A eighteen minutes after five on the morning of April 18, 1906, San Francisco was shaken by a great earthquake. Fire, famine, and desolation followed. Across the bay tremors shook Oakland also, demolishing many buildings and damaging others.
The moment the earth heaved its crust the Ironside house in Oakland trembled. Helen, beside whom little Edmund was sleeping,9 instinctively threw her body across him for his protection. Scarcely had she acted when the ceiling collapsed and the chimney, which ran up through the bedroom, crumbled, falling across her back. Harry was at her side instantly but not in time to save her from severe injury. As a result of this hapless experience Helen suffered violent headaches periodically for the rest of her life.
Because of the catastrophe Ironside interrupted his preaching ministry for two months so that he might do relief work in San Francisco and, at the same time, tell the gospel story to those whose spiritual needs were even greater than their physical necessities. When the most urgent demands of the calamity’s aftermath were satisfied, he resumed his preaching schedule which took him away from home more and more. It was at this time that Harry became acquainted with some of the early leaders among the Plymouth Brethren, among them A. E. Booth, Samuel Ridout, F. J. Enefer, and W. J. McClure. Before the earthquake Harry had met other Brethren giants, notably Paul J. Loizeaux, B. C. Greenman, and William M. Horsey, all of whom were participating in a Bible conference in San Francisco. Harry shared in the platform ministry for the first time.
Paul Loizeaux had great personal charm and was eloquent in the Scriptures. He was primarily an evangelist and Harry was drawn to him in a special way. One evening Harry went early to the meeting hall. He was standing at the rear of the auditorium in a little section separated from the rest of the hall by a partition, when two men arrived and entered the main auditorium. One of them asked the other, “Have you noticed the difference between the preaching of Loizeaux and Ironside?”
Harry knew he ought to make his presence known but, before he could think of what to say, the second man replied, “There’s no way to compare the two; they are so utterly different.”
It was too late now and, in an instant, the unwitting and embarrassed eavesdropper heard the first man say, “Yes, but there’s one thing that stands out prominently. When Paul Loizeaux preaches, he’s always telling people what they’re going to get when they come to Christ. But Ironside is always telling them what they’re going to get if they don’t.”
Harry was so struck with this contrast that he mentioned the conversation later on in the evening to Mr. Loizeaux, who said in his characteristic kindly way,
“Well, my dear young brother, that is something to consider. We must never forget that our great business is to proclaim the grace of God.”
Young Ironside loved his family dearly. An evening at home with Helen and the children was a cherished occasion. Yet even while he was enjoying his family he was convinced that he ought to be carrying the light of the gospel to those who were in darkness. Entries in his diary reflect this paradox, for example:
In the evening at home together and had a nice time reading and listening to music, etc. Yet I feel rather condemned when loafing at home instead of being out preaching Christ.
In 1911 a fresh kind of testimony opened up, which occupied Ironside for about two months every autumn for more than a decade. This was a ministry to American Indians in their native villages in Arizona, southern California, and New Mexico—the Mojave, Laguna, Zuni, Hopi, Walapai, and Navajo tribes. He found them a receptive people and looked forward to his visits each year. Other Bible teachers who shared in this work sometimes were Arno C. Gaebelein and W. Leon Tucker. Gaebelein, the founder and for a half century editor of Our Hope magazine, and H. A. Ironside traveled more extensively as ambassadors for Christ during the first half of the twentieth century, and produced more Biblical literature than any others I can recall.
Harry was ill only a few times in his long and active career. When he was about seventy years of age he told me he could not remember ever having had a headache. However, after several weeks with the Laguna Indians in New Mexico one summer, he went to Minneapolis where he was to preach two or three times. Somewhere along the way he picked up a toxic germ that forced him to remain in a Christian home in that city for six weeks with an attack of typhoid. He was very anxious to get home and at length, when he was scarcely strong enough to walk, he boarded a train for California. He felt obliged to engage a section in the Pullman car, where he stayed in his berth constantly except for meals. His progress to and from the dining car was unsteady, if not alarming.
During the day Harry would open the curtains of his berth. He reclined there, watching the scenery pass on the outside and the passengers go by on the inside, feeling somewhat like an oriental despot on a divan.
On the first morning, as he was reading his Bible, a rather buxom lady observed him and exclaimed, “Vat! You having vamily vorship all by yourselv? Vait!—I get mein Beibel and ve vorship togedder.” In a few minutes she returned with her German Bible and the two began comparing the translations of the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the invalid had been reading. Not long afterward a tall, fair gentleman began walking past them. He stopped and then said, “Ah, reading the Bible? Vait a moment. I tank I get mine, too, and yoin with you”—and soon he returned with his Norwegian Bible. The lady was sitting on the edge of Ironside’s berth, so the man took a seat across the aisle. As they were talking about the things of Christ, the Pullman conductor passed through the car and before many minutes others came to join the three. So many congregated that Harry had to raise his voice for all to hear him. After talking for more than an hour, he grew tired because of his weakened condition. So he excused himself, telling the people that he must rest for a while. Upon awaking from his nap he observed the Norwegian brother, who had been sitting near his berth.
“He’s avake! He’s avake!” that gentleman shouted out, and the message was passed along to other cars. Before long the whole audience had reassembled and Ironside began once more to expound Hebrews, emphasizing the gospel of Christ as much as he could and dwelling upon the Person of our Lord, the eternal Son. Some asked questions, from which it became evident that the great truths he had been discussing were new to a number of the passengers. Morning and afternoon each day were devoted to this “Bible conference,” and it was an unwelcome hour to many when the train reached its destination.
Saying good-by and expressing her appreciation for the fellowship they had enjoyed, the German lady, remarking upon how her soul had been fed, asked, “Brudder, to vat denomination do you belong?”
With a twinkle in his eyes Harry said, “I belong to the same denomination that David did.”
“Vat vas dat?” she inquired. “I did not know he belonged to any.”
“David says,” he replied, “1 am a companion of all them that fear Thee and keep Thy precepts.’ “
“Ya, Ya! Dat iss a vine denomination to belong to.”
During his travels Ironside frequently did some writing—mostly of tracts and booklets. He usually worked on his expository writings at home. His first commentary was on the book of Esther,10 which appeared in 1905, before he journeyed as often or as far as he was now doing. However, a book which was to have considerable impact for many years was composed in good part in Pullman cars and at Indian reservations—Holiness, the False and the True. It was published in 1912. The book tells of Harry’s conversion at the age of fourteen, very much as it is recorded in an earlier chapter of this volume, and defines true holiness in contrast with that false holiness with which he had had experience in his Salvation Army days. There was a reluctance on Ironside’s part to write the book because of his deep affection for the Army and some of its workers. But the conviction that the doctrine of holiness as they held it was unscriptural outweighed the hesitancy which natural courtesy suggested. Holiness, the False and the True has clarified the thinking of a multitude of God’s people on the subject of personal sanctification.
Ironside’s publisher was Loizeaux Brothers, in New York City. This firm, which was established in 1876, the year of Harry Ironside’s birth, later published all but about fifteen of the more than ninety books, pamphlets, and tracts that HAI wrote. The publisher is widely known in evangelical circles today; in fact this biography is their production. The name appears early in Ironside’s ministry, for one of the partners of Loizeaux Brothers was Paul J. Loizeaux, whom Harry met sometime around 1904. Loizeaux Brothers11 and H. A. Ironside were fellow workers for Christ for nearly a half century.
From the time that young Ironside took up residence in one of Charles Montgomery’s San Francisco hotels after resigning from the Salvation Army, he sensed a need among all God’s people for Christian literature. He was convinced also of the importance of making gospel tracts available both to those who needed the gospel desperately as well as to some believers who would be willing to distribute them. It came to pass therefore that in 1912 he installed a book table in the Gospel Hall in Oakland. It was an immediate success. His own books, e.g., Notes on the Book of Esther and Lectures on Daniel the Prophet, were in demand, of course, and in addition to them the writings of other men, particularly by some of the Plymouth Brethren expositors. Consequently in 1914, after consulting with some of the brethren in Oakland, Harry decided to organize a bookstore to be called the Western Book and Tract Company.
Junel, 1914 A hard day—but a happy one in His service. Up at 6 and got breakfast for eight people—cleaned the dishes and went to town. Rented the store at 1817 Telegraph Avenue.
There would be no problem about establishing legitimate business credit. His publisher, the same distributor who had been supplying goods for the book table at the Gospel Hall, would serve him at the new store.
The Western Book and Tract Company opened on June 10, 1914. For more than a year the store’s operation was beset with financial hardships of the severest kind. In the Lord’s work as well as in secular business, Mr. and Mrs. Ironside with Edmund and John Cape May, New Jersey, 1906. Dr. Ironside called this photograph “an archaeological gem”
ventures that begin with little capital rarely prosper rapidly, if at all, a lesson Harry had to learn the hard way. He could not understand this. Had he not entered this ministry for Christ’s sake? He himself expected to receive no profit from the enterprise. A few of his friends who had invested money in the company also had done this as a service for the Lord, and they were trusting Him to make the venture successful. Why were the financial burdens so heavy? His perplexity and impatience are reflected in his diary.
June 26, 1914
A very good day in the business, but yet a trying one for
me as I am so constantly short of money. I have to plan all
kinds of ways to get on. It seems strange—yet I know it is
the Lord’s dealing and I try to be content.
The first mention of the “depot” (a word frequently employed by HAI in referring to the store) in his diary follows:
July 23, 1914
A very perplexing day—much troubled in mind because of
difficulties in connection with Tract Depot. Am trying hard
to get all bills paid on time. . . .
Have met several very needy people today and do wish I
had means to assist them.
August 6, 1914
One gets fair worn, waiting and hoping for what seems
long deferred—the means to “provide things honest in the
sight of all men.” Today has tried me much but “I will trust,
and not be afraid.” . . . Thou knowest, O Lord.
October 14, 1914
My 38th birthday—surely more than half of life is done. Even though the Saviour’s coming should not take place in my time, it would seem to be very near. Oh, to use the time that remains more for God than the time that is past!—The saints gave me a surprise supper at the Hall in the evening, and some acceptable gifts—one an envelope containing $52.00.
October 15, 1914
Many perplexing circumstances in connection with financial
matters have made me feel the need of going slow, but
the help of last night meant a great deal. Got a $15.00 suit
today and a very good one for the money.
November 10, 1914
. . . Business cares weigh my spirit and I find it difficult to
rise above them. Lord, help me to confide in Thee more
Ironside was primarily an itinerant Bible teacher, not a sedentary bookstore proprietor. He was obliged to travel a great deal, leaving the running of the depot to volunteer helpers. Then God sent him a wonderful gift—Miss Louise Deimel, who came to the store as an employee several months after the Western Book and Tract Company opened its doors, and stayed there for many years, as long as the business continued. Harry described her as “the right girl in the right place,” which she surely was, bearing the burden of the work in times of depression as well as of prosperity.
In the autumn of that same year HAI was returning to California after several weeks’ ministry in the east. He was scheduled to visit the Laguna Indians along the way and, on the train, became interested in observing six Dominican sisters in animated conversation.12 He looked for an opportunity to talk with them and was disappointed to hear them speaking in German, with which he was not acquainted. He had about given up hope when a young man at the far end of the coach took a violin out of its case and started to play. Other passengers put aside whatever they were doing and began to hum or to sing as the violinist played tunes familiar to them. In time he hit upon a German melody which was known to the nuns, and some of them sang the words to his accompaniment. The song was familiar to Harry also, for several German Mennonite missionaries, who worked among the Indians, had translated some of their hymns into the Hopi tongue. It was such a hymn that was being rendered now by this strange choir, and Harry, enjoying it, must have evinced his pleasure unconsciously, for the older nun (the other five were quite young) leaned toward him and spoke in excellent English.
“These dear children! They enjoy this so much. You see, we are German nuns on our way to California. Our convent at home was destroyed during the war, and we are going out into a new country. I think of these young sisters as my children, for I am the Mother Superior. They are so homesick! Everything is so different here, and that melody has stirred them deeply, for it reminds them of the old country. They were a part of the convent choir at home.” She seemed to expect Ironside to reply, for she kept looking at him interrogatively.
Delighted at this opportunity he responded, telling her that he too was familiar with the song they were singing. He explained that he knew neither the German nor English words, but that he had heard the Hopi Indians sing the hymn in their own language.
“Do you mean,” she inquired, “that there are some of those dark people, the American Indians, with whom you are acquainted, who really know and love our Lord Jesus Christ?”
Thrilled with the question—for she certainly spoke as one who knew Christ herself—HAI told her that
there were many genuine Christians among the Indian tribes. As soon as the violinist ceased playing, therefore, Sister Gregoria asked Harry if he would be willing to tell the nuns something about the work, if she would act as his interpreter. To this he assented eagerly.
Of course, in describing the missionary work among the Indians, Ironside was solicitous to bring into his tale the gospel of salvation in Christ and justification by faith. He was careful to avoid contention or criticism. When he had concluded his “lecture,” Sister Gregoria asked him if he were a missionary himself. He replied that he was one who gave his full time to preaching the gospel and that this was how he happened to know something of the work among the Indians, as for a number of years he had devoted several months a year to visiting and preaching Christ to them.
“I do hope,” the Mother Superior said, “that you are a good Catholic.”
“Though I cannot claim any goodness of my own,” he replied, “I can assure you that I am a member of the holy catholic Church, purchased by our Lord Jesus Christ with His own blood.”
This brought questions, of course, and Harry, remembering that the Apostle Paul said, “I am all things to all men,” alluded to the writings of some of the Roman Catholic fathers, as he explained how unrighteous sinners obtain righteousness through faith and that they are made fit for God’s holy presence by grace alone. He showed them, for example, how St. Bernard of Clairvaux had exclaimed when he was dying, “Holy, holy Jesus, Thy wounds are my merits!”
“You astonish me,” Sister Gregoria said. “You seem to be familiar with all the saints, most unusual for one who is not a Roman Catholic.”
“Oh, but you see,” he replied, “I try to familiarize myself with all of them, for all the saints belong to me, and I belong to them. More than that, through the infinite grace of the Lord Jesus Christ I myself am a saint!”
“A saint!” she cried out in amazement. “Kinder!” she exclaimed in German to the younger nuns, and spoke quickly and excitedly, words that Ironside was sure were something like this, “Children! It seems hardly possible for me to believe my ears, but this man says that he himself is a saint!”
It was their turn to look at him in astonishment— which they did. Surely they thought that all the saints were dead, but here was a man who was very much alive and claimed to be one. They showed clearly by their amused glances at him that they considered him to be just a little out of his mind. But this gave him the very opportunity he wanted—to show from the Bible that a saint is one who has been set apart by and is separated to God through the precious blood of Christ, through His atoning work on the cross, and that all who have put their trust in Him as the Son of God and Saviour from sin are called saints in His Word. He referred to passage after passage, which Sister Gregoria, in turn, interpreted for her “children.”
So all through the day they plied him with questions which he answered gladly. As they separated at Albuquerque, it was with the acknowledgment that all of them had been edified by the things of Christ which were discussed. Harry felt assured that their hearts had been receptive to the truth of God’s Word, which will not return unto Him void.
9 Eight-month old John was sleeping in a crib across the room.
10 Along with other Brethren writers of that era, Ironside’s name did not appear on either the cover or the title page of his books but simply his initials— Hal. In later years most of the Brethren began to identify themselves by name, and so did H. A. Ironside; for the reading public wants to know precisely whose books they are reading. However, Ironside became quite well known as HAI, and these initials will be used in this volume from time to time in reference to him.
11 Timothy O. Loizeaux was associated with Paul in this venture; hence the firm name.
12 In telling elsewhere of this experience (Random Reminiscences, Loizeaux Brothers, Inc., 1939) Ironside states that there were eight nuns. This is doubtless due to lapse of memory. The number six has been taken directly from his diary, as written on the date of the adventure.