Catherine Booth vs. Constantine

Today we're back for our second helping of Saintly Sixteen action as the round of Quirks and Quotes continues. Catherine Booth takes on Constantine as 19th century meets 3rd century -- a pairing you'll only ever encounter in the looniness of Lent Madness. To get here, Catherine upset Joan of Arc, while Constantine got past Miguel Pro.

Yesterday, in a hotly contested matchup, Camillus de Lellis snuck past Melangell 52% to 48% to become the first saint to snag a spot in the Elate Eight. Serious bracketologists will note the battle also made Lent Madness history for most "Ls" in a single pairing.

Well, we're off for the weekend, but we'll be back bright and early Monday morning as Arnulf of Metz faces Egeria. Try not to miss us too much.

Catherine Booth
Catherine Booth was a gifted preacher, teacher, and evangelist—and fearlessly carried those gifts at the height of the Victorian era—where the leadership of women in preaching and the church was at best unknown, and at worst derided and mocked. Booth once preached “There is no improving the future, without disturbing the present, and the difficulty is to get people to be willing to be disturbed.” Truly, Booth was a pioneer willing to be disturbed; not only her preaching but her work among England’s poor and disenfranchised are a legacy that lasts to this day.

Indeed, Catherine understood that disruption as part and parcel of the Christian life, and the church all too often seeks to ease its discomfort with easy solutions—thereby showing the motive for her ministry in the hardest and most difficult places, and in spite of opposition: “It is a bad sign for the Christianity of this day that it provokes so little opposition. If there were no other evidence of it being wrong, I should know from that. When the Church and the world can jog along together comfortably, you may be sure there is something wrong. The world has not altered. Its spirit is exactly the same as it ever was, and if Christians were equally faithful and devoted to the Lord, and separated from the world, living so that their lives were a reproof to all ungodliness, the world would hate them as much as it ever did. It is the Church that has altered, not the world."

Indeed, Catherine didn’t have time for lukewarm Christianity: “Here is the reason why we have such a host of stillborn, sinewless, ricketty, powerless spiritual children. They are born of half-dead parents, a sort of sentimental religion which does not take hold of the soul, which has no depth of earth, no grasp, no power in it, and the result is a sickly crop of sentimental converts. Oh! the Lord give us a real, robust, living, hardy, Christianity, full of zeal and faith, which shall bring into the kingdom of God lively, well-developed children, full of life and energy, instead of these poor sentimental ghosts that are hopping around us.”

This was not an abstract concept for Catherine: “The Gospel represents Jesus Christ as a real, living, mighty Savior, able to save me now.” That same hope able to save her now was to be communicated to as many people in the way they can receive it: “Here is the principle—adapt your measures to the necessity of the people to whom you minister. You are to take the Gospel to them in such modes and circumstances as will gain for it from them a hearing.” Above all, she prayed that she would be found true, with the whole church, to the call of God: “We are made for larger ends than Earth can encompass. Oh, let us be true to our exalted destiny.”

—David Sibley


The marriage between Christianity and the state will always be tendentious. The benefits to both in the marriage are real as are the great costs. Constantine’s momentous step to bring the two into closer harmony must thus be received with a certain ambivalence. As one noted historian wrote of Constantine, “Zeal for the church did not absolve him of the harsh realities of power.”

As seen in Round 1 of this august competition, according to Christian hagiographers, Constantine’s rise to power came with a sign from God as he was preparing to engage Maxentius in battle at the Milvian Bridge. Outnumbered and overmatched, Constantine saw the chi-rho and was promised, “In this you will conquer.” Christian signs were erected on banners and painted on shields and Maxentius and his army were driven into the waters. For some Christian historians at the time, the similarities to the Pharaoh and his army thrown into the sea at the exodus was uncanny. There was hope for a new liberation.

Constantine set out to create space for the Christian minority. The Edict of Milan calls for toleration in religious practice, not just for Christians. One line reads, “…the open and free exercise of their respective religions is granted to all others, as well as to the Christians.” (Roberts-Donaldson, trans.) In this way, Constantine can be seen as an advocate for tolerance between and within a variety of religious traditions.

Unfortunately, Christians would not always cooperate. Constantine was dragged into conflicts within Christianity by bishops seeking the official endorsement of their positions. In an early conflict with the Donatists, Constantine tried more subtle forms of persuasion. The recalcitrance of the disputants led to a more heavy-handed approach at Nicaea. He summoned the bishops and lavishly supported the council. In the council itself, he likely had a hand in the homoousios formulation and later he would call Arius “the mouthpiece of Satan.” Certainly, his desire was for peace in the Roman Empire but it could be argued that his hope for unity in Christianity was for the sake of Christianity. And yet, any unity that is enforced by political coercion will be fundamentally distorted.

Constantine’s commitment to the church and his place as an emperor thus opens an important dialog about how power is wielded in Christianity. His prominence in the debate is a gift.

David Creech


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Image of Catherine Booth: Public domain
Ramazanov Nikolay, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons





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109 comments on “Catherine Booth vs. Constantine”

  1. Catherine Booth always preached in fine fettle;
    The hidebound she’d frequently nettle.
    With rhetoric stinging
    Her speeches kept ringing —
    Like the bell that goes with a red kettle.

    1. Dear John,
      I love your limericks, they are so cheerful. Where can we get a compilation of all after the Golden Halo is won?

      1. Dear JoJo,

        I am working on this; more to follow once I've got it set up.

        I am glad you enjoy the limricks; it's been a Lenten devotion of mine for the last couple of years. I'm happy to see all the other ones out there, too; a limerick can be as difficult to compose as a haiku sometimes.

        1. Well said, St. Celia
          Catherine's call for a disruptive, uncomfortable faith in action resonates with me! and I am so grateful to the women like her in the past and today that are moving us forward towards a better, more just world

  2. What a bracket! Unfortunately for me, Catherine Booth represents a very discriminatory and anti-LGBTQ understanding of Christianity as offered through the Salvation Army. On with the Emperor!

    1. please check into this. I looked at the Salvation Army UK (where I live) website and read all their statements including this one:
      "We oppose any discrimination, marginalisation or persecution of any person. We find no scriptural support for demeaning or mistreating anyone for any reason. Anyone who comes to The Salvation Army will receive assistance based solely on their need and our capacity to provide help. We work with people who are vulnerable and marginalised across the world, and offer very practical help, unconditional assistance and support regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation."

      Have they done wrong in recent years? Yes. Are they currently? Well, not that I can see on the website of the organisation for my country. Did she start that discrimination when she "mothered" this church into existence? No.

      1. YES! I worked for Salvation Army for 16 years as a case manager at the Austin Shelter for Women and Children. J never witnessed any discrimination towards anyone seeking help the entire time I worked there. We also had a very diverse staff including members of the LGBTQ+ community. I'm not sure where these stories of discrimination started but they have been circulating for years with no substantive proof. If there ever was an issue I am quite certain it was an isolated incident. Yes, the SA is conservative in their practice of Christianity, but that in no way determines who they serve. They serve all equally.

        1. I am not a perfect person. I have a lot of character faults that need to be scrubbed out and replaced with the fruits of the spirit. Even though I am not perfect, I am doing some good things for the body of Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven. If we had to eliminate every imperfect person or organization that works for the Gospel, we would not have any one left. As such, I am not one to 'throw the baby out with the bathwater'. There are amazing, gifted, spirit-lead people in this world who still don't think as forwardly as others do. That does not make them evil or worthy of abandonment. I would have voted for Catherine (I was out of town and forgot) because of her Zeal and her courage in a time when a loud mouthed Christian woman didn't get a lot of support. I bet she cared for many LGBTQ persons in her time, with love and a desire to bring them to Jesus, who she knew loved them and wanted them in the Kingdom. There are so many issues that divide us. I want to concentrate on inclusion. Even for The Salvation Army.

      2. I appreciate even knowing about this controversy! For me she just comes across as an incredible writer and activist-- and next to Constantine, there's no contest. I'll vote against Constantine as often as possible. Ad Pacis Romanorum, ego diceo, "Non, tibi gratias!"

      1. When did disagreement on what the Bible teaches and how we interpret that stance automatically become hate and discrimination? Taking an (I hope) extreme example, my understanding that child and spouse abuse is non-Christian, un-Biblical, unloving, and wrong does not mean that I automatically discriminate against abusers who need help and Christian love and cast them into the outer darkness.

    2. I don’t understand condemning Catherine Booth for what subsequent generations did with an institution she founded. By that criterion, all Jesus must be condemned for the hateful actions carried out in his name by Christians throughout history. While I am no fan of Salvation Army’s conservative stance on a host of issues, nor is SA a recipient of my charitable giving, Catherine Booth gets my vote for her personal strength and holiness

    3. I have lived in many cities in this country where the Salvation Army was the only game in town for homeless people. In San Francisco, there are far more LGBT people receiving services from the SA then there are complaining about nonexistent discrimination.

    4. You can’t vote for anyone in Lent Madness if being provably LGBTQ friendly is your deal - breaker. Sad but true. I believe that the Salvation Army has made amends.

  3. Eeek.... I'm not sure that the writer for Constantine was trying to help his case. But honesty is a Christian virtue, so I cannot fault them. But you know for good or bad, without Constantine, I'm not sure where we would be today. God often has a history of using the worst people to do a greater good. And while I admire Catherine Booth, there is no denying that Christianity found a perfectly imperfect advocate in Constantine. Perhaps that is the lesson, to recognize that our political and military leaders are only human and they will never really come close to the glory of God. So,, I will vote for Constantine, flawed and imperfect, but changing the path of the faith.

  4. Its too bad Constantine did not stick with the concept of tolerance for all religions(just like the framers of theUS Constitution did centuries later) instead of making one religion the official state one,
    Still, will vote for him as I did in the first round-though I am pulling for Absalom Jones to win the Golden Halo.

    1. I agree Constantine corrupted the Christian Church. Read the true history about Constantine, I was shocked when I found out what he actually did.

    2. Actually Patrick it wasn't Constantine that made Christianity the official and only legal religion, but one of his successors in 379 AD. Just saying lol

  5. Easy choice, Constantine was a disaster for the church and we have been hampered ever si cr

  6. My chosen was Saint Joan but since that was not to be, I’m voting against Constantine.

  7. I have a feeling that Ms. Booth would not have been so tolerant of the religion of others. Constantine, and his immediate grasp on the idea that all religions must be tolerated equally to have equality in a kingdom, gets my vote.

  8. It was so much harder for Catherine in her time period than it was for Constantine. I often wonder how different Christianity would be if not diluted by the church-state connection.

  9. The very thing that Catherine Booth is quoted as decrying -- the adaptation of the church to the power structures of this world, rather than challenging them -- is the thing that Constantine literally started. He's the one who put Church and Empire in bed together, and we are still paying the price.

    Catherine Booth gets my vote -- for her insistence that women can and should lead the same as men, and for her organisation that does much good.
    (please please please look at the Salvation Army website for your country and read their actual seems me there's been a clear policy shift there. Or perhaps the UK "branch" was always more inclusive than the US. But in any case, there's pretty strong anti-discrimination language in all their policies and positions.)

  10. Booth, disturb us! The kitsch round gonna be lit. Booth gave a model for evangelism rooted in zeal for service, not in patriarchy, white supremacy, or christofascism. I would like to put "consubstantial" into a red kettle and leave it there. The Salvation Army will know how to transform it into food for the rickety, sinewless children they are feeding.

    1. I agree. Isn't that when they need a Christian brother or sister the most? They have consequences to face and they need to be ready. They need us to be the hands and feet of Jesus. He came so that no one has to be cast into the outer darkness or the lake of fire. That includes child and spouse abusers. Everyone gets the same grace and mercy.

    2. LOL! St. Celia, you hit the nail on the head! 'I would like to put “consubstantial” into a red kettle and leave it there. The Salvation Army will know how to transform it into food for the rickety, sinewless children they are feeding.' is my favorite part. Thank you for crystalizing my thoughts for me.

  11. The Salvation Army today may be on the conservative and more evangelical side. Thanks to Teri for looking up the Salvation Army UK. - But, we need a little more of what she preached these days: “There is no improving the future, without disturbing the present, and the difficulty is to get people to be willing to be disturbed.” And we all need a bit of provoking. So I think I'll go with Catherine. Would we be Christians at all today if it weren't for Constatine? Good question. If so, perhaps less tied to the state. ...

  12. Teri: The US and the UK both voted in favour of the ordination of women to the priesthood in 1992. In Canada, it was allowed in 1975.
    I voted for Catherine Booth -- she had me at "They are born of half-dead parents, a sort of sentimental religion which does not take hold of the soul, which has no depth of earth, no grasp, no power in it, and the result is a sickly crop of sentimental converts." Sing it, sister!

    1. Jane, I’m with you on the “half-dead parents” of sickly sinewless ricketty children—the lady knew how to vilify!
      But if you’re talking about women’s ordination in the Anglican Communion, the US approved that at General Convention in 1976, two years after the Philadelphia Eleven were ordained.

    2. Of course Florence Li Tim-Oi was the first woman ordained a priest in the Anglican Communion, January 25, 1944. She served in Macau, competently but controversially, and was asked to resign her license after the war ended, but it was later restored. In honor of her, as well as all the other women who suffered to become acknowledged as priests or full ministers of their respective churches, I cast my vote for Catherine, though I certainly understand the reasons Constantine has gotten as far as he has.

    3. Jane, I assume you mean in the Episcopal/Anglican Church? It seems clear that the Salvation Army had women as preachers and leaders from the very start. I'm a Church of Scotland minister and we have been ordaining women to the ministry of word and sacrament since the 1960s.

    4. I believe it was the UK and Australia who voted to ordain women to the priesthood in 1992. I was standing in Dean's Yard when the vote was announced in London.

  13. I'd like to vote for both. Catherine gives an interesting insight into my evangelical sister while I can relate to Constantine trying to get get everyone to play nice together and getting a bit high handed in the process. My vote is going to Mr. Creech for making me look up two definitions, something I so rarely am challenged to do.

  14. I follow my grandmother’s lead by sending financial support to the Salvation Army. They do amazing work. However, for this contest, my opinion is that without Constantine we never would have had Catherine Booth.

  15. The Philadelphia 11 were ordained on St. Mary Magdalene’s feast day, 1974. General Convention passed the resolution for Women’s ordination in 1976.

  16. An easy choice for me today. I admire Catherine's vigorous Christianity, even if she is a bit harsh to "lukewarm" Christians. Certainly her actions outweigh her sometimes unkind words. I remember my priest joking about "C and E Christians" (who only come to church on Christmas and Easter), but at the same time always glad to see them and welcome them in. I didn't go to church for 35 years, now I'm there whenever I get the chance. God is calling all of us, and if the Salvation helps people hear the call, more power to them. Thanks, Catherine.

    1. When I was a kid in school we used to jokingly say "What we need is a good persecution." I have to agree that the Kingdom of God did not need the military might of Constantine, any more than the Church today needs the military might of the US to enforce morality. I remember another old saying, "Christianity can only be taught by example." Easy choice today without Miguel Pro.

  17. "When the Church and the world can jog along together comfortably, you may be sure there is something wrong." Catherine got me right there!
    Maybe we would not even be having this discussion were it not for Constantine and his vision and appropriation of Christianity. But then again, maybe the Church would now be fully alive, a holy and mighty and revolutionary force standing up to the principalities and powers -- and in no way "sinewless, rickety" descendants of a half-dead lineage. March on, Catherine! In that bonnet, conquer!

  18. Part of the resistance to the Salvation Army seems to be in its efforts to empower the poor, to give them authority. Catherine Booth wrote: "People contend that we must have quiet, proper, decorous services. I say, WHERE IS YOUR AUTHORITY FOR THIS? Not here. I defy any man to show it. I have a great deal more authority in this book for such a lively, gushing, spontaneous, and what you call disorderly service, as our Army services sometimes are, in this 14th of Corinthians, than you can find for yours." She also wrote: "someone said, 'Why, you are sending people to preach who cannot read or write.' For a moment I was staggered, but I asked him, 'How many of the Apostles do you suppose could read and write when they were first sent out?' And then it was the questioner's turn to be staggered. There is no reason to suppose, with but two or three exceptions, that any of them could. Education then was far more uncommon than now. It was not reading and writing that was the great qualification for preaching Christ; it was KNOWING AND SEEING! It was not the power of eloquence, but it was being able to cast out devils, that was the test. Give me somebody able to cast out devils, and I don't care whether they can read or write, or put a grammatical sentence together." Booth seems to have been a vigorous preacher and thinker, in her "Aggressive Christianity," and committed, like the Jesuits, to setting the world on fire. I personally do think the poor should be taught to read and write, in addition to being fed, clothed, and healed. And I want my clergy to be able to put a grammatical sentence together. But oh, that Christians could cast out devils in our day and not vote for them.

    1. St C, you continue to be an inspiration. I am working in an Episcopal church as the student ministry director and I lead the worship team on Sunday mornings. These two positions are great for me because they require zeal. Catherine's quote, "People contend that we must have quiet, proper, decorous services. I say, WHERE IS YOUR AUTHORITY FOR THIS? Not here. I defy any man to show it. I have a great deal more authority in this book for such a lively, gushing, spontaneous, and what you call disorderly service, as our Army services sometimes are, in this 14th of Corinthians, than you can find for yours" resonates with me big time.

  19. A no-brainer today. A tough-minded but clear Christianity... facing the too many "sentimental ghosts hopping around us".... which may be an all too accurate description of too many "main-line" churches today. Salvation Army then (19th century Britain) and today remains one of the most effective consistent entries into standing up for the poor and "all sorts and conditions of persons."
    What made the choice easy unfortunately is that it looks like Constantine's writer did him (intentionally?) no favors today..

  20. It's much easier to vote for a person much closer to our own time and culture. Constantine's idea of religious tolerance allowed Christianity to blossom and spread throughout Europe, and without that there probably would be no Catherine Booth, at least not in the way she was. Plus I think general religious tolerance back then was a very big step forward.

    1. The Roman empire practiced religious inclusion in the sense that they incorporated all the gods into their pantheon and tolerated them, as long as people burned incense to caesar as one of those gods. "Tolerance" can be a synonym for cynicism and co-optation by imperialism.

  21. We will never know the heart of Constantine. Indeed, part of our Christian discipline is to continually be examining our OWN hearts. The surety of judgments when we use the present world to judge actions in a radically different time and place befuddles me. The determination to vote primarily for a gender or an occupation is almost as befuddling.

  22. I like Booth's idea that if we don't disturb the present we won't change the future. That applies to so many situations. She gets my vote. I also read "Constantine's Sword" many years ago and that is in my mind as I vote, as well.