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Friday, 1 July 2011

A Forgotten Hero by Ken Elliott

The story of Christian Church and the Salvation Army is poorer for the multitude of forgotten heroes and heroines whose exploits have long vanished into the mists of time. There have been many efforts over the last few years to draw the veil back to reveal many of these unsung 'Saints'.

During the last few years 1 have been involved in research of one such significant pioneer, whose contribution to the development of the worldwide Army is now, if not unknown, then largely forgotten.

A small frail fifteen year old girl of Primitive Methodist and working class origins was fully converted during an evening meeting held by the Christian Mission in the form of Mrs Caroline Reynolds in the Theatre Royal, Coventry on the 1 Oth of March 1878.

Six months later the Coventry Christian Mission Station had evolved into the 35th Corps of the Salvation Army. William Booth with his wife Catherine visited for the first time the newly designated corps during an extended weekend visit on Saturday the 28th to Monday the 30th September 1878. On the Saturday not only did Booth open the new Salvation Factory in Freeth Street, but his wife presented the first corps flag to the now Captain Mrs Reynolds. Amongst those present was the little teenager.

The following day the young girl gave her testimony in front of William Booth and his entourage and some of the 5000 Salvationists (the term Salvationist was first coined in the local Coventry newspapers) who attended that weekend from all over the country. The leader of the Leeds corps contingent Captain Elijah Cadman, the Coventry born firebrand, was delegated to approach the girl with regard to her becoming a full time evangelist, an offer she gladly accepted. After receiving her parent's permission (her father was a local preacher in the Primitive Methodists), she had an interview with Booth himself with five other Coventry girls, and was appointed as an assistant to the officer at Bishop Auckland.

In the early months of the following year, 1879, the young girl (now a Lieutenant), received a letter from her father stating that he was going to seek work in Philadelphia in the USA, as there was a severe recession in the textile industry in Coventry, in which he was employed. Disconcerting as this was, the girl was thrown into greater turmoil when later she received another letter from her father from Philadelphia, requesting that she too should come across with her mother and start the Salvation Army in America.

She prayed about it, as she was very concerned about leaving the calling she loved as an Army officer and the good folk she had grown to love at Bishop Auckland. But she felt the call to take the Army to America. She wrote to William Booth, who gave her a less encouraging reply, though he did grudgingly say that she could keep her rank, and that if she kept to Army principles help would be sent to them at a later date. Thus Eliza Shirley, and her parents Amos and Annie set about in September 1879 finding a new home for the proposed Philadelphia Corps of the Salvation Army. After trailing around Philadelphia, Eliza and her mother found an old Chair factory in Oxford Street, now being used a stable for run down old horse. The family renovated the old factory as best as they could and the first meetings were held on the 5th October 1879.
Only a few Philadelphians were attracted to the meetings and it was not until thelast November 1879 that the first convert was made. From that moment however the work took off, and within a few weeks many converts were made and the Army was making an impression on Philadelphia. By January 1880 the work had so expanded that a second corps was opened in Market Street by Eliza and a young Philadelphian girl convert. A request for help was sent to Booth for help but was however only acted upon when George Scott Railton and more significantly Catherine Booth intervened.

In February Railton and seven Hallelujah Lassies set sail for New York. Despite a protracted voyage, the party conducted their first meetings in New York on the 14th March 1880. The party had to proceed the next week to Philadelphia because of opposition from the New York civic authorities. Here Railton set up his headquarters.

With Railton now in command in America, the Shirleys (Eliza had by now been already promoted to Captain and her parents were made full time officers at the rank of Captain) were split for the 15st time. Eliza was sent to Germantown, Pennsylvania and her parents were sent to other corps. Unfortunately in August Eliza became so ill and run down that and Railton decided on medical advice that she should be sent back to England.

Eliza, accompanied by her mother, returned home in autumn 1880 but despite her illness and need for rest she was sent on a tour around the country speaking on her experiences in America. Eventually she went to one of the first rest homes for offices in Matlock Derbyshire for Christmas 1880. In January the following year she heard, whilst in an interview with William Booth at a congress in Manchester, that she was to parted from her mother. Annie Shirley was being returned to join Amos in America but Eliza was to remain in England, where Booth said that he would look after her like his own daughter. This decision obviously caused much distress to both Eliza and her mother, however both women faithfully complied with Booth's instructions.

In February Eliza was sent with a newly appointed Lieutenant, Mary Whitehead, to open a new corps in Scarborough in North Yorkshire. This she did, successfully aided on the first weekend by Elijah Cadman, now the Yorkshire Divisional Commander, and the famous Trumpeter Sheard.

Two years later after several corps appointments she was married to a Welsh officer, Captain Phillip Symmonds at Preston in 1882. For the next three years they travelled around the British Isles until, much to Eliza's great delight being appointed to America.

A short time after arriving the couple, with their now expanding family, were appointed as corps officers of the Philadelphia 1 (Pioneer) Corps. Phillip Symmonds was soon promoted afterwards to the position of Divisional Commander and as such the couple served in several divisions until the 1890s.

Unfortunately tragedy was never far from Eliza's family. Firstly in 1884 her father, whilst attending an officer's councils, had been drowned, lost in a bathing accident, at Asbury Park, New Jersey. Her mother died at the early age of 53, as a result of a stroke in 1893. One of Eliza's children had also died when still an infant. Symmonds had become terminally ill with 'black lung, a disease he contracted as a result of his early mining days in South Wales. Difficulties over finance, probably incurred by medical bills, resulted in Phillip Symmonds being dismissed from his officership and this forced the family to leave the Army.

Symmonds died shortly after he had taken up a Pastorship in a pioneer Baptist church in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Eliza, though left alone to look after six young children, still found time to lead the pioneer church as a female pastor. For approximately the next ten years, Eliza ministered to the people of Wisconsin through the medium of the Baptist fellowship, until in 1904 when she and her family moved to Millwaukee, Wisconsin where eventually she linked up with the Salvation Army

In 1905 she re-entered officership and once again took up her beloved calling as a Salvation Army officer. From 1905 until 1919 she undertook many corps appointments, the final one being at Racine Temple in Wisconsin. Her final appointment was as a Territorial Evangelist for the US Central Territory. Due to failing health as a result of her unstinting efforts for the Lord and the Army she had to take early retirement in 1920, at the early age of 59.

In her retirement she loved to visit her family, now many of them officers and soldiers in the Army, and delighted in her grandchildren who later would keep up the family tradition of service for the Lord through the Army.

One other interest developed during her retirement was the love of baseball of which she became an armchair fan through the great new invention of the time, the wireless.

Eliza took part in the 50th Anniversary celebrations in Philadelphia in 1929 and also took part in a huge tickertape procession in New York, riding in an open top car with Evangeline Booth, the US National Commander, and one of Railton's original Hallelujah Lassies. This fearless Warrior finally met her Lord, fittingly enough on Sunday 18th September 1932, while staying with her eldest daughter in Racine, Wisconsin. When she was laid to rest there was uniquely two funerals, one in the morning at Racine Temple led by the Divisional Commander, and later in the day in Chicago led by the US Central Territorial Commander.

Also on that day, Eliza's favourite Baseball team the Chicago Bears, who were involved in the deciding game of the World Series Finals, held a minute's silence in honour for her before the game.

What made Eliza special? Eliza had the vision to see that despite being a inexperienced teenager that the Salvation Army could address the challenge of lost souls in America equally as well as it was doing in the British Isles.

Her perseverance was shown when despite her youthful age she stood her ground against the most dynamic yet dogmatic evangelist in the nineteenth century.

The loyalty of Eliza to the Army was demonstrated many times in her life, no more so when she was sent back to England only a year after beginning the mission in America. Her tearful acceptance of Booth's seemingly heartless instructions, that she should be retained in England, whilst her mother returned to the USA.

Her love for the Army and its mission, despite experiencing the several testing times which could have caused bitterness, remained constant throughout her life.

Her love for the Lord meant that she never saw her ministry as a sacrifice, but as a means of repayment for the many blessings He had given her.

Her fervent evangelism, her powerful preaching, her fine singing voice and also her love for the unloved helped to influence thousands not only in the USA, but also in the UK. Her living memorial is not only that generations of her family that followed her have contained many officers and Salvation Army soldiers including three great great grandchildren officer cadets at present in officer training in Chicago, but an Army spreading from the Atlantic to the Pacific proclaiming the message of Salvation, and love for the lost.

Eliza's contribution as a pioneer William Booth's Army can never be underestimated or over emphasised. It was through her endeavours for her Lord that the Army was securely established in the 'land of the free'.

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