Making your life count for eternity
He was not what many would see as a great leader. He was not a politician or a king. He was a man who lived here in our own city – an unassuming man. A shy man. A man who came from the humblest of backgrounds.
Yet he was someone who, in the strength of Jesus Christ, was determined to make his life count for Eternity.
He would start out early, usually before dawn, and he wandered through all the streets of Sydney. Every morning he was somewhere else: Wynyard, Glebe, Paddington, Randwick, Central Station. If you are old enough, and you lived in Sydney, you probably saw his handiwork.
He was a frail little man, bent, grey-haired, only 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighing just 7 stone.
He always wore a grey felt hat, tie and a double-breasted navy blue suit.
Sometimes in the dawn light he would be seen around Wynyard Station. He would nod to the drunks still left on the pavement, trying to keep warm under newspapers. If he detected any movement, there would be a pat on the head or a warm greeting. He had the air of a man who understood.
As he walked, every so often he would stop, pull out a crayon, bend down and write on the pavement in large, elegant copperplate – the word Eternity. He would move on a hundred yards then write it again, Eternity, nothing more, just one simple word.
For 37 years, he chalked this ‘one-word sermon’ – and it is estimated he wrote it more than half a million times.
He did not like publicity. For years, these Eternity signs mystified Sydney. They were an emigna.
Sydney columnists wrote about it, speculating about the author and, over the years, several people walked into newspaper offices and announced that they were the author. However the real man kept quiet.
The mystery all came clear in 1956 – and the man who uncovered it was the Rev Lisle M Thompson of the Burton Street Baptist Tabernacle in Darlinghurst.
Arthur Stace was a member of that church. He was one of their prayer leaders and also served as the church cleaner.
One day Lisle Thompson saw Stace take out his crayon and write the famous “Eternity” on the pavement. Stace did it without realising that he has been seen. Thompson said: “Are you Mr Eternity?” and Stace replied, “Guilty Your Honour”.
Lisle Thompson wrote a tract (called “The Crooked Made Straight”) telling the little man’s extraordinary story. Journalist Tom Farrell had the first interview. He published it in the Sunday Telegraph on 21 June 1956.
Arthur Stace was born in a Balmain slum in 1884. His father and mother were both alcoholics. Two sisters and two brothers also were alcoholics and they lived much of their time in gaol. The sisters ran a brothel.
Stace used to sleep on bags under the house and when his parents were drunk he had to look after himself. He used to steal milk from the doorsteps, pick scraps of food out of garbage and shoplift cakes and lollies.
He had almost no formal education. At the age of twelve he became a state ward. When he was fourteen he had his first job – in one of the coal mines around Balmain – and his first pay cheque he spent in a hotel. Already he had learned to drink at home, he became a wandering drunk, living in a fog of alcohol. He went to gaol for the first time when he was fifteen.
He was in his twenties when he moved to the seedy inner suburb of Surry Hills.
There his job was to carry booze from the pubs to the brothels, and particularly his sisters’ brothel. Then there were other jobs such as cockatoo (the one who gives warning of the approach of the police) at a two-up school. He was mixed up with various housebreaking gangs and, because of his size, he was very useful as a look out man.
During the First World War he enlisted in the 19th Battalion, went to France and returned home, having been gassed and now half blind in one eye.
Back in Surry Hills, Stace took up his old habits, drink in particular. He slipped from beer, to whisky, to gin, to rum, to cheap wine until finally living on hand-outs. All he could afford was metholated spirits at 6d a bottle. His alcoholism was so extreme he was in danger of becoming a permanent inmate of Callan Park Mental Asylum.
He told a reporter from The Daily Telegraph that in 1930 he was in Central Court yet again. The magistrate said to him: “Don’t you know that I have the power to put you in Long Bay gaol or the power to set you free”.
“Yes Sir”, he replied, but it was the word ‘power’ that he remembered. What he needed was the power to give up drink.
He signed the Pledge – but he had done that many times before. He went to Regent Street Police Station and pleaded with the Sergeant to lock him up.
“Sergeant, put me away. I am no good and I haven’t been sober for eight years. Give me a chance and put me away”.
… to Gospel
This was during the Depression. A metho drinker, dirty, badly dressed, had to be the least likely of any to get a job.
Outside the Court House there was a group walking up Broadway. The word had gone around that a cup of tea and something to eat was available at the Church Hall up at St. Barnabas’. In the 1930s one would put up with almost anything for free food.
The date was Wednesday August 6th 1930 – and it was a meeting for men conducted by Archdeacon R.B.S. Hammond, the Rector of St Barnabas’ Church.
There were about 300 men present, mostly down and outs, but they had to endure an hour and half of talking before they received their tea and rock cakes.
Up front there were six people on a separate seat, all looking very clean, a remarkable contrast to the 300 grubby-looking males in the audience. Stace said to the man sitting next to him, a well-known criminal: “Who are they?”
“I’d reckon they’d be Christians”, he replied.
Stace said: “Well look at them and look at us. I’m having a go at what they have got.”
Arthur Stace knew that his life was in a mess. He knew that he needed to change. And he knew that he needed help. After the service was over, he crossed the road to Victoria Park where he sat under a tree and committed his life to Jesus Christ.
Over the next few weeks, Stace found that he was able to give up drink and he said:
“As I got back my self respect, people were more decent to me.”
So he found a job for the dole, working at the sandmills at Maroubra one week on, one week off at £3 a week.
It was a few months later in the Burton Street Baptist Tabernacle at Darlinghurst he heard the evangelist, the Reverend John Ridley. Ridley was a Military Cross winner from World War I and he spoke about the Lord Jesus Christ and the forgiveness that can only be found in Him.
Ridley told his audience that men and women everywhere must think about Eternity and where they will spend it.
“I wish I could shout ETERNITY through the streets of Sydney.”
Stace, recalling the day, said:
“He repeated himself and kept shouting ‘ETERNITY, ETERNITY’ and his words were ringing through my brain as I left the church. Suddenly I began crying and I felt a powerful call from the Lord to write ‘ETERNITY’.”
I had a piece of chalk in my pocket and I bent down there and wrote it.
The funny thing is that before I wrote I could hardly have spelled my own name. I had no schooling and I couldn’t have spelt ‘ETERNITY’ for a hundred quid. But it came out smoothly in beautiful copperplate script. I couldn’t understand it and I still can’t.”
Stace claimed that normally his handwriting was appalling and his friends found it illegible.
He demonstrated this to a Daily Telegraph reporter. He wrote ETERNITY across the pavemant gracefully with rich curves and flourishes, but when he wrote his own name “Arthur” it was almost unreadable.
“I’ve tried and tried but ‘ETERNITY’ is the only word that comes out in copperplate”, he said.
After eight or nine years he did try something else – “OBEY GOD”, and five years later, “GOD OR SIN” and “GOD 1st”, but finally he stuck with ETERNITY.
He had some problems. There was a fellow who followed him round and every time he wrote ETERNITY this other character changed it to MATERNITY. So he altered his style to give ETERNITY a large, eloquent capital E and that solved the problem.
The City Council had a rule against defacing the pavement and the police “very nearly arrested” him many times. “But I had permission from a higher source”, he said.
He lived with his wife, Pearl, at 10 Bulwara Road, Pyrmont, and this was his routine –
He rose at 4:00am, prayed for an hour, had breakfast, then he set out for the suburb he had in mind and arrived there before dawn.
He took his message every 100 yards or so where it could be seen best – then he was back home around 10:00am.
First he wrote in yellow chalk, then he switched to marking crayon because it stayed on better in the wet.
Whenever he travelled, he did the same – and he wrote Eternity during trips to Newcastle and Wollongong and even Melbourne – and on the footpaths of country towns, going as far as Cessnock and Wellington.
Helping people know Jesus
But writing Eternity wasn’t all Arthur Stace did to help men and women come to know Jesus.
On Saturday nights he led gospel meetings, with Open Air Campaigners, at the corner of Bathurst and George Streets – just across from the Cathedral. At first he did it from the gutter but in later years he had a van with electric lighting and an amplifier.
Stace eventually became a member of St. Barnabas’ Broadway, where he had first heard the gospel in 1930.
When the Rector of St. Barnabas’, Canon RBS Hammond, died in 1946, Stace was one of five people who were invited to speak at his funeral. That was still nine years before it became public that he was “Mr. Eternity”.
So, what should we think of Arthur Stace?
Was he an eccentric?
Maybe he was in some ways – but consider this. In the eyes of this world, he counted for little. His background, his education, his social status – all weighed against him.
But then he met Jesus. And he wanted everyone to pause and think about how they would spend eternity.
Would it be with Jesus? Or would it be without him?
Half a million times, Arthur Stace bent down and wrote that word “Eternity” on the footpaths of our city. And it made a difference. It made a difference to generations of Sydney-siders. I guess that it is only in heaven that we will know how much difference.
Arthur Stace died of a stroke in Hammondville Nursing Home on the evening of Sunday July 30, 1967. He was 83.
He left his body to Sydney University so that the donation given to the family could go to the Baptist Church and its missionary society. He was finally buried at Botany Cemetery.
A fitting monument
There were suggestions that the city should erect a plaque to his memory. One idea was that there should be a statue in Railway Square depicting Stace kneeling, chalk in hand.
In 1968 the Sydney City Council decided to perpetuate Stace’s one-word sermon by putting down permanent plaques in “numerous” locations throughout the city. But a team of City Commissioners stopped the idea. They thought it was too trivial.
For weeks there was angry debate in the Letters to the Editor columns. One reader believed Mary Anne Smith, who gave us the Granny Smith apple, was far more worthy of recognition.
But finally Arthur Stace did get his plaque.
It happened ten years after his death and it was due to Ridley Smith, architect of Sydney Square next to St. Andrew’s Cathedral. He set the message ETERNITY in cast aluminium, set in pebbles, near the Sydney Square waterfall.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s Column 8 said:
In letters almost 8in high is the famous copperplate message ETERNITY. The one word sermon gleams in wrought aluminium. There’s no undue prominence. No garish presentation. Merely the simple ETERNITY on pebbles as Arthur Stace would have wanted it.
That monument is still there.
But perhaps the most fitting memorial to Arthur Stace came on 1st January 2000 – as, via television – two billion people saw that word “Eternity” in the copperplate handwriting of Arthur Stace, on the side of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
The point of all this is quite simple:
Do you think that you can do nothing of value for the Kingdom of God? You’re wrong.
If you think that the Lord cannot use you for his kingdom and his glory, then think again.
You don’t need money, or education, or a place in society to come to Jesus. And you don’t need those things to make your life count for Eternity.
We can do a lot worse than to be spurred to action by the example of that humble Christian man, Arthur Stace.
Assembled from various sources to coincide with the millennium celebrations in 2000.
Prime sources were various transcripts of a book by Keith Dunstan, and also “The Crooked Made Straight” by the Rev. Lisle M. Thompson – both of which are apparently out of print.
Photographs of Archdeacon RBS Hammond and the St. Barnabas’ Wednesday evening men’s meeting were published in “He That Doeth – The Life Story of Archdeacon R. B. S. Hammond, O.B.E.” by Bernard G. Judd, published in 1951 – now out of print.
A radio interview with Arthur Stace, conducted in 1964 when he was 79, is available here as a 2MB mp3 file (direct link). The source of this audio file is unknown.