Life was not easy for the widow of The Eternity Man. With his modest salary John Ironside had been able to do little more than care for his family. Therefore Sophia had to undertake immediately the support of her two boys and herself when the second child was scarcely three weeks old. She had one talent that proved useful—her skill with needle and thread. So, like Dorcas of old, she made coats and garments, and “was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did.” At length she had more work than she could handle and it became necessary for her to employ others to help her in her small business. But in the early days of her widowhood Sophia’s faith in God was tested almost to the breaking point.
Doubtless unaware of Mrs. Ironside’s limited means, itinerant Bible teachers continued to look for hospitality in the Ironside home. Sophia welcomed them warmly and urged them to make use of the prophet’s chamber. There was one occasion when, quite unexpectedly, John’s brother Henry and a friend knocked at the door with their bags in hand, obviously intending to stay at least one night. Sophia was at a loss to know how she would be able to provide even one meal for the pair. It was in such circumstances that her faith was greatest, for then it seemed she needed it most. She fell to her knees and told the Lord all about the visit, asking Him to supply her need according to His promise. Resting in the assurance of the Word, she prepared the first meal for the visitors. When supper was over and they had gone out to a church meeting, she found a ten-dollar bill under one of the plates. With tears in her eyes she offered thanks to God.
Again and again the two boys saw God working in answer to prayer. At one time, when they were about six and four respectively, the larder was nearly empty. Sophia prayed about the family’s need and waited for God to act. The answer did not come and one morning the little family went to the breakfast table with nothing to eat and only water to drink.
“We will give thanks, boys,” their mother said. Then, closing her eyes, she spoke to God. “Father,” she prayed, “Thou hast promised in Thy Word, ‘Your bread shall be given you, and your water shall be sure.’ We have the water and we thank Thee for it. And now we trust Thee for the bread or something that will take its place.” Hardly had she finished praying when the doorbell rang.
At the first sound the boys were on their feet and rushing to the door to see who was there. Was this God answering their mother’s prayer? Indeed, it was— though the boys did not think the man at the door looked particularly holy!
“Mrs. Ironside,” he said, when she too had reached the door, “I feel very bad. We’ve been owing you for months for that dress you made for my wife. We’ve had no money to pay you. But just now we’re harvesting our potatoes and we wondered if you’ll take a bushel or two on account of the old bill.”
“Indeed, I’ll be glad to,” Sophia answered, and the man brought the baskets into the house.
It did not take long for Mrs. Ironside to get some of those potatoes into the frying pan. “Potatoes and water make a wonderful breakfast,” they all thought as Sophia thanked God for His help in the hour of want.
Sophia Ironside tried to teach her boys not only to trust God for material needs but also to honor and know His Word. Praying without ceasing for the salvation of her sons, she was a striking example to them of what it means to have a passion for souls. For although her life was a busy one she did not neglect one of the greatest callings of every child of God—to bear witness concerning Christ. For more than a half century Henry Allan Ironside met and ministered with open-air preachers, mission superintendents, evangelists, missionaries, and Bible teachers across the length and breadth of this continent as well as in Great Britain and Ireland. Yet toward the end of his life he said, “My mother was one of the most earnest personal workers I have ever known.”
There was little time for Sophia to go out of the house. Even after she hired other women to help in her dressmaking establishment, she would often work late into the night. The oil lamps were rarely dimmed until after midnight, and at six o’clock in the morning Sophia was again busy with her needle or sewing machine, where her boys would find her when they got up. No, she could not get out to talk to people about their souls, but customers came to the house and a host of them were led to Christ through her faithful witness.
Harry and John Ironside
Ages eight and six, respectively, Toronto, 1884
When a new girl was employed to help in the little shop, it would not be long before Sophia would begin telling her about the Lord. Harry (for so Henry Allan was now called) and John would have fun watching to see how soon the new worker would “get saved.” Within a few days after the young lady’s arrival John would be likely to say, “Now she’s crying.” Then the two lively lads would peek into the room where the girl was working, and see her tears flowing. A day or two more might pass, or only a few hours, and one of the brothers would report to the other, “Now she’s laughing. I guess she’s saved now.” For their mother would simply talk to these young women, or to any others who came within conversational range, about their sinful condition and need of a Saviour, and concerning God’s gracious provision for them in His Son. Sooner or later they would almost invariably turn to Jesus Christ.
Harry was now well into his eighth year, John in his sixth. Neither of the brothers had had as yet a personal experience with the Lord. Sophia never ceased to pray for their salvation. Throughout his life Harry would recall the substance of her pleas to God for him, “Father, save my boy early. Keep him from ever desiring anything else than to live for Thee. Make him a street preacher like his father. O Father, make him willing to be kicked and cuffed, to suffer shame or anything else for Jesus’ sake.” And he would think, “My word, but you are putting it on thick,” and not appreciate it very much.
A person can have religion without being a Christian. That was Harry’s experience. From the time he was three years old he memorized Scripture. The first verse that he knew (after the favorite of most youngsters, “Jesus wept”) was Luke 19:10, “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” It is a verse that he never forgot, as he did not forget other Scripture passages fixed in his mind in those days. However, Harry knew these first Bible passages by memory, not by heart. His mother asked him again and again whether he was yet saved, and visitors to the home would seek to lead him to the Lord, but always he would evade the question or answer in the negative, and then get away as soon as possible.
One day Harry heard a man say that he had read the whole Bible through every year. Harry liked the idea and decided he would do the same. He completed it for the first time in one year. By the time he was fourteen he had “caught up with himself,” as he put it, having finished his fourteenth reading of the Bible in that year. From then on he never failed to read the Book from cover to cover at least once every year until 1948, when advanced cataracts prevented long periods of close reading.
Among the most frequent visitors to the Ironside home in Toronto were two Scottish evangelists who usually traveled together. One of them was very tall and had a long, brown beard. His name was Donald Munro. The other was quite short; his beard was long also, but black, and his eyebrows were bushy and very shaggy. Harry used to enjoy watching him clip them. His name, a very common one, was John Smith; but not so his sobriquet, which was “Hellfire Jack,” sufficiently startling to stir the interest of any imaginative lad. This pair, more than any other traveling servants of God, were the bane of Harry’s existence. For, every
morning as they came downstairs for breakfast, and upon other occasions as well, in season and out of season, one or the other would ask him: ‘‘Harry, my lad, are you born again?” He would tell them that he went to Sunday school, memorized Bible verses, and even gave out tracts, but always the answer would be something like this, “O laddie, you may give out tracts and still spend all eternity in hell. ‘Ye must be born again,’ Harry boy.”
In later years Harry came to think of these two itinerant preachers as men who carried with them the atmosphere of eternity, but that was when he had become a Christian and was himself preaching the gospel, seeking to win lost souls for Christ. To the boy of ten they seemed a plague and a scourge, so that one of his first thoughts, when his mother told her sons that the family was to leave Toronto to go to California, was, “Well, those two will never get at me again.” He was to learn otherwise.