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Death Anniversary : 

Arnolis Weerasooriya - The pioneer salvationist

by Willie Wijeratne

The month of May is full of Anniversaries. To the workers it's the day they won their trade union rights. To the Catholics it is the month of our Lady. Christians remember the Ascension Day and to the Methodists it is the month of the Conversion of John Wesley.

To the Salvationists it is the 116th Death Anniversary of the Pioneer Salvationist - Arnolis Weerasooriya.

Arnolis Weerasooriya from Dodanduwa was the first convert to the Salvation Army. Weerasooriya came from a strong Anglican background and his father was keen that he should receive a good English education and sent him to Trinity College, Kandy.

He excelled in his studies and then became a teacher in the same school. He was generally a quiet young man and a keen student of the Bible. Every Sunday he took the Boarders of Trinity to St. Paul's Church, Kandy for Morning and Evening services.

It was during one of these Sundays that he heard of strange man called Captain William Gladwin of the Salvation Army preaching in the open-air in the town of Kandy. As soon as he saw Gladwin, he was shocked with unbelief.

Here was a man dressed in a safron cloth with a red coat and the words: "The Salvation Army" splashed across his coat. He was so simple and preached the gospel so clearly that hundreds of people thronged to hear him. Arnolis thought to himself: "here is a man who loved Christ more than himself.

If anybody loves Christ more than me, I am prepared to be his servant." He was now going behind Gladwin and nothing could stop him. During this time, many articles were written in the Press in England about this new movement. He read them very carefully and decided to throw in his lot with them.

In the meantime, he was warned very severely by the Missionary Principal of Trinity of his association with Gladwin and wanted him to leave the school immediately as he thought that Arnolis would be a bad influence on the boys.

The principal went to the extent of writing to his father. Even his father could not persuade him to leave these people. One day at an open-air meeting in Kandy he witnessed people harassing and harming Gladwin. Gladwin had already received injuries and was in great pain. The local Methodist Minister and his wife heard about him and took him home and looked after him.

The Minister also announced to his congregation that Captain William Gladwin will be the preacher next Sunday. The Church was packed to capacity and Arnolis who was in the congregation gave his heart to the Lord and left his teaching job to join Gladwin and his followers.

Together with Gladwin he travelled the length and breath of the island. They met with great opposition, but they still went on preaching the Gospel. At Galle they met with a lot of opposition.

The name of Arnolis Weerasooriya was now known to many Salvationists in other countries too. William Booth, the Founder of the Salvation Army invited Arnolis to England for the First International Congress.

Arnolis made such a great impression, that his appeal for reinforcements to India and Sri Lanka met with a ready response, in spite of financial difficulties.

One hundred missionaries volunteered to come to the East and they all travelled by ship together with Arnolis.

Another convert by the name of Booth-Tucker - a Supreme Court Judge from India who had read about the Salvation Army also travelled with Arnolis to India and Sri Lanka.

They took the responsibility for the work in this part of the world. Weerasooriya lived a very simple life.

Once when a young Missionary told him that he could not stand the sight of people with their festered wounds and the stench from their bodies and their cloths. Arnolis smiled and told this young missionary: "look here young man. If your eyes can't see the beauty of the wounds of the people and if your nostrils cannot bear the stench of their bodies and their cloths, this is the wrong place for you. Remember, you must love the people for what they are. Go back and think again of your calling."

He came back a few days later and told Arnolis that he had decided to be in India, and he fulfilled this promise by remaining in India for many years.

Once he taught the lesson of humbleness to two officers who were at loggerheads regarding seniority. He asked them to bring a basin of water and a towel, and much against their wishes he washed their feet and kissed them, teaching them what Jesus himself had done to his disciples. These two officers went back and worked happily thereafter.

Arnolis was promoted to the rank of full Colonel and put in-charge of the work of the Salvation Army in India and Ceylon.

When he visited his home at Dodanduwa, his father looked at him and said that he looked like a ruffian with hair uncombed, and looking untidy. You could have joined the Church, said his father, and would have received the respect and honour from all your friends and relatives.

He told his father. "Don't look on the outside of me. Inside me is a clean heart and soul dedicated only for the work of God. In fact, Weerasooriya had some well-known relatives hailing from this town. General Sri Lal Weerasooriya, the former Army Commander and presently Sri Lanka's Ambassador in Pakistan is one of Arnolis Weerasooriya's great-grand nephew.

One of the mysteries of the early pioneers in the Church is they have been called by God and raised upto His bidding should die at an early age. Arnolis Weerasooriya, could not come back to Sri Lanka as much as he wanted to.

This pioneer Salvationist and Saint of God passed away 116 years ago on - May 18, 1888. It is said that what a Missionary could do in 50 years, Weerasooriya had done it in 5 years. He heard about a Missionary who was stricken with Cholera and he travelled to Bombay and nursed him to the end.

He himself, by now was very weak, and when he contacted this dreadful disease, there was no cure in sight.

As he lay helpless and knew the end was near, he was already to meet His Maker. When his faithful Salvationists gathered round his bedside, he looked at them and smiled and remarked: It's nice to see you all, but are you not neglecting your work? He called his Secretary as if to dictate a letter.

He was muttering inaudibly, and then he burst out, as he always did when he ended his letters. "Yours for the Salvation of India."

His last request to those faithful gathered round him was to sing his favourite hymn: "Blessed Lord, in Thee is Refuge;" and when they came to the Chorus he joined them in singing: "I will trust Thee, I will trust Thee, all my Life Thou shalt control." A few minutes passed and this pioneer Salvationist and Saint of God - Arnolis Alexander Weerasooriya entered into the presence of the Master.

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