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Jailed for Jesus

Jailed for Jesus

The Salvation Army has a rich and varied past which is preserved at the Heritage Centre and Archives Centre (Plowman Resource Centre, Upper Hutt). In this edition of Salvationists in History, we look at the experience of Captain Ellen Gibson (1862–1953) and tell her story of being jailed for Jesus.

Many Salvationists will be familiar with the late 19th century accounts of officers and soldiers imprisoned for marching through the streets with flags, playing loud instruments to draw a crowd and preaching the gospel outdoors. Within that group were a handful of courageous young women—often not named in War Cry or local newspapers but referenced only by their gender. For example, in 1885 ‘two women’ were charged with ‘maliciously disturbing the inhabitants of Waimate by beating tambourines on a Sunday’. However, serving in Hastings at the time, Captain Ellen Gibson’s name is recorded. 

Ellen was raised in the Methodist Church, but in 1886—just three years after The Salvation Army was founded in New Zealand—she left her home in Nelson convinced of God’s calling to officership. Ellen was in her early twenties. No record exists of her earliest appointments, but War Cry records that Ellen was known for her singing ability and her persuasive preaching. ‘Captain Gibson used her gifts not only to overcome opposition but also to win souls. She was successful in both.’ 

Ellen was the first female officer to lead Palmerston North Corps—an appointment that was challenging and brought ‘sharp reactions from many sections of the community but concluded with a splendid record of victories’. But it was her appointment to Hastings that resulted in her arrest. 

Across the country, town councils had been passing bylaws to prohibit outdoor ‘disturbances’ caused by The Salvation Army; not mentioned by name in said bylaws, however the inference is clear. For example, in bylaw no. 26 of the Napier Borough Council, passed in 1885: ‘No persons shall be allowed … to play any musical instrument, beat any drum, or sing any song or carry for the purpose of display any flag or torch, in any private or public place in the said borough’. In defiance of such bylaws, many Salvationists were arrested and imprisoned. 

Tensions came to a head with member of parliament and future Prime Minister Richard John Seddon speaking up against those who opposed the Army and appealing to the Minister of Justice: ‘Will the minister refuse in future to recommend the sanction of the Crown being given to any bylaws having for their object the suppression of The Salvation Army … who is yearly saving a large amount of money to the state, redeeming persons that no other sect, nor the state itself, is able to deal with?’

It was into this highly charged atmosphere that Captain Ellen Gibson and her lieutenant refused to ‘cease preaching the gospel’ and were charged with ‘walking in procession’ in the streets of Hastings and imprisoned. There was a public outcry of injustice at ‘respectable women’ being imprisoned. Seddon’s influence resulted in Ellen and her lieutenant’s release. War Cry printed the headline: ‘Two Lasses Sent to Gaol’, with Ellen’s own brief but triumphant report stating: ‘[Sergeant] Major, Lieutenant, and self, jailed for Jesus Friday: Saturday farewell meeting good: one soul. Hallelujah!’ 

Soon afterward Ellen married Captain Joseph Hildreth, who had also been imprisoned elsewhere. The couple served together in 35 appointments, raised four boys and celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in 1955. Ellen served as an active officer for 41 years and was promoted to Glory (passed away) at 92 years old.

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