Flags, bunting and huge crowds greeted General William Booth as he entered Caistor, north Lincolnshire, on Saturday 2nd September 1905.
There was nothing unusual about this picture. Booth was greeted in similar fashion wherever he went, especially in his latter years.
But Caistor held a special place in Booth’s heart. It was at Caistor – a small town of less than 2,300 people – that Booth first commenced the work that was to become so dear to him.
Called to Caistor
Back in December 1853, towards the end of his time as a Wesleyan Reform minister in Spalding, William Booth, aged just 24, received a letter requesting he spend the following week in Caistor, almost 60 miles away.
Booth didn't need asking twice. Despite needing a rest and recently having been 'very ill,' he set off the following morning. Earlier, he had told his fiancée Catherine how difficult it would be to leave his circuit for more than two days even if her poor health had made it necessary. Consequently, Catherine was none too pleased to hear of Booth’s trip. She wrote:
'I was surprised to hear of your going to Caistor, after intimating to me the impossibility of your leaving your circuit for more than 2 days without consequences being so serious, even if I had been so bad(ill) as to make it necessary. I am truly sorry to hear of your state of health, but give up in utter despair the idea of making you judicious and prudent. After labouring in public so incessantly for a month or 6 weeks I cannot think it was wise to undertake to preach 3 times on Sunday and every night of the week. Neither do I think it was necessary or right.'
Arriving at 4pm Booth discovered he was 'altogether unexpected' in Caistor. However, rather than return home, he sought out the bellman (town crier) and some friends to help advertise the fact that he was there.
At the meeting the following morning, 'I offered many reasons why the members should join me in seeking revival in Caistor. We knelt and gave ourselves afresh to God.' In both the afternoon and evening meetings many came under conviction and committed their lives to Christ.
Mr Joseph Wigelsworth was the 24-year-old brother of the man who had requested Booth visit Caistor. Deeply troubled during the morning meeting, Wigelsworth returned in the afternoon and wept.
In the evening Booth spoke to him and discovered that he had been brought up in a Christian home and been a Methodist for years, 'yet he was unsaved.' As Booth spoke with him, 'he broke down, came boldly to the penitent form, and with many tears and prayers he sought and obtained forgiveness. It was a splendid case and did us all good.'
The place was filled every night that followed, and '36 found salvation.'
Booth made other trips to Caistor and recorded that 76 people were saved during one particular week.
But there were critics of his ministry in this town. The Reformers, to which Booth belonged, had only commenced their services in Caistor a few weeks before Booth's first visit, but had grown significantly. There were already 35 members when he first arrived and over 200 by the time by the end of Booth’s third visit to the town.
One newspaper correspondent spoke of them as having 'hewn, partly out of the rough and partly from other sects, Ranters, Independents and Nothingarians, a sect of their own…In the “revival meetings” as they are technically called...the wildest fanaticism is encouraged; ravings and bawling, and all manner of extravagant doings are permitted.'
Booth recorded, 'Every night many souls saved...The parting with this dear people was very painful. I had never experienced anything approaching to the success with which God crowned my labours here.'
Booth loved Caistor and would return many times.
When, 52 years after his first visit, Booth made another trip to Caistor, the chairman of the council spoke of the 'abiding results' of his 'unwearied self-denying labours as an Evangelist in this town 50 years ago’.
It was at Caistor that Booth’s eyes were opened to how God could reach through him the lost, 'the rough and Nothingarians,' beyond the confines of chapel. With all that he achieved in the founding The Salvation Army, 'soul-saving' would ever remain what he in his old age termed his 'life's business.'