Two days ago was the anniversary of (May 9, 1912) William Booth delivering his final public address to members of The Salvation Army. His final words sought to reassure his followers that all would be well with the organization he founded after he passed away. His words were also intended to inspire his officers and soldiers to continue onward in the fight to help people in need and save souls. Hence, Royal Albert Hall was packed for the address. The press was there to capture his final words and so were the author's of the various Salvation Army publications.
For nearly nine decades members of The Salvation Army have taken great pride in the following words that are attributed to William Booth on that occasion and held as final words.
“While women weep, as they do now, I’ll fight; while children go hungry, as they do now, I’ll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight; while there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight-I’ll fight to the very end.”
The common image is that once William concluded with these words that he then sat down as the crowd embraced his I'll fight charge.
From my early teens I’ve been fascinated with history and the evolution of global/societal thought. Being raised in The Salvation Army I was naturally interested in the history of my faith community. Early I learned that due to various levels of hagiography I needed to be careful in my acceptance of what was considered to be my faith tradition’s history. One of those items that came into question during my college and post-graduate years was the attributing of the above inspiring words to William Booth.
Back in the 1980s, the issue I had was with silence of The Salvation Army’s primary historical documents from the 1910s through to World War I in noting these rousing words and when they were spoken. While William and Catherine Booth were alive, The Salvation Army’s primary publications, “The War Cry” and “All the World” took great care to accurately publish for Salvationists across the Great Britain and around the world, the major addresses of their leaders. Particularly so for Catherine, whose addresses were later gathered together and published in a serious of books.
When I read The War Crys and the All the World from mid May to August of 1912, there were a good number of references to his last address. I was disappointed that none contained these inspiring words, or even portions of them. The reports on The Salvation Army’s publications did note various other statements made by Booth, most of which were far from being inspirational, especially when compared to these immortalized words. The special edition of The War Cry covering the final address made no mention of the address. Later that year in describing his final speech All the World didn’t mention any portion of the words attributed to him. Over the months, Booth’s other well known statements from his final address, as well as lesser known and non-inspiring portions of his address were quoted repeatedly in Salvation Army publications without a mention of even a phrase from the quote in question. Subsequently, in learning that none of the news reporters who covered caught any of these words reinforced my solidifying belief that the words were not spoken by William Booth.
By 1985 I found myself with two options, a) hold that these inspiring words which have resounded in Salvationist hearts for decades was totally missed by the primary recorders of the day, both the news reporters and Salvation Army publication authors, or b) take the position that the primary recorders missed the words simply because these words were never spoken by William Booth.
Back then the heart was pulled in one direction but common sense and the mind directed to holding to option “b”. Years later, in extensively researching Catherine Booth my belief that these words were not William’s firmed further. The wider attribution of these words to William did not commence until 15 years later, in 1927, and even then the two authors that attributed the words to William have significant variance from each other and from the words above. In 1929 Bramwell Booth claimed his father spoke the immortal words, but Bramwell’s assertion should be viewed in the context that he was embroiled in a leadership fight and was seeking to increase his legitimacy.
Over the subsequent decades, the myth has been perpetuated. So where did these inspiring words originate? First, we must recognize that the words are viewed as inspirational because of to whom they were attributed, and what grew from his work and leadership. If the words were spoken or attributed to a more common person, they would have long been lost. Second, we must recognize that the words and the myth have continued to live on because we want to believe in the words and until recently the organization's leadership has continued to publically attribute the words to their founder. What of those who claim to have heard them that day in May 1912? This can easily be accounted for by common human dynamics. Decades later many of those who were in Royal Albert Hall that day and recounted how they heard those stirring words, and how the address moved them, just thought they heard them. They recall being there and hearing William speak and as the words became attributed to William that day, they claimed to have actually heard them because they wanted to believe that they heard them from his lips and were not wishing to admit that they could not actually recall hearing his immortalized last words.
Do we know the source of the quote? While the true author of the final form may well be lost to history, the first portion of the “I’ll fight” appeared as a poem in a 1906 edition of “All the World”, six years before William was said to have authored them. It appears that core of the quote was penned by an early Salvationist, and possibly added onto by one or two others and then attributed to William.
While I’ve not been a member of The Salvation Army for years, it is my faith heritage and valued by me. At the end of the day I’m conflicted as to whether I should cry in sadness or laugh over how hagiography readily distorts history so that the words he never spoke have become William Booth’s most famous. Hopefully the poem's message will be embraced by the organization and its membership for it speaks to the ongoing spirit which drives them to provide a hand of assistance to those who are hurting and in need in our communities.