When speaking of influential stories, it might be easy to overlook one of the greatest tales ever told. Listed as the most influential Christian book of the 19th century, Ben-Hur outsold all of its contemporaries, including any of Mark Twain’s published works. It even topped the US all-time bestseller list until Gone With the Wind came out 50 years later.
That’s pretty good for a book, but then the story was adapted into one of the greatest movies of all time, too. Breaking all kinds of records, Ben-Hur won 11 academy awards … a record that stood for 38 years and still hasn’t been surpassed.
But how did this epic tale of revenge-turned-redemption come about? It may surprise you to find out that Lew Wallace didn’t have the best intentions at heart. In fact, he was more interested in disproving Christianity than writing a novel that intersected with the real life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
In Haven’s library, we uncovered an article from one of our Logs of the Good Ship Grace detailing the “story behind the story” written by someone who spoke with Lew Wallace many years ago. Read the word-for-word transcription below:
An Agnostic Came to the Faith
by N.N. Ronning
I had just read “Ben Hur,” writes X., and the book was on the table before me when the author, Lew Wallace, stepped in. I pointed to the book and told him that it had brought me much blessing. “I know I shall read it several times,” I remarked.
The author seemed pleased over my enthusiasm, so taking courage, I said, “I am interested in knowing how you came to write this story.”
After a pause he answered, “It will be a pleasure to tell you.” He seated himself a bit more comfortably in the large chair and in a simple, candid manner told me an unusual story. I shall repeat his words as nearly as I remember them, but the deep sincerity and the refined spirit which belonged to him in a special degree, I cannot relate:
“It was generally known that I was an agnostic and had denied Christianity. Robert G. Ingersoll was one of my most intimate friends. At that time I had just finished my term as Governor of the Territory of Arizona and was returning east together with Ingersoll. As we neared St. Louis, seated in conversation on ordinary things, we both noticed a forest of church spires. ‘Isn’t it strange,’ Ingersoll remarked, ‘that so many apparently intelligent people continue to believe the foolish doctrines that are being taught under these church spires? When will the time arrive that these teachings of the so-called Bible will be thrown out as foolishness?’
“We discussed this topic a while and suddenly Ingersoll looked into my face and said, ‘ See here, Wallace, you’re a learned man and a thinker. Why don’t you gather material, write a book and give it to the world proving the falsity concerning Jesus Christ—that no such man has ever lived, much less is the author of the teachings found in the New Testament? Such a book would make you famous. It would be a masterpiece and a way of putting an end to this foolishness concerning the so-called Christ and the Savior of the World.’
“This thought made a deep impression on me and we discussed the possibilities of such a book. As we bade farewell I said I would try to gather material for such a book and have it published as the masterpiece of my life and the crowning glory of my work.
“I went to Indianapolis, my home, and told my wife about my purpose. She was a member of the Methodist Church and naturally did not like my plan, but I had decided to do it and began to collect material in libraries here and in the old world. I gathered everything I could find that would throw light over that period in which Jesus Christ, according to sayings, should have lived. Several years were spent in this work. When I had accumulated all possible proof I began to write the book. I had written nearly four chapters, when it became clear to me that Jesus Christ was just as real a personality and teacher as Socrates, Plato, Caesar and other ancient men. The conviction became certainty—I knew that Jesus Christ had lived on earth, because of the facts connected with the period in which He had lived.
“I was in an uncomfortable position. I had begun to write a book to prove that no such person as Jesus Christ had ever lived on earth; now I was face to face with undeniable proof that He was just as historic a personage as Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony, Virgil, Dante and a host of other men who had lived in the olden days. I asked myself candidly, ‘If He was a real person (and there was no doubt) was He not then also the Son of God and the Savior of the World?’ Gradually the conviction grew that since Jesus Christ was a real person, then He probably was the one He claimed to be. This conviction became so strong that at last it grew into a certainty.
“One night, I shall never forget it, I fell on my knees to pray for the first time in my life and I asked God to reveal Himself to me, forgive me my sins and help me to become a follower of Christ. Toward morning the light broke into my soul. I went into my wife’s bedroom, woke her and told her that I had received Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. You should have seen her face when I told her of my new faith!
“‘Oh Lew,’ she said, ‘I have prayed for this ever since you told me of your purpose to write this book—I prayed that you should find Him while you wrote it.’
“We knelt at the bedside in the early morning and together we thanked God for His mercy and His guidance in directing me to Him. I do not believe that there is more joy in heaven than we found that morning when we, after many years of marriage, became united in fellowship with Jesus Christ.
“Then I asked, ‘What shall I do with all the material I have gathered with so much trouble and expense?’ ‘Oh,’ she answered, ‘Just rewrite the first four chapters, then send the book out into the world to prove from your own searching and studying that Jesus Christ is everything that He claimed to be, the Son of God and the Savior of the World.’”