It is no small accomplishment to draw an audience of about 4,000 people Sunday morning after Sunday morning and almost as many on Sunday evenings. Harry Ironside did this in the Moody Church for the greater part of eighteen years. He did it apart from the use of dramatic sermon titles or so-called added attractions but simply by expounding the Scriptures.
Ironside was not really a topical preacher. He was a verse-by-verse Bible expositor. Because in certain quarters custom fancied that the subject matter of sermons appear in newspaper notices and church bulletins, he would give out sermon titles in advance. They were nothing more than convenient allusions to passages of Scripture. Suppose his announced topic was “Poor Gallic” The message would be an exposition of Acts 18, beginning at verse 12. “Assurance by the Word” might be HAI’s designation of the whole fifth chapter of First John. I recall a message that was advertised as “God Revealed in Christ.” It was a comparison between and meditation upon John 1:18 and Hebrews 1:3. If he had been asked to announce a title of an address he was planning to make on Exodus 35 (which has to do with gifts for the Tabernacle), he might have said, “Oh, call it ‘Cords and Pins.’ “His address would follow his usual style—a verse-by-verse exposition of the chapter.
It has been said that HAI was the despair of many professors of homiletics; for not infrequently, when an instructor would emphasize some rule of the science of preaching, a student might say, “Dr. Ironside doesn’t do it that way.” No, he didn’t do it that way. Dr. Ironside had a way all his own.
Ironside was saturated with the Scriptures. No tedious hours needed to be spent preparing a message. I cannot recollect a single entry in his diaries that mentions sermon preparation. However, behind every message there were years of study. For one hour every day he had his own early “morning watch.” This hour was devoted to intense study of the Bible and prayer.
Perhaps there are some who have tired of hearing HAI, but I never met such a person. His associate pastors and elders must have listened to him hundreds and hundreds of times at Moody Church. Others traveled from Bible conference to Bible conference where he spoke. Still others sat at his feet in theological seminaries and Bible institutes; and others, like the author, listened to him expound the Word of God and read his writings for decades without ever wearying of them but rather being refreshed by them. A conservative count of the messages he delivered during the span of his Moody Church years would be around 7,500. Anyone who knew HAI would agree with me, I think, that he doubtless approached the pulpit the 7,500th time with as much eagerness and enthusiasm as he did the first time.
Dr. Ironside was an evangelical Christian. He
adhered without equivocation to all the truths which are pillars of the faith; for example, the verbal inspiration of the Old and New Testament Scriptures, the virgin birth and deity of Christ, the necessity for and efficacy of His atoning sacrifice for sin and the sinner, His bodily resurrection from the grave and His ascension into Heaven, His premillennial return to the earth to judge and rule, that man’s salvation is by God’s grace through faith, and all that these doctrines involve.
Harry’s resonant and powerful speaking voice was a tremendous asset to his preaching. He knew how to use it and had no need of the amplifying facilities so important today to many preachers and singers who would be otherwise ineffectual, not only outdoors but in large auditoriums as well. At the same time HAI’s voice was expressive and warm. It could be bathed in pathos or harsh with contempt.
Ironside’s popularity as a speaker was further augmented by the unaffectedness of his person, the authority with which he spoke, the evident clarity of his thoughts, the simplicity of his teaching, and the brevity of his talks, which rarely exceeded thirty-five minutes. He felt that if he could not get his message to the audience in that length of time it was not worth preaching, and furthermore, that it was better to say too little than too much.
An exceptionally retentive memory aided HAI immeasurably. Steeped in the Scriptures, as he was, it is not astonishing that he was able to call forth passage after passage of the Bible without having consciously memorized them. Many men who are constantly on the platform are able to bring to their minds instantly citations they need from the Word. But Harry had virtually total recall of anything he had ever read—not only from the Bible but from hymns, poems, and secular literature also. While addressing an audience he might quote an obscure poem and, when asked about it later, say it was something he had read thirty or forty years earlier in his life.
One of the most astounding examples of HAI’s memory took place about a year before his death, at a time when he was almost completely blind because of cataracts in both eyes. I heard him give a series of verse-by-verse studies of the Revelation over a period of two weeks. Before each message someone read a chapter of Revelation. Then Dr. Ironside expounded that chapter, introducing each verse in its proper sequence and explaining the meaning of the verse, then going on to the next verse, and so on through the chapter, not once having to have his memory refreshed by the rereading of a particular verse or even a clause. This is fantastic.
Many speakers have a keen memory of Bible passages, not because they have made a point of learning them but because of constant reading of the Scriptures. I myself used to cite long passages of the Bible as I spoke. I could also recite some of the shorter books or important chapters from beginning to end. But never, never could I have interrupted myself after each verse, expound it, and then pick up where I had left off in the passage. Harry Ironside possessed a remarkable gift from God which he was able to employ for the glory of God.
A friend wrote me of having been at a service in Durham, North Carolina, where Ironside was the speaker. This was in 1949. An old lady sat down next to her and said, “When my children told me there was a big preacher from Chicago here, I said, ‘Well, I ain’t goin.’
“They said, ‘Aw, Mamma, go once and if you don’t like him, don’t go any more.’
“Well, I ain’t missed a night, and he ain’t said a thing I ain’t understood.”
It was his simplicity that made Harry Ironside profound.