My introduction to the expositions of H. A. Ironside (1876-1951) came in my 17th summer. Working in Texas and Arkansas away from family and friends, I spent considerable time reading. One afternoon I visited a Christian bookstore and selected Ironside’s Expositions in Joshua. I drove out to the city park and settled down in a pine thicket with my back against a tree. I read until the summer sunset afforded no more light to read; I was a fan of Ironside for life. He became a model to me in explaining, applying and illustrating the Scriptures.
What are the influences in the background of H. A. Ironside that made him such an effective expositor? There are at least four life-shaping epochs in his personal history.
First, his mother and father were zealous personal evangelists. “Harry,” as he was always called, was only 2 years old when his father died, but the widow Sophia kept the memory alive for Harry. She would pray in his presence: “Father, save my boy early. Keep him from ever desiring anything else than to live for Thee. Make him a street preacher like his father. O Father, make him willing to be kicked and cuffed, to suffer shame or anything else for Jesus’ sake.”1 This prayer gave Harry some discomfort, but it would be answered.
Sophia trained him to memorize Scriptures from 3 years of age. As soon as he could read, he faithfully read the Bible.
Frequent visitors in their home in Toronto included two Scottish evangelists, Donald Munro and John Smith. They always pointedly inquired of him, “Harry, my lad, are you born again?” Harry thought he had seen the last of them, when at age 8 he and his mother and younger brother moved to Los Angeles. There Harry organized neighborhood children into a Sunday school. They collected burlap bags and made a tabernacle large enough for almost a hundred people. Not yet converted, Harry did the Bible teaching. His favorite text was Isaiah 53.
A second life-shaping influence on Harry Ironside came in 1888 when he was 12 years old. D. L. Moody came to Los Angeles. Harry climbed up on one of the girders supporting the ceiling of the 8,000 seat Hazzard’s Pavilion to see and hear the evangelist. That first night Moody preached Daniel 5:27, “Thou art weighed in the balances and art found wanting.”
Harry, still unconverted, prayed, “Lord, help me some day to preach to crowds like these, and to lead souls to Christ.” His own prayer would be answered, and the simple conversational style and evangelistic zeal of Moody would mark the preaching of Ironside.2
Young Harry continued his religious work until one day in his 14th year, his family had another visit from the bearded evangelist from their
Toronto days. Donald Munro got right to the point: “Well, well, Harry lad, how you have grown! And are you born again yet, my boy?” His Uncle Allan tried to ease Harry’s discomfort and blunt the prod of the evangelist by reference to Harry’s Sunday school work: “Oh, Harry preaches himself, now,” he said.
It did not help. “You are preaching, and yet you don’t know that you’re born again!” Within a few weeks, Harry gave up his Sunday school. For the next six months he wrestled with heavy conviction. One night in February, 1890, Harry was at a party of young people. A passage of Scripture he had earlier memorized came to mind. It was Proverbs 1:23-28, “Turn you at my reproof. … I have called, and ye refused… . Then shall they call upon Me, but I will not answer …”
Smitten with conviction, Harry soon slipped away from the party and hurried home. In the privacy of his room, he prayed and read the familiar words of Romans 3 and John 3. Soon he knew for sure that he was trusting Christ alone for salvation. He had been born again.
A third great influence on his life and preaching came in his experience with the Salvation Army. Harry had often visited the Saturday evening street meetings and heard the testimonies. Two nights after his conversion, Harry could hardly wait for the opportunity to tell his testimony. When the Captain gave him permission, he took a text from Isaiah 53:6 and preached his first Christian sermon “…and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”
Harry joined the Salvation Army. He turned his zeal to preaching and other service. Soon he entered training to become an officer. He was a second lieutenant before he was 17 and a captain by the time he was 19, and he was preaching 400 sermons a year.
In these early days, the Salvation Army was primarily an evangelistic ministry just as the YMCA was still distinctively a Christian ministry. Harry did have one unresolved problem with the Salvation Army, however. He soon became dissatisfied with the group’s official position on sanctification. He earnestly sought the sinless life they taught comes from the Holy Spirit “cleansing from inbred sin.” He eventually left the group because of this unresolved issue.
Soon Harry began to fellowship with the Plymouth Brethren. This became the fourth significant impact on his future ministry. The “brethren” had been the spiritual home of his parents during his early childhood. In 1896, Charles Montgomery, owner of two hotels in San Francisco, urged Harry to stay in a room he provided and to avail himself of a theological library heavy with the writings of the Plymouth Brethren.
Harry poured over the books of such expositors as J. N. Darby, William Kelly, and C. H. Macintosh. The influence of their tradition of verse-by-verse, chapter by-chapter preaching and teaching through whole books of the Bible is plain in Ironside’s homiletic.
Ironside also accepted other teachings of the “brethren” including the opposition of the brethren to paid clergy and to ordination. In those days Harry never took an offering for his own ministry, as the Salvation Army regularly did. His convictions never allowed him to even tell anyone about a material need. He prayed and trusted God to supply the need. Many times the need was supplied dramatically, but it might be after he had been without funds enough for a meal or a room for three days.
After one of these severe times of testing, someone sent him anonymously a $10 gift. It was encouragement enough for the 22-year-old bachelor to propose marriage to Helen Georgia Schofield. Soon after their wedding, he inherited $300 from a grandfather in Scotland. That was a significant legacy in the 1920s when a fine suit for a gentleman could be had for $15. Harry was still regularly doing street preaching, but soon he began to get invitations to minister the Word in other places – mostly on the west coast. In 1903 came his first invitation from the east; he was invited to speak in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Most of these invitations were from Brethren assemblies, and many were a challenge to his faith. They tended to word the invitation in such terms as “if your travels should bring you to our city…” ]
In 1924 he began to accept meetings sponsored by the YMCA also, and Lewis Sperry Chafer regularly invited him to lecturer at the college in Texas that would soon grow into Dallas Theological Seminary. In 1926, Chafer invited him to become a full-time professor, though Ironside’s own formal education ended with the 8th grade. He declined the offer to become a professor due to his growing opportunities for Bible conference speaking.
He traveled the U.S. and Canada for preaching and teaching conferences for more than three decades. For a dozen of those years, he also devoted two months each summer to mission work among the Indians of the American Southwest. He held many meetings under the direction of the Moody Bible Institute.
In 1930 the Moody Memorial Church in Chicago called him to be their pastor. He served this, his only pastorate, for nearly two decades. He was often away from that pulpit on preaching tours until he resigned in 1948 to continue traveling the U.S., Canada, the British Isles and elsewhere. He was on a preaching tour in New Zealand when he died in 1951.
Ironside was a worthy model for exposition. One of my favorite Ironside outlines is his message on “The Christian’s Fortune” based on Ephesians 2. He begins with a personal story of meeting a gypsy fortune teller on a train. She offered to tell his past, present and future if he would cross her palm with a silver quarter. He told her he had a book that revealed his past, present and future. Then he read to her Ephesians 2 and pointed out that he was “in times past dead in trespasses and sins.” But now he is “made alive in Christ Jesus.” In the future “ages to come” he will demonstrate the grace and mercy of God in salvation. His detailed exposition followed that introduction and focused on theological words portraying the believer’s past, present and future.3
Most of his expositions are not so well outlined. More often they are the verse-byverse homily or “running commentary” he learned from the Plymouth Brethren. In Great Britain these were called “Bible Readings.” The crowds gathered in churches, theaters and coliseums to hear Ironside teach and preach in that fashion. His published expositions are still in demand and re-printed 70 years and more after they were first preached.
Ironside’s preaching plans typically grew out of what his journal called his “Morning Watch.” This was the first hour of his day in prayer and Bible study. He read a passage until he understood it and found personal nourishment of spirit. Then he felt he could offer that nourishment to others. He preferred to preach a series of expositions through a Bible book in the manner of the Plymouth Brethren. He always exalted the person and work of Christ and held to the fundamentals of the faith as an original Fundamentalist.
In his early years his sermon objectives were always evangelistic. After working a few months with Henry Varley – the British evangelist who also influenced D. L. Moody – Ironside gave more attention to the need to feed the flock also. He rarely spoke more than 35 minutes in the era when sermons were often twice that long. Probably it was the influence of D. L Moody that convinced him that a message needed to be brief and to the point. And Moody surely influenced him to master the art of brightening discourse with narrative illustrations.
When Ironside’s chosen biographer, Schuyler English, interviewed him, he asked the expositor what subject he had preached most. Ironside supposed that would be his sermon on Philemon entitled “Charge That to My Account.” In that sermon of approximately 3,800 words, the preacher reads a text of three verses (about 2% of the sermon). This is followed by three long paragraphs of background (13 percent). Then there is a long narrative illustration of one hundred lines (28 percent) followed by a major section of imaginative interpretation: what might have happened as Philemon read Paul’s letter on behalf of Onesimus (28 percent)?
The last seventy lines (21 percent) apply the message in terms of the gospel of vicarious substitution. This application is aided by seven New Testament cross-reference citations. The conclusion/invitation is less than two lines: a question and a personal appeal: “Have you trusted ‘the stranger’s Surety?’ If not, turn to Him now while grace is free.”4
Ironside had a strong and pleasing voice. Reading his published expositions, it is easy to understand the popularity of this extraordinary expositor, H. A. Ironside.
Austin B. Tucker is a preacher and college instructor in Shreveport, LA.
1E. Schuyler English, H. A. Ironside: Ordained of the Lord. Zondervan, 1946, 27.
4English, pp. 180-189.
3H. A. Ironside, In the Heavenlies. NY: Loizeaux Brothers, 1937, pp. 96ff.