The Unwitting Encounter that Inspired A Great Christian Novel


Gen. Lew. Wallace, 1827-1905, he was an American lawyer, union general, governor of the New Mexico Territory, politician, and author, vintage line drawing or engraving illustration

John Ingersoll, the son of a Congregationalist pastor who shared a pulpit with the famous American revivalist, Charles Finney, was an agnostic. His father was mistreated by the church, suffering contentious charges for deviating from “Old School Calvinism”, and he left the ministry and the church. His son, John, who was young at the time, was so influenced that he became a lifelong agnostic, preaching as vociferously against faith in God as his father once preached faith in God.

Such was the great, negative influence of the tensions among Christian brothers New England in the early 1800’s. Though he unwittingly sparked one of the great Christian novels in American history, Ingersoll led a life of hostility toward God and religion for which he was well-known.

The schism between Old School Calvinism and New School Calvinism lasted about 20 years beginning in about 1837. That’s it. Only 20 years! (Wikipedia)

The tension pitted conservatives from the “Old School” against upstarts from the “New School”. The Old School adherents stuck close to the “Westminster standards” and didn’t support the “New School revivalism” championed by Presbyterian revivalists, like Finney, and New England Congregationalist theologians like Jonathan Edwards.

For those interested in history, Princeton Theological Seminary was the defender of the Old School, while Yale and Lane Theological Seminary became the champion of the New School. Looking back, it is with some wonder that Princeton was on the conservative side of this controversy, the same Princeton today that produced the great skeptic New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman.

It is also noteworthy that the “renewed interest in religion” generated by the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening that took place in the early 1800’s inspired the social activism that energized the abolitionist movement. Lyman Beecher, the father of the famous abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was a New School Calvinist.

Revivalism and slavery were key issues in this schism. Revivalism divided the Old School and New School; while slavery divided both and eventually brought elements of the Old School and New School back together again into factions that were divided more along geographic lines – north and south – as the country teetered toward civil war.

I am struck that social and theological movements always stretch the wine skins and leave people divided, today no less than in the past. While conservatives entrench, progressives plow new paths. While old, brittle wine skins burst, wasting the contents on the ground, over eager revolutionaries might abandon the wine skins altogether. Either way, the wine (the very point of the wine skin) is often lost in the process.

I am reminded of the “proverb” spoken in Ecclesiastes: “It is good to grasp the one thing and also not let go of the other; for the one who fears God comes forward with both ….” (Ecc. 7:18 NASB)

Throughout history we see God moving among people, emphasizing new things at different times. People react by resisting, holding back and becoming entrenched or embracing the new thing, letting go of the old and eventually tilting off the path in the other direction. Wisdom lies in grasping the new thing God is doing without letting go of the truth firmly established by God in the past. This is the stretch that requires the new wine skins!

But back to the story of John Ingersoll and his unwitting influence on the writer of one of the greatest Christian novels written by an American. Lew Wallace was a Civil War General who commanded Union troops at Shiloh. Ingersoll served under him in that great battle. It was their chance encounter that prompts this article.

Wallace wasn’t a religious man. He wasn’t opposed to religion; he was simply indifferent to it until one unwitting encounter with Ingersoll on a train heading to his home in Crawfordsville, IN.

For whatever reason, Wallace asked Ingersoll about his take on religious and spiritual things.[1] Ingersoll, of course, obliged, as he a was well-known critic of religion and quite vocal in his opposition.

What Wallace got was a two-hour soliloquy disparaging Christ and the Church. Wallace was “spellbound” by Ingersoll’s oratory on the subject. He listened only, as he hadn’t given religion much thought to that day, and he was ill-prepared to put what he heard in any context. Wallace described the experience thusly:

“To lift me out of my indifference [to Christianity], one would think only strong affirmations of things regarded holiest would do. Yet here was I now moved as never before, and by what? The most outright denials of all human knowledge of God, Christ, Heaven, and the Hereafter which figures so in the hope and faith of the believing everywhere. Was the Colonel right? What had I on which to answer yes or no? He had made me ashamed of my ignorance: and then—here is the unexpected of the affair—as I walked on in the cool darkness, I was aroused for the first time in my life to the importance of religion. To write all my reflections would require many pages. I pass them to say simply that I resolved to study the subject . . .”[2]

That encounter led Wallace to investigate the religion to which he had lived a life of indifference. He spent seven (7) years in the process of informing himself on the subject. At the end of that time, General Wallace emerged with confidence in his position. In his words, he said:

“It only remains to say that I did as resolved, with results – … a conviction amounting to absolute belief in God and the Divinity of Christ.”[3]

General Lew Wallace, the great Civil War commander who had found no room or desire for spiritual things to that point, became a deeply convicted believer in Jesus Christ. And so captivated did he become in that newfound faith that he wrote what is by the account of many the greatest Christian novel written by an American: Ben-Hur.

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Postscript: I am often struck by the way God works despite ourselves, despite the obvious shortcomings, weaknesses and waywardness of Christians and the Church. Only a sovereign God could work through the eloquent opposition to God by a lifelong agnostic produced by the extreme shortcomings of God’s people to lead a Civil War general from indifference to God into deeply [personal faith and the authorship of one of the great Christian novels in history.

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[1] See Ben-Hur: A Christian Triumph, by Dr. Stephen Flick, at the Christian Heritage Fellowship.

[2] See “Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” (http://www.christians.com/inspirational/lewwallace, March 28, 2013).

[3] Ibid.

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