On New Year’s Eve 1999, an estimated 2 billion television viewers around the world watched Sydney’s spectacular millennium celebrations.  Sydney was to host the Olympic Games in 2000 and the city was the centre of national and global attention.

At the climax of the celebrations, just after midnight on 1 January 2000, the Harbour Bridge was lit up with the word Eternity.  The huge crowds clustered around the harbour foreshores applauded as one.

Somewhere in their inner being they recognised the significance of this single mighty word.

Eternity was the legacy of a former misfit in Sydney society who got a new start in life in 1930 when introduced to the teachings of Jesus. His name was Arthur Stace.

Have you ever been in despair?  Asked yourself the question “Is this as good as gets?”  Arthur was a genuine “Aussie battler”, and life had not always been kind to him. However, after becoming a follower of Jesus in mid-life, he went from a derelict drunkard to an upstanding citizen and national celebrity.

Australia during the Great Depression of the 1930s was a traumatised and divided country. One in every three men was out of a job. Many poor families were evicted from their homes and hundreds of thousands of people lived on the edge of starvation. Governments of all stripes were at a loss as to how to meet the economic crisis.

The situation of 45-year-old Arthur Stace seemed especially hopeless.  All his life he had battled poverty and alcoholism. Born in the slums of inner Sydney to irresponsible parents, he was given up by his mother at the age of seven and sent to live in Goulburn in foster care. At 14 he started work in a dangerous coal mine at Port Kembla; a few years later, back in Sydney, he fell into crime. At one stage he worked for his sister’s brothel.

After serving as a stretcher-bearer in World War One, Arthur returned to Sydney in 1919 a sick and shattered man. The 1920s passed in a blur. He became addicted to “grog” (alcoholic drink), and, by his own admission, spent as much time in the gutter as out of it. The “coppers” (police) lost count of the number of times they arrested him for drunkenness and vagrancy. He spent many a night sobering up in the cells of the Darlinghurst or Redfern police station before being kicked out the next morning.

On 6 August 1930 Arthur was at the end of his tether. It was bleak winter’s evening when, with a few of his down-out-out mates, he took himself along to St Barnabas’ Anglican church on Broadway. The minister there, Rev. R.B.S. Hammond, promised everyone who came to his meetings a cup of tea and a rock cake. But first they had to listen to a sermon.

We do not know exactly what Hammond preached that night. But we do know the effect his words had on Arthur. Straight after the service Arthur left the church, crossed over into nearby Victoria Park, and got down on his knees. He prayed: “God, God be merciful to me a sinner”.

It is a fact of history that, from that moment, Arthur was a changed man. In his words, “God really met me that night in the park!” Consider his achievements over the next 37 years.

He gave up alcohol straight away, a miracle in itself.  So-called “cold turkey” cures are very rare.

He held down several responsible jobs, including one in the 1950s as a caretaker and lift-operator at the city offices of the Australian Red Cross.

He toiled for decades in charitable work for unemployed, alcoholic and mentally-ill men, initially under R.B.S. Hammond’s supervision but ultimately on his own initiative.

He married at the age of 57, and enjoyed nineteen happy years with his wife.

He was a strong committed Christian, worshipping at St Barnabas’ on Broadway and later at the Baptist Tabernacle in Burton Street, Darlinghurst. He studied the Bible rigorously and became a respected prayer-group leader.

He preached the gospel in the “open air” on the streets of Sydney each Saturday for over twenty years, and also spoke at countless churches by invitation.

By far his most famous achievement was as a graffiti artist.  Almost every day for 35 years, from 14 November 1932, Arthur spent hours chalking a single-word sermon – “Eternity” – on the pavements of Sydney. He had been inspired by a talk on Isaiah 57:15 delivered by the great Australian Baptist evangelist, John Gotch Ridley.

Arthur was a modest man, and for 24 years he wrote “Eternity” in secret.  Finally, in June 1956, the press broke his story to the general public. By the time he died, in 1967, Arthur’s was a beloved household name across New South Wales.  His legend lived on, culminating in the use of Eternity on 1 January 2000 during Sydney’s millennium celebrations.

Arthur’s life has also inspired Australian artists in numerous genres: painting, poetry, opera, song, tapestry, sculpture, film, the novel. The New South Wales parliament changed the law to permit the use of chalk on public footpaths (“Arthur’s law”).

The true story of Arthur Stace is stranger than fiction. His life is a testament to the saving power of the Gospel for those who believe.

 

© Roy Williams, author (with Elizabeth Meyers) of Mr Eternity: The story of Arthur Stace (Acorn Press, 2017)

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