobilizes
Booth recognized that this new form of poverty brought by unregulated industrialization, like climate change today, was a global problem that required a global solution. He sent six of his eight children to extend the Salvation Army abroad, eventually building an “army of poverty fighters” that each year now serves nearly 100 million people stuck by poverty, illness or disasters in 133 nations.
“One of the grimmest social problems of our time,” he wrote, “should be sternly faced, not with a view to the generation of profitless emotion, but with a view to its solution.”
But there is another reason Booth should be remembered. Extreme poverty and suffering, Booth implored, must inspire action, not despair.
“If the heart and intellect of mankind alike revolt against the fatalism of despair, then, indeed, it is time, and high time, that the question was faced in no mere dilettante spirit, but with a resolute determination to make an end of the crying scandal of our age.”
The same can be said today: The global problem of climate change must be met not with despair, but with action — and determination.
Editor’s Note: Barclay Palmer is a descendant of Salvation Army founder William Booth and “Kate” Booth-Clibborn, aka “La Maréchale,” who at age 22 brought the Army to France and then Switzerland, The Netherlands and Belgium. Peter Mckillop is a descendent of Lucy Wheelock, a pioneer of early childhood education and founder of Wheelock College, which trained the first generation of American kindergarten teachers and is now part of Boston University.
Featured photo: Gen. William Booth (right), founder of the Salvation Army. Source: The Salvation Army