It is the 15th of February 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1905.
In America, around the turn of the century, the 120 plus-year-old Republic was a buzz. The Civil War had passed, and despite Reconstruction's failures, the country did find ways to come together. Sure, some of this has to do with money. The Gilded Age had created the Robber Barons and many "haves," but the growing number of "have-nots" would near crisis levels. The Social Gospel movement in the United States was partly a response to the Gilded Age's excesses.
The Gilded Age gives way to the Progressive Era. (All artificial titles and timelines, but shared artificial titles.) An energetic government found it could harness industry and create public works: the mail system, the railroads, electric lights in the streets, and improved sewage systems, to name a few.
It was also the golden age of "free-thinking," religious language, and the Bible are everywhere, but the insistence on orthodoxy was mostly absent. This is the era of Robert Ingersoll, the fiery orator known as “The Great Agnostic."
If we jump back just a little to 1876, we can see Robert Ingersoll on a train. The former Civil War soldier was heading to a celebration in Indianapolis for veterans of the war. He saw an old friend and fellow soldier from Shiloh, Lewis Wallace. After the Civil War, Wallace held various diplomatic positions related to his service and job as a lawyer. But that's not why you might know him.
Ingersoll, the Agnostic, and Wallace began to discuss the Christian religion. This conversation consumed the train ride, and at the end, Wallace confessed that he knew embarrassingly little about his childhood faith. Lewis Wallace, pen name Lew Wallace, had written historical fiction before and decided that the best way to dig deep into the life of Jesus would be to write historical fiction about him.
The book he wrote followed a young man whose life parallels Jesus's life in terms of time and location. The man, Judah Ben Hur, would be the fictional hero of the book "Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ." The accolades are legion. It is likely the best-selling book of the 19th century despite being published in 1880. It has been called the most significant Christian book of the 19th century and one of the most successful movies to come from a piece of literature. There have been multiple movies based on the book. The 1960 version with Charlton Heston, along with “Titanic” and “The Return of the King,” are the only films to win 11 Academy Awards.
Wallace took great care to only show, Jesus, doing what he does in the Gospels and only saying what he is recorded as saying. Some claim the book is only vaguely Christian, to which one might reply, "That's the best description of a lot of Christian art from North America." While Ben Hur has a change of heart at the end of the story, it is still a very Gilded Age story of a poor man becoming very rich and powerful. Perhaps Ben Hur was a mixture of Jesus and Horatio Alger?
Criticism aside, the American novel and later American film brought attention to the life of Jesus in a way that Uncle Tom's Cabin (#2 on the bestseller list) brought attention to slavery. The book drew attention to questions about how to depict Jesus in popular culture. When the book became a play, it was decided that a bright light would substitute for Jesus. "The Jesus Film" and "The Last Temptation of the Christ" and "The Passion of the Christ" would all have the shoulders of Wallace's book to stand on. As far as I know, it is the only novel ever blessed by a Pope.
Lew Wallace continued to write, but nothing would eclipse his biblical epic. Lewis Wallace, Civil War soldier and author of Ben Hur, died on the 15th of February in 1905.
The reading for today comes from John Newton. This is a section from his "Come, My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare."
Come, my soul, thy suit prepare;
Jesus loves to answer prayer:
He Himself has bid thee pray,
Therefore will not say thee nay.
Thou art coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring;
For his grace and power are such,
None can ever ask too much.
With my burden I begin;
Lord, remove this load of sin;
Let Thy blood, for sinners spilt,
Set my conscience free from guilt.
Lord, I come to Thee for rest;
Take possession of my breast;
There Thy blood-bought right maintain,
And without a rival reign.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 15th of February 2021, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who isn't sure about 11 awards for two of those movies and still thinks Titanic should've won more. He's Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.