Toward the end of 1886 Sophia Ironside and her two sons left Toronto and traveled by train to Los Angeles. They were accompanied by the boys’ uncle, Allan Ironside. To ten-year-old Harry and his brother John this was a great adventure. They had never even crossed over the border into the United States, and to be going all the way to America’s west coast seemed like a dream. There were new faces and new places to see. The two boys never tired of watching the dignified, mustachioed conductors collect and punch tickets, nor of running up and down the aisles of the car. When the train stopped at some station along the way for more than a minute or two, they would get out and stare wide-eyed with admiration and awe at the engine, steaming and puffing as if it was out of breath from its arduous work.
The travelers arrived in Los Angeles on December 12, 1886. They were met with “typical California weather,” for the day was bright and balmy. To Sophia this was a token from the Lord that His favor was upon them. In a few days the family of three was settled in a small apartment which friends of the young widow had leased for her, and within a very short time she was busy again at her sewing machine. Almost immediately Harry and John began to attend Sunday school. They had to go a long way to do this, for there was none nearby. Frequently on Sunday afternoons the small family would walk somewhere in the city and Harry, even though he was not yet eleven years old, was shocked and strangely stirred at the ungodly things he observed. Saloons and gambling houses were wide open and doing business on the Lord’s day. Intoxication was prevalent.
Harry decided that he himself must start a neighborhood Sunday school. Calling together the boys and girls he knew, he talked with them about it and persuaded the boys to go out and collect as many burlap bags as they could find. Then he organized the girls into a sewing club. In a very short time the Sunday school began, housed in a burlap tent that would accommodate nearly a hundred people. There was no teacher, so Harry began to teach. The average attendance during the first year was sixty—mostly boys and girls, but some few adults also. When Harry could think of nothing else to talk about, he would always revert to Isaiah 53. He assumed that since he had been reared in a Christian home, he was a Christian. He felt that everyone should know the Bible and considered himself a missionary among these people to teach it to them. He was rather proud of his religion and familiarity with the Book about which others knew so little, and nothing pleased him better than to have an adult pat his head or shoulder and say, “God bless this little preacher.” Like Timothy, from a child he had known the Holy Scriptures; but unlike Timothy, he had not yet come to the place where the Scriptures made him “wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” In Harry’s twelfth year something occurred that unquestionably was to have a determining effect upon his whole career. For in 1888 Dwight L. Moody came to Los Angeles for his great campaign there.
The meetings were held in Hazzard’s Pavilion, which had a seating capacity of 8000. It was filled to the brim every night. Harry went alone the first night and arrived after a song service conducted by George C. Stebbins had begun. There was not a seat to be had, even for a little chap. But being a determined and observant youngster, he continued looking for a place to sit. He went up to the first gallery, and then to the second. There he noticed another boy of approximately his own age lying at an angle of about forty-five degrees in a trough like girder that extended from the second gallery to the apex of the roof. That seemed like a good idea to Harry, so he chose another girder and, climbing into it, crawled to an excellent vantage point where he could see everything and hear quite well.
The singing thrilled him, but the great moment came when Mr. Moody rose and stepped to the podium. He was a short, thickset man with a large head, a gray beard, and a somewhat short neck. To Harry, looking down from the rafter, it seemed as if the evangelist had no neck at all. When Moody began to speak, it was in a crisp and efficient way, with a New England twang which was strange to the lad—a way which an old Scotch lady said “did no even hae a holy tone to it.”
The text of Moody’s message that first night was Daniel 5:27, “Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.” He told the story of the sin and doom of Belshazzar with convincing power. Among those in the audience who were deeply moved was young Harry Ironside. High up there in the girder, while the message was still in progress, the boy lifted his heart to God and prayed, “Lord, help me some day to preach to crowds like these, and to lead souls to Christ.” Forty-two years after that prayer was uttered H. A. Ironside, having preached often to similar crowds and, by God’s grace, having led multitudes to know Jesus Christ, became the pastor of the Chicago church that D. L. Moody founded.
Not only did Harry remember the text of the message, but the sermon itself burned into his heart also. Reading it some years later, he said, “I was surprised to find how little of it I had forgotten through the years.” Three things about Moody’s preaching impressed themselves upon the lad that night, although he was still an unsaved, if religious, boy. Moody spoke for only thirty-five minutes; he quoted many Scripture passages, illuminating them with moving illustrations that were homely and tender; and he pressed upon his hearers the importance of definite personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour.
One night Harry went to a meeting with his mother and some of her friends. They arrived at the Pavilion early and were able to obtain seats quite near the front. This was the boy’s first good view of the evangelist and he thought, “He isn’t very handsome.” Then Moody began to preach. His text was “Sowing and Reaping.” To the young lad the preacher’s face as he spoke seemed to light up in such a way that he was beautiful to look upon.
As the party was going home from the meeting one of the men remarked, “Moody seems just a very ordinary man. I’ve heard many better preachers.”
Harry (center) with His Mother and Brother
in the Year of His Conversion, age twelve
Los Angeles, c. 1888
“Yes,” said a, “but Mr. Moody wins souls.”
It was this about Dwight L. Moody more than anything else that engraved itself upon the mind of the twelve-year-old boy. It was not a remarkable eloquence or a superior preaching ability that made Moody the success he was, but rather the fact that he was dominated by the Spirit of God and preached with a heart that understood and felt for the needs of his audiences.
Young Ironside continued his active religious work. It was good work but lacked power because the worker was as yet unsaved. True, at times he was in anxiety about his soul, but he did nothing about it. He was conscious, though, of a restraining hand that kept him from many of the questionable practices that some of his friends, not a few being older than he, enjoyed. He was guilty of sin all right, but not that kind.
By this time the Ironsides had moved into a house where Sophia, as she had done in Toronto, presided over a small dressmaking establishment. Harry was now fourteen years old and a senior in grammar school. When he came home from school one afternoon his mother greeted him on the porch. She was very excited.
“Harry, who do you suppose is here?” she asked. Because she seemed so pleased, Harry thought it must be Uncle Henry. Sophia told him to guess again; but without waiting for him to utter another word she gave him the answer, “It’s Mr. Munro.” One of Harry’s bearded tormentors of Toronto had caught up with him at last!
The boy went into the house knowing what was coming, and come it did. “Well, well, Harry lad,” Donald Munro greeted him, “how you have grown! And are you born again yet, my boy?”
Harry hung his head and blushed with embarrassment. He did not like it any better than he had in former days and hardly knew what to say.
Feeling sorry for the boy, Uncle Allan, who had come calling with Mr. Munro, said, “Oh, Harry himself preaches now,” referring of course to Harry’s Sunday school.
“You are preaching, and yet you don’t know that you’re born again!” Mr. Munro said in astonishment. “Go and get your Bible, lad.” And Harry, who was glad of any excuse to get out of the room, fled up the stairs. He knew he had to come down again, but he delayed as long as he could. When finally he could stay away no longer without being rude, he descended with his Bible in his hand.
First thing, Mr. Munro asked Harry to turn to Romans 3:19. The boy did, and Mr. Munro said, “Now read it aloud.” Harry complied: “Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.” He had scarcely begun reading when he knew why his catechist had chosen the passage.
“Harry, lad, have you ever been there?” Mr. Munro asked him.
“What do you mean?” the boy countered.
“Well,” said the man, “I understand that you have got your mouth pretty wide open trying to preach to other people. When God makes a preacher, He stops his mouth first and then, when that person sees his lost condition, God leads him to put his trust in the Lord Jesus. When he trusts, he is born of God and his soul is saved. Then God opens his mouth. You’ve been putting the cart before the horse, haven’t you?”
“Maybe I have,” Harry replied.
The conversation ended. But young Ironside was never able to dislodge from his mind the telling words of Donald Munro. In his spirit of concern the devil planted rebellion. Within a few weeks Harry gave up his Sunday school, for he felt that his soul was lost. If he were unsaved, he had no right to open his mouth for God. He knew that there was a way to overcome this hindrance to his doing the work he loved so much, but he was unwilling to yield himself to the Lord. It was not that he was ashamed of the gospel. He had preached it often, had even been taunted for this at times. It was just that he would not be forced, he thought, to go through the steps necessary to become a Christian. He had been a leader and example among his fellows. He could not begin at the beginning and confess his sins and Christ as his Saviour and Lord. He was ripe for Satan’s darts and the devil tempted him with the guile that has brought many souls low. “If you are lost,” he suggested to the unhappy lad, “if you are unfit to preach the Bible, why not enjoy all the things of the world from which you have refrained all this time?”
For the first time in his life Harry Ironside began to enter into activities that he had always considered worldly, even sinful. One thing bothered him, however—he was never happy doing these things. Nevertheless he continued living in this way for about six months. One night in February 1890 he went to a party of young people, most of whom were older than he. After a little while he edged over to a punch bowl, more to get in a corner by himself than to have a drink. As he stood there some Scripture came to his mind. It was hardly a portion a boy of fourteen would recall, in fact few boys of that age would have read it, but the words stood out before him as if they were embossed on the wall. The passage that the Holy Spirit brought to Harry’s mind was Proverbs 1:23-28:
Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will pour out my spirit unto you, I will make known my words unto you. Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded; But ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof: I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh; When your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon you. Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me.
Young Ironside was dumfounded. Every word seemed to cut into his heart. He saw, as he had never seen before, his guilt before God, the hardness of his heart in deliberately refusing to put his trust in Jesus Christ, who died for him. He recognized that he, Harry Ironside, had all along been preferring his own will above the will of the Lord. He looked around him. What was he doing here? Everything seemed so hollow, so frivolous, his friends so oblivious of the fact that the judgment of Almighty God was hanging over all of them like the sword of Damocles. He himself was the worst of all, for he knew more about God and His Word than any of them. As soon as he could, he left the party and hurried home, for he wanted to get to his room and be alone.
It was after midnight when Harry reached home. He removed his shoes so as not to be heard along the hall to his bedroom, but Sophia was the kind of mother who cannot sleep when her children are out. She knew he was there. Doubtless she had been praying for him. She called him to her room, but he hurried on, saying, “I’m sorry to be so late.” He knew one thing for certain: he wanted to “get saved,” and he wanted it right now.
Entering his room the boy fell on his knees and prayed, “Lord, save me.” Then the question came to his mind, “What am I praying for? To be saved? Is God unwilling to save me? Doesn’t the Bible say He’s not willing that any should perish? Am I praying for something God has wanted to do all along?”
Remembering that Mr. Munro had asked him to read Romans 3, Harry turned to that chapter. He understood most of it but was not yet satisfied. Then he recalled that his mother had often remarked that the place to begin with God is at John 3 and Romans 3. So now he leafed through to the third chapter of John. He knew it by memory but read it just the same. It had never before made a very deep impression upon him, but it did this time. When he came to verse 14, telling of Moses lifting up the brazen serpent in the wilderness, it struck him vividly that just as the Israelites had to look at the serpent for life, so he must look at the Lord Jesus Christ. He examined John 3:16.
“Lord,” he said, “it says here that whoever believes in Thy Son has everlasting life. And again here, in verse 18, that he that believes in Him is not condemned but has everlasting life. But, Lord, though I believe it, and what Thou hast said must be true, I don’t feel any different. I ought to feel different, shouldn’t I? But God, I take Thee at Thy Word. I believe that Thou dost now save my soul because I trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.” The distraught lad thought surely that then, after he had told God that he was taking Him at His Word, some great and new emotion would overpower him. But nothing happened. He began all over again. Again he reached the same conclusion. So once more he talked with the Lord.
“Lord, Thy Word says, ‘He that believeth on Him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.’ I’m not in the last class—among those that don’t believe,” he said, “therefore I’m not condemned. ‘He that believeth on Him is not condemned’—that is I, for Thou dost say so. Lord, I thank Thee for that, and I rest on it. That will do. O God, I thank Thee for Thy love and for the gift of Thy Son. Yes, I take Him now; I trust Him as my Saviour—believing Thy Word, I know that I have eternal life.” He rose from his knees and began the walk of faith. God could not lie. Harry knew he was saved according to the Word. “Harry lad” had been born again.