The life story of Harry Ironside cannot be punctuated with his inner thoughts and general philosophy. It is a tale of a man in motion. He had little time for the kind of meditative essays that may be found in the writings of the Puritans and the saintly authors of the nineteenth century. This is not to say that Harry did not commune with God. How could a man live in the Scriptures as he did without honoring and adoring the Persons of the Godhead—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit? He delighted in knowing by his own experience the favor of God, a fact that is easily discernible in his diaries.
Today has tried me much but “I will trust, and not be afraid.” . . . Thou knowest, O Lord.
My 38th birthday. Surely more than half my life is done.22 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.
Cares weigh my spirit, and I find it difficult to rise above them. Lord, help me to confide in Thee more implicitly.
“Reckon ye yourselves dead indeed unto sin” (Romans 6:11). I feel very keenly how feebly I enter into all this.
Harry was devoted to his family, and while the relationship between him and Helen was not always smooth, this is not astonishing. It is not that Helen was unsympathetic with his calling or not proud of his accomplishments. However, Harry’s zeal for Christ and conscientiousness in exercising it took him away from home so much—sometimes for weeks or months—that life was not easy for his wife. This may be somewhat of an understatement. The responsibility of bringing up and disciplining two young boys was entirely hers. Furthermore, for more than twenty years the household was run on a hand-to-mouth financial program. This disturbed Helen. It is easy to cite an old adage that “all is well when it is God’s hand that feeds our mouths,” a maxim that is true indeed; but ask anyone who has lived “by faith” how difficult His testing is sometimes. Helen trusted the Lord to supply her needs according to His promises, yet making ends meet required that she stretch the cord mighty tight sometimes.
Helen was somewhat temperamental and it bothered her that so many silly women made a fuss over her husband. When he was home she was possessive of him; when he was away from home she was jealous of him. There can be no question that Harry had a burning compulsion to preach the Word whenever and wherever he could do so and rarely declined an invitation to speak, unless it was physically impossible for him to accept. But there is some question as to the wisdom of his extended absences from his home. It is not fair to Helen, however, to suggest that she opposed Harry’s itinerant ministry. Often in their early days they prayed together about the matter. The Lord came first in their lives—this was always so. They sought will and submitted to it insofar as they knew it. Many commercial salesmen are on the road as much as Harry was, and Harry was an ambassador of the King! Should he sacrifice less than they?
In the thousands of pages of HAI’s diary he mentions again and again his affection for Helen. He reveals that he missed her a great deal, that he was thinking of her and remembering such-and-such an occasion and how much he disliked being away from his family. No matter what city he visited he tried to find some little gift to take to her when he should get home. It might be only a piece of ribbon, a handkerchief, a small trinket of some kind, but almost always something. I know this because I was with him on a number of occasions when he did his shopping—often at a drugstore or a five-and-ten, to be sure, but this only because he had little money to spend. In later years he was able to do better. For example, one time Harry brought a present from Canada. His diary reads: “Helen was delighted with some English china I brought over.” On another occasion, when HAI had been in Dallas for the week preceding Good Friday and Easter, he came home without a gift. The next night he wrote in his journal, “After lunch I went down town [in Chicago] and bought a couple of dresses for Helen. She likes them very much.” There is pathos in Harry’s comments in his 1947 journal, when Helen was quite ill. After having completed a series of messages in Florida he wrote:
March 4, 1947
En route to Chicago. Was thoroughly tired physically and mentally, and slept nearly all day. ... I keep thinking of Helen and hoping and praying all is going well with her.
Here and there comments appear about “poor Helen” this and “poor Helen” that, or “Helen sick at 11 P.M. Had to be up with her all night,” or “Helen coughed a great deal,” and “Helen is not at all well. I am much concerned about her.” Only about one entry in nearly 7,500 pages suggests less than complete accord between husband and wife, and this was at a time when she was unwell.
June 30, 1947
Helen does not seem well. She broods a good deal. I wish there might be more of the joy of the Lord.
With Harry Ironside there was never anyone else than Helen Schofield Ironside. She was the wife of his youth and of his mature years also. It would never have occurred to him to look at another woman. Once, when a lovely lady chided him gently for not recalling that he had met her several years earlier at a certain Bible conference, he responded, “Well, you know, I simply don’t remember all the nice ladies I meet. You see, I have a perfectly good wife at home.”
During their half century of marriage the Ironsides experienced times of rejoicing and times of sorrow. Their two sons, both of whom wandered far from the Lord as young men, were restored to Him. It will be recalled that Edmund came back to Christ after he and Freda had lost all that they possessed in the Florida hurricane of 1928. The senior Ironsides were filled with joy at Ed’s return to the Lord, and then in 1939, when John and Sally committed themselves to Christ, Harry wrote:
The thing that has meant more to us this month than anything else has been a letter from John telling of his surrender to Christ for full-time service. It was so wonderfully written, and is the answer to our prayers of many years— and it just broke us down before the Lord.
In the summer of 1941 HAI was scheduled to direct the General Conference at Montrose, Pennsylvania. During the train trip from Chicago he was quite concerned about Edmund, who had suffered a coronary thrombosis a few days earlier. Harry’s journal on the day of his arrival reads:
July 25, 1941
Reached Buffalo at about 8:45 and left on D. L. & W. at 10 A.M. Arrived at New Milford about 4:50 and was driven to Montrose.
Just after dinner I received a telegram from Freda telling me that Edmund had just passed away. I have a son in Heaven—but oh, how I shall miss him down here!
I was with Dr. Ironside that day, since I too was to speak at the conference. Understandably Ed’s death at forty-two was a great shock to his father, who seemed stunned. After communicating with Helen and John he made arrangements to leave the next day for Dallas, where he preached Edmund’s funeral sermon. The topic: “Thanks be unto God for His unspeakable gift.” Entries in the diary are too personal and too sacred to be cited.
More than two hundred friends, both black and white, attended the service. No higher compliment to Ed and to his understanding of and interest in the black students at the Southern Bible Training Institute could have been paid than that which was spoken by one of them, “Edmund Ironside was the blackest white man I ever knew.”
Life and work must go on, and within a few days HAI was back in the harvest field. Yet the shock of Edmund’s death weighed heavily upon him for many months and left him brain-weary. He knew that the Lord does all things well. He rejoiced for Ed, but try as he would he seemed unable to cast off a blanket of grief. Time heals, though, and in due course—really through the months of sorrow—Harry’s confidence in the love of God and His peace sustained him. Writing me later about Edmund and his seemingly unfinished task, HAI said:
Nature would try to raise questions, but faith rests in the sense of the infinite wisdom and love of God. Our hearts find wonderful peace as we dwell on the blessed estate of the dead in Christ. Surely nothing can be more wonderful than this: “They shall see His face.” And then when we talk of work interrupted, we need to remember there is a work over yonder doubtless far more important than anything which can be done here, for it is written: “His servants shall serve Him.”
In 1934 Harry purchased a house in Wheaton, Illinois, because Lillian was to enter Wheaton Academy that autumn. He had seen the faith of his sons wrecked in secular institutions of higher learning and he wanted to spare Lillian that travail. It seemed senseless for her to commute between Chicago and Wheaton and, in view of the fact that he himself was away from the city much of the time during the week, the Wheaton house could serve as home for Helen and Lillian. On weekends they could come into Chicago, where he would still maintain an apartment in the Plaza Hotel.
Lillian graduated from Wheaton Academy in 1938 and from Wheaton College in 1943. In 1944 she married Gilbert Koppin, Jr. who was in the armed services at the time, receiving his discharge in 1946.23 In 1944, therefore, Helen moved back to the hotel in Chicago.
Throughout his whole life Harry had little time for relaxation, especially after the mid-twenties. In the California years he went fishing several times but, as he admitted, he caught very few fish. “Others got some
fine trout,” he wrote once, “but I do not seem to be an expert.” Ironside was fond of music too. He would occasionally go out to Idora Park in Oakland and listen to an outdoor band. One of the entries in his diary reads:
May 17, 1913
Very tired and weary physically and mentally today, so after lunch went to Idora Park and sat quietly in the open air and listened to a band, which I enjoyed and found quieting and soothing.
Philately was Harry’s special hobby. He had unusual opportunities to gather stamps in his Moody Church years, for not only did the church support more than one hundred foreign missionaries but in addition he, as president of the Africa Inland Mission, was in personal correspondence with hundreds of other servants of Christ in Africa. Ironside was never timid about asking people for special stamps because in return he would promise to send them some of his books. Time and strength to enjoy fully this hobby were wanting. Only infrequently does his journal mention spending an evening sorting stamps.
Harry never really learned to play. The fact is that he never wanted to play. His one great passion was to make Christ known by preaching the gospel and expounding the Scriptures. How could he idle away the time, he thought, when there was so much to be done? His thoughts ran to the world’s greatest need and all else was sublimated to that. “Lord, save the lost!” “Would that Christ were more before these people!” “O God, revive Thy work in the midst of the years!” These thoughts ruled his mind. It was most difficult for him, even as a young man, to sit still while needy men and women were on their way to a Christless grave. His attitude may be summed up in a journal entry made way back in 1914. He and Helen had gone to the home of friends for dinner and, upon his return to their own house, he wrote:
July 16,1914 A great feast they had in Spanish style. . . . Music and dancing followed, and I could only sit in a corner and I fear I was considered rude and peculiar. Ah, well—my day is coming. Then I, too, shall dance!
Do not suppose that Harry Ironside never erred. In his peak years he was held in high esteem by almost all evangelicals. He was often spoken of facetiously as the Archbishop of Fundamentalism, a title that amused him but also, I suspect, pleased him. There were occasions, however—not many of them—when he toppled from his high pedestal in the esteem of several of his intimates and other admirers—when he allowed bitterness to rule over his normally impartial judgment. I have no doubt that in every instance HAI was confident of his rectitude. When all is said and done, his heart was open before God. It was his life’s pattern to seek the Lord’s will and to do it. He knew of some of his own imperfections and that there were other failings of which he might be unaware. Harry, like King David (who certainly was not without faults), was a man after God’s own heart, whose greatest desire at all times was to be right with the Lord.
I knew HAI quite well for about thirty years and spent many hours with him, not only at Bible conferences and committee meetings but also visiting the sick upon occasion and in fellowship with other believers. I found him headstrong sometimes, but agreeably so and usually willing to grant other people benefit of doubt. When I told his daughter-in-law, Sally Ironside, that I thought it would be foolish to pretend in this book that HAI was perfect, she replied, “I know you’re right, but it’s hard for me to realize he was anything but perfect.” This, mind you, of one who was her father-in-law for nineteen years!
Ironside possessed a keen sense of humor. He was not a person to tell jokes just for a joke’s sake, but he had a way of seeing the amusing side of incidents of daily living and would draw on them. “I think I know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was,” he said once, “it’s his choir director.”
Many times in his early travels Harry was provided with accommodations that were anything but comfortable, to say the least. There were occasions when he was obliged to share a room or even a bed with a boy or young man of the household. No complaint can be found in his journals except by inference, such as when he wrote: “I have a bed all to myself! As I am a real crank about sleeping alone I know I shall enjoy it.” Over all, however, Ironside felt that his friends treated him far better than he deserved. I recall the first time I arranged for his accommodation was in Philadelphia in 1933. I had reserved a room for him in the Drake Hotel, which was considerably better than what he was accustomed to. Coming down to the lobby to meet me for dinner, he said, “My dear brother, you have engaged far too luxurious accommodations for me.”
Fearing that he might think he would have to pay the bill, I assured him that it was already taken care of.
“Yes, I know,” he said, “but I should hate to have the Apostle Paul see me coming out of this place. This is hardly learning to be abased!”
“Perhaps you have already learned that,” was my answer. “Oh, well,” he replied, “Paul said, too, that we should learn to abound. But you shouldn’t do this for an old tramp like me.”
When I was preparing to write an earlier biography of HAI, he wrote to me:
January 6, 1943
My dear Brother:
When you get to doing my biography, please be careful to get facts. Recently it has been stated in print that I am rather a big fellow, for two inches has been added to my stature, something the Lord Himself intimated could not be done.
On his sixty-eighth birthday he took time to send a handwritten note:
October 14, 1944
I do not feel appreciably older today, although I suppose I should—but that will come later on. You remember the story of the Scot who celebrated his one hundredth birthday. A friend said to him, “Well, Sandy, I congratulate you, but I’m afraid ye’ll no be here to celebrate a second hundred.” To this Sandy replied, “I’m not so sure of that. The fact is, I am feeling very much stronger to begin this second hundred than I was when I began the first.”
Never one to ask money for himself, Harry had a genuine interest in a number of evangelical enterprises and it gave him pleasure to tell the Christian public about them. As a consequence he was frequently asked at Bible conferences to “lift the offering,” and he never declined these opportunities, so much so that he said that, should the Lord not come again before his death, he was sure the engraving on his tombstone would read:
and the beggar died also
The impression of HAI that was left with those who knew him well was of his unfailing thoughtfulness and kindness. For example, he was punctual. I suppose I must have called for him in various places forty or more times. Never did he keep me waiting but was always at the appointed place at the appointed time.
Another illustration of his thoughtfulness comes to mind in relationship with his associates at Moody Church, for whom he did many things. When Herbert J. Pugmire joined the pastoral staff in 1947, he and his family moved into an apartment in Oak Park, Illinois.24 Herbert is a large man and mentioned to HAI that he never seemed able to find a comfortable chair. A week or so later Harry asked him to go shopping with him and, while they were in a furniture store, HAI looked at some stuffed upholstered chairs and said to his associate, “Herbert, try that chair and see if it’s comfortable.” The younger man thought his pastor was looking for something for himself, but he sat down in the chair anyhow.
“Is it comfortable?” Harry asked.
“Yes, it is.”
“Are you certain?” Ironside inquired; and when Pugmire assured him that it was, Ironside ordered the chair, telling the salesman to deliver it to the Pugmire address, but to send the bill to H. A. Ironside.
Another evidence of HAI’s kindness was his custom of listening to every message of every speaker who shared in a conference program with him, no matter how young or inexperienced or even boring that person might be. Not many well-known preachers are so thoughtful. Furthermore, Ironside would always try to say a word of encouragement to these people, if it was
possible to do so. Sometimes it was not possible. Then he confined his remarks to his diary, as for example, “I heard Dr. — — — last night ... a wretched case of misapplication of Scripture.”
Not from Harry Ironside but from some who have benefited from his benevolence I have learned of dozens of incidents which reveal unusual grace on the part of a busy man. I mention just a few. A poor, young preacher came to see HAI in his office—discouraged, with no church and no engagements. After talking with him Harry sent him through the Moody Bible Institute, starting him on his way with a new suit of clothes… Calling upon a long-time friend in a distant city, HAI discovered his friend was not at home and talked with his now-grown daughter. He asked her if she had received Christ as her Saviour and, upon hearing a rather uncertain reply, said to her, “You know, dear girl, I hope you will trust in Him. I have prayed for you many years, and I shall continue to do so.” … A Pullman porter with whom HAI chatted on an overnight journey, to whom he sent a set of expository books... A friend with whom Harry had lunch artlessly mentioned that his financial circumstances might require him to withdraw his daughter from college. The next day the man received a check from Ironside for ten dollars with a promise of a like amount every month until the young lady should graduate.
I shall never forget a personal experience of some quarter century ago. Ironside was speaking for a week at a young people’s Bible conference situated about eighteen miles from our summer cottage. I drove down there at noon one day to bring him back to our home for lunch. I mentioned, when we shook hands, that it was my wife’s birthday. When he learned this he walked over to a bed of flowers on the conference grounds and, stooping down, picked a few and got into the car. Mrs. English said that the picture she would carry of him to her dying day was of his getting out of the car when we reached our cottage and walking down the driveway with the little bouquet in his hand. Nothing could have made her happier than this act of thoughtfulness on the part of a busy and weary man. It was something that anyone might have done—but few other than HAI would have done it.
22 A fair prophecy! The date of this diary entry is October 14, 1914. HAI went to be with Christ on January 15, 1951 at the age of seventy-four years and three months.
23 Currently (1976) the Koppins live in Indianapolis, Indiana. They have three sons—Gordon, John, and David.
24 Currently (1976) Dr. Pugmire is president of the Heritage Baptist Institute, Cleveland, Ohio.