Evangeline Booth

"…last night at dusk I was walking briskly up and down in the lovely road in front of my home [in Hartsdale] when two little colored children approached me," Evangeline Booth said in an interview with a reporter in 1931. "The braver of the two said timidly, 'How do you do?' I replied, 'How do YOU do?' She then looked up at me and said, 'Are you the lady as what is always doing something for somebody?' … I was touched because it seemed to me that the baby, with her one phrase, had exactly described the Salvation Army's work." (Unidentified Westchester newspaper, April 8, 1931)

Evangeline Booth

Evangeline Booth at the White House, Washington, D.C., 1926. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Evangeline Booth was an exemplary leader and a tireless public servant who fully captured public respect and attention in her day. In her work overseeing an organization that performed a wide range of services from building shelters for the poor to providing "doughnuts for doughboys" during World War I, she received great acclaim. She filled auditoriums whenever she spoke, her opinions on issues of national importance were sought by the media, and her whereabouts and the state of her health were reported regularly in newspapers.

Early Life

Evangeline Booth was born in South Hackney, London, the seventh of eight children, to William and Catherine Booth. Her father was a Methodist minister who left the church in 1865 to "take religion to the people." He and his wife traveled around Britain, intending to provide religious salvation to the lower classes. Both husband and wife believed that men and women could serve equally, and as a result, their sons and daughters assumed leadership roles in what was eventually to become known as the Salvation Army. Because early converts were the poor and ne'er-do-wells, many communities strongly opposed the group's presence.

At age 12, Booth began selling the Salvation Army newspaper, The War Cry. By age 17, she had her first official role in the organization, helping the needy in London's poor section in the East End. By choice, she dressed in rags and lived among the people she hoped to save, becoming known as the "white angel of the slums."

Soon the family needed her overseas, and she went to Canada as a territorial commander. Her time there was cut short when her sister Emily, who was in charge of the United States organization, was killed in a train accident. In 1904 Booth became the commander of the American Salvation Army, a position she held for 30 years (1904-34). In 1934 she was chosen as the first female commander-in-chief of the international organization and served in that job for her final five years before retirement (1934-39).

Evangeline Booth

Evangeline Booth and two children posing for a publicity photograph, 1907. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Over the course of her service, Evangeline Booth transformed the organization. While there has always been a strong Christian mission with an emphasis on preparation for the after-life in the Salvation Army, Booth began adding a number of community services to the army's activities very early in her time in the United States.

Because of the devastation that occurred in Galveston, TX, from the hurricane of 1900, followed a few years later by a similar crisis in San Francisco with the earthquake of 1906, Booth added disaster relief to the Salvation Army's mission, a commitment that remains strong today. In addition, she established soup kitchens, emergency shelters, hospitals for unwed mothers, services for the unemployed, homes for aging adults, and provided services to those in prison throughout the entire country. In some cities, the army built housing for working women, and these were known as "Evangeline residences."

Life in Westchester

Shortly after her arrival in the United States, Evangeline Booth chose to make her home in Westchester; her first house was in Yonkers. In 1924 she moved to a house in Hartsdale that she called "Acadia," perhaps reminiscent of her time in Canada. (This former residence is now St. Andrew's Episcopal Church.) While early attention came to the building because of its Salvation Army owner, the home is impressive in its own right with French turrets, Spanish-style turret roof and cobblestone chimneys. Inside, the house still has decorative ironwork, wood beams and chandeliers that have been there since Booth's day. Though her job kept her extremely busy, when she was home in Westchester she swam and rode horseback whenever she could, and music was an important part of her life.

World War I and the Salvation Army Lassies

When the United States entered World War I, Evangeline intended for "her Army" to accompany "her country's Army." With a wire sent directly to President Wilson, she obtained permission for Salvation Army workers to sail with the first men going overseas. (New York Times, March 9, 1930) At the front lines, the Salvation Army established canteens that provided everything from home cooking to uniform mending, and reading materials to religious services. The "doughnuts for doughboys" came about because some of the Salvation Army "lassies" decided that morale would be higher if the men had something good to eat, and doughnuts became the refreshment of choice. Booth had instructed her army not to hobnob with officers, and enlisted men were the primary beneficiaries of food offerings and sewing or letter-writing assistance provided by the Salvation Army.

In a November 1918 National Geographic article about the war efforts, the reporter wrote that a Salvation Army worker was told that she would be killed if she persisted in serving her doughnuts and cocoa to the men while they were under heavy fire. The Salvation Army worker was quoted as replying: "Colonel, we can die with the men, but we cannot leave them." For the work of the Salvation Army during wartime, Evangeline Booth was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 1919.

Home of Evangeline Booth

The home of Evangeline Booth, now Saint Andrew's Episcopal Church in Hartsdale, 2010. Photograph by Patrick Raftery.

Booth, a National Leader

As a figure of prominence, Evangeline Booth's opinion was sought on many topics, and she was a leader in both the woman's suffrage and temperance movements. (The popular musical, Guys and Dolls, features Sarah Brown and her Save-a-Soul mission, which mirrored the Salvation Army's stance on alcohol.) When a reporter posed to her that prohibition was hurting the country's economy, Evangeline fired back that while the rich man could still drink ("to death if he wants to,") she explained: "I live in a suburb. Many a time when I have been returning late from a meeting have I had to stop my car to help some child who was trying to take home a drunken father. Now I never see that." (New York Times, March 9, 1930)

In the years following the war, Booth transformed the Salvation Army's on-the-street begging to a more professional level of fundraising by cultivating a coalition of businesspeople and community service agencies who were willing to "invest in better citizenship." At the conclusion of her stint as head of the U.S. organization, the American Salvation Army had assets of 35 million dollars. By that time the Salvation Army was represented in 81 countries, in 53 languages, and had 200,000 soldiers spreading the word that redemption could be found in this world, that "every man has a chance" in this lifetime. Today the Salvation Army has about 3.5 million volunteers who help an estimated 36 million people each year.

In July 1950, Evangeline Booth was "promoted to Glory," in the parlance of the Salvation Army. She is buried in the Salvation Army plot in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, surrounded by other members of her army. Her gravestone describes her as a "warrior of the cross."

At her funeral service in New York City, a Salvation Army commander noted: "She created homes for the homeless, friends for the friendless, and jobs for the jobless. Against tremendous odds, she established faith and hope where it had not existed before."