Born APRIL 10, 1827In 1876, former Civil War General Lew Wallace and other Union veterans were on a train on their way to a soldiers reunion. A man who, like Lew, was also a lawyer, invited him to a conversation. That man, Robert Ingersoll, was also America’s best-known atheist. Lew would later describe Mr. Ingersoll’s command of that discussion: “He vomited forth ideas and arguments like an intellectual volcano.” Lew returned to his sleeping berth ashamed of his inability to articulate his views in favor of the Christian faith. That would change. Within a few years, Lew would write the novel Ben-Hur.
A FIGHTER FROM INDIANA
Lew was born to David and Esther Wallace of Indiana. Ten years later his father became governor of the state. From his father and others, Lew would learn there were causes worth fighting for. Some causes called for physical strength while some demanded mental prowess.
At age nineteen, Lew served Indiana in the Mexican War. He returned home to pursue a career as a lawyer. In 1856, he was elected to the Indiana state Senate. By then, he had married and had a son. His family settled in Crawfordsville, where Lew resided for the rest of his life. Life was good, but storm clouds were gathering for bigger battles than Lew had ever fought.The Civil War erupted on April 15, 1861. Lew coordinated the Indiana state militia. He entered his first skirmish as Colonel Lew Wallace. The following year, as Major General Wallace, he led troops through battles in Tennessee, including the battle of Shiloh. When placed in charge of Baltimore’s 8th Army Corps in 1864, Lew successfully defended the nation’s capitol from Confederate forces.
FROM SHAME TO FAME
Lew wasn’t always liked. He received blame for the outcome of some of the battles he fought in. More than once, he found himself relieved of his command. But God always had another important job waiting in the wings. In 1865, Lew returned to Mexico to hinder that country’s efforts to supply arms to the Confederacy. On the train ride home, he learned President Lincoln has been killed.The new president, Andrew Johnson, established a commission to oversee the trial of the assassination conspirators. Lew became second in command on that board of military leaders. The following year, he was placed at the head of another war-related trial. It found Confederate Captain Henry Wirz, commander of Andersonville Prison, guilty of torturing and starving the Union soldiers he’d held as prisoners.
Then in 1873, Lew published his first novel, titled The Fair God. He would publish his third novel, Prince of India, in 1893. Both were well-received, but neither reached the status of his 1880 novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.
THE SON OF HUR AND THE SON OF GOD
A number of things attracted readers to Ben-Hur: the pomp and splendor of Rome, the rise and fall of one man’s fortunes, social and political injustice, and romance, told on an epic scale. But the heart of the story is Judah Ben-Hur’s gradual realization of the person of Jesus Christ and how it transformed his life.Judah first meets Jesus when he’s one of many thirsty slaves of the Roman Empire on their way through Nazareth. Jesus, as a carpenter, gives him a drink of cold water. Later, when he’s a resistance fighter against Rome, he sees John the Baptist baptizing Jesus. Still later, when their paths cross, he realizes Jesus, the wise teacher and healer, is the Messiah. Judah is in the crowd the day Jesus struggles up Via Dolorosa, falling under the burden of His cross. Judah attempts to give Jesus cold water in His moment of need.
From the Lord’s birth to His crucifixion, Jesus, the Son of God, is the central figure of Lew’s novel, his personal statement of Christian faith.
JESUS, FROM BOOKSHELVES TO BROADWAY
People bought and read Ben-Hur. The novel was praised by political leaders as well as the general public. Its readers included former president Ulysses S. Grant and President James A. Garfield. The latter wrote to Lew, “With this beautiful and reverent book you have lightened the burden of my daily life.”
In four years, the novel outsold all others published by Harper & Brothers. By its ten-year mark, Ben-Hur had been printed in multiple languages and sold 300,000 copies. It would reach sales of one million after three decades. A lot of people have been able to be touched by its message; for most of 50 years it reigned as the best-selling novel of all time.
For most of the decade bewteen 1880-1890, Lew resisted letting Broadway turn his story into a play. He changed his mind on one condition. Out of reverence for Jesus, no actor would portray Him. When the curtains rose in 1889, a shaft of light stood in for Jesus. In those days, people who attended church didn’t normally attend the theater. The play Ben-Hur changed that, receiving high marks from Billy Sunday and other spiritual leaders. As a play, Ben-Hur drew audiences for the next twenty years.NEW LIFE AFTER DEATH
Lew Wallace didn’t live to see Ben-Hur on film. He died of stomach cancer in 1905. A silent film version in 1925 became a public favorite. But it was the 1959 production starring Charlton Heston that was best received by viewers and critics.Reverence for Jesus was portrayed in 1959 by showing His body, but never His face. When Judah Ben-Hur and others saw Jesus’ face, it greatly effected them. (Watch some of the film’s inspiring scenes via the YouTube links below.) At the time, that film version was the most expensive Hollywood production ever. It went on to out-earn any previous film at the box office. At the 1960 Academy Awards ceremony, Ben-Hur set a new standard as the first movie to ever win 11 Oscars.
The powerful story continues to be remade. Charlton Heston lent his voice to Judah Ben-Hur in 2003 for an animated made-for-television version. In 2010, a Ben- Hur mini series from Canada aired on ABC TV.
The book continues to sell. To date, as many as 50 million copies have been purchased. While the chariot race, the slave ship at sea, and other descriptive and dramatic scenes draw people into the story, it will always remain an influential tale about Jesus, the Christ.
LET ME KNOW: How has Lew’s story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.
- Karney, Robyn, ed. Cinema, Year by Year: 1894-2001. Dorling Kindersley Limited, London, 2001.
- Reese, Ed. Encyclopedia of Christian Biographies. Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2007.
- Swansburg, John. The Passion of Lew Wallace. The Slate. March 26, 2013. http://www.slate.com/articles/life/history/2013/03/ben_hur_and_lew_wallace_how_the_scapegoat_of_shiloh_became_one_of_the_best.single.html.
- The General Lew Wallace Study and Museum. Timeline. http://www.ben-hur.com/meet-lew-wallace/timeline/.
- Wallace, Lew. Lew Wallace: An Autobiography. New York, New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1906- https://archive.org/details/lewwallaceanaut00wallgoog.
- You can read Ben-Hur online at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2145.
- You can visit the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum online at http://www.ben-hur.com/about-us/.
YouTube: you can watch these inspiring movie clips from the 1959 version of Ben-Hur-
- Jesus gives water to Judah Ben-Hur- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVlf7OiiTJE.
- Judah Ben-Hur offers water to Jesus on His way to Calvary- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zaj11z6in6Q#aid=P-zQ8GSyeOM.
- Leprosy healed during crucifixion-http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aM6lBIaRzEQ.
- The final scene-http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVlgzhO0S3w.