10. An Holy Priesthood

It may be recalled that when Harry Ironside left the Salvation Army and became acquainted with the Plymouth Brethren in San Francisco, some of the brethren urged him to remain there and teach the Word of God. When he told them he was reluctant to do so because, as he said, “I know so little,” their response was, “God will give you more as you go on.” From that time onward there was a notable augmentation to Harry’s preaching of the gospel, for now he was careful to impress upon his audiences the background and context of his sermon topics.

Still conscious of his limited formal education, Harry filled this lack with an awesome reading schedule. He devoured every worthwhile piece of literature he could lay his hands on, so as to enlarge his usefulness as a servant of the Lord. The writings of Roman Catholic church fathers and theologians, and of sectarian authors like Gibbon and Newman, were almost as familiar to him as those of the Puritan writers and of Darby, Kelly, Hodge, and others of the nineteenth century. Having at his command an incredibly retentive memory, his reading in these early years proved invaluable throughout his life. Reading never tired his mind but stimulated it, and his frequent travel by railroad gave him an additional opportunity to cultivate knowledge.5

The worth of this self-education may be illustrated by an incident that took place in 1904. Harry, Helen and little Edmund were on an all-day train trip in a province in northwestern Canada.6 Shortly after they boarded the train in the early morning it stopped at a wayside station, where a Franciscan priest, wearing the customary brown frock of that order, got aboard and entered the car where the Ironside family was occupying double seats facing each other. The car was crowded and the monk seated himself on a woodbox situated at the rear. (Passenger cars were heated by wood-burning stoves in those days.)

Solicitous for a fellow traveler’s comfort and sensing, too, an opportunity to witness of Christ to the priest, Harry suggested to his wife that they rearrange their baggage. Then he went back and invited the stranger to share the seats which he and his little family were occupying. The priest accepted the invitation with gratitude and pleasure.

After the Franciscan sat down he and Ironside entered into conversation such as is usually introduced in such circumstances, discussing the weather, the terrain, world conditions, crops, and the like. At length, however, the monk gave Harry the opportunity for which he had been watching, as he inquired as to where the Ironsides lived and what Harry’s business was. Harry told him that in some respects they were both engaged in the same kind of work, adding that he, like the Franciscan, was a catholic priest employed in missionary ministry.7 The monk glanced at Harry’s wife and child, then at his collar, and said, “You are jesting, I think.”

Harry assured his companion that he was indeed a catholic priest but not a Roman Catholic priest. “You will pardon me,” he remarked, “if I say that to my mind ‘Roman’ and ‘Catholic’ do not fit well together. The former suggests a restricted communion, whereas the latter speaks of a universal church.”

“You mean, then, you are an Anglican clergyman?”

“No,” Ironside replied, “I do not consider myself a clergyman, nor am I an Anglican. ‘Anglican,’ too, suggests restriction. I am, as I told you, a priest in the holy catholic Church instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Perhaps it would make things clearer if I gave you some account of how I became a Christian, and how I was made a priest.”

The Franciscan assured Ironside that he would be most interested in hearing of this. Then Harry narrated the story of his conversion at the age of fourteen, somewhat as it has been recorded in an earlier chapter, stressing the point that it was through reading the Word of God, namely Romans 3 and John 3, that the light of salvation in Christ broke upon his soul. When told how he had cried out then, “Lord, I do believe, and I dare to trust Thy Word. I am not condemned”—the monk, who had been listening very intently, broke out with an exclamation. 8

“That is most interesting!” he said. “I have never heard anything like it in my life. You remind me of St. Augustine.”

I was a bit amused and puzzled, and I tried to think in what way my simple story would put him in mind of the great doctor of Hippo. “I do not quite understand,” I said, “why you compare me to him.”

“Well,” he answered, “do you not remember it was through the Book that the light came to him, without any individual’s speaking to him? And so with you—the light came through the Book!”

“Ah,” I replied, “I do get the connection perfectly. It was indeed through the Word of God itself that I was led into light and peace and the full assurance of salvation.”

“But now,” asked the priest, “what did you do next? Augustine, after he became a Christian, went to a priest for further instruction, and finally became a great doctor of the church.”

“Well,” I replied, “I sought out a little group of Christians with whom I soon had happy fellowship, and continued studying my Bible. It was as I studied the First Epistle of the Apostle Peter that I made a very great discovery. I found out that I was not only a child of God, the possessor of eternal life, but that the moment I was saved I became a priest in the holy catholic Church. The apostle tells us in the second chapter, verse 5, ‘Ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ’; and in verse nine he says, ‘But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of Him who hath called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.’

“From these Scriptures I learned,” I went on to say, “that I am a priest, set apart in Christ Jesus as a worshiper, and that it is my blessed privilege to be Christ’s representative in this world, seeking to make known the riches of His grace to others.” Smiling, the Franciscan said, “I understand now what you meant by saying that you are a catholic priest. But you are not a member of the true church which Jesus Christ founded on St. Peter.”

This led to a long though friendly discussion as to the nature of the true Church, and also as to Peter’s relation to it, and from this we went on to talk of the new birth, the sacraments—particularly the real nature of the Lord’s Supper and the purpose for which it was given—and such themes as purgatory, prayers to the saints, the relative place of faith and good works, and other subjects. In a friendly way we discussed the many other topics concerning which Romanists and Protestants differ. The Franciscan confessed frankly that he was at a loss in keeping up his side in such a discussion because of the fact that he was, he regretted to say, not familiar with the Bible. He told me that his studies had largely occupied him with the writings of the church fathers and the decrees of the church, and that he realized that he had not read the Holy Scriptures as carefully as he should have done. I thought I could detect a yearning for something deeper than he had ever known, as he opened up his heart along certain lines which I do not feel free to commit to print.

He shared our lunch with us, and was most gracious and friendly throughout the whole day. As evening drew on, our train pulled into the station of the city where I was to preach that night. A relative of mine, at whose home we were to be entertained, was waiting for us, and was a bit surprised when we two “priests” descended the steps of the car together. My cousin took charge of my wife and little boy, while the “priests” walked on ahead conversing all the way about the great truths that have to do with our salvation.

Finally we reached the corner where our ways must part—he to go to the right to the monastery, and I to the left to my cousin’s home. He became more and more interested and, as we were about to separate, said, “I wish you could come up to the monastery and spend the evening with me! I cannot ask the lady to come, as it is contrary to our rules, but if you could possibly spare the evening I would be so glad to talk with you further, and 1 would have an opportunity there of showing you just what the fathers have said. We could consult many books in the library, which I think might help to make some of my points clear to you.”

I assured him that 1 would enjoy spending such an evening, but a dinner appointment at my cousin’s home and a preaching engagement later would make that impossible. I suggested that he come with us, as I knew my relatives would gladly welcome him, and then he could go to the service with us.

To this he demurred, saying that it would not do for him to attend a Protestant conventicle in his ecclesiastical garb, as it might give rise to misunderstandings.

Somewhat mischievously I said, “Well, you and I are of about the same build, and in my bag here I have another suit. If you will come down to dinner with us I will give you an opportunity to dress up like a man, in my clothes, and no one will know the difference!”

He laughed at this and said, “Ah, but I have taken a solemn vow always to wear this attire.”

“In that case,” I replied, “I would not for a moment seek to have you break your vow.”

He took my hand very earnestly and said, “I suppose we will have to part. I cannot tell you how I have enjoyed this day with you! It is the first time I have ever talked these things over with a Protestant clergyman who did not get angry with me.”

“But I will be angry with you,” I told him, “if you do not accept the statement which I have made concerning myself. I am not a clergyman but a priest of the catholic Church.”

“Ah, yes,” he said, “I had forgotten! But let me say again how greatly I have enjoyed the day. I shall often think of you, and I hope you will pray for me—as I for you. I do not suppose we shall ever meet again, but I shall not forget the things that we have talked about.”

“We shall indeed meet again, and that on one of two occasions,” I told him.

“Ah, you mean either in Heaven or in hell!”

“No, I do not mean that at all. If you go to hell, which I trust will never be the case, I certainly will not meet you there, for I have been washed from my sins in the precious blood of Christ and I know that I shall be with Him in Heaven through all eternity.”

“What, then, do you mean by ‘one of two occasions’?”

“Well, perhaps very soon now, 1 Thessalonians 4.15-17 will be fulfilled. I hope I shall meet you then.”

“1 Thessalonians 4:15-17,” he repeatedly slowly, as though trying to charge his mind with the passage. “I regret to say that I am not familiar enough with the Epistle to know what passage you refer to.”

I quoted the words, “‘For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord, shall not precede them which are asleep. For the Lord Himself shall descend from Heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we ever be with the Lord.’

“We are not told when this event will take place,” I added, “but if I understand the Scriptures aright, it might come at any moment. When this Scripture is fulfilled and the Lord descends from Heaven, all who are trusting in Him, and in Him alone, as their Saviour, will be caught up to meet Him. The dead will be raised, and the living changed. I shall be among that number, although an unworthy sinner in myself; for the precious blood of Christ has cleansed me and made me meet to be a partaker of the inheritance of the saints in light.”

“You must feel that you are a very good man,” he broke in, “to be so sure that you will be there!”

“No, it is not that at all. I found out years ago, as I have told you, that I am anything but good. I learned from the Word of God that my heart was ‘deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.’ I saw that I was a lost sinner, and I fled to Christ for refuge. And I saw that all who trust in Him are justified from all things. When this great event to which this Scripture refers takes place and all believers are caught up to meet the Lord, I shall look for you, and if your faith and confidence have been—not in the church, not in sacraments, not in your merits, your prayers, or your good works—but in the Lord Jesus Christ alone, who died on Calvary to settle the sin question, I shall meet you there, and we shall have a wonderful time together rejoicing in the fullness of God’s salvation.”

He looked at me inquiringly for a moment, and then in a subdued voice he said, “You spoke of ‘two occasions.’ What was the other that you had in mind?”

“Well,” I replied, “if I do not see you in the air when the Lord Jesus comes, I won’t look for you for a thousand years.”

“A thousand years! Why do you say ‘a thousand years’?”

“Because another Scripture text says, ‘Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.’ The preceding verse says, But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished.’ And after the expiration of that thousand years, John says, ‘And I saw a great white throne, and Him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them; and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.’

“When that stupendous event, the last great assize, takes place,” I told him, “I shall be there with the Lord. But I shall not stand in front of that great white throne to be judged, for all my judgment passed when those two arms were outstretched on Calvary, when, as a poet has said:

The wrath of God which was our due

Upon the Lamb was laid,

And by the shedding of His blood

Our debt was fully paid.

“Christ has said, as you have it in your Roman Catholic version of the Scriptures, in John 5:24, ‘Amen, Amen, I say to you, he who hears My Word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and comes not into judgment, but is passed out of death into life.’ But though I shall not come into judgment for my sins, I shall be with Christ in that day, for we are told that the saints shall judge the world, and shall even judge angels! And if I have not found you among the redeemed at the Lord’s return, I shall look over that vast sea of faces which will come from all the graveyards of the earth and from the depths of the sea; and if you have lived and died trusting for your salvation in the church and in its sacraments, in your prayers, your charity, or your good deeds, I will see you there—a poor lost soul; and I will see the awful look that will come over your face as the blessed Lord shall say to you, ‘Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels!’”

“God forbid! God forbid!” he fairly cried aloud. He was trembling in his excitement.

I put my hand upon his shoulder tenderly. “Yes, God forbid!—for in order that it might not be, Jesus died! He died for you—He, the sinless One, was made sin for you that you might become the righteousness of God in Him. Tell me, is it Christ or the church? Is it His blood, or is it your own merits? In which do you trust?”

He was silent a moment or two. Then, looking up with tear-dimmed eyes, he exclaimed, “Oh, Christ! He is the Rock! Christ— He is the Rock! I dare not trust in anyone but Him. I trust my soul to Him alone!” “Give me your hand, my brother,” I exclaimed. “For now you, too, speak like Augustine, for it was he who said, ‘Not Peter, but Christ, is the Rock.’ And if you are resting in Him, trusting Him alone, however we may differ as to things ecclesiastical, we shall meet together in the air when the Lord Jesus comes!”

He stood there a moment, and then impulsively he threw both his arms around me and gave me a good squeeze—the only time in my life I have ever been hugged by a Roman Catholic priest!

We bade one another farewell. He went on to the monastery and I to my appointment. I have never seen him since, though I sent him the next day a copy of Mackay’s book, Grace and Truth—a work that has brought blessing and light to thousands of souls.

But I dare to believe that I shall see my fellow traveler of that warm harvest day in the glory at the coming of our Lord Jesus and our gathering together unto Him.

5 For H. A. Ironside’s own remarks about books that helped him most, see Appendix C.

6 This was, in fact, Helen’s last long speaking tour with Harry for some time. The next summer, on August 18, 1905, a second son, John Schofield, was born to the Ironsides and from then on Helen was too busy raising the two boys to be able to accompany her husband regularly.

7 In 1938 I shared a Bible conference platform with Dr. Ironside. He told the story of his conversation with a Franciscan monk aboard a train in Canada. I urged him to let me have it in writing for Revelation magazine, of which I was then managing editor. He did so. It was published in Revelation and in 1939 was included in a book by Ironside entitled Random Reminiscences, published by Loizeaux Brothers, Inc.

8 From here to its conclusion the story is told in the words of Ironside, as written in Random Reminiscences.