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An Agnostic's Challenge

by H. A. Ironside (1876-1951)

H A IronsideFor nearly a year after I left the Salvation Army and launched out in evangelistic work in fellowship with the Christians commonly known as "Brethren," I lived in the San Francisco Bay region. One Lord's Day afternoon as I was walking up Market Street, I saw a large group gathered at the corner of Market and Grant Avenue. When I heard the sound of music and singing, I realized in a moment that it was a meeting of my old Salvationist friends, and went over to enjoy it. They had a splendid brass band. There were perhaps sixty soldiers in all, who had formed a large circle round which some three or four hundred people were gathered. I pushed my way through to the front of the crowd, and was almost immediately recognized by the little lassie captain who came over and asked me if I would not like to give a testimony. Of course I was pleased to do this, so when opportunity presented itself, at her suggestion I stepped into the ring and tried to give a gospel message based on my own personal experience of Christ's saving grace.

While I was speaking, I noticed that a well-dressed man of medium build and intelligent countenance who was standing on the curb took a card from his pocket and wrote something on it. Just as I was concluding my talk, he stepped forward, politely lifted his hat, and handed me the card. On one side I read his name. I realized at once who he was, for I had seen his name in the public press and on placards as one who had been giving addresses for some months all up and down the West Coast from Vancouver to San Diego. He was an official representative of what was then called the I. W. W. Movement — that is, the "Industrial Workers of the World," though opponents of its socialistic principles generally interpreted the mystic letters as standing for "I Won't Work." He held meetings among laboring men, seeking to incite them to class hatred and to organize with a view to overthrowing the capitalistic system.

Turning the card over, I read on the opposite side, as nearly as I can now remember, the following challenge: "Sir, I challenge you to debate with me the question 'Agnosticism versus Christianity' in the Academy of Science Hall next Sunday afternoon at four o'clock. I will pay all expenses —."

I read the card aloud, and replied somewhat as follows: "I am very much interested in this challenge. Frankly, I am already announced for another meeting next Lord's Day afternoon at three o'clock, but I think it will be possible for me to get through with that in time to reach the Academy of Science by four, or if necessary I could arrange to have another speaker substitute for me at the meeting already advertised. Therefore I will be glad to agree to this debate on the following conditions: namely, that in order to prove that Mr.—— has something worth fighting for and worth debating about, he will promise to bring with him to the Hall next Sunday two people, whose qualifications I will give in a moment, as proof that agnosticism is of real value in changing human lives and building true character. First, he must promise to bring with him one man who was for years what we commonly call a 'down-and-outer.' I am not particular as to the exact nature of the sins that had wrecked his life and made him an outcast from society — whether a drunkard, or a criminal of some kind, or a victim of any sensual appetite — but a man who for years was under the power of evil habits from which he could not deliver himself, but who on some occasion entered one of Mr.——s meetings and heard his glorification of agnosticism and his denunciations of the Bible and Christianity, and whose heart and mind as he listened to such an address were so deeply stirred that he went away from that meeting saying, 'Henceforth, I too am an agnostic!' and as a result of imbibing that particular philosophy he found that a new power had come into his life. The sins he once loved, now he hated, and righteousness and goodness were henceforth the ideals of his life. He is now an entirely new man, a credit to himself and an asset to society — all because he is an agnostic.

"Secondly, I would like Mr.—— to promise to bring with him one woman — and I think he may have more difficulty in finding the woman than the man — who was once a poor, wrecked, characterless outcast, the slave of evil passions, and the victim of man's corrupt living." As I spoke I was within perhaps a stone's throw of San Francisco's infamous Barbary Coast, where so many young lives have been shipwrecked; and so I added, "Perhaps one who had lived for years in some evil resort on Pacific Street, or in some other nearby hell-hole, utterly lost, ruined and wretched because of her life of sin. But this woman also entered a hall where Mr.—— was loudly proclaiming his agnosticism and ridiculing the message of the Holy Scriptures. As she listened, hope was born in her heart, and she said, 'This is just what I need to deliver me from the slavery of sin!' She followed the teaching until she became an intelligent agnostic or infidel. As a result, her whole being revolted against the degradation of the life she had been living. She fled from the den of iniquity where she had been held captive so long; and today, rehabilitated, she has won her way back to an honored position in society and is living a clean, virtuous, happy life — all because she is an agnostic.

"Now, Mr.——," I exclaimed, "if you will promise to bring these two people with you as examples of what agnosticism will do, I will promise to meet you at the Hall at the hour appointed next Sunday, and I will bring with me at the very least one hundred men and women who for years lived in just such sinful degradation as I have tried to depict, but who have been gloriously saved through believing the message of the gospel which you ridicule. I will have these men and women with me on the platform as witnesses to the miraculous saving power of Jesus Christ, and as present-day proof of the truth of the Bible."

Turning to the little Salvation Army captain, I said, "Captain, have you any who could go with me to such a meeting?" She exclaimed with enthusiasm, "We can give you forty at least, just from this one corps, and we will give you a brass band to lead the procession!"

"Fine!" I answered. "Now, Mr.——, I will have no difficulty in picking up sixty others from various Missions, Gospel Halls, and evangelical churches of the city, and if you promise faithfully to bring two such exhibits as I have described, I will come marching in at the head of such a procession, with the band playing 'Onward, Christian Soldiers,' and I will be ready for the debate."

I think Mr.—— had quite a sense of humor, for he smiled rather sardonically, waved his hand in a deprecating kind of way as much as to say, "Nothing doing!" and edging through the crowd he left the scene, while that great crowd clapped the Salvation Army and the street-preacher to the echo, for they well knew that in all the annals of unbelief no one ever heard of a philosophy of negation, such as agnosticism, making bad men and women good, and they also knew that this is what Christianity has been doing all down through the centuries.

Our gospel proves itself by what it accomplishes, as redeemed people from every walk of life, delivered from every type of sin, prove the regenerating and keeping power of the Christ of whom the Bible speaks.

From Random Reminiscences From Fifty Years of Ministry by H. A. Ironside. New York: Loizeaux Bros., 1939.

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