Eliza Shirley: Singing From the Flames

Mar 15, 2024

Did you know that The Salvation Army owes much of its earliest work in the United States to women? While the history of our organization has many examples of selfless servants who have helped support the mission of the TSA, Eliza Shirley's story stands out. Her courage and inspiration in the face of cruel indifference and outright hatred testify to the work The Salvation Army strives to do daily.

Eliza Shirley surrendered to the call of God on her life at the age of 16, dedicating herself to the work of The Salvation Army in England. When her father announced that his job was transferring the family to Philadelphia, Eliza saw an opportunity to help further the work overseas. When she sought counsel from General William Booth regarding her desire, his guidance warned her that the mission work would likely not be well-received in the new land. He cautioned her that Americans often did not welcome new faiths.

General Booth was right. The first months of ministry were brutal. When the family arrived in 1879, their efforts to begin a mission were met with hatred and disdain. Crowds threw rocks and mud at them, spit and jeered mostly, and no one came to services. Only a handful of people attended their first few meetings. And a month into their ministry, the small storefront they operated from was set on fire. As the flames quickly consumed the building, a crowd of spectators gathered to watch the horrible event, and Eliza seized the moment to stand before them to sing and preach. Her voice echoed over the crackle of the fire, and as the flames grew higher, the music drew even more onlookers.

Soon, the Shirleys (her father and mother were now a part of the Army) had secured a new facility, and the ministry began to flourish. As the months went by, Eliza requested additional help and support from General Booth, and he dispatched George Scott Railton to take charge of the US operations. Over the next year, Eliza, still in her teens, was placed in charge of a service center in Germantown. The ministry quickly took its toll on her health, and in August 1881, she became seriously ill and was sent back to England to recuperate. However, once again, wanting to help the new work in the States, she quickly began to speak to audiences all over Britain about the work, raising money to support the ministry.

After marrying in England, Eliza Shirley and her new husband returned to the States to continue their work. Her efforts developed several additional centers, leading to a vital ministry of service and hope. Eliza Shirley's story is a testament that even during tragedy, there are opportunities to serve and proclaim the love of Christ.

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