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Eliza Shirley: Missionary Pioneer for the Salvation Army in America
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.”[1] 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.[2] 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 skepticism.[3] 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 physical threats.[4] 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.[5]

 

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.[6] 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.”[7] 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.[8] 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.”[9] 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.[10]

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.”[11] 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.[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] 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 community.

 

 

 

Bibliography

 “Eliza Shirley, Salvation Army Pioneer,” History’s Women”. Accessed June 6, 2017.

http://www.historyswomen.com/womenoffaith/ElizaShirley.htm

 

Hammond, Leslie. “Heroes of the Faith: Eliza Shirley”, Evangelicals for Social Action. Accessed June 6,

2017. http://www.evangelicalsforsocialaction.org/heroes-of-the-faith/elizashirley/.

 

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: London, 1966.

 

Watson, Bernard. A Hundred Years War: The Salvation Army 1865-1965. Hodder and Stoughton: London,

1964.



[1] Leslie Hammond, “Heroes of the Faith: Eliza Shirley”, Evangelicals for Social Action,  http://www.evangelicalsforsocialaction.org/heroes-of-the-faith/elizashirley/, accessed June 6, 2017.

[3] Flora Larsson, My Best Men Are Women, (Hodder and Stoughton: London, 1974), 22.

[4] Sandall, The History of The Salvation Army, 6.

[5] “Eliza Shirley, Salvation Army Pioneer,” History’s Women, http://www.historyswomen.com/womenoffaith/ElizaShirley.htm, accessed June 6, 2017.

[6] Hammond, “Heroes”.

[7] William Booth, cited in Flora Larsson, My Best Men Are Women, 21-22.

[8] Bernard Watson, A Hundred Years War: The Salvation Army 1865-1965, (Hodder and Stoughton: London, 1964), 33-34; Larsson, My Best Men Are Women, 22.

[9] Larsson, My Best Men Are Women, 23.

[10] Hammond, “Heroes”.

[11] Larsson, My Best Men are Women, 23.

[13] Larsson, My Best Men are Women, 22.

[14] Hammond, “Heroes”.

 

  

 

 

   

 

 

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