When Harry Ironside became pastor of the Moody Church in 1930, the church’s indebtedness amounted to $319,500, a large sum of money in those days. On December 31, 1943 the final note of the indebtedness was burned. The benevolent outreach of the church was not curtailed so as to accomplish this; in fact, whereas there were ninety-two Moody Church missionaries on the field when HAI assumed the pastorate, one hundred and seven were being supported when the mortgage was discharged.
By 1944 Ironside, who had assumed personal responsibility for notes totaling about $15,000 owed by the Western Book and Tract Company, repaid all the investors who desired reimbursement and reorganized the firm into a nonprofit religious corporation.
The year 1946 was Harry’s seventieth. He began to think about resigning his pastorate, feeling that he was now too old to appeal to young people. Furthermore, he was obviously aware that his audiences were beginning to diminish. For the past year the Sunday morning worship services attracted only about 2,500 people, which means that while the first floor of the auditorium was usually full, the gallery was sparsely occupied. One of the reasons for this, of course, was the city’s gradual migration to the suburbs. To commute to the church was inconvenient, especially in inclement weather, and it was fairly expensive. Two trips a day were most difficult for many of the members. Ironside felt that a younger and more dynamic man than he might be better for the church. As he sought the Lord’s will he continued his usual grueling schedule.
A marked change took place in the lives of the Ironsides in 1947. Helen’s physical condition, resulting from a coronary thrombosis, was worsening—not pain, actually, but weakness and severe headaches kept her miserable. Entries in HAI’s annual journal read like this: “Helen worse.” “Helen had a very bad night.” “Sat up with Helen part of the night.” “Thought Helen was slipping away.” At the same time Harry’s vision was failing. Both his eyes, in which cataracts had begun to form several years previously, were becoming more and more cloudy, although the cataracts were not sufficiently formed to require surgery, or so he had been told. He was able to keep on with his work, although with some difficulty. Only the day after he wrote to a friend, saying, “My sight seems to be leaving me,” his diary notation reads:
Worked in the office till noon. “Ezekiel” now ready to be mailed. Thank God. It is probably the last large book I shall ever be able to write. 25
In September, while he was in Memphis for a series of meetings, he called upon Dr. Wesley McKinney, a Christian friend and distinguished eye surgeon, who advised an operation whenever HAI could arrange a convenient time.
The journals were now written in a scrawl that became increasingly difficult to decipher. Just discernible is a comment made on November 24, 1948:”I realize that I am a tired old man.” On December 31 about 1,800 people attended the Watch Night Service at Moody Church. The next day Harry wrote in his diary:
During the past year I have given 569 addresses besides participating in many other ways.
As the year closes my dear wife Helen is still in a very serious condition, but we are hoping that it may please God to raise her up and spare her to us for some time to come. John [Ironside] left us today for Winona Lake after having been with us four days, as we both felt that the worst was over and that we might expect Helen to improve from now on.
This statement has been copied from the last page of the last diary Harry Ironside ever kept. From this time on he owned a diary but used it only to make notations concerning dates and places of future speaking engagements.
January 5, 1948 marked the Ironsides’ Golden Wedding Anniversary. The occasion was celebrated at the church but it lacked luster because the “bridegroom” was there without his “bride.” The ceremony was piped over to the Ironside apartment at the Plaza Hotel so that Helen, who was there with her now constant companion Miss Anna,26 could hear the toasts and comments and Harry’s responses to them. She was pleased with everything.
Mrs. Ironside’s periods of discomfort increased as the months passed. Only seldom was she despondent; most of the time she enjoyed the pleasures that were available to her. She did not lose her interest in life; for example, she was very fond of animals and used to watch the horses and carts she could see from her hotel window. She felt the optimism that her physician and family had expressed to her at the turn of the year, and she had the added pleasure of Harry’s presence a great deal more than in years past, for he now accepted few out-of-town engagements—only in places within twenty-four hours’ reach of Chicago.
Sometime in mid-1947 HAI had made an engagement to speak for several days in Minneapolis in April 1948. As the date approached he felt reluctant to leave Helen. He told her he thought he should cancel his appointment, but she urged him to carry on, reasoning that God had called him to preach the Word, she was no worse than she had been for several weeks, and there was really nothing he could do for her at home. They prayed about the matter and with common consent he departed. A few days later, while Harry was on the train returning from Minneapolis, Helen was taken into the presence of the Lord. The time was 2 A.M., May 1, 1948. Gilbert and Lillian Koppin, with Miss Anna, met the train at the station in Chicago and broke the news to HAI.
The funeral service was held at the church. Associate Pastors Hermansen27 and Pugmire respectively opened and closed the service; Beverly Shea, gospel soloist, sang two of Helen’s favorite hymns, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” and “I Shall Be Satisfied”; Dr. J. Palmer Muntz of Winona Lake spoke a few appropriate words; Dr. Henry Hepburn, once pastor of the Buena Memorial Presbyterian Church, read the Scripture; and Dr. William Culbertson, president of the Moody Bible Institute, preached the funeral sermon. Helen’s body was buried in the plot Harry had purchased only months earlier.
Harry blamed himself because of his absence when Helen died. For months he seemed to carry a sense of guilt which he could not be persuaded was unnecessary. It was nothing more than the emotional reaction of an aging and tired man.
Not many weeks after the Lord took Helen, Harry had a misadventure, doubtless due to his failing sight. He fell down a flight of stairs at the church and against a door leading out to La Salle Street. Pugmire and others who heard the noise rushed down to help him. They found him sprawled on the floor stunned, and they lifted him up. He complained that his shoulder hurt him but insisted it was really nothing. He would go over to the apartment, he said, and put some linament on it. Pugmire told HAI that he would do nothing of the sort, that he (Pugmire) was going to drive him to the hospital for an X ray. Harry protested—no hospital for him, he said; he had engagements to keep. But Herb Pugmire was adamant and almost carried him to the car for the drive to the Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago. The X ray revealed that HAI had a broken shoulder.
The Pugmires insisted that Ironside stay in their apartment in Oak Park for a while rather than that he should be at the Plaza Hotel alone. The Koppins lived in the same apartment building as the Pugmires, so Lillian would be able to attend to some of his needs. Meanwhile the Pugmires would stay elsewhere. Arrangements were made and carried out, and for several weeks HAI spent his days reading and working while seated in the comfortable chair he had given Herbert Pugmire the preceding year. The preacher of Ecclesiastes said, “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days” (11:1). So Harry’s kindness to his associate returned to him in Oak Park.
On May 30, 1948 Pastor Ironside submitted his resignation to the executive committee of the Moody Church, to become effective October 31. The resignation was accepted “with exceedingly great and heartfelt regret,” and with thanks to God as expressed below:
…for these eighteen fruitful years, during which he has been so mightily used here, and elsewhere throughout the country, and abroad, in the salvation of hundreds, yes, thousands of precious souls, in the building up of the saints in their most holy faith, and in the example of Christian meekness and humility he has demonstrated... It is our fervent prayer that, as the Lord tarries, He may continue to use this talented and consecrated instrument of His grace, in the labor he so loves, the sowing of the seed, the cultivating of the vineyard, and the harvesting of the souls of men and women for whom Christ died.
As much as Harry loved the church and the sheep over which God had made him shepherd, now that his decision had been made and his resignation submitted and accepted, he could hardly wait for the next four months to pass. He still experienced periods of depression about the fact that he was not with Helen when God took her, and he missed her. Sometimes, when he was coming home late after a speaking engagement, he automatically stopped in an Italian fruit store near the Plaza to buy a tidbit to take up to Helen, as had been his custom—until he was brought to a halt quickly, remembering she was not there. To a prominent member of the church’s executive committee he confessed one day that he felt his work on earth was accomplished, that the sands of time were sinking rapidly, and he was waiting eagerly to be taken to Heaven.
From Wednesday, October 27, through Sunday, October 31, farewell meetings arranged by various organizations of the church were held to honor their beloved retiring pastor. They were happy occasions, of course, although it seemed to some of the people as though the ministry of Moody Church could hardly go on without Dr. Ironside as leader and guide. That was shallow thinking and not worthy of them. God has a servant prepared for every task and, knowing this, their despair was short-lived. HAI’s final remarks may be summed up in these words:
My heart’s desire and prayer to God for all of you is that through grace each may be led into a deeper knowledge of Christ and a more intense love for the Word of God. Let me close with the words of the Apostle Paul to the elders of Ephesus, “I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you an inheritance among all them that are sanctified.” I shall look forward with joy to the great reunion at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together unto Him. How good it is to know that Christians never meet for the last time!
So ended HAI’s Moody Church years. God’s servant, who sixty years earlier as a lad of twelve prayed, while he was listening to D. L. Moody preach, “Lord, help me someday to preach to crowds like these, and to lead souls to Christ,” had finished his course at the church that Moody founded.
25 HAI was mistaken. His volume, The Prophet Isaiah, was finished late in 1950 and published posthumously in 1952. See comments about this book on page 226.
26 Miss Anna was a competent and compatible registered nurse.
27 (Howard A. Hermansen, who went to Moody Church upon HAI’s invitation shortly after World War II, is currently (1976) retired and living with his wife in Shell Point Village, Fort Myers, Florida.