Eliza Shirley: Missionary Pioneer for the Salvation Army in
by Aaron White
When it comes to stories of key Christian missionaries, women
are narratively underrepresented, due to the belief held
within parts of the Church that women should not preach or
lead men. Thankfully, this has not stopped women from
preaching the Gospel or leading missions, particularly when
supported by egalitarian missional movements. The Salvation
Army is one such movement, and Eliza Shirley was one of its
most significant early missionaries. Shirley’s story
demonstrates that young women can be remarkably bold,
innovative, and effective in initiating missions, and that
there is no inherent gender barrier to communicating the
Gospel. She also embodies the missional ethos of The Salvation
Army in the late 19th century in her use of
spectacle, her adoption of unorthodox locations and
leadership, and her concentration on the poorest people and
most notorious sinners.
Eliza Shirley was born in England in
1863, just two years prior to the launch of the Christian
Mission in London, which would later become The Salvation
Army. At fifteen years old, Eliza Shirley dedicated her life
to the Lord at an Army mission, and her testimony so impressed
William Booth that he “delegated a corps leader to approach
her about becoming a full-time Salvation Army evangelist.”
Shirley was appointed as a Lieutenant to oversee the Corps in
Bishop Auckland in 1879 at the age of sixteen, alongside
another young woman. In 1878, nearly half of The Salvation
Army’s field officers were women, so tasking a teenage girl
with leading a Corps was a typically unorthodox yet pragmatic
move for the fledgling mission.
Many of the Army’s expansions into new territories were the
result of young women putting their lives on the line, without
much organisational financing or support, and in the face of
The courage required for a young woman to lead mission at that
time should not be underestimated, as there was still a
pervasive bias against women in public or spiritual
leadership, and female officers often faced verbal and
The two young female missionaries in Bishop Auckland lived in
poverty, eating food that was thrown at them during open-air
meetings, but saw great success after converting the worst
drunks in the area.
When Shirley’s father moved to America
for work and wrote to her of the vast number of unchurched and
ungodly people there, she asked permission to begin the Army’s
work in Philadelphia.
Booth was wary of expanding the Army’s work outside of
England, but nevertheless responded: “If you must go and if
you should start a work, start it on the principles of The
Salvation Army, and if it is a success we may see our way to
take it over.”
Shirley immigrated to the United States and launched The
Salvation Army’s work on the American Continent. She and her
mother found a dilapidated chair factory for their first
meeting hall, and overcame the owner’s reluctance to rent it
to them through persistent prayer.
They fixed the building, and then distributed posters saying:
“Blood and Fire! The Salvation Army. Two Hallelujah females
will speak and sing for Jesus in the old chair factory at
Sixth and Oxford streets, Oct 5th at 11am, 3pm,
8pm. All are invited to attend.”
They knew that the spectacle of women preaching would be a
draw, yet only twelve people attended their first meeting,
most of them trouble-makers who pelted them with rotten
vegetables and mud. It was not until November that they had a
providential breakthrough. Some boys had started a tar-barrel
fire in the lot where the Shirley’s held their open-air
meetings, and this drew in hundreds of curiosity-seekers. The
family began evangelising to the crowd, singing and preaching
with great energy. It was then that
the worst inebriate in Kensington, a man
named Reddy, came forward and asked if God would forgive a
drunk like him. The Shirleys assured him of God’s forgiving
heart and led him back to their meetinghouse, with the curious
crowd following. Eliza then preached to Reddy and had him
kneel and pray, after which he arose cold sober.
Once again it was a focus on the
least-likely person – the poor man, the drunk, the notorious
sinner - that unlocked the missional strategy for the whole
area. This is reminiscent of Jesus’ meetings with Zacchaeus
(Luke 19:1-10), the demoniac (Mark 5:1-20), or the Samaritan
woman (John 4:4-26), and the transformations and missions that
resulted from these unlikely encounters.
The Shirley’s quickly built upon this
success, and continued using spectacle to attract the
attention of the unchurched Philadelphia residents. One
newspaper reported on two “Hallelujah females” who led a march
down German Town Road, singing and collecting crowds of people
along the way, and culminating at the meeting hall where
“every bench in the factory was filled, every foot of standing
room was taken.”
The chair factory Corps became so successful that Eliza Shirly
left it in the care of her parents, and set out to begin a new
mission center in West Philadelphia. A year and a half later
William Booth sent Commissioner George Scott Railton and seven
women to America to bolster the burgeoning work that Eliza
Shirley and her family had started.
William Booth’s own daughter, Evangeline Booth, was sent in
1896 to be the Territorial Commander of the now-thousands of
American Salvationists who could trace their spiritual
ancestry back to the sixteen-year-old girl from Coventry.
Shirley eventually married a Salvation Army captain, and
served as a Divisional Commander in America for the rest of
her life. Her boldness, innovation, focus on unlikely
converts, and dedication in mission were the beginning of a
movement in America that would eventually boast 3.5 million
soldiers, officers and volunteers.
The Salvation Army in Philadelphia today operates the Eliza
Shirley House, an emergency housing service for mothers and
their children that follows in Shirley’s footsteps by bringing
stability to the lives of poor families, and introducing them
to the love of God and the transformative beauty of Christian
Shirley, Salvation Army Pioneer,” History’s Women”. Accessed
June 6, 2017.
Hammond, Leslie. “Heroes of the Faith: Eliza Shirley”,
Evangelicals for Social
Action. Accessed June 6,
Larsson, Flora. My Best
Men Are Women. Hodder and Stoughton: London, 1974.
Sandall, Robert. The
History of The Salvation Army, Vol 2 1878-1886. Nelson:
Watson, Bernard. A
Hundred Years War: The Salvation Army 1865-1965. Hodder
and Stoughton: London,
My Best Men Are Women, (Hodder and Stoughton:
London, 1974), 22.
History of The Salvation Army, 6.
William Booth, cited in Flora Larsson,
My Best Men Are
A Hundred Years War: The Salvation Army 1865-1965,
(Hodder and Stoughton: London, 1964), 33-34; Larsson,
My Best Men Are
Best Men Are Women, 23.
Best Men are Women, 23.
Best Men are Women, 22.