In The Salvation Army
“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”
1 Thessalonians 5:21
* * * * *
“He that winneth souls is wise.”
From the moment of his conversion Harry Ironside wanted to speak to others about Christ. He thought he ought to tell his mother first but, like many other people then and now, he found it difficult to confide in the one dearest to him. Breakfast passed the next morning and he was silent. On his way to school he was sure that when he saw his chum he would tell him of this wonderful thing that had happened to him. For some reason he could not define, he was unable to say a word. A full day slipped by. His new life seemed to be bubbling inside him, but it stayed there. It was one of the few days in his more than half-century of Christian experience that Ironside failed to speak out for the Lord. The next day was Saturday. Harry received permission from his mother to attend a Salvation Army meeting that was to be held nearby in the evening.
The Salvation Army was young in those days and zealous to win souls for Christ. To Harry they seemed just the right kind of Christians. He recalled the words of St. Paul that “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” Certainly, he thought, the Salvationists suffer ridicule, and that is a form of persecution. There was no doubt that they preached the gospel faithfully and fearlessly. Harry remembered how his mother had prayed about him back there in Toronto, “Make him a street preacher like his father. Make him willing to be cuffed and kicked, to suffer shame or anything else for Jesus’ sake.” It was no wonder that this lad, as soon as he became a Christian, seemed somehow to be drawn to the Army.
The street meeting was already underway when Harry arrived. The Salvation Army captain who was speaking was a familiar figure to the youngster, who had seen him on several occasions of a similar nature. He was a diamond in the rough who looked more like a lion than a jewel, with his long and shaggy mane and a mouth that seemed to the lad to have a hundred large teeth. More than once Harry had heard him tell the story of his conversion, which he did this night—how, while kneeling at a penitent bench in a Salvation Army hall, he had emptied his pockets of a knife, a gun, a pack of cards, and a pipe, and throwing them on the floor in front of him, had cried out, “Lord, if You can make anything out of me, do it!”
Harry could hardly wait for the captain to finish speaking. After what seemed to the lad like an age, he did stop and the impatient boy stepped forward and asked, “Captain, may I give my testimony?”
“Are you saved, lad?” the captain responded, sounding very much like Mr. Munro.
Harry’s reaction this time was far different from what it had been with Mr. Munro.
“Oh, yes,” he said firmly and joyfully.
“How do you know?” was the next question.
“Because I have trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ as my Saviour.” “When was that?”
“The day before yesterday,” Harry said.
“Then fire away!”
And fire away Harry did, preaching his first sermon as a Christian. His text was Isaiah 53:6, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” He was well into his message when he noticed a group of young people coming to the edge of the surrounding crowd—the friends who had been at the party on Thursday night when God had spoken to him so definitely. Although he was nonplused momentarily and his tongue seemed too big for his mouth, he went right on speaking. It was with utmost difficulty that he was able to continue. But on he went, expounding the Scripture as clearly as he could and giving his testimony. The crisis passed. He had been speaking now for about thirty minutes. Pulling the boy’s coattail the captain muttered, “Boy, we should have been in the hall twenty minutes ago. You’ll have to tell us the rest some other time.”3 So Harry stopped.
The next day Harry went to the regular Sunday afternoon services at the Army’s hall. He gave his testimony there and, after the meeting, an old black man came up to him and said, “I want to talk to you. You’ve got something I’ve wanted a long time. I don’t know what it is, but I want it.” Despite the fact that the man was five times Harry’s age, the young man led him over to a park known as the Plaza. The two of them sat down on a bench and Harry opened his Bible to the
passages his mother had told him were the places to begin with God—John 3, Romans 3, and Isaiah 53—and explained them to the old man.
“Does this mean,” the black man asked, “that even though I’ve sinned a lot, Jesus died for me? I just need to trust Him and I’ll be saved?”
“That’s what it means,” Harry assured him.
“I wish I’d known that fifty years ago,” the man said.
“Well, you know it now, don’t you?” Harry replied. Upon a nodded assent from the old man, Harry said to him, “Let’s get down on our knees and thank God for it.” Then and there in an open park the black man and the white boy knelt down at the bench where they had been sitting and thanked God for salvation through Jesus Christ, praising Him specifically for the salvation of the old man that day. Harry Ironside had won his first convert to Christ.
Still the boy had not told his mother about his new birth, his new-found life. However, on that same Sunday night Sophia went down to a rescue mission where she played the organ regularly. After services it was her custom to deal with some of the visitors about their souls. On this occasion she approached a man and asked if he would like to know Jesus Christ as his Saviour. He said something to her about the mission’s failure to reach his heart the way the little preacher up at the corner did.
“What little preacher?” Sophia asked.
“Oh, I don’t know his name,” the man told her. “He’s a little bit of a feller. When he talks, something happens to me. I feel different from what I do here at the mission.”
Sophia was not slow in putting two and two together. She asked some more questions and, when she and Harry had both gotten home that night, she inquired, “Harry, did you go to that street meeting last night?”
“Yes, I did,” he answered.
“Did you preach?”
“Well, I gave my testimony, if you call that preaching.”
“But,” Sophia continued, “what right do you have to testify? Nobody has a right to do that unless he’s saved.”
“But I am saved, Mother.”
“You are? When did that happen?”
“Last Thursday night,” Harry said, and then he told her all about it.
When he had finished, his mother asked him: “Why didn’t you tell me before, Harry?”
“Well, I wanted to see if you noticed any change in me since I’ve been saved.”
“I did think I noticed a difference, Harry,” she said, and hugged him. It was “a time to weep, and a time to laugh.” Mother and son did a little of each as they thanked God for His faithfulness in answering her prayers for her older boy.
Another exciting event took place at about that time which was also to have a lasting effect on the future of the Ironside family. Sophia married again. Her new husband was William D. Watson. Like Harry’s father, Watson was an Aberdeenshireman from Old Deer. He owned a ranch in Monte Vista (later called Sunland) and also a two-room house in Los Angeles, which he spoke of as his “shack.” Before his marriage to Sophia, this small house was his headquarters in the winter. After the wedding, he moved into the Ironside home and, about a year later, a daughter, Lillian, was born to the Watsons. To have a sister was a great event in the lives of the two boys.
When a circumstance arose that required the Watsons to move down to the ranch, they took John and Lillian with them. Harry, who had found a part-time job with a shoemaker, was earning sufficient money to take care of himself in a modest way and wanted to remain in Los Angeles until his graduation. He was quite mature for his age, so the Watsons arranged for him to stay in Watson’s shack for the few weeks left before graduation.
Young Ironside’s burning urgency was to preach the gospel. Because of this, he made a decision then that he regretted the rest of his life—not to pursue his education further but to get a full-time position so that he could devote every spare hour to preaching. He was able to find a job at the Lamson Photo Studio in the city. The parents of one of his school chums agreed to take him into their home in the outskirts of the city as a boarder for a modest fee. There he settled.
Night after night Harry attended one of the Salvation Army meetings in Los Angeles. He spoke so frequently that he became well known as “The Boy Preacher.” Being a very young Christian, this title pleased his vanity. It was only later that he came to realize that his vanity was really nothing else than pride, one of the sins that God hates. But he was exceedingly happy in those days, finding many opportunities to exercise his tremendous energy and zeal for the Lord.
Whereas Harry Ironside’s formal education ceased at the age of fourteen, he never ceased educating himself. Most of his life he was an insatiable reader. By the time he was fifteen he possessed a good library which made up in quality what it lacked in quantity. Titles by Dickens, Thackeray, Longfellow, Kant, Plato, and other philosophers and poets were conspicuous on his bookshelves. While still in his twenties he had read The Pilgrim’s Progress more than twenty times.
As a diversion Harry had studied the Chinese language during his last two years in grammar school. He had met a Chinese physician who wanted to increase his knowledge of English, so the two of them spent two hours together every week, each learning a new tongue. Interest in this old oriental language remained with Ironside throughout his life. Whereas others might doodle on scraps of paper, Harry traced out intricate Chinese characters as a form of relaxation. The flyleaf of one of his Bibles illustrates this habit of his.
However, neither the pursuit of knowledge nor the following of a trade deterred Harry from what he considered his calling. Photography was to him what shoemaking was to William Carey, the great missionary to India, who, when as a young man in England he was asked his business, replied, “My business is to serve the Lord; I make shoes to pay expenses.” Every moment that Harry could find he employed in active gospel work. When he was not attending Salvationist meetings, either on the street or in their halls, he would be giving out tracts or holding street meetings of his own.
It was only a few months after his graduation from school that young Ironside identified himself on a part-time
basis with the Salvation Army, which was then at its spiritual zenith. Its leaders had one purpose—to go out after lost men and women, and to lead them to Christ. Harry’s ardor to reach the unsaved matched theirs and he began his witness with them with such boldness that before long he was given the rank of junior sergeant major.
In Harry’s sixteenth year the Army’s Captain James Armstrong invited him to come down to San Diego to help him there. At the same time Armstrong urged him to enroll in the San Diego cadet school for training requisite for all Salvation Army personnel desirous of gaining full officership. He accepted the offer and immediately resigned his position with the Lamson Photo Studio.
On the day that Harry Ironside left his job to enter into full-time work with the Salvation Army, his employer, J. F. Dando, said, “A good photographer has been spoiled to make a poor preacher.”
3 In his book on Isaiah, published posthumously in 1952 (Loizeaux Brothers), H. A. Ironside alludes briefly to this incident and adds, “I have been trying to tell the rest all through the years since, but I never get beyond this text.”