The Hoosier that Wrote Ben Hur

You never know what you will learn during a children’s sermon.

This morning ours was given by the seventh grade social studies teacher. He just led a student trip to Washington, D.C., and he began his talk by showing a picture that his son had taken in the Capitol. He said there was a hall of statues there. I didn’t know that before this morning. Indiana has two. One is of Oliver Hazard Perry Morton, not that I would have guessed that one. The one Kevin, who gave the talk, wanted us to guess was the other one. The clue he kept giving was that the man had written the book BEN HUR, but that really didn’t help anybody. Finally, he gave up and told us the man’s name: Lewis Wallace.

Lew Wallace had a pretty interesting life history-wise. According to The Architect of the Capitol:

Lewis (Lew) Wallace was born in Brookville, Indiana, on April 10, 1827. An adventurous boy, he was often truant from school, but when his father was elected governor of Indiana in 1837, Wallace’s interest in reading was stimulated by his new proximity to the state library. He became a reporter for the Indianapolis Daily Journal for one year, but when the Mexican War broke out he left to raise a company of soldiers. After the war Wallace served as a member for the Indiana State Senate from 1856 to 1860.

A general during the Civil War, he was distinguished as a leader and fighter, and he was credited with saving Cincinatti from the Confederate Army on July 9. 1864. He also served on the court-martial tribunal that tried the accomplices of John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln’s assassin. Wallace served as governor of New Mexico Territory from 1878 to 1881 and as the minister to Turkey from 1881 to 1885. His book Ben Hur made him one of the most noted authors in America. Over 300,000 copies were sold within ten years of its publication, and it continues to be a favorite adventure story. During the last ten years of his life, Wallace lectured extensively. He died on February 15, 1905, at Crawfordsville, Indiana.

Of course Kevin mentioned Wallace’s great accomplishments, military and otherwise. But then he honed in on the writing of Ben Hur. According to Kevin, Wallace was an intellectual and did not believe in God. And according to the Lew Wallace Autobiography, pages 927 and 928:

“In 1875. . . it occurred to me to write the conceptions which I had long carried in my mind of the Wise Men.” . . . . . .
“At that time, speaking candidly, I was not in the least influenced by religious sentiment. I had no convictions about God or Christ. I neither believed nor disbelieved in them.
“The preachers had made no impression upon me. My reading covered nearly every other subject. Indifference is the word most perfectly descriptive of my feelings respecting the To-morrow of Death, as a French scientist has happily termed the succession of life. Yet when the work was fairly begun, I found myself writing reverentially, and frequently with awe*.”

In the year referred to above (1875), Lew Wallace was forty eight years old. One can infer from the above quote that the research and writing of Ben Hur was changing his “indifference” toward Christianity.

The publishing date of the Autobiography is 1906. Lew Wallace died February 15, 1905 at the age of seventy seven. Between the age of forty eight (1875) and the writing of his Autobiography, Lew Wallace’s “Belief in Christianity” had made a dramatic change.

The words of the Wise Men in the beginning of Matthew were what inspired Wallace to write his book. These words are in the very beginning of Ben Hur:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is He that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the east, and are come to worship Him.

According to the talk this morning, because Wallace was an intellectual, he decided to research the Bible so he could prove it wrong. I don’t know about that, but according to his own biography, his beliefs were changed by his research. Yet Wallace still did not attend church. He explained this in his autobiography:

I am not a member of any church or denomination, nor have I ever been. Not that churches are objectionable to me, but simply because my freedom is enjoyable, and I do not think myself good enough to be a communicant. None the less I believe in the Divinity of Jesus Christ; and that there may be no suspicion of haggling over the word “divinity,” permission is besought to quote the preface of a little volume of mine, The Boyhood of Christ [Published 1892]:

Should one ask of another, or wonder in himself, why I, who am neither minister of the Gospel, nor theologian, nor churchman, have presumed to write this book, it pleases me to answer him, respectfully–I wrote it to fix an impression distinctly in my mind. Asks he for the impression thus sought to be fixed in my mind, then I would be twice happy did he content himself with this answer–

The Jesus Christ in whom I believe was, in all the stages of his life, a human being. His divinity was the Spirit within him, ‘and the Spirit was God.

I am not a native of Indiana, having spent forty-two of my fifty-one years in Ohio, but I have always been moved by Ben Hur and am glad to know that the man who wrote it was a Hoosier. I am even happier that his research led him to Christ. I am sure he would be happy to know that Hoosiers still enjoy the story produced as a result of his faith today.


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