Ben-Hur: The Conversion of General Lew Wallace

Ben-Hur: The Conversion of General Lew Wallace

One of the tra­di­tions our fam­ily shared when our chil­dren were younger was the view­ing of Charl­ton Hes­ton in Ben-Hur around the Easter sea­son. The con­ver­sion of the main char­ac­ter, Ben-Hur, at the end of the fea­ture is one of mov­ing and affirm­ing scenes of Chris­t­ian cin­e­matog­ra­phy. Cap­ti­vat­ing in its orig­i­nal lit­er­ary form as a book, Pres­i­dent Ulysses S. Grant wrote to its author, Gen­eral Lew Wal­lace, to inform him that he was so enthralled by the book that he stayed up thirty hours straight to read it. The story behind the writ­ing of this book is both inspi­ra­tional and tragic.

The Life of Gen­eral Lew Wallace

Lew Wal­lace

Lew Wal­lace was born into a mil­i­tary and polit­i­cal fam­ily in Brookville, Indi­ana in 1827. In addi­tion to hav­ing served in the mil­i­tary, Wallace’s father also served the state of Indi­ana as lieu­tenant gov­er­nor and gov­er­nor. After a very trou­bled child­hood and youth, Lew took up the study of law and upon com­ple­tion of his study, was admit­ted to the state bar, and was sub­se­quently elected to offices as pros­e­cut­ing attor­ney and state sen­a­tor. At the start of the Amer­i­can Civil War in 1861, he was appointed colonel of the 11th Indi­ana Infantry and soon after pro­moted to brigadier gen­eral and given com­mand of a brigade. At the bat­tle of Shiloh, Wal­lace was accused of nearly hav­ing lost the bat­tle for the Union by mov­ing up his reserves too slowly—an accu­sa­tion that was earnestly denied by Wal­lace through­out the remain­der of his life. After the war and fol­low­ing the assas­si­na­tion of Pres­i­dent Lin­coln in 1865, eight con­spir­a­tors were arrested and put on trial in a mil­i­tary court. Gen­eral Wal­lace was cho­sen as one of twelve men to sit on the mil­i­tary com­mis­sion to try the accused, one woman and seven men. In the 1870s and 1880s, he held a num­ber of impor­tant polit­i­cal posts, includ­ing gov­er­nor of New Mex­ico Ter­ri­tory, from 1878 to 1881.

The Influ­ence of Colonel Robert Ingersoll

Robert Inger­soll

One of the most impor­tant intro­duc­tions Gen­eral Wal­lace ever received occurred in rela­tion to the bat­tle of Shiloh. Colonel Robert Inger­soll was placed under the com­mand of Gen­eral Wal­lace at Shiloh. In time, this rela­tion­ship would ben­e­fit Gen­eral Wal­lace in ways that nei­ther the Gen­eral nor Colonel Inger­soll could anticipate.

Robert “Bob” Inger­soll (August 11, 1833 – July 21, 1899) was a Civil War vet­eran, Amer­i­can polit­i­cal leader, and ora­tor dur­ing the Amer­i­can Golden Age of Freethought,[1] and is remem­bered fore­most for his defense of agnos­ti­cism, receiv­ing the nick­name, “The Great Agnos­tic.” Ingersoll’s father, John, was a Con­gre­ga­tion­al­ist pas­tor who had, from all appear­ances, accepted what was known as New School Calvin­ism. Rev. John Inger­soll had filled the pul­pit for the well-known revival­ist, Charles G. Finney while Finney was on a Euro­pean revival tour. Upon Finney’s return, John Inger­soll remained with Finney for sev­eral months as asso­ciate pas­tor before mov­ing on and, because of oppo­si­tion in local churches, even­tu­ally leav­ing the min­istry. There can be no ques­tion that being a New School Calvin­ist in Old School Calvin­ist churches would cause immense ten­sion. Indeed, John Inger­soll was brought up on charges on three sep­a­rate occa­sions, one of the most con­tentious, when Robert was only a boy of nine years of age. As a young man, Robert turned his back upon Chris­tian­ity, but it was not an aus­tere or strict home life that caused Robert Inger­soll, and his brother, to turn from God to agnos­ti­cism, but rancorous—mean spirited—people in the local church who per­se­cuted and pros­e­cuted his father. Who would have imag­ined that mis­treat­ing a min­is­ter would have had such immense con­se­quences against the Church in Amer­ica and around the world? As a result the Church has groaned under ratio­nal lash­ings of Robert Inger­soll and his dis­ci­ples for more than a cen­tury and a half—and into the future as far as the eye can see.

Ingersoll’s Unwit­ting Sup­port for Christ

For much of his life, Lew Wal­lace had treated Christ and the teach­ings of Chris­tian­ity with indif­fer­ence. He had not fully rejected them, and nei­ther had he allowed him­self to be deeply influ­enced by the teach­ings of the Church. As evi­dence to the fact that he had at least been curi­ous about Chris­tian­ity, he could point to the fact that he had attended a Methodist church on and off for many years.

Then, one day as he boarded a train in Craw­fordsville, Indi­ana where he resided, some­one behind him called his name. To his sur­prise, it was Robert Inger­soll. The well-known agnos­tic was eager to speak with his com­man­der from Shiloh and invited Wal­lace into his com­part­ment. Wal­lace com­plied with Ingersoll’s request, but under the con­di­tion that Wal­lace be allowed to choose the sub­ject of conversation—to which Inger­soll agreed. The sub­jects of con­cern to Wal­lace were spir­i­tual and reli­gious in nature. Offer­ing up the sub­jects, Wal­lace lis­tened as Inger­soll addressed the var­i­ous Chris­t­ian teach­ings with his agnos­tic flour­ishes. For nearly two hours, Wal­lace was spell­bound by Ingersoll’s intel­lec­tual and rhetor­i­cal ability—all dis­parag­ing Christ and His Church. Their con­ver­sa­tion was brought to an abrupt halt when the train entered Indi­anapo­lis Cen­tral Sta­tion. The two men bid each other farewell. Inger­soll left for his hotel, and Wal­lace, in route to his brother’s home on the north­east side of Indi­anapo­lis, brushed aside the use of a street-car, choos­ing rather to walk the dark­ened streets to muse over his con­ver­sa­tion with Ingersoll.

Years later, he reflected upon that con­ver­sa­tion as the inspi­ra­tion to seri­ously inves­ti­gate the claims of Jesus Christ and Chris­tian­ity, and the walk along the dark Indi­anapo­lis streets that led to that decision:

To lift me out of my indif­fer­ence [to Chris­tian­ity], 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 … 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.[2]

Ben-Hur was the lit­er­ary result of Wallace’s seven-year inves­ti­ga­tion. The book became the best-selling novel of the nine­teenth cen­tury and regarded as the most influ­en­tial Chris­t­ian book of that same period. Unlike Inger­soll, Wallace’s inves­ti­ga­tion of Christ and his teach­ings led the Gen­eral to the foot of the cross of Christ, and because it did, many have fol­lowed his exam­ple through the read­ing and view­ing of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

You too may fol­low the exam­ple Gen­eral Wal­lace by see­ing Jesus Christ for He truly is—Son of God; Sav­ior of the world; your Savior!

Lew Wal­lace, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Ben-Hur scooped an unprece­dented 11 Acad­emy Awards® in 1959 and, unlike some later rivals, richly deserved every sin­gle one. This is epic film­mak­ing on a scale that had not been seen before and is unlikely ever to be seen again. But it’s not just run­ning time or a cast of thou­sands that makes an epic, it’s the sub­ject mat­ter, and here the subject–Prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charl­ton Hes­ton) and his estrange­ment from old Roman pal Mes­sala (Stephen Boyd)–is rich, detailed, and sen­si­tively han­dled. Direc­tor William Wyler, who had been a junior assis­tant on MGM’s orig­i­nal silent ver­sion back in 1925, never sac­ri­fices the human focus of the story in favor of spec­ta­cle, and is aided immea­sur­ably by Mik­los Rozsa’s majes­tic musi­cal score, arguably the great­est ever writ­ten for a Hol­ly­wood pic­ture.  See distributor’s adver­tise­ment

[1] The Golden Age of Freethought began by about 1856 and lasted through the end of the nine­teenth century.

[2] “Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” (, March 28, 2013).

Dr. Stephen Flick
Written by Dr. Stephen FlickNumber of posts: 168
Dr. Stephen Flick earned his Ph.D. from Drew University in theology and church history, studying with well-known theologian, Dr. Thomas Oden. He served as professor of theology and church history at Wesley Biblical Seminary for 12 years and has over 30 years of ministerial experience. He has authored numerous articles and is a strong proponent of the restoration of historical Christian values to American culture. More...
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