On New Year’s Eve 1999, the word ‘Eternity’ lit up the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It was the calling card of committed Christian Arthur Stace, whose one-word signs were frequently seen around Sydney. With co-author Elizabeth Meyers, Roy Williams has written Stace’s biography, Mr Eternity.
What was the background to Stace’s ‘Eternity’ signs?
Stace converted to evangelical Christianity on 6 August 1930, when he was 45, at St Barnabas’ Anglican Church on Broadway, Sydney. On 14 November 1932, he went along to the Burton Street Baptist Tabernacle in Darlinghurst to hear a sermon by a visiting evangelist, John Ridley.
Ridley preached on Isaiah 57:15, where God is described as “He who inhabiteth Eternity”. Ridley was a magnificent, fiery speaker and Arthur was inspired by the sermon. As soon as he got outside afterwards, he found an old piece of chalk in his pocket. He knelt down and wrote the word ‘Eternity’ on the pavement. It came out in perfect copperplate! Arthur wrote the word 50 times a day every day for the rest of his life.
Stace certainly wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, was he?
No, he had a deprived and depraved early life. Born in 1885, he was raised in the slums of inner Sydney with drunkards as parents, and his mother became a prostitute. When he was seven, Arthur was put into foster care before starting work in a coal mine at 14.
As a young man back in Sydney he became a drunkard, a petty criminal, and a scout for his sister’s brothel. He was a stretcher-bearer during WWI but came back in 1919 a shattered man. The 1920s were ‘lost years’—he was a hopeless alcoholic, arrested and gaoled many times for vagrancy. Then, after his conversion in 1930, he completely changed his life around.
Why do you think these signs had such an impact on Australian society?
First, the resonance of the word ‘Eternity’ itself. It was an inspired choice, capable of appealing not only to Christians but to anyone open to contemplating the nature of time, human mortality, man’s place in the scheme of things, the afterlife, etc.
Second, the quirky beauty of the word when written down in Arthur’s signature copperplate style. And, third, the fact that Arthur’s personal story came to be associated with the word itself. He was the quintessential Aussie battler. His life story had everything—suffering, redemption, charity, hope, love. From a Christian perspective, his story cuts across denominational lines.
Can you tell me about your own faith background?
I was born and raised in Sydney in a happy home with highly educated and ethical parents but not Christians in any meaningful sense. I converted to Christianity when I was 35. That’s the only significant thing I have in common with Arthur—we were both mid-life converts!
Your background is in law—did you always want to be a writer?
Writing was always the part of law that I enjoyed most. I come from a family of journalists—both my father and my brother made their careers in the profession. But my years as a lawyer were a most valuable source of training for non-fiction writing. My co-author Elizabeth and I wanted to write Stace’s biography for the 50th anniversary of Arthur’s death and the 200th anniversary of the Bible Society.
What drives you to write your books?
I want to persuade Australians (especially ‘progressive’, well-educated Australians) to take Christianity seriously. Consider the real thing, not the caricatures. Understand its role in all aspects of Australian history, as well as the vital theological issues at stake. Make an informed decision. God will do the rest.