This October we’re promoting #BreastCancerAwarenessMonth by sharing the heartbreaking tale of Catherine Booth’s diagnosis and subsequent death from that very disease (ironically in the month of October). Some of it is hard to read, most of it isn’t very pretty… but it’s a story that must be told in the hopes that it leads to even one person getting checked.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month is an annual campaign which aims to increase awareness about breast cancer. While most people are aware of it, many forget to take the steps for early detection or encourage others to do the same. Do not fall in this category. Get yourself checked. For more information, please visit: goo.gl/WRpNzW
These posts were created from piecing together excerpts from The Life of General William Booth, Volume II, by Harold Begbie, The Short Life of Catherine Booth, by Frederick Booth Tucker and Trumpet of Salvation by Norman Nygaard. Some language has been updated/changed for ease of reading.
If there’s one aspect of Catherine Booth’s life that we’re familiar with, outside of her role as Mother of The Salvation Army, it’s that she was delicate in health and had been battling illness since childhood. Through decades of preaching, teaching and writing, through the births and raising of eight children, through ministering on the streets and hours and hours spent kneeling in prayer with this or that sinner – Catherine was in near constant pain.
In 1887, life was especially hard for her – she suffered more than usual yet maintained such a courageous stand in the battle that few outside of the immediate home circle knew anything of her hand-to-hand struggle with weakness and weariness.
She wrote that winter to her daughter Emma, revealing her fears for her health. “I got on well I think this morning. I got a blessing yesterday. I accepted this illness if it be the Lord’s will for me – the disease I have so dreaded in my life, against which I fear my heart has rebelled – and this has helped me as submission always helps us! This won’t bring the disease if it is not to come, but it will make it much easier if it should come.”
2 months later, however, at the age of 59, new symptoms appeared which could not be disregarded…
A HEAVY BLOW
After two days of preaching in Bristol in February 1888, William and Catherine returned home to London. Anxious about her health, she went to consult a great doctor and get his opinion. She was alone, for no one had thought her illness so serious. She asked him to tell her the truth – all her life, as you know, she wanted the truth; and after a little hesitation he told her. It was the saddest that she could hear. That dreadful illness – cancer – through which she had so tenderly nursed her own dear mother, had come to her, and in the doctor’s opinion she had much suffering to pass through, and had only eighteen months, at the most two years, to live.
Catherine listened calmly, thanked the doctor, and then, getting once more into the cab, drove home alone.
It was a dark journey.
THE JOURNEY HOME
William was setting off that night for Holland and he was at home when the cab drove up to the door. He has left on record an account of that meeting with his wife:
“After hearing the verdict of the doctors, she drove home alone. That journey can better be imagined than described. She afterwards told me how, as she looked upon the various scenes through the cab window, it seemed that the sentence of death had been passed upon everything: how she knelt upon the cab floor and wrestled in prayer with God; of the unutterable yearnings over me and the children that filled her heart; how the realization of our grief swept over her, and the uncertainties of the near future, when she would no longer be with us.
I shall never forget in this world, or the next, that meeting. I had been watching for the cab and had run out to meet her and help her up the steps. She tried to smile upon me through her tears; but, drawing me into the room, she unfolded gradually to me the result of the interviews. I sat down speechless.”
A HUSBAND’S PAIN
(William) “She rose from her seat and came and knelt down beside me, saying, ‘Do you know what was my first thought? That I should not be there to nurse you in your last hour.’ I was stunned. I felt as if the whole world were coming to a standstill. Opposite me on the wall was a picture of Christ on the cross. I thought I could understand it then as never before. She talked like a heroine, like an angel to me; she talked as she had never talked before. I could say little or nothing. It seemed as though a hand were laid upon my very heartstrings. I could only kneel with her and try to pray.”
A FAMILY’S HEARTBREAK
The painful news of Catherine’s cancer fell upon every heart in the family with crushing force. The household was indeed a vale of tears. They loved their mother with a passionate tenderness rarely seen. Their life still centered itself around hers in almost as much as in nursery days. She was still the trusted repository of their every sorrow, their counselor in every perplexity, the guardian angel of their lives. “We look at one another through our tears, and cannot speak,” writes daughter Emma.
Bramwell, Catherine’s oldest son, continues the story, writing, “That night the General was to leave for Holland… On the way to the railway station he came to Headquarters in order to confer with me. I can never forget my feelings when I understood the report of the doctors. My heart stood still. She had been so much more than a mother – had been so much of a leader, adviser, and counselor – that it seemed impossible to spare her. How could the war go on without her? The General desired me to make some inquiries for him of the doctors, and after praying with me for strength and courage he started for Amsterdam by the night train.”
(William Booth) “Never shall I forget starting out that evening, with the mournful tidings weighing like lead upon my heart. Oh! The conflict of that night journey! I faced two large congregations (that day) and did my best, although it seemed I spoke as one in a dream. Leaving the meetings to be continued by others, I returned to London the following evening.
Then followed conferences and controversies interminable as to the course of treatment which might be wisest to pursue. Catherine’s objections to an operation finally triumphed.
And then followed for me the most painful experience of my life. To go home was anguish. To be away was worse. Life became a burden almost too heavy to be borne, until God in a very definite manner visited me in a measure, and comforted my heart.”
Instead of immediately laying aside her work when the doctors gave their dreadful judgment and beginning to think only of herself, Catherine went on with it as long as her increasing weakness allowed. ‘The war must go on’ became her motto.
“As I look back on life I do not remember the houses I have lived in, the people that I have known, the things of passing interest at the moment. They are all gone. There is nothing stands out before my mind as of any consequence, but the work I have done for God and Eternity.” – Catherine Booth
But step-by-step the disease grew worse. First she was forced to give up Meetings and public work. Then it became impossible for her to use her right hand, and she was therefore obliged to give up her correspondence, though she still continued to dictate her letters, and learnt also to write with her left hand.
Catherine took part in remedies during her illness, but they only seemed to procure a temporary and partial relief of the anguish. The most remarkable effect of them was in arresting the violent hemorrhages that set in from time to time, and in soothing the more violent spasms of pain.
It was in the spring of 1889 that Catherine’s medical friends came to her with a newly discovered cancer cure. The treatment was an electrical operation, which consisted of transmitting intermittent currents through needles inserted under the skin, and had been reported favorably on by the British Medical Journal. The theory of it appealed to both Catherine and William and it was decided, after much prayer and deliberation, that the experiment should be made.
The return to consciousness from the anesthetics used was followed by a period of intense suffering. It was encouraging, however, to notice that the tumor was at least reduced in size. But, as is usually the case with operations in cancer, after a brief interval of but a few weeks the malady seemed to come back worse than before…
That fall the household moved to Clacton-on-Sea, where William rented the Army’s Home of Rest. During the first month or so of her stay, Catherine was able to go out for a daily drive in a borrowed carriage. But such was the effect of the motion upon her that, some five weeks after her arrival, the morning of her last ride came. Having ventured only a few yards, she bid her daughter Emma to turn around and return her to the house. Then came the slow walks upon the cliffs, where she was often seen leaning upon the arm of her husband or some member of the family. And then came the last walk. Thus by degrees she became confined to the house. But even then she would come downstairs for as long as it was at all possible until she was unable to even leave her bed. They placed it where she could still look out across the sea, and some of her most inspired messages were delivered while her eyes rested upon its ever-changing tide.
Some people can do more with the lifting of a finger than others can do with their whole body… In sickness, and even in death, they accomplish more than others in health and life. This was true in a singular degree of Catherine Booth. The sickbed proved for her a worldwide platform from which her very sufferings enabled her to preach the most eloquent and heart-appealing sermons of her life.
Through the pain, she spoke of how she could have done more, been better. The fight had not left her and oh, how she yearned to be back on the battlefield. “I would go on an errand to hell, if the Lord would give me the assurance that the devil should not keep me there!”
A HUSBAND’S HARDSHIP
Catherine was in almost constant pain. She exclaimed repeatedly as she started with the stabbing pains, which like lightning flashes started in her poor bosom. “Oh these fiery scorpions! These fiery scorpions!”
Again and again, Bramwell Booth tells me, his father broke down utterly when he came from his wife’s room to take up the accumulating burden of his work for the Army. “I don’t understand it! I don’t understand it!” he would cry out, and covering his face with his hands, he would walk to and fro in an excess of grief, or throw himself upon his knees and implore the Almighty for help.
“I am 60 years old, and for the first time during all these long years, so far as memory serves me, has God, in his infinite mercy, allowed me to have any sorrow that I could not cast on Him.”
ON DEATH’S DOOR
During December of 1889, Catherine passed through one of the most painful and prolonged crises of her illness, and it was evident that any moment might be her last… From December 15th through the 24th, she seemed to be treading the valley of death, and the absent members of her family were hastily summoned to her side.
William writes, “Sunday, December 15th – My darling had a night of agony. When I went into her room at 2am she had not closed her eyes. The breast was in awful condition. They were endeavoring to staunch a fresh hemorrhage. Everything was saturated in blood.
To stand by the side of those you love and watch the ebbing tide of life, unable to stem it or to ease the anguish, while the stabs of pain makes the eyes flash fire and every limb and nerve quiver, forcing cries of suffering from the courageous soul – is an experience of sorrow which words can but poorly describe.
After a slight improvement another difficulty set in. There was a strange choking sensation in the throat, which threatened suffocation. After several painful struggles there was a great calm, and we felt the end had come. The whole household gathered in the room. My darling thought herself to be dying, and we felt only too sadly certain that the end was at hand.”
STRENGTH IN THE MIDST OF PAIN
Over and over, during the progress of the illness, it was thought that Catherine was dying. The doctor said that her hours were numbered. She believed so herself. And yet she rallied.
“According to the principles of medical science, she should not be alive right now,” her physician told the General. “I can’t understand what keeps her going.”
“I imagine that it must be the prayers of our family and the many thousands of people whose lives she has blessed,” William replied.
On December 19th, she sent the following message to the Army: “The waters are rising, but so am I. I am not going under, but over. Don’t be concerned about your dying; only go on living well, and the dying will be all right.”
To admire such heroism at a distance is not difficult; but to live side by side with it, day after day, year after year, is difficult to the point of torture. And when we remember that she who suffered so terribly and he who comforted and consoled so diligently, were engaged in proclaiming to the indifferent masses of the world God’s longing to help, God’s passionate desire to heal and restore, we may faintly realize the soul of their tragedy, so full of pathos, so shot with irony.
“I might have lived longer,” Catherine said, “had I been more careful of my health; but I do not regret that I am dying a bit earlier, for I feel that I have not lived in vain, and if I had been more considerate of my body I might have been so at the expense of the work which God has enabled me to accomplish for him… tell the officers, tell them that the only consolation for a Salvationists on his dying bed is to feel he has been a soul-winner.” She paused for breath. “And tell them further, that, after all my labors, I feel I come far short of the prize of my high calling. Beseech them to redeem their time, for we can do but little at our best.”
BLOOD & FIRE & VICTORY
In the winter, Catherine asked for the Army flag to be brought and fastened above her head… As she had fought beneath its folds in life, so now in death she rejoiced to realize that the “banner of love,” which had been the herald of salvation to multitudes, was still waving over her.
“There,” said the General, “the colors are over you now, my darling!”
“Let me feel them,” said Catherine. And as her poor worn left hand was guided to them, she clasped them fondly, and traced the motto with her finger, “Blood and Fire.”
“Blood and Fire!” she repeated. “Yes, that is very appropriate. It is just what my life has been – a constant and severe fight.”
“It ought to be ‘Blood and Fire and Victory,” her husband replied.
“I’ll fight on till I get it,” declared Catherine. “I won’t give in. Next time I see them, I shall be looking down, instead of up, at them. I shall be above the smoke of pain and sorrow there…”
TAKE ME HOME
“Pray that the Lord may speedily finish His work and take me home,” was the oft- repeated request of Catherine during the months of anguish spent in the mysterious valley of shadows. But the lips of love could not frame the prayer, and to her “Let me go” a thousand hearts responded, “Lord, let her stay!” It seemed indeed as though death itself were unwilling to perform its appointed task…
In the fall of 1890, Catherine was doing so well that her physicians thought she would see the New Year. It wasn’t long after, on October 1st, 1890, that a violent hemorrhage set in, and this time, death seemed imminent. The family was summoned to Catherine’s bedside one last time.
THE HOUSEHOLD GATHERS
“No curtain is drawn across those windows, no screen is set round the death-bed, no silence is posted at the door to keep guard over those struggles and prayers. The bed is draped with the Army flag. Photographs of the absent children are arranged where she can see them. The families assemble in uniform. The chief Officers of the Army are summoned for a last farewell. The faithful servants are called from the kitchen. And the company prays together, and sings together. With streaming eyes and faltering voices,” says Commissioner Booth-Tucker, “the gathered family sang again and again her favorite choruses, watching with inexpressible emotion as the loved lips moved in the effort to take part:
‘We shall walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death,
We shall walk through the Valley in peace!
For Jesus Himself shall be our Leader,
As we walk through the Valley in peace.’
Although her voice could not be heard, and the breathing was hard and difficult, each time the word ‘peace’ was repeated her hand was raised as a signal that such was indeed her experience.”
LOVERS SAY GOODBYE
William writes about dismissing everyone from Catherine’s her room one night, “resolving to have the remainder of the it alone with her. What passed that night can never be revealed. It will never be half remembered by myself until the day of Eternity dawns. It was a renewal, in all its tenderness and sweetness and a part of its very ecstasy, of our first love. It seemed, I believe to us both, in spite of all the painful circumstances of the hour, a repetition of some of those blissful hours we spent together in the days of our betrothal…
I wept, prayed, and believed and exulted. We were in Jordan as it were together. Evidently she could not bear to let me go from her bedside or loose my hand. She had come back, she said, to her first love. I saw how exhausted she was, and again and again entreated her to consider her poor body and try and get a little sleep; and when I made as though I would leave her she upbraided me in the gentlest, most expressive, and most effectual manner, by saying, ‘Can you not watch with me one night? It will soon be over, and what matters a few hours shorter or longer now? I have done with the body. I shall soon leave it forever.’ And so we watched and counseled and prayed and believed together through that long night…”
AN END TO THE SUFFERING
…And so those long hours of the night wore away and morning dawned, her last morning upon the earth. Fondly William clasped her hand, while each member of the family tenderly embraced her, kissing her brow, and with breaking hearts and choking voices uttering their farewell messages of love. Finally, her eyes met her husband’s, the last kiss of love on earth was given and the last word spoken, “till the day break and the shadows flee away.”
Fainter and fainter grew the breathing, while more and more clearly were assurance of peace written upon that dear-loved countenance; till at length, with one deep sigh, without a struggle, the silver cord was loosed and the golden bowl broken, and the unfettered soul fled away to the land where sorrow and suffering shall be no more, and where God’s own hand shall wipe away all tears.
She was gone.
COMFORT & LOSS
It was half past three on Saturday afternoon, the 4th of October. The storm of the previous night had passed away. The sun was sinking in an almost cloudless sky. The singing of the lark, and the dull murmur of the waves beating on the shore – all seemed as though nature was seeking through God’s handiwork to speak peace to the troubled souls of the bereaved, reminding them through the beauties of that exceptionally perfect autumn day that their loved one had entered upon a world whose glory eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive.
It is impossible to describe the sense of utter desolation, which swept over that home as the realization of their great and irreparable loss made itself felt. But as father and children embraced one another in that sacred room, each sought to hide the anguish of their individual grief in striving to bring comfort to the other… It seemed to each member of that family as if an avalanche of sorrow had been let loose, making all other troubles seem as mere snowflakes.
THE ARMY’S LOSS
Writing to the War Cry, William announces his beloved’s death. “Yes, like a dream the event has come and gone. Anticipated, the uppermost thought in my mind, known to be inevitable for two long years and eight months, dreaded as one of the darkest human shadows that could fall upon my poor life, death has come and taken away my darling wife, the beloved partner of my soul.
I need not say that the Army suffers loss. It is quite true that she was the Army Mother… Other religious organizations cannot be said to have a Mother; their guides and authorities are all Fathers. The Salvation Army has, of God’s great mercy and wisdom, and we think through His own leading and inspiration, felt its need of a more tender, feminine side of human character, as well as the more robust and masculine element… The coming generations will regard her as the Pioneer Mother…” “In her frail body the spirit of womanhood manifested its power and the Spirit of God its beauty. It is a tribute to the age in which she lived that this power and beauty were acknowledged by the world during her lifetime. She exercised a spell over many nations.”
THE WORLD SAYS GOODBYE
And now occurred a series of vast and imposing spectacles, seldom paralleled in the history of the world. The woman who had, perhaps of all others, the least coveted popularity received a tribute of genuine and worldwide esteem, which was as unanimous as it was unstinted and generous.
Her body lay in state; immense crowds flocked to pay their last tribute to the Army Mother at the Clapton Congress Hall. The northern portion of it was covered with a colored canopy, beneath which the coffin was placed, surrounded with ferns and flowers. On the lid were laid Catherine’s well-worn Bible, her Army flag, her bonnet and crested jacket, touching mementoes of the past. Above it was a card bearing a quotation from her last anniversary message to the Army: “Love one another, and Meet me in the Morning.”
On Tuesday, 4,000 people passed through the hall to say goodbye, on Wednesday 10,000, on Thursday 14,000 and on Friday 13,000. Monday, her body was moved to a new hall, where 36,000 people crowded in to bear witness to the service. A fog, which had prevailed during the afternoon, had crept into the hall, and hung in fleecy folds along the roof, dimming the dazzling brilliance of the large electric lamps, and adding not a little to the weirdness of the scene. “Even nature is mourning,” remarked one officer.
Here follows William’s address:
“You will readily understand that I find it a difficulty to talk to you this afternoon. To begin with, I could not be willing to talk without an attempt to make you hear, and sorrow doesn’t feel like shouting.
Yet I cannot resist the opportunity of looking you in the face and blessing you in the name of the Lord, and in the name of our beloved one who is looking down upon us, if she is not actually with us in this throng today.
As I have come riding through these, I suppose, hundreds of thousands of people this afternoon, who have bared their heads and have blessed me in the name of the Lord at almost every revolution of the carriage-wheels, my mind had been full of two feelings, which alternate–one is uppermost one moment, and the other the next–and yet which blend and amalgamate with each other; and these are the feeling of sorrow and the feeling of gratitude.”
Listen to his powerful eulogy, read by Major Rick Raymer
The Daily Telegraph said of this scene at the graveside:
“It was a most touching sight when the tall, upright General came forward in the gathering darkness to tell his comrades of the loss he, their chief, had sustained. He spoke manfully, resolutely, and without the slightest trace of affectation. Not a suspicion of clap-trap marred the dignity of the address. He spoke as a soldier should who had disciplined his emotion, without effort and straight from the heart. Few wives who have comforted their husbands for forty years have received such a glowing tribute of honest praise.”
VISITORS TO THE SICKBED
At the conclusion of an important Council of several hundred officers, it was decided that, as Catherine had been unable to be there at the General’s side, a delegation visit her. The dull, leaden November sky and desolate snow-covered fields they travelled through fitly symbolized the grief that bowed the heart of each member of that group. All felt they were losing at a stroke a mother, leader, counselor and friend…
Upon reaching the house, the party was ushered in to the sick-chamber. As their eyes rested upon the face of the Army Mother it seemed that uncontrollable grief smote every heart. Strong men wept like children. Kneeling round the bed, the group sang and prayed as well as the overpowering emotions of the moment would permit. Mrs. Booth was deeply affected. Faithfulness and affection were imprinted on the tearful faces of the kneeling group. Ten thousand memories of past fellowship in faith and fight burst upon her. At length, she was able to reply, concluding with:
“I thank God that, notwithstanding all the defects and imperfections I see in my life and work as I look back upon them from this bed, I can say that by His grace I have ever kept the interest of His Kingdom first, and have never withheld anything He required of me in order to help forward the salvation of the world. And my prayer for all of you is that you may be able, when you come as near to the end, to say the same.”
A HUSBAND’S VOW
(William) “She took hold of my hand almost at the very beginning, and took the ring off her finger, and slipping it on to mine, said: ‘By this token we were united for time, and by it now we are united for eternity.’ I kissed her, and promised that I would be faithful to the vow and be hers and hers alone for ever and ever.”