I have long loved the 1959 film, Ben-Hur, starring Charlton Heston. I was aware that the author of the book which inspired the movie was General Lew Wallace and that he wrote his story as he researched the life of Christ.
With the recent release of at least the fifth film version of Ben-Hur, I decided I didn’t know enough about Lew Wallace, or his book.
What Launched the General’s Book
While on a train to Indianapolis in 1876, Civil War general, Lew Wallace, began a conversation with Colonel Robert Ingersoll about spiritual matters. General Wallace describes the effect of the next two hours as he listened to Ingersoll:
…He was in prime mood; and beginning, his ideas turned to speech, slowing like a heated river. His manner of putting things was marvelous; and …, I sat spellbound, listening to a medley of argument, eloquence, wit, satire, audacity, irreverence, poetry, brilliant antitheses, and pungent excoriation of believers in God, Christ, and Heaven, the like of which I had never heard. He surpassed himself, and that is saying a great deal.
The speech was brought to an end by our arrival at the Indianapolis Central Station nearly two hours after its commencement. Upon alighting from the car, we separated: he to go to a hotel, and I to my brother’s, a long way up northeast of town. The street-cars were at my service, but I preferred to walk, for I was in a confusion of mind not unlike dazement.
To explain this, it is necessary now to confess that my attitude with respect to religion had been one of absolute indifference. I had heard it argued times innumerable, always without interest… But–how strange! To lift me out of my indifference, one would think only strong affirmations of things regarded holiest would do. Yet here was I now moved as never before, and by what? The most outright denials of all human knowledge of God, Christ, Heaven, and the Hereafter which figures so in the hope and faith of the believing everywhere. Was the Colonel right? What had I on which to answer yes or no? He had made me ashamed of my ignorance: and then—here is the unexpected of the affair–as I walked on in the cool darkness, I was aroused for the first time in my life to the importance of religion. To write all my reflections would require many pages. I pass them to say simply that I resolved to study the subject. And while casting round how to set about the study to the best advantage, I thought of the manuscript in my desk. Its closing scene was the child Christ in the cave by Bethlehem: why not go on with the story down to the crucifixion? That would make a book, and compel me to study everything of pertinency; after which, possibly, I would be possessed of opinions of real value.
It only remains to say that I did as resolved, with results—first, the book “Ben Hur,” and second, a conviction amounting to absolute belief in God and the Divinity of Christ.
With his book in mind, the general researched about the geography and history of the time of Christ at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Harper and Brothers published the book in 18980. By 1889, it had been translated into several languages. Ben-Hur established Lew Wallace as an author.
In 1885, while serving our country in Constantinople as an envoy to the Ottoman Empire, General Wallace wrote to his wife, Susan:
We may as well regard the curtain rung down on this act of my life. I have tried many things in the course of the dream – the law, soldiering, politics, authorship and, lastly, diplomacy – and if I may pass judgment upon the success achieved in each, it seems now that when I sit down finally in the old man’s gown and slippers, helping the cat to keep the fireplace warm, I shall look back upon Ben-Hur as my best performance, and this mission near the sultan as the next best.
I’ve decided it’s about time I read Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ and learn the story the way the general intended it to be told. Perhaps the book or the film will prompt you to study, too, to see if Jesus really is God, as He claimed.
- Read the entire account of Wallace’s encounter with Ingersoll here.
- Read a full biography of General Lew Wallace (1827 – 1905) on Wikipedia.com. Much content in this post comes from this biography. Some highlights of General Wallace’s life are:
- Military service in the Mexican-American war and as a Union general in the Civil War
- Governor of the New Mexico Territory
- U.S. minister to the Ottoman Empire
- Renowned author, notably for Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, which has never gone out of print
- Learn more about General Lew Wallace through the Lew Wallace Study and Museum.
- Visiting D.C.? A marble statue of General Wallace is the only statue of an author in the National Statuary Hall Collection.
- Download a free Kindle version of Ben-Hur from Amazon.
- The photo from the 2016 remake of Ben-Hur (IMDB link) is from ShareBenHur.com. Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) offers water to Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro).
- The photo of General Lew Wallace is in the public domain.