Saturday, 14 October 2017

Eliza Shirley - Salvation Army Pioneer

Eliza Shirley was just seventeen years old when she left her home in England in 1879 and travelled with her mother, Annie, to the United States, on a mission to establish the Salvation Army in America. Despite William Booth’s reservations at such a difficult venture, he eventually gave the young lieutenant his blessing and Eliza and her mother were reunited with her father Amos Shirley, in Philadelphia, where he had secured work the previous year.  

They wasted no time in looking for suitable premises to hold the meetings for the Philadelphia Corps and eventually found an abandoned chair factory that was filthy and dilapidated. Undaunted, Eliza and her parents worked hard to make the building acceptable for worship and soon it was ready for the first meeting. They distributed handbills around the streets of the city and put up posters announcing that in the Salvation Factory on October 5th 1879, ‘Two Hallelujah Females from England, will speak and sing on behalf of God and precious souls.’

 Although only a small number attended the first meeting, their enthusiasm was encouraging and Eliza suggested they hold an open-air meeting to reach more people. On hearing the Shirleys sing their gospel hymns, the growing crowd at first listened in fascination, but malicious heckling from the intoxicated patrons emerging from the nearby saloons soon erupted and continued throughout the meeting.

Despite the opposition, the Salvationists were determined to continue their mission, but the open-air meetings attracted large angry crowds who resented the Army’s ‘invasion’ of their city, and Eliza and her parents were pelted with stones and rotten vegetables. The police offered little protection, so they followed the advice of the mayor and found a private piece of land in a remote area of the city to hold future meetings. 

Several weeks later, a fire broke out near the Shirleys’ land, attracting hundreds of people, so they took the opportunity to preach and sing. This time, the audience was more receptive and there were no outbursts of violence. After the singing, a drunken man called Reddy pushed through the crowd and asked the Shirleys if God would forgive a drunk like him. They assured him that he would be forgiven and led him back to the Salvation Factory to sleep off the effects of the alcohol.

When Reddy awoke fully sober, he knelt and prayed with the Shirleys and declared himself to be fully saved. Thereafter, he regularly attended the open-air and indoor meetings, becoming America’s first Salvation Army convert. This was a turning point for the Philadelphia Corps and as the news of his religious conversion spread, the attendance increased at the meetings.

Shortly after, General Booth promoted the Shirleys to captains and Eliza was put in charge of another building in Germantown, Philadelphia. Unfortunately, ill health forced her to return to England. After she recovered, she embarked on a tour around the country to speak about her fascinating experiences in America. She later returned to America in 1885, with her husband Phillip Symmonds, a Salvation Army captain, and continued her Christian work with the Salvation Army for the remainder of her life.

The Salvation Army continued to grow significantly and by the end of the nineteenth century, 798 corps could be found across twenty-seven states of America.

Image credit: Public domain

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