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Marian Billups Booth - disability no barrier for this valiant soldier

Marian Billups Booth was often found on her knees in dedicated service to God and The Salvation Army. Her sister Evangeline Booth said: “When she prayed I always felt that distance between earth and heaven was shortened.”


Marian Billups Booth’s life is shrouded in mystery compared to some of her much more high-profile siblings who took on significant leadership positions in The Salvation Army.

The sixth child of The Salvation Army founders William and Catherine Booth, Marian’s life is often overlooked or made little mention in the history books. Yet there are important lessons we can learn about disability inclusion from her life as one of the earliest soldiers with a disability.

Marian was born in Leeds on 19 May 1864. Catherine describes Marian in this letter to her parents shortly after her birth, “The baby is the best we had yet; she sleeps nearly all her time ... she was the largest child born we have had.”

Marian’s life took a significant turn in infancy when she experienced an unforeseen medical episode that would shape the rest of her life. Catherine describes the life-changing event in her diary: “I shall never forget our anguish when one morning I was called to the nursery to see the child who was 10 months old. The nurse thought it had swallowed something and was choking, but it proved to be a fit. We sent for the nearest doctor, who pronounced it to be caused by irritation of the brain as a consequence of teething. The attacks were continued with increased rapidity and virulence and did not leave her until her body and mind had been permanently injured by them.”

While a definitive medical diagnosis of Marian’s disability is impossible from this Victorian-era description, Marian’s cognitive disability did not exclude her from full membership in The Salvation Army.

Prayer was the spiritual foundation of Marian’s life.

Marian gave her heart and life to God at an early age. She was recognised with the stationary rank of staff-captain and served in children’s homes. Catherine observed, “She can manage a baby, educate a child, or make the little ones generally comprehend and accept salvation. In this work she bids fair to be, if spared, very useful.”

Marian lived out her faith primarily at Clapton Congress Hall Corps, where she was a soldier for 30 years. Marian enjoyed worshipping through song and prayer, and her favourite chorus was ‘Come to Jesus’.

William and Catherine were often accompanied by Marian at significant Army gatherings. Interested comrades observed Marian sitting with her parents on the platform in meetings at the historic Clapton Congress Hall and Exeter Hall.

Marian’s health was an ongoing challenge throughout her life, exacerbated by contracting smallpox in her childhood. Marian’s fragile health meant she was unable to embark on the various international soul-saving missions and active public work like many of her family members.

Commissioner Lucy Booth-Hellberg described her sister Marian’s life in these words at her funeral as reported in The War Cry, January 1937, “Her life has been a hidden one, and yet how widely she was known and how widely she was loved!”

The report of Marian’s promotion to glory as reported in The War Cry of January 1937.   

General Evangeline Booth reflected on her sister Marian’s prayerful manner in this message that was read out at her funeral service, “When she prayed I always felt that distance between earth and heaven was shortened ... Her appeals quickly reached the Throne of Grace.” (General Evangeline Booth was campaigning in India at the time of Marian’s funeral.)

Marian Billups Booth died following a considerable period of declining health on 5 January 1937, aged 72. Commissioner Lucy Booth-Hellberg conducted her funeral service at Stoke Newington Corps. Marian was buried alongside her parents in Abney Park Cemetery.

So, what can we learn from this brief snapshot of Marian’s life?

People with disability have been included in the life of The Salvation Army since its foundation, and this is exemplified in Marian’s life. More than simply being present, people with disability have found ways to serve and worship God in The Salvation Army, despite the low expectations we might sometimes project onto them due to their impairments.

We are called to do the same as the Booth family by creating communities of welcome and belonging alongside people with disabilities in our local Salvos mission expression. As Paul reminds us in the letter to the church at Corinth, “On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem weaker are indispensable” (1 Corinthians 12:22).


Are you interested in discussing disability inclusion in your local mission expression? Contact The Salvation Army’s Disability Inclusion Lead Joseph Pinkard


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