Making your life count for eternity

Sydney Harbour Bridge 2nd January 2000

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 at least 34 years, he chalked this ‘one-word sermon’ – and it is estimated he wrote it more than half a million times.

For years, these Eternity signs mystified Sydney. They were an enigma.

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.

Mystery Solved

The mystery all came clear in 1956. 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.

The church ran an open-air meeting on Saturday nights, and Arthur would give his testimony.

On one occasion, Lisle Thompson went to where Arthur was standing and saw the word saw the famous “Eternity” written on the pavement. He knew it hadn’t been there shortly before, so Thompson asked: “Are you Mr Eternity?” and Stace replied, “Guilty Your Honour”.

With his permission, Lisle Thompson wrote a tract (called “The Crooked Made Straight”) telling Arthur Stace’s extraordinary story.

Thompson also sent a copy of the tract to Australian Consolidated Press, and Journalist Tom Farrell conducted the first interview. He published it in The Sunday Telegraph on Sunday 24th June 1956, under the heading, “The Man that Sydney Wondered About … Every Dawn he Chalks a Pavement Challenge.”.

This is Arthur Stace’s story:

From Gutter…

Arthur Stace was born Redfern in 1885 and grew up in a Balmain slum. 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 house of ill-repute.

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 little 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 on the south coast – 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 that run by his sisters. Then there were other jobs such as cockatoo, or lookout man, at a two-up school. He became mixed up with various housebreaking gangs and, because of his size, he was very useful.

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 methylated spirits at 6d a bottle. He was in danger of becoming a permanent inmate of Callan Park Mental Asylum.

He told journalist Tom Farrell 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

During the Depression, a metho drinker, dirty, badly dressed, had to be the least likely of any to get a job.

St. Barnabas Wednesday Evening Mens MeetingOutside 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’.

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. Afterwards, Stace put it this way: “I went in to get a cup of tea and a rock cake but I met the Rock of Ages.”

Archdeacon RBS HammondUp 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. He recalled praying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”. (Hammond had possibly been preaching from the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican from Luke 18.)

Over the next few weeks, Stace found that he was able to give up drink and he said:

“That night, I realised that Christ was stronger than drink.”

“As I got back my self respect, people were more decent to me.”

So he found a job for the dole, working at the sandhills at Maroubra one week on, one week off at £3 a week. He was 45 years old.

On November 14th 1932, in the Burton Street Baptist Tabernacle at Darlinghurst he heard the evangelist, the Reverend John G. 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.

Burton Street Baptist Tabernacle in 2010.

Ridley told his audience that men and women everywhere must think about Eternity and where they will spend it.

He shouted:

“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”, and used each at different times, but mainly 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 (whom he had married in 1942, when he was 57), in 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 chalk, but switched to yellow 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.

From the tract “The Crooked Made Straight”, 3rd edition:

“Thirty-five years of untiring service for his Master began almost as soon as the change came – a house was rented and a five-bed hostel in Ultimo was the first attempt to reclaim men for Christ. This led to being appointed to the R. B. S. Hammond Buckland Street Hostel (now pulled down) where Arthur shaved and issued canteen supplies to 300 down-and-out men in order to tell them his story.

Realising that he must go out into the open air to reach men, Arthur Stace led an open air meeting on the corner of George and Bathurst Streets, Sydney, for 24 years.

Every Wednesday evening until June, 1965, he visited the Methodist Hostel in Francis Street and preached Salvation through God’s power to the derelicts who seek a bed for the night.

Years of visitation to the inmates of Callan Park, and also to the Lazaret among lepers, has brought cheer and hope to desperate cases.

Always glad to tell what God has done for him, Arthur Stace has preached in many churches of most denominations and much fruit has come from this Gospel sowing.

Arthur Stace teamed with Cairo Bradley’s tent missions and thousands heard the story of God’s power to save. During World War II many military camps heard the story of his salvation.”

When the Rector of St. Barnabas’ Broadway, 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 moved to Hammondville Nursing Home, near Liverpool, in early 1965, when he realised he could no longer look after himself. (Pearl had died in July 1961.) The Daily Telegraph newspaper ran a story on him on Saturday June 12 1965 (page 14) headed “An End to Eternity”. He was quoted as saying, “I don’t expect to leave here under my own steam. … But that doesn’t worry me – I want to join the Lord.”

Nevertheless, Arthur continued to chalk Eternity in the Liverpool area and on occasional trips into the city.

He died in the nursing home from a stroke, on the evening of Sunday July 30, 1967. He was 82.

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 alongside Pearl at Botany Cemetery.

Photo

Photo by Ramon Williams, Worldwide Photos.

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.

Eternity at the bottom of the waterfall, in 2012 – as seen from the top of the steps from near the Cathedral leading down to Town Hall Station.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Column 8 said:

TRUE to his words of last November, Ridley Smith, the Sydney Square architect, has immortalised the late Arthur Stace, “Mr Eternity”. You may recall that Column 8 campaigned unashamedly for a suitable memorial to Mr Stace, Sydney’s footpath evangelist for 20 vears until 1967. Ridley Smith promised it without strings.

TODAY, the memorial above will be officially unveilled (a small explanatory plaque is yet to come). Yesterday Column 8 had an informal peek. Mr Stace would be proud. There, set in aggregate near the Sydney Square waterfall, in letters almost 21cm (8 in) 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 the pebbles, as Arthur Stace would have wanted it.

 – Column 8, The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday, 12th July 1977.

That monument is still there.

Eternity in aluminium below Sydney Square

But a 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.

______________

Prime sources were various transcripts of a book by Keith Dunstan, and also the tract “The Crooked Made Straight” by the Rev. Lisle M. Thompson – both of which are apparently out of print. Text from the latter courtesy Ramon Williams.

Tom Farrell’s story in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph, page 5, June 24 1956, has most of the details above, derived from“The Crooked Made Straight”.

“Sydney’s Phantom Preacher”, by Alan Gill (formerly The Sydney Morning Herald’s religion reporter) in The Catholic Weekly, 31 August 1994.

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. This source records that Arthur Stace was invited to speak at the funeral of Archdeacon Hammond in 1946.

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.

This page assembled by Colin Mackellar from various sources to coincide with the millennium celebrations in 2000. (Other details have been added more recently as they came to light.)

Where will you spend eternity?