Life Story – Harry Ironside
Never formally ordained, to many he’s the unofficial archbishop of American fundamentalism. With no classroom education beyond grammar school, he’s considered one of the leading biblical scholars of this generation—holds a doctor of literature degree from the largest liberal arts college in Illinois—and is the author of more than 40 wide-selling books and commentaries.
With no previous pastoral experience, he stepped into the largest fundamental pulpit in the U.S., and for 14 years he has filled the vast auditorium as no other man can, with only two Sundays in that period passing without at least one public profession of Christ.
That is Henry (better known as Harry) Allan Ironside, pastor of the Moody Memorial Church (The Moody Church) in Chicago and admittedly the prince of American conservative preachers. Though he belongs to no denomination, he has access to more pulpits than any other man in the country, and his name is a by-word in evangelical circles everywhere.
He’s a big man in more ways than one.
Physically, his rotund 5 feet 8 ½ inches would command respect everywhere; mentally, his breadth of knowledge and facility of expression make him at home with scholars in many fields, whether they be Old Testament archeologists or Chinese litterateurs; and spiritually he’s big enough to be expansively generous, big enough to be genuinely modest—three publishers have tried unsuccessfully for years to secure a biography or autobiography—big enough to admit when he’s wrong. When a young woman approached him about a new Christian enterprise a few years ago, he promised what support he could give, but predicted the work would fail. When she met him again two years later, he recognized her, remarked, “You’re the young woman who proved I was wrong!”
Ironside is a leader in conservative Protestantism today because he deserves to be.
His life is the favorite “log cabin to White House” story of a poor boy who made good. And for many years he lived like Moses, on the backside of a desert, sustained by an abiding faith in God and not seeking the position of prominence he now holds.
But God had a large place for him and put him through grueling circumstances and trials of faith which have admirable fitted him for the versatile ministry he has today.
Things were not hopeful for baby Harry even at the hour of his birth, for the attending physician pronounced him dead and laid him aside to attend to his mother. But 40 minutes later the startled nurse detected signs of pulse and plunged him into a hot bath, from which he emerged on October 14, 1876, live and healthy.
The Ironside family circle was early broken by the death of the father, when Harry was only 2, but the imprint of this godly man, whom all Toronto knew as “The Eternity Man,” was left on the simple little home. Even now Dr. Ironside recalls the substance of his mother’s daily prayer at the family altar: “O Father, keep my boy from ever desiring anything greater than to live for Thee. Save him early and make him a devoted street preacher, as his father was. Make him willing to suffer for Jesus’ sake, to gladly endure persecution and rejection by the world that cast out Thy Son, and keep him from what would dishonor Thee.”
This home and altar, supported by his widowed mother, was a haven for itinerant preachers and evangelists. And the young boy was early plagued by their unnerving, “Harry, lad, are you born again?”
Even when the family moved to Los Angeles, Calif., when he was 10, these godly men, “who carried with them the atmosphere of eternity,” still upset him with their quiet, “Are you certain that your soul is saved?” For despite the fact he had read the Bible through 10 times by the age of 12, he was not sure he had accepted Christ.
One indelible impression from that year has never left him.
Dwight L. Moody came to Los Angeles. Packed to the door, Hazzard’s Pavilion had no seat for the young towhead who pushed his way into the balcony to hear the famous preacher. But, noticing that the roof was supported by girders made of large 4x12-inch planks spiked together like a trough, young Ironside skinned up the slanting trough to a point high over the crowd, looking down on the platform. The forceful manner and earnestness of the bearded evangelist and the forceful singing of George Stebbins that night he never forgot.
But it wasn’t until two years later that 14-year-old Harry Ironside came under deep conviction of his sins at a part and ran home to fall on his knees beside his bed and accept Christ as his Saviour, finding in Romans 3 and John 3 the peace he sought.
Finished with grammar school, he had no desire to continue his education, but wanted to tell others of Christ.
The spirit and activity of the Salvation Army attracted him, and he began to take part in their meetings, testifying and singing, until he became known as “The Boy Preacher of Los Angeles.”
One night he struck his brother in a fit of anger. He was filled with remorse and longed for the experience of complete holiness and eradication of sin, concerning which many of his Army companions spoke. So, taking the train from Los Angeles on a Sunday night to a lonely station 12 miles out, he walked into a dry arroyo and fell on his face before God, determining to obtain the “second blessing of entire sanctification.”
About 3:30 a.m. he arose, confident he had yielded everything to Christ. So buoyed up was he that he walked the 12 miles back to the city to testify to the “blessing” at the 7 a.m. service. Shortly after that he enrolled as an Army cadet, and when only 18 he was made a captain in the Salvation Army and put in charge of a station.
In those days he and his buddy would walk into the crowded sections of the city at the rush hour. At the right moment his friend would raise a brightly colored umbrella with a Scripture verse on it, while Harry would peel off his coat, displaying a sweater with “PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD” printed on it in bold letters.
But despite his zeal for the Lord and his glowing testimonies, he found he was not free from sin. Increasingly his inward promptings to sin, his doubts and fears weighed upon his mind. He who testified to the eradication did not have it. What’s more, he didn’t see it in the others who likewise boasted of it. Almost a nervous wreck a few years later, he went to a rest home for a brief furlough to regain his physical and spiritual equilibrium.
And there, tormented by doubts, reading any and every thing but his Bible, he met an older woman who came to him for help over the same misgivings and failures which he was so poignantly experiencing. Together they began to search the Scriptures, and little by little, he now relates, the light began to dawn: they saw they had everything in Christ, not in experience.
To go on as he was, he could not. Within a week he resigned from the Army and began to fellowship with a group commonly known as the Plymouth Brethren.
Thus at 22 Harry Ironside faced a complete revamping of his life plans. Associated with no organization, he started out on faith, preaching wherever he had opportunity—on street corners, in missions, in the desert towns.
A year later he married Helen Scofield, daughter of a Presbyterian minister, and they faced poverty and hardship together. For the next 32 years they lived entirely without promise of support of any kind, but God faithfully undertook for them.
Sitting in a dreary Salt Lake City rooming house one night several years later, they faced their situation. Not one penny of money did they have. They prayed; the young husband put God on the spot, saying they needed 40 cents for food the next day. Then, somewhat discouraged, he went out to preach on a street corner. After his message two men followed him and spoke to him. As they left they shook hands with him. In his palm when he opened it were three dimes and two nickels!
All the years that followed were filled with Elijah experiences as Ironside and his wife traveled from place to place, preaching and distributing tracts wherever they went.
Summers were spent mostly among the Indians of New Mexico and Arizona.
There one year the leaders of a Laguna Indian village approached the young missionary and asked him why he preached on the street when they had a church in town. He replied that he was not a Roman Catholic and the priest would not want him.
“The church does not belong to the priest,” the Indians retorted, “and besides, he only visits us occasionally.”
The next Sunday on invitation Ironside preached to more than 300 Indians from the pulpit of the Indian Catholic church on the text, “Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, though He was rich, yet for our sakes became poor, that we through His poverty might be rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). As a result, the leader of responses in the church was converted and became a preacher of power among his own people.
On another occasion he visited the converted wife of a desert tavern-keeper. Longing to speak to the 100 men carousing in the tavern, he heard the fiddler hesitate through a few bars of “In the Sweet By and By.” Seizing the opportunity, he went in and began to lead the men in singing old familiar hymns which they requested, adding a Scripture verse or comment at the conclusion of each. Not a glass of liquor was sold the rest of the evening.
Depending upon God for leading in his work, he was often of in strange circumstances.
Prompted to get off the train at Fresno, Calif., one night, Ironside invested his last dollar in a room and breakfast and found himself penniless and friendless the following night in a gospel meeting in a store. The two women on the platform looked at him strangely, then went down and asked him to speak, saying that they had called the meeting at God’s leading, praying for a speaker. They were sure he was the one God had sent.
His unconventional places and ways of speaking often provided many unusual and humorous opportunities.
Preaching on a San Francisco street corner one evening, he was challenged by an atheist, a leader of the old I.W.W. movement, to debate on Christianity versus atheism.
Before the crowd of 300 or 400 people, he accepted the challenge—adding, however, that he had one condition. The atheist must present at least two bona fide witnesses who had been saved from lives of disgrace and degradation by their belief, while he would provide no less than 100 who had been saved from the same state by the gospel of Christ. Hurriedly the atheist declined the terms and left, to the delight of the crowd.
As the years rolled by, the preaching ability of this unassuming expositor became known. Opportunities increased in size and number, until soon he was traveling continually from coast to coast conducting Bible conferences and evangelistic campaigns in churches, halls, stores and whatever was offered.
Many novel experiences livened those years of travel and preaching. He witnessed to Jews, Protestants, atheists, Catholics and even priests, shocking one good monk by declaring that he himself was a catholic priest.
Another time he astounded a group of nuns by asserting that he was a saint.
During his early years Mrs. Ironside faithfully traveled with him, but when their first child, Edmund, was born, her trips became less frequent and finally stopped altogether. Locating in Oakland, Calif., Mrs. Ironside raise their two boys, Edmund and John, while her husband roved the country, preaching and teaching. Later the family included Lillian, their grandchild whom they adopted on the death of her mother, who was Edmund’s first wife.
So extended were his trips finally that in John’s senior year in college he remembers his father being home only two weeks out of the 52.
Smilingly, John, former assistant pastor at The Moody Church, now assistant superintendent of men at Moody Bible Institute, declares that his father is younger now than when he first remembers him; for until he was nearly 40 he wore a full red Vandyke beard, which made him appear like a patriarch. Before he was 30 he became as bald as he is now, from a severe attack of typhoid.
Doctrinally during the 30 years after his resignation from the Salvation Army, Ironside underwent a gradual transition through the prayerful study of the Scriptures to a position of moderate Calvinism.
Cognizant of his lack of formal education, he set about to educate himself—and did so to a remarkable degree. A voracious reader, he devoured two or three books a day while traveling—not novels, but solid doctrinal and devotional works.
Desiring to know the original languages of the Scriptures, he ordered correspondence courses in Greek and Hebrew. The former he has kept up; the latter “soon discouraged” him. For scholastic recreation he took up Chinese, in which he is now well at home and reads with enjoyment. Besides language and theological study, books on every subject were fed into his mental maw to satisfy his insatiable hunger for knowledge.
Probably the greatest human factor in his success is his remarkable memory, which is so acute, according to his wife, that it enables him to remember things that never happened. Ideas, seed thoughts, even poems and quotations, once read, are firmly fixed in his mind and called forth at a moment’s notice. Lengthy Scripture quotations and obscure hymns fill his sermons, a never-ending source of wonder to the average layman.
Foundation of all his study, however, is his devotional hour with which he begins his day. Then he reads God’s Word for H.A. Ironside, and prays God’s guidance on the multiple activities in which he is engaged. This hour he tries to keep inviolable.
Outstanding in all his experiences in this period is the lesson he learned of absolute dependence upon God for every need. Living wholly on faith, he tested God’s faithfulness in every circumstance, and it is these experiences which have enriched his life in the practical understanding of God’s Word.
It was with this rich background that he faced, 14 years ago, the second great decision regarding his life work.
In 1926 Dr. P.W. Philpott had led The Moody Church congregation in building a $1,000,000 downtown structure, seating 4,040 persons. In 1929 he resigned, and the booming church looked seven months for a man big enough to fill the pulpit hallowed by the saintly succession of D.L. Moody, A.C. Dixon, R.A. Torrey, J.M. Gray and Paul Rader.
Finally in 1930 the church fathers called the 53-year-old Brethren evangelist, who had never before held a pastorate.
For months Ironside prayed over and deliberated the offer, for the idea of “pastor” was contrary to all settled practice of the Brethren. Ten months later he accepted the call and became the tenth pastor of Chicago’s historic Moody Church.
Dr. Harry Rimmer tells the story, probably somewhat apocryphal, that following his acceptance, a Brethren conference was called in the East to which Dr. Ironside was invited.
He entered the room in which were seated the leaders of the movement and was greeted by silence. He asked if they wished to have a Scripture reading or prayer. Silence followed.
Finally he said, “I know what you want, and I’ll tell you. It was this way: I prayed over the call to the church, and the Lord said to me, ‘Feed My Lambs.’ But I answered, ‘Lord, what about the Brethren?’
“Then I prayed again, and the Lord seemed to say, ‘Feed My sheep.’ Again I asked, ‘But Lord, what about the Brethren?’
“So I prayed again, and finally the Lord said to me, “’Feed My sheep. I’ll take care of the Brethren!’”
Still in fellowship with the Brethren, Ironside speaks frequently at their conferences and annual meetings held over the country.
When he entered the pulpit his first Sunday morning, he faced not only a congregation and membership of over 4,000, but also a building debt of $375,000. But not the least of his versatile abilities is raising money, and at the New Year’s Eve watch-night service Dec. 31, 1943, the last $5,000 mortgage for that indebtedness was burned, climaxing an average debt retirement of over $26,000 per year during his pastorate!
Throughout the 14 years of his pastorate—the longest term of any of The Moody Church preachers—only two Sundays have passed without at least one conversion resulting from the services. Now more than 80 missionaries are supported by the church, and two or three assistant pastors direct the multiple related activities of the tremendous organization.
His ministry is unusual among his own people, for special speakers do not boost but usually deplete his Sunday attendances. None of the top-flight evangelists and pastors of the country can maintain the audience average which he has from week to week.
When he is known to be away, attendances drop sharply.
Yet his preaching is simple and unspectacular. With no outline or notes, he preaches extempore from a passage of Scripture, rarely on a topic. He never sits down to prepare sermons as such, but is continually on the lookout for illustrations and ideas to fill out his future messages.
Nearly everything he has preached has appeared in print. Stenographically reported or electrically transcribed from the radio broadcast of his Sunday morning services, his sermons now fill over 40 books. Many of these are devotional commentaries on Bible books and are hailed by some as the outstanding commentaries of the century.
Because of his prolific publishing, Ironside is probably best known to many as an author, not a preacher. Most cosmopolitan outlet of his work is probably The Sunday School Times, which weekly prints his commentary on the International lesson. This is undoubtedly his most carefully prepared work, for it alone of all his messages is written out beforehand, sometimes in longhand, always on Saturday afternoons.
One outstanding exception to his sermon-books is Except Ye Repent, which won the American Tract Society’s $1,000 prize a few years ago. This he wrote longhand over the incredibly short period of three weeks, mostly on trains.
Ironside books are widely accepted today throughout evangelical Christianity, although it is true that his practice of hewing to the line occasionally keeps some out of certain bookstores.
One certain outlet for all his books, however, is the Western Book & Tract Co., which he financed and organized 30 years ago in Oakland, Calif. As a non-profit distributing depot for Christian literature and tracts as well as his own publications, it has grown until this year it will do a gross income of more than $75,000.
Probably no other name appears on as many letterheads as does H.A. Ironside’s. Though he does not belong to any denomination, he is on the board of advisers or board of reference of practically every mission board and philanthropic agency known to fundamentalism. In addition he serves on the governing board of directors of many such outstanding organizations as Wheaton College, Bob Jones College and the Africa Inland Mission. His name behind an organization is an “open sesame” to fundamentalists pocketbooks and pulpits everywhere. Bigwigs of the National Association of Evangelicals are currently surprised and rejoicing that he pledged the telling influence of The Moody Church to that movement.
Hardly a homebody, Dr. Ironside stipulated when he accepted the call to The Moody Church that he wished liberty during weekdays to take other meetings. And so he has averaged 40 weeks of the year out of the city since he has been in Chicago. Leaving his suite in the Hotel Plaza, across the street from the church, on Monday, he travels anywhere in a radius of 1,000 miles to hold meetings during the week, returning Saturday for his own Sunday services.
Four times he has gone abroad—the first time in 1936 on a vacation trip to Great Britain and Palestine. Returning to Britain the following year for the Moody Centenary, he had the greatest thrill of his life preaching in St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland—pulpit of John Knox and the Scottish reformers.
When he arrived that year in Aberdeen, ancestral home of the world’s Ironside clan, he was given a tremendous welcome by the townspeople, who turned out en masse to honor this second-generation favorite son. And throughout the British Isles he was received with as wide acclaim and popularity as he is in the U.S.
In 1938 he returned again to Great Britain with J. Stratton Shufelt, then musical director of The Moody Church, to hold a series of evangelistic meetings. This time he and his song leader were hailed as another Moody and Sankey. In 1939 he returned again briefly for a rest and to speak at the world-famed Keswick Conference.
Perhaps not only his ability as a speaker but his warm, friendly personality is responsible for his widespread invitations and popularity. “Father is a gregarious animal,” says his son John, and this is amply evident in his cordiality and interest in big and small alike.
He apparently likes nothing better than to sit down at a table, tuck a napkin high on his capacious bay and, eyes twinkling, launch into a series of side-splitting stories and anecdotes about men he has met around the world—meanwhile, between stories, storing away sizable quantities of food, which he thoroughly relishes.
He has a wealth of scotch dialect tales which occasionally get the best of him and consume whole evenings when he is not preaching, as when he lectures for two weeks yearly at the Dallas Theological Seminary.
His excellent sense of humor is not absent from the pulpit, but is well governed there. On a few occasions—also in select company—he can be lured into singing, with many appropriate gestures, the old Salvation Army songs of his youth, which, contrasted with modern hymnody, are irresistibly funny.
In his busy life he has never had any time for playing, but has indulged himself in one hobby—stamp collecting. Now possessing almost a professional collection of between 25,000 and 30,000 stamps and covers, he rarely has time to devote to it as he did in the past. Bible archeology and Christian biography are also pastimes with him, on a smaller scale.
Despite his success—probably unequaled by any other man of his generation—and his recognized leadership in biblical scholarship, he is genuinely modest and unassuming. He confesses to being “afraid of Ph.D.’s” and maintains he feels out of place in college academic processions.
Harry Ironside doesn’t aspire to positions of leadership in national organizations. Like Alexander Maclaren, dean of English expository preachers, he is content to do well the task of preaching the gospel which God has assigned to him, and he doesn’t want to regulate other men’s and organization’s paths, “though I would have long ago,” he now says. “It is not organization but the individual consecration that counts in the work of the Lord,” he claims, and to that end he orients his own life.
A well-known seminary head said of him recently, “He has the most unique ministry of any man living.” The secret of that, he continued, is that Harry Ironside knows how to expound the Scriptures on the level of the ordinary listener, and he can point to the present practical value in any and every passage he expounds.
It is this ability to place the riches of the Word of God on a level accessible to the common man that has made H.A. Ironside one of the most capable and prominent preachers in fundamentalism today—a prominence that, in another generation, may well put him on a par with such giants as Moody, Spurgeon and Maclaren.