Who is H.A. Ironside?
Henry Allen “Harry” Ironside (October 14, 1876 – January 15, 1951) was a Canadian-American Bible teacher, preacher, theologian, pastor, and author who pastored Moody Church in Chicago from 1929 to 1948.
Ironside was born in Toronto, Ontario, to John and Sophia (Stafford) Ironside, who were both active in the Plymouth Brethren. At birth, Harry was thought to be dead, so the attending nurses focused their attention on Sophia, who was dangerously ill. Only when a pulse was detected in Harry, 40 minutes later, was an attempt made to resuscitate the infant. When Harry was two years old, his father, John, died of typhoid, at the age of 27. From a very early age, Ironside showed a strong interest in evangelical Christianity and was active in the Salvation Army as a teenager before later joining the “Grant” section of the Plymouth Brethren.
The family then moved to Los Angeles, California, on December 12, 1886, and finding no Sunday school there for him to attend, Harry started his own at age 11. Gathering old burlap bags, Harry and his childhood friends sewed them together, producing a burlap tent that could accommodate up to 100 people. Unable to find an adult teacher, Ironside himself did the teaching, with attendance averaging 60 children—and a few adults—each week.
In 1888, well-known evangelist Dwight L. Moody preached at a campaign in Los Angeles, with meetings held at Hazard’s Pavilion, (later known as “Temple Pavilion”) which could seat up to 4,000. This inspired Ironside, who hoped to also be able to preach to such crowds one day. In 1889, after a visit from evangelist Donald Munro, Ironside became convinced that he was not “born again“, and so gave up preaching at his Sunday school, spending the next six months wrestling with this spiritual problem. After an evening of prayer, in February 1890, Ironside, at age 13, accepted Christ. As he is quoted as saying years later, “I rested on the Word of God and confessed Christ as my Savior.” Ironside then returned to preaching, winning his first convert. Though he was taunted at school, he was undeterred from his mission to win souls. Later that year, his mother remarried, to William D. Watson. Ironside graduated from the eighth grade, began working as a part-time cobbler, and decided he had enough education (he never attended school again, which he later regretted).
During the days, young Ironside worked full-time at a photography studio, and at night he preached at Salvation Army meetings, becoming known as the “boy preacher”. At age 16, he left the photography business and became a preacher full-time with the Salvation Army. Commissioned a Lieutenant in the Salvation Army, Ironside was soon preaching over 500 sermons a year around Southern California. At 18, the grueling schedule had taken its toll on his health, and Ironside resigned from the Salvation Army, entering the Beulah Rest Home to recuperate.
In 1896, at 20, he moved to San Francisco, becoming associated again with the Plymouth Brethren. While there, he began helping at British evangelist Henry Varley’s meetings and there met pianist Helen Schofield, daughter of a Presbyterian pastor in Oakland, California. The two soon married. In 1898, Ironside’s mother died, and less than a year later, Harry and Helen’s first son, Edmund Henry was born. In 1900, the family moved across the bay to Oakland, where Harry resumed a nightly preaching schedule. They resided there until 1929.
In 1903, Ironside accepted his first East Coast preaching invitation, but on returning, the family only had enough funds to make it as far as Salt Lake City, Utah, where he spent the next ten days doing street preaching. Just as the last of their money for a hotel ran out, they received an anonymous envelope with $15, enough to return to Oakland. In 1905, a second son, John Schofield Ironside, was born.
During this time, Ironside also began his career as a writer, publishing several Bible commentary pamphlets. In 1914, he rented a storefront and established the Western Book and Tract Company, which operated successfully until the depression in the late 1920s. From 1916 to 1929, Ironside preached almost 7,000 sermons to over 1.25 million listeners. In 1918, he was associated with evangelist George McPherson; and in 1924, Ironside began preaching under the direction of the Moody Bible Institute. In 1926, he was invited to a full-time faculty position at the Dallas Theological Seminary, which he turned down, although he was frequently a visiting lecturer there from 1925 to 1943.
After preaching a series of sermons at the Moody Church in Chicago, he was invited in 1929 to serve a trial year as pastor. The following year he became the official pastor, and he served there until 1948. Almost every Sunday he preached at Moody Church, with the 4,000-seat auditorium filled to capacity. Nevertheless, he continued to preach in other US cities as well; and in 1932, he began traveling abroad. In 1938, Ironside toured England, Scotland and Ireland, preaching 142 times to crowds of upwards of 2,000. In 1942, he also became president of the missionary organization, Africa Inland Mission. In 1935, Ironside preached the funeral of Billy Sunday at Moody Church.
In 1930, Wheaton College presented Ironside with an honorary Doctorate of Letters degree, and in 1942 Bob Jones University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree. In 2011, Bob Jones University renamed a residence hall that formerly honored Bibb Graves after Ironside. Bob Jones, Jr., wrote that although Ironside was considered a dignified man, when one got to know him, “he had a terrific sense of humor. Nothing was more fun than to have a good meal in a home somewhere when Dr. Ironside was present. After he was full—he could eat a lot, and he ate faster than any man I ever saw, and his plate would be empty before everyone else got served—he would sit back, push his chair back from the table, and begin to tell funny stories and personal experiences.” Never one to ask money for himself, Ironside was skilled at raising money for other evangelical causes and was often asked to take the offering at Bible conferences. He joked that his tombstone would read, “And the beggar died also.”
A few months after he and his wife Helen celebrated their golden wedding anniversary, Helen died on May 1, 1948. Ironside resigned as pastor of Moody Church on May 30 and retired to Winona Lake, Indiana. On October 9, 1949, he married Annie Turner Hightower, of Thomaston, Georgia. He suffered from failing vision, and after surgery to restore it, he set out on November 2, 1950, for a preaching tour of New Zealand, once more among Brethren assemblies, but he died in Cambridge, New Zealand, on January 15, 1951, and was buried in Purewa Cemetery, Auckland.
Along with others such as Cyrus Scofield, he was influential in popularizing dispensationalism among Protestants in North America. Despite his lack of formal education, his tremendous mental capacity, photographic memory and zeal for his beliefs caused him to be called, “the Archbishop of Fundamentalism“.
Ironside was one of the most prolific Christian writers of the 20th Century and published more than 100 books, booklets and pamphlets, a number of which are still in print. He also wrote a number of hymns including “Overshadowed”. One editorial reviewer wrote of a 2005 republication that, “Ironside’s commentaries are a standard and have stood the test of time.”