Our History and the Christian Connection

Sergeant John Ridley

“After passing over rough ground covered with the bodies of the dead and wounded, strewn with barbed wire and pocked by shellfire, the nineteen-year-old sergeant led his men into a water-filled ditch which had at one time passed for a German trench. Then, as he inadvertently raised his head a bit too high, a bullet quickly found its mark . . . As he began thrashing about in the water, two of the sergeant’s men grabbed him to keep him from drowning. They worked desperately to staunch the flow of blood from the wound in his throat and to keep him from choking on his own blood and mucus. By strenuous effort and little surgical nicety, the two men managed to apply a field dressing and drag their wounded leader back to their own lines.” Thus Robert Linder describes John Ridley’s introduction to the Battle of Fromelles (The Long Tragedy, p. 20). The young Christian sergeant would suffer the effects of that injury for the rest of his life.

The Battle of Fromelles was the first major battle fought by Australian troops on the Western Front. It was intended primarily as a diversion to draw German troops away from the Somme offensive further south. In the event, it was a complete disaster, with the Australian 5th Division suffering 5,533 casualties between 18 and 19 July 1916.

John Ridley recovered from his wounds and returned to active service. He organised a Bible Circle for the 53rd Battalion, and many diggers found Christ as their Saviour. For bravery under enemy fire, he was awarded the Military Cross.

Catholic chaplain, Rev. Father John J. Kennedy, said of Ridley, “He is one of the most perfect Christians I have ever met . . . Brave as the bravest, cool and manly in action, Jack Ridley was beloved by officers and men.” (The Whale Oil Guards, p. 119)

After his return to civilian life, he trained for the Baptist ministry, but suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of his wartime experiences. While recovering, he went west with the intention of becoming a jackeroo, but instead, he became involved in an itinerant ministry to isolated communities, using a horse-drawn wagon. He was joined in this ministry by his new wife Dorothy, whom he married in 1926. The pair continued for nine years, until the birth of their daughter, Ruth, put an end to their travels.

John Ridley went on to become one of Australia’s most famous and beloved evangelists. His preaching was forceful and graphic. In addition to his preaching, he published 13 books and four volumes of poems. After serving as a chaplain in World War Two, he joined with others to form the Australian Institute of Evangelism later known as Ambassadors for Christ International. He died in 1976.

On 14 November 1932, Ridley preached on the subject of Eternity. His words, “Eternity, Eternity, I wish that I could sound or shout that word to everyone in the streets of Sydney. You’ve got to meet it, where will you spend Eternity?” struck a chord with a member of the congregation. He was a former derelict alcoholic, who had been converted to Christianity two years previously. His name was Arthur Stace. Upon leaving the meeting, Stace, who was barely literate, proceeded to chalk the word ‘Eternity’ in beautiful copperplate writing, on the street pavement, a feat that he repeated about 500,000 more times over the next 35 years. He tried writing other words, but was always drawn back to that one word ‘Eternity’.

Thirty-three years after Arthur Stace’s death, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was lit up with the word ‘Eternity’ as part of the celebrations for the beginning of the year 2000. This was done not only to celebrate the achievements of ‘Mr. Eternity’, but also to celebrate the new millennium. We can be sure that John Ridley would have approved!

From One People, One Destiny: A Christian History of Australia

By Mike Spencer