Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ

The Writing of Ben-Hur

In 1876, after a conversation on a train with a well-known atheist, Col. Robert G. Ingersoll, Lew Wallace realized that he didn’t know as much as he would like to about his own faith. (He attended the Methodist Church off and on throughout his life, but consider himself indifferent to religion.) He thought that the idea of doing research for a book he could write would be the best motivation for him to tackle reading the Bible. He had already written a short story describing the journey of the wise men to Bethlehem - a subject which has fascinated him since he was very young. This became the first book of Ben-Hur, with the rest of the novel describing the “religious and political conditions of the world at the time of the coming,” as he says in his Autobiography. Although he may have been indifferent to religion before writing the book, he says in the preface to The First Christmas, 1899, that the act of writing Ben-Hur resulted in “a conviction amounting to absolute belief in God and the divinity of Christ.”

The novel was the result of seven years research and writing, most of which was carried out underneath a beech tree near Wallace’s residence in Crawfordsville, Indiana.

Ben-Hur was an unusual novel for its time. Most literature had moved away from historical, romantic, adventure fiction by the late nineteenth century. William Dean Howells typified the new trend by writing realistic fiction about contemporary life. However, Ben-Hur created a resurgence of its literary type. Henry Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis? is the best example of a popular novel whose author acknowledged that he found inspiration from reading Ben-Hur.

How an Agnostic Inspired a Tale of the Christ

Ingersoll didn't mean to do it, but he goaded Lew into taking Christ seriously. Taking a train to Indianapolis one evening, Lew Wallace heard someone call his name. It proved to be the notorious agnostic Robert Ingersoll, who, as a colonel with the 11th Illinois Cavalry volunteers, had fought under General Wallace at Shiloh. Ingersoll invited Lew into his compartment to talk.

Lew claimed the right to choose the subject. His themes were all of a religious nature. He gave them to Ingersoll and here is Lew's description of what happened -- "He was in prime mood; and beginning, his ideas turned to speech, slowing like a heated river. His manner of putting things was marvelous; and as the Wedding Guest was held by the glittering eye of the Ancient Mariner, I sat spellbound, listening to a medley of argument, eloquence, wit, satire, audacity, irreverence, poetry, brilliant antitheses, and pungent excoriation of believers in God, Christ, and Heaven, the like of which I had never heard. He surpassed himself, and that is saying a great deal.

The speech was brought to an end by our arrival at the Indianapolis Central Station nearly two hours after its commencement. Upon alighting from the car, we separated, he to go to a hotel, and I to my brother's, a long way up northeast of town. The street-cars were at my service, but I preferred to walk, for I was in a confusion of mind not unlike dazement.

To explain this, it is necessary now to confess that my attitude with respect to religion had been one of absolute indifference. I had heard it argued times innumerable, always without interest. So, too, I had read the sermons of great preachers...but always for the surpassing charm of their rhetoric. But--how strange! To lift me out of my indifference, 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."

Praise for the book

Countless people wrote Lew, thanking him for his book. Many said they became Christians through it. One man wrote, "I could scarcely work, eat or sleep." Under deep conviction, he united with a church. "Since that time I have been blessed with a new home, a new life, and a perfect peace of mind." Ironically, Lew himself never joined a church.

30 Hours Straight

The former general and U. S. President Ulysses S. Grant informed Lew that he had become so enthralled with Ben-Hur he sat up 30 hours straight to read it from cover to cover.

Never Been Out of Print

For five years after its publication, Ben-Hur sales were sluggish. But as word of mouth traveled, sales rocketed and remained high. Even as late as 1913, when a Chicago mail-order company bought a million copies of Ben-Hur, it had no trouble distributing them all. Up to the present time, it has never been out of print.

The Adventures of Author Lew Wallace

Christians should never despair of a problem child. Lew Wallace was one, and yet in the end, God was able to change his heart. Born in Indiana in 1827, Lew simply had too much energy to be caged up. In and out of scrapes, he refused to so much as whimper when whipped. He seemed to know neither fear nor how to give in.

His mother died when he was 7, and he refused to accept his 19-year-old step-mom until she nursed him through croup he had caught while living in the wild. When he was 9, he joined a brother at a boarding school several miles away. Hating it, he ran off and made his way home alone. At 13, he was truant from school for twelve days, attending a Whig rally. He became an instant hero with the Whigs when he climbed a roof and tore down a petticoat flying in mockery of Harrison, their Presidential candidate.

The only thing that tamed Lew for long was an interesting book. He devoured adventure novels and histories--and began writing his own stories. But unsatisfied with mere words, he ran away, hoping to join the fight in Texas. It was the last straw for his dad. Firmly but kindly, he ordered 15-year-old Lew out of the home.

Lew found work with a law firm. Although he detested law, he stood for elections as a public attorney, even fist-fighting if it helped him win. Once he pulled everyone away from a rival's speech by playing the violin. He married his sweetheart Susan Elston. Her family didn't like him, but he won her father's respect when he leapt onto a burning roof to fight a fire.

Civil War Goat and Hero

During the Civil War, Lew fought for the Union. He was made the goat for the Union failure to capitalize on its costly victory at Shiloh. Shelved for a time, he brilliantly rallied the defense of Cincinnati, throwing up fortifications and building a pontoon bridge in record time.

His greatest fame as a general came when, outnumbered six to one, he held off the enemy at Monocacy long enough for the Union to move defenders to Washington, D.C. When people realized he had saved the capitol, he was smothered with praise. He wrote, "...a defeat did more for me than the victories I've engaged in."

After the war, he served on the war crimes trial. Later, he offered his services to Mexico, which accepted them but never reimbursed his costs. He was in debt most of his adult life, partly because of the Mexico affair and partly because Indiana's Free Soil party bilked him of money borrowed for them. In 1878, Lew accepted appointment as the governor of lawless New Mexico, where ruthless cattle barons and badmen made life miserable for everyone else. He restored order, then left to serve as U.S. ambassador to Turkey.

Measuring Christ or Measured by Christ?

Lew was drafting Ben Hur at the time. Up to that point, he had not even cared if there were an afterlife. But as he wrote, his outlook changed.

He came to recognize that Jesus must be taken for who He says He is. Ben-Hur had looked for a king to defeat Rome. Instead, he got a suffering Savior. Lew saw what this meant: "It is not an easy thing to shake off in a moment the expectations nurtured through years...He [Ben-Hur] persisted, as men do yet today in measuring the Christ by himself. How much better if we measured ourselves by the Christ?"

Sources: Lew Wallace: Militant Romantic by Morsberger, Robert E. and Morsberger, Katherine M. McGraw Hill, 1980.
The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, 1907–21.
Glimpses of Christian History article on Ben-Hur, 1880.
General Lew Wallace Study and Museum