Archive Post: Catherine Booth and her Sermon on Sexual Morality

Despite being one of the most prominent Christian feminists in the Victorian era, Catherine Booth is not regarded as someone who challenged prevailing concerns on sexual morality. Yet through her sermons she delved into topics most of her audience would probably have balked at if they were discussed in any other context. The two excerpts I grouped together in my archive post do not propose queer alternatives to Victorian perceptions of sexual “deviancy.” Instead, they unveil Protestant fears about those susceptible to “wicked passions,” in this case (oddly enough) children and theologians. Booth’s words today might be as credible as William Rathbone Greg’s position on redundant women, but they also come from a female minister and Salvation Army co-founder whose presence in England outshone that of her husband. Implicitly, her lectures (as she calls them) complicate our current understanding of Victorian sexuality among ardent advocates for a chaste-until-marriage, heteronormative society.

I decided to focus on Booth’s second lecture, which deals with “mock salvation,” a hypocrisy that, according to her, afflicts many Christians. She states something that made me think of Oscar Wilde: “No mere intellectual beliefs can save men, because right opinions do not make right hearts. Alas, we all know the little practical effect opinions have on character” (Booth 38). While she applies this argument to good effect later on in the passage when talking about duplicitous people, by itself, it is more or less a comical absolutism. Notice the rhetorical move with “alas, we all know,” as well. Perhaps the strangest part of the lecture, however, is Booth’s unsubtle foray into children and sexuality:

“Hence wise parents universally recognise, whether they make any pretensions to Christianity or not, the necessity of family government and careful training in order to check, counteract, or eradicate, as the case may be, these tendencies to evil; and thus they acknowledge the necessity for a certain kind of salvation in their children, and they recognise also this fact, that if they do not attempt to work out this salvation, the children will bring them to wreck and ruin” (30).

She asserts that the institution of “family government” is the only thing protecting children from their malignant natures. It is a cynical perspective on kids, perhaps shared by many a Protestant during that time. Coming from a woman with multiple children, however, it is even more shocking. Is she suggesting that the only path to salvation requires “eradicating” our innate “tendencies to evil?”

Booth, Catherine. “Lecture II. A Mock Salvation and a Real Deliverance from Sin.” Popular Christianity. A Series of Lectures Delivered in Princes Hall, Piccadilly. 3rd ed., The Salvation Army, 1891, pp. 30; 38-39.