Essay / On This Day

Today Harry Ironside was Called to Church (1930)

At 10:30 in the morning on February 24, 1930, Harry Ironside’s phone rang. It was the assistant pastor of Chicago’s Moody Church, telling him that the board was in unanimous agreement that he should be the next pastor. Ironside (1876-1951) eventually accepted the call, and it would be the only pastorate he would serve in his long and busy life. In fact, his Plymouth Brethren theology didn’t exactly make him likely to be a paid pastor at an established church: Brethren typically rejected the idea of ordination or of a special class of ministers in a church.

But Ironside was an interesting case: he held his extremely conservative principles with a remarkable flexibility. He had been a boy preacher, saved at a young age, and preached himself into a physical breakdown by age 18. He had to recuperate at the Beulah Rest Home, where he re-examined the theology of sanctification he had come to accept. He got his feet back under him and was soon back in the ministry, but with a workable theology of the Christian life that wouldn’t make him so crazy.

Writing about it later, he was severely critical of “the religious-military society of which I was once a member,” especially for the way it led him to believe there was a second experience of grace that would eradicate all sin from his life. Ironside tried to live up to that standard, and it broke him in pieces.

At last it began to be clear to me that the holiness doctrine had a most baneful influence upon the movement. People who professed conversion (whether real or not the day will declare) struggled for months, even years, to reach a state of sinlessness which never was reached; and at last they gave up in despair and sank back in many instances to the dead level of the world around them.

I saw that it was the same with all the holiness denominations, and the various ‘Bands,’ ‘Missions,’ and other movements, that were continually breaking off from them. The standard set was the unattainable. The result was, sooner or later, utter discouragement, cunningly concealed hypocrisy, or an unconscious lowering of the standard to suit the experience reached. For myself I had been ensnared by the last expedient for a long time. How much of the second there was I do not dare to say. But eventually I fell a victim to the first. And I can now see that it was a mercy I did so.

At last I found myself becoming cold and cynical. Doubts as to everything assailed me like a legion of demons, and I became almost afraid to let my mind dwell on these things.

The remarkable thing about Ironside is not that he burned out, and not even that he recovered. The remarkable thing is that he kept up a high view of sanctification during the rest of his life and ministry.

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