9. I Have Commanded The Ravens To Feed Thee

The young couple, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Allan Ironside, took a year’s lease on an apartment in San Francisco even though they knew that they would have to be on the road a great deal of the time. They needed a place for their furniture and other possessions, and Harry’s expanding library required space too.

There was one occasion of testing when they were in Sacramento for a month, living in a house supplied them by the Brethren group to whom Harry was ministering. Mrs. Schofield, Helen’s mother, visited them unexpectedly. Funds were quite low; in fact the only food in the house was a sack of beans. The day Mrs. Schofield arrived Helen served beans for luncheon and beans again for supper. The next morning the breakfast fare was the same. When beans composed the menu for lunch the second day Mrs. Schofield, who had been silent to this time concerning the peculiar diet, could hold her tongue no longer.

“Helen,” she exclaimed, “you two are the greatest hands for beans I’ve ever seen in my life! I didn’t bring you up this way.”

Without so much as raising an eyebrow Helen answered, “Well, Mama, Harry is so fond of beans.”

“It’s all right to be fond of them,” Mrs. Schofield said, “but surely you don’t want them all the time.”

Harry got up from the table and went to his room, where he knelt down and implored the Lord to break the monotony. Later in the afternoon, as he was walking to the post office, he met an old Scotsman who had been attending the evening services at the gospel hall. He handed Harry a dollar. The young preacher lost his “fondness” for beans in a hurry and, finding a butcher shop, bought some provisions. A dollar went a long way in 1898, and the family of three had a banquet that evening.

Again and again the Ironsides were called upon to exercise faith in God for their daily needs. They considered these experiences testing times. If Harry was to preach concerning the Lord’s loving care of His people, he must experience for himself and Helen a trusting spirit under trying circumstances. How can a believer ever be thought worthy to rule in many things, he used to ask himself, unless he has proved himself faithful in a few things?

Nevertheless there were times when Harry became extremely despondent; but only once did he seriously consider leaving full-time ministry in the Lord’s service for secular employment. The young couple had been without food for two days. Despite their plight Helen, whose faith never wavered at any time, prayed that her husband’s faith would not fail under this trial, that he would not turn aside from what both of them had agreed was God’s purpose for his life—to preach the gospel without charge to anyone, waiting contentedly for whatever might come to him from the hand of God. That very afternoon Harry received a five-dollar gold piece provided by his heavenly Father through a friend. The Lord knew that this was the precise hour to meet the need of His faithful if faltering servant.

Late that same year, while the Ironsides were still in Sacramento, word came that Harry’s mother was very ill. They felt that they must leave immediately for Long Beach, where the Watsons were then living, not only to nurse Sophia through her sickness but also to assist her by taking care of Lillian, four-year-old daughter of the Watsons. Within a few days after the young couple’s arrival at the Watson home, Harry’s mother was taken into the presence of Christ. This was a period of deep trial in many ways for Harry and Helen. No ties were left, it seemed, in the little family that had come from Ontario to California, for Harry’s brother John was then living in the Philippines. And then, only a few months later, Helen’s father died.

As sunshine follows rain, so rejoicing succeeded sorrow in the Ironside family. On February 10, 1899, in the city of Los Angeles, a son was born to the Ironsides—Edmund Henry. Harry moved Helen and the baby from the apartment in San Francisco to a house in Oakland. They took Lillian, now five, with them (she was, after all, Harry’s half sister), for her father could not care for her properly, since his work now took him to various cities in the midwest. In due course and with her father’s consent, the Daniel McFies, old friends of Watson and childless, brought Lillian into their home and raised her as though she were their own daughter.

From time to time Ironside used to mail some Christian literature to Brethren assemblies and local churches. A gentleman in Fresno who had received encouragement from some of these tracts, wrote Harry and asked him to come to Fresno when circumstances would permit. The correspondent said that he would arrange a number of Bible-teaching meetings for Harry and that the latter could stay in his home while he was there.

Months passed before Ironside had any reason to go to Fresno. But at length he had some engagements in East Bakersfield and, when they were about fulfilled, he got a distinct impression that he should stop off at Fresno on his way back to Oakland. He was somewhat puzzled about this. The Holy Spirit generally speaks to the Lord’s servants through the Word, not by impressions; but Harry’s inward feelings concerning a visit to Fresno were so unusual and persistent that he decided to go there. He gave all his money, excepting one dollar, to Helen and took the train northward. When he stepped off the train at Fresno he left his bag at the station and found his way to the house of his intended host. What was his dismay when he discovered the house closed up! Neighbors informed him that the family would be away some weeks. It seemed a clear rebuke from the Lord, a reprimand to show him not to follow impressions, however strong they might be.

Well, there he was in Fresno and without sufficient money to get home. He went back to the station, recovered his suitcase and looked for inexpensive lodging. He found a room at twenty-five cents a night. It was evening. In his room he bowed his knees, asking God to show him if he had erred and to reveal the next step to him. Perhaps He would give him some indication where he might minister in the city. While he was still praying he heard singing in the street, so he went out. A Salvation Army meeting was in progress. Harry listened for a short time, but when the collection was being taken he departed, feeling that his circumstances hardly permitted his having a share in it. At the very next corner he came across another street meeting, this one under the direction of the Peniel Mission of Los Angeles. The testimonies and the Word as it was given had a good evangelical sound, so he decided to go to their hall, where a service was to be held. When Harry got there the place was nearly filled and he slipped quietly into a seat in the rear and near the door. Glancing at the platform, he was conscious of the fact that two ladies who were seated there, apparently to lead the meeting, were staring at him and whispering about him. That he was noticed immediately on his arrival was not astonishing, for Harry had grown a beard and it was very red. Nonetheless he was rather embarrassed to be the subject of discussion. In a moment, one of the women left the platform and walked directly to him.

“Are you the one who is to preach here tonight?”

“I don’t know,” Harry answered.

“Aren’t you a preacher of the gospel?” she inquired.

“Yes, I am.”

“And haven’t you a message for us tonight?”

“I’m not sure,” Harry replied. “Why do you ask?”

“This other lady and I have charge of the meeting tonight,” she answered. “We were praying today about this evening and it seemed to both of us as though a voice spoke, saying, ‘I shall send My own messenger tonight. You will know him when you see him.’ And so,” she continued, “we were watching every one who entered the door, and when you came in we felt sure that you were God’s messenger.”

Fitting as it did with his own experience, Ironside, who as a rule did not give credence to such a “voice,” accepted it as an opening from God and told the lady how he happened to be in Fresno.

“Then you must be the Lord’s messenger,” was her answer. “Please come to the platform.”

After the service, some expressed gratitude for the message and the two ladies asked the young man to remain for two weeks, holding meetings every night, as well as on the Lord’s day in the afternoon and evening.

This first service was on a Friday night. No one had asked Harry whether he had accommodations and, since he was looking to God to supply his needs, he dared not mention them to others unless they first asked about them. So he stayed that night and the next day at his lodging house, eating very sparingly indeed. Late Saturday afternoon, therefore, absolutely penniless and having had only five-cents’ worth of food all day, he took his suitcase from the room he had been using and asked permission of a druggist to leave his baggage in his store. That evening Harry felt terribly alone and rather discouraged. No food, no lodging— and then his heart lifted as he recalled. Another who said, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay His head.”

Harry usually carried with him a large quantity of gospel tracts. After preaching that night he crossed over into the very worst part of the city, where saloons, dance halls, and gambling houses were in abundance, and visited one after another of these places, giving out tracts and bearing personal testimony when he could find a ready ear. At length all the leaflets, almost 3,000 of them, were disposed of. It was two o’clock in the morning and even the saloons were closing. Not having a place to go, Harry began walking along the trolley tracks and out into the suburbs to the end of the line, where he laid down on a bench in an empty trolley car and tried to sleep. It was a cold night. He could neither keep warm nor make himself comfortable. He tried to pray but seemed unable to do so. He was hardly in the spirit of prayer, for he was complaining to God, on whose promise of Philippians 4:19 he had counted. I have a need, he said to himself, but God has not supplied it. I have been seeking with all my strength to serve Him, and He has failed me. Perplexed and out of sorts, since he could not sleep, he got up at about four o’clock and walked back into the center of the city.

In the grounds of the courthouse he saw a large weeping willow, whose branches hung low on all sides. He crawled under them and managed to sleep for a couple of hours near its trunk. When he wakened it seemed that God was speaking very clearly to him in regard to certain things about which he had allowed himself to become careless. Under the leafy bower of the willow he poured out his heart to Him, confessing his lack of faith, his self-will, and other things that were brought to his remembrance by the Holy Spirit. As the list of errors and failures enlarged he no longer wondered that when he called upon the Lord there had seemed to be no answer; and then he began to praise the Lord for all that He had done and for His unfailing mercies. Refreshed by this hour with the Lord, Harry went over to the fountain by the courthouse, washed his hands and his face, and set off toward the Methodist Church, where he had been invited to teach a class of young men.

Presiding at the opening exercise of the Sunday school was a man who had been Harry’s Sunday school teacher a few years earlier in Los Angeles, who, when Harry made himself known, was overjoyed to see him and took him to a fine dinner after the church services. In the afternoon Harry spoke at Peniel Hall. Following the meeting a young osteopath, who had been helped by the Word, introduced himself and asked, “At what hotel are you staying?”

“I have been staying in such-and-such a section,” Harry said, mentioning the area but no hotel.

“Could you come and stay with me?” the doctor inquired. “I live alone in an apartment where I have a spare room. I get lonesome for Christian fellowship and would be delighted to have you with me as long as you remain in Fresno.”

Harry assented eagerly. His friend offered, then, to walk with him to his hotel for his bag, but Harry, thinking of the drugstore, assured him that that would be unnecessary. So he went alone and before long joined his host in his comfortable apartment.

While supper was being prepared the doctor, observing Harry’s weariness, proposed that he take a nap. The latter, who could hardly keep his eyes open, was only too glad to follow the suggestion. The next thing he knew he was dreaming that he was passing through a most fearful earthquake—only to discover that it was his host trying to rouse him for supper.

“My, Brother Ironside,” he exclaimed, “you certainly are a sound sleeper!”

At the evening service, fortified with two excellent meals and an hour’s sleep, and his heart filled with praise to God for His goodness, the young preacher seemed to have unusual liberty and God wrought in great power. Several confessed Christ as Lord and Saviour at the meeting’s end. Afterward, one after another came to shake Harry’s hand, at the same time slipping money into his palm. When he returned to his friend’s apartment he counted what the Lord had sent him. It was more than twenty-seven dollars! On Monday morning Harry sent a good part of the sum to his wife in Oakland, retaining only sufficient to provide for him through the series of meetings and pay his carfare home.

When he went to the post office the next day, Harry inquired for mail and was handed a letter from his stepfather, William Watson. Taking the letter from its envelope, his eyes fell immediately upon a postscript under Watson’s signature. This is what it said:

“God spoke to me through Philippians 4:19 today. He has promised to supply all our need. Some day He may see that I need a starving. If He does, He will supply that.”

It should not be thought that the Ironsides were always on a-starvation diet or that every day of their lives was marked by a miraculous last-minute provision from God’s hand. Of course God took care of them. Of course they trusted Him to supply their needs. And of course there were long periods when nothing unusual occurred, when life went on day by day in much the same way it does with most of us. Yet there were experiences still to be borne when Harry’s faith would waver, as in 1903 when a group of believers in Minnesota sent Ironside his first invitation from the east.

The ministry in St. Cloud ended after two weeks and Harry took Helen and Edmund, who had accompanied him to Minnesota, to visit several other Brethren assemblies in that general area. They planned to go directly home from Chicago but had only sufficient money for railway fare as far as Salt Lake City. So to Salt Lake City they went, where Harry obtained accommodations in an inexpensive hotel. He felt that, under the circumstances, the Lord must surely have a ministry for him there. For ten days he spent every afternoon and evening distributing tracts from door to door, and some evenings he preached the gospel at a street corner. But no one seemed interested in his message or in fellowship of any kind. As his testimony was seemingly rejected and his funds began to dwindle, his faith dwindled. He became somewhat disgruntled that God should treat him this way, for he was at the end of the rope. The three of them were subsisting on forty cents a day for their meals, the hotel bill was due, and there was no money to pay it.

Greatly troubled in spirit, Harry went for a long walk in the snow, for it was winter. He began thinking about the promises of God, reciting them one by one over and over again. Nothing seemed to help him. He would quote our Lord’s covenant, “If ye abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.” But, he thought, how can that help me? I am not abiding in the Lord, so it is futile to ask. Then another Scripture text would come to his mind, “Whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive”—but this promise seemed to defy him, for his faith was gone and he could not pray believingly. Another and another promise of provision crossed his thoughts, “Be anxious for nothing”—but he was anxious; “My God shall supply all your need”—but he had a need, and it had not been supplied; “My grace is sufficient for thee”—but grace would not satisfy Edmund’s hunger. Then there flashed before his memory as if on a screen, “If two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of My Father who is in heaven.”

Without waiting to analyze the verse, not aware that the word “agree” has to do with being in harmony with God as well as with each other, he took hold of this promise and rushed back to the hotel. Helen too was distressed over their circumstances and readily joined her husband in prayer, the two “agreeing” as to their need. Harry asked God that that very night He would provide forty cents so that they might have food for the next day. He remembered the rest of his life his distraught and rather pitiable prayer, which he concluded thus: “O Lord, we claim this promise. We two are agreed to ask for this forty cents. If we do not receive it, I shall never believe this verse again.” Helen protested. How could he speak to God in such a fashion? But he was adamant: that was how he felt, and that was how he must pray. He went out into the street again to preach the gospel to whomever he could, reiterating to Helen, “This is the test. If God does not hear us, I simply cannot pray any more.”

Finding a likely corner, Harry preached, though he himself wondered how he could do it. For forty minutes he addressed a crowd of about three hundred. When he had finished and turned to go home, he felt sure that someone would offer an expression of thanks in some material form, but none did. In bitterness of soul he was going his way when he noticed two men hurrying after him. He stopped.

One of the men said, “You forgot something, didn’t you?”

“What was that?”

“You forgot to take a collection.”

“I never take them in my own meetings,” Harry said.

“Well, how do you live then?” he was asked.

“Why,” the preacher answered, “I just trust the Lord and He meets my needs.” Even as he spoke he realized that it was hypocrisy to answer in this way. How could he say he was trusting the Lord when he was doing no such thing?

But one of the men was speaking, “Well, shake hands anyway,” and reaching out his hand he took Harry’s, who felt several coins in his palm. The other man shook Harry’s hand in the same manner.

Ironside started to thank them and then realized that he did not know them. Perhaps they were not Christians! It was not his custom to accept anything from the “Gentiles,” the unsaved, for he believed that God’s work will be supported by God through His people.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “I do thank you. But are you Christians yourselves? I do not accept money from the unsaved.”

“That’s all right,” one of them said, “we know all about it. We’ve been out for two years without scrip or purse ourselves.”

Harry knew then that they were Mormon elders. He was about to insist that he must return their gifts, but they hurried away and were soon lost in the crowd. Harry opened his hand then, to find two dimes and four nickles—exactly forty cents! God does not always work in the way we expect Him to, and this time, to supply the need of His servant who had prayed in such a complaining way, whose faith had been so small, He sent two ravens, men of an alien faith, to grant his exact request.

The next day a letter that had been forwarded from Oakland came in the morning mail. It was a joint message from two earnest believers and read as follows: “We were praying for you last night. We do not know where you are, but we feel impressed that you need money. We have put our gifts together and enclose a check for fifteen dollars.”

God had not forgotten His ill-tempered and wavering servant even when the latter had been in such a distraught and faithless state of mind. Before he had even asked, the answer had been on its way, “exceeding abundantly above all” that he had asked or thought. “It is of the LORD’S mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is Thy faithfulness.” 10