Pioneer and Leader: Eliza Shirley, A Salvation Army Trailblazer Rooted in Faith

May 10, 2024

Eliza Shirley stood tall on the street in front of the burning embers that engulfed her Salvation Army building in Philadelphia, preaching and singing to a crowd that was drawn by the flames. Despite the fire, stones, mud and disdain thrown her way, Shirley never waivered, and thus the work of The Salvation Army in the United States began.

Ultimately, her efforts in the U.S. opened doors for women in the Salvation Army. She is representative of the impact and importance women are to the mission today. Her resilience, strength, and unwavering faith set the standard for all Salvation Army women who came after them.

“Eliza Shirley’s contributions to the Salvation Army, and women as a whole within the organization, cannot be understated,” said Divisional Secretary for Greater Philadelphia Major Shaun Belanger. “She represents a beacon of grace and resilience and left an indelible mark that inspired a legacy of perseverance for generations of women to come.”

Today women hold high-ranking positions within The Salvation Army,
and there are many programs geared toward helping women, like women's shelters and ministries. Currently, with a total of 109 Officers appointed in the Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware Division, 55% of them are women. In the Philadelphia Corps and Divisional Headquarters, women officers make up 55% combined with 18 women and 15 men.

Women are also being recognized for the Shirley-like efforts each year. The upcoming Greater Philadelphia Annual Celebrate Hope Luncheon on May 15 will present the Eliza Shirley Women in Leadership Award, which will be presented to Rev. Dr. Lorina Marshall-Blake. The Eliza Shirley Women in Leadership Award honors a woman in leadership who exemplifies Eliza Shirley’s dedication to service, community, and faith.


Humble Beginnings

It all started in London in the mid-1800s.

In response to his disagreement with traditional church’s pulpit method, Booth founded The Salvation Army in 1865 in East London as a way to address crime and poverty by directly preaching to people in the streets. Over the next ten years Booth recruited more than 1,000 volunteers and soon his message and the good work of the Army began to spread.

Eliza Shirley was born in 1863 in Coventry, England. When she was 15 years old, a group of women preachers, known as the Hallelujah Lassies, started the work of The Salvation Army in her town. Their combination of Christian enthusiasm and commitment to the poor had a profound impact on Shirley, and she soon joined them.

In the Fall of 1878, she spoke at an outdoor meeting of a few thousand people who came to celebrate the establishment of the 35th Corps of the Salvation Army in Coventry. Her speech impressed and caught the eye of Gen. Booth, who asked her to join a Salvation Army corps in Bishop Auckland. It took Shirley only a short time to rise to lieutenant. On her 16th birthday, with her parent's blessing, Eliza joined The Salvation Army and began working in a coal mining village in Northern England.

She Came, She Saw, She Established

In late 1878, her father immigrated to Philadelphia, and soon asked Eliza and her mother to join him. Eliza then contacted Booth about the opportunity. Booth was initially skeptical and denied her request but eventually gave his blessing and told her if she were to have success in Philadelphia, he would send assistance.

Once she was settled in Philadelphia, she used the techniques and lessons she learned from her experience around the Hallelujah Lassies, conducting meetings and making passionate speeches in the most intimidating streets of Philadelphia. Shirley took that courage she emulated from the Hallelujah Lassies and did not back down from the pushback of the community. Within a month of their arrival, they rented a building on the west side of Philadelphia.

The Shirley family began holding church services specifically to help the poor. During the fire of their first building a local drunk came to her while she seized the opportunity to sing and preach. He asked her if God would forgive him for his drinking. Eliza promised the him God would forgive him and from there he never had another drink again. After news spread that Eliza helped a local man turn from alcoholism to sobriety and ignited his belief in God, her success grew.

Because of her success, in 1880, General Booth sent eight members of The Salvation Army from England to America to officially begin work under the leadership of George Scott Railton. Due to poor health, Shirley moved back to England to recover. In 1882, Shirley married a Salvation Army captain, Phillip Symmonds, and in 1885, the couple returned to America. She had four children and eventually retired in Chicago where she became a big Chicago Cubs fan. She passed away in 1932.



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