It was just after midnight on January 1, 2000, when the word ‘Eternity’ appeared in copperplate writing on the arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
The New Millennium was ushered in with the biggest fireworks display ever over the harbour city.
An estimated two million people gathered around and on Sydney Harbour and two billion people watched on television.
They were outstanding!
Sydney’s fireworks display is one of the first to be seen worldwide.
What did this ‘Eternity’ mean?
Those in the gathering who knew the story of Arthur Stace and Eternity, although surprised, knew the meaning of the ‘sermon in a word.’
To grasp the true meaning of the word we need to understand the story behind it and to do so, we need to travel back in time to Sydney over 120 years ago.
Arthur Stace was born in Balmain in 1884. His father was an alcoholic, his mother ran a brothel, two brothers died early and his two sisters later also ran brothels.
Domestic violence in the home was so bad the children often slept on hessian bags under the house to escape the drunken wrath of their father.
Arthur stole to eat and at the age of 12, was made a Ward of the State. He had no education.
In gaol by 15
At 14 he went to work in the Balmain coal mine and at 15, served his first gaol sentence. He was already a heavy drinker.
In his early 20s, he moved to Surry Hills and occupied himself running ‘sly grog’ for pubs and acting as a ‘cockatoo’ (lookout) for illegal gambling houses and brothels. He was arrested several times and sentenced to gaol.
The Great War
World War I intervened in Arthur’s life; he enlisted in the AIF and went to France as a stretcher bearer. He witnessed all the horrors of war in the trenches, the heavy artillery bombardments, thousands of dead and wounded along with the mud and freezing conditions.
He was wounded and the injuries impaired the sight in one eye. He returned to Australia in 1919 where he was discharged, still suffering what was then known as ‘shell shock’ and the effects of mustard gas poisoning.
Arthur found it easy to renew old acquaintances and soon slipped into a life of alcohol, gambling and crime. He became homeless and methylated spirits became a cheap escape.
By 1930 the world was in the grip of the Great Depression, there was no work, no income and Arthur wandered the streets stealing food or begging for handouts.
A cuppa and a rock cake
One port of call was St Barnabas Anglican Church in Broadway which conducted a ‘Meeting for Needy Men’ where afterwards, a cup of tea and a rock cake was given to all who attended.
Arthur wandered into the meeting on August 6, 1930 where he found 300 men seated. He saw some well-dressed men standing near the door and asked the man next to him – one of Sydney’s best known criminals - who they were.
“I’d reckon they’d be Christians,’ was the reply.
Arthur said, “Well look at them and look at us. I’m havin’ a go at what they’ve got.”
The Rock of Ages
After the meeting Arthur walked across the road into Sydney University Park and under a big Morton Bay fig tree, fell to his knees with tears streaming down his face and cried out, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
He was a genuine conversion to Christ. Arthur later testified:
“I went in to get a cup of tea and a rock cake but I met the Rock of Ages.”
Eternity, where will you spend eternity?
In November 1932 Arthur was listening to evangelist John Ridley MC in the Burton Street Baptist Tabernacle in Darlinghurst when he heard the words from Isaiah 57:15, “Thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity.”
Stressing the word, Ridley cried out, “Eternity, eternity. I wish I could sound or shout that word to everyone in the streets of Sydney. Eternity! You have to meet it. Where will you spend eternity?”
In his testimony, Arthur Stace recalled the meeting.
“Eternity was ringing through my brain and suddenly I began to cry and felt a powerful call from the Lord to write ‘Eternity.’ I had a piece of chalk in my pocket and outside the church I bent down right there and wrote it ….. The funny thing is, before I wrote it I could barely write my own name. I had no schooling and couldn’t have spelled ‘Eternity’ for a hundred quid ($200) but it came out smoothly in a beautiful copperplate script. I couldn’t understand it and I still can’t”
Over the next 33 years the word Eternity was repeated more than 500,000 times all over the city, in country towns and in Melbourne.
“The sermon in a word.”
John Skinner is a retired journalist who has written ten biographies on famous campdrafting competitors. He was an Australian infantry soldier wounded in Vietnam, served six years as a Police Officer, was CEO of the then Australian Rough Riders Assn (Pro-Rodeo based in Warwick, Qld). He and his wife Marion retired to a small farm 25km south of Warwick 20 years ago. They have three children and now seven grandchildren.