The Man Known As "Mr Eternity"

The Man Known As "Mr Eternity"

At the dawn of any new year, the first pictures are usually beamed worldwide from Sydney, Australia, and the start of the new millennium was no exception.

On the first day of January 2000, more than two billion people throughout the world are reckoned to have seen the word ‘Eternity’ illuminated in large letters on the side of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Few, however, knew the remarkable story that lay behind that word.

Arthur Stace was born in a Sydney slum on 9 February 1885, to alcoholic parents. Sadly, the parents not only wrecked their own lives with alcohol but also passed on the addiction to their children. Arthur’s two sisters operated a brothel (for which he acted as a scout) and eventually both his parents and four of his siblings died as drunkards and vagrants. With no parental support whatever, Arthur had to survive by his wits, and he quickly fell into petty theft, stealing milk from doorsteps, picking scraps of food out of garbage bins and pilfering goods from shops. Having had hardly any education whatever, he was illiterate, and by 15 he unsurprisingly landed in jail.

Relief came for Arthur in 1916, when he joined the Australian Army to serve in World War I. Despite his small stature (just 5’3” and 7 stone) and his criminal record, he was accepted due to a shortage of troops, and served in France as a stretcher bearer. Here he witnessed the most appalling scenes as he recovered the shattered bodies of his comrades, returning from the war after being gassed himself and partially blinded in one eye.

Back in Sydney, Arthur was soon back on the booze, only now he was so desperate to fix his habit that he resorted to drinking that last deadly hurrah of alcoholics – methylated spirits. However, by the grace of God, salvation was at hand.

One day Arthur heard that he could get a cup of tea and something to eat at a Sydney church called St Barnabas in Broadway. He went and found about 300 were present at the men’s meeting, mostly down-and-outs like himself. The men sat through an hour and a half of gospel preaching led by Archdeacon RBS Hammond before they received their tea and food.

It was then that Arthur noticed six men on a separate seat, all looking well dressed and quite different from the rest of the 300 grubby-looking men in the room. Arthur asked the man sitting next to him (a well-known criminal), “Who are they?” to which the man replied, “I reckon that they be Christians.” Arthur shot back, “Well look at them and look at us. I want what they’ve got.”

Arthur Stace writing "Eternity" on the pavement in Sydney

Arthur knew his life was in a complete mess and that he needed to change. But having heard the gospel and seeing these men he now knew where to find the one who could help him – Jesus Christ. That day – Wednesday 6 August 1930 – he found the Saviour and left the meeting a changed man. So changed, in fact, that over the next few weeks, he found strength to give up drinking and land a job.

Two years later, an evangelist named John Ridley came to preach in Sydney. Arthur was particularly keen to hear him because Ridley had been awarded the Military Cross for his bravery in France in 1917. When Ridley preached on ‘The Echoes of Eternity’ from Isaiah 57:15, the word ‘Eternity’ resonated with Arthur who, like Ridley, had faced issues with his own mortality daily on the battlefields of France.

During his sermon, Ridley cried out, “Eternity, Eternity, I wish 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?” and Arthur made a decision to witness to his faith in a unique way. In an interview years later he said, “Eternity went ringing through my brain and suddenly I began crying and felt a powerful call from the Lord to write ‘Eternity’.”

Even though he was illiterate and could hardly write his own name legibly, Arthur took a piece of yellow chalk out of his pocket and bent down and wrote the word on the pavement. He said later: “The word ‘Eternity’ came out smoothly, in a beautiful copperplate script. I couldn’t understand it, and I still can’t.”

This was the start of something that Arthur would continue to do for the next 35 years. Several mornings a week he would his leave his wife, Pearl (they married in 1942), at around 5am to go around the streets of Sydney and chalk the word ‘Eternity’ on footpaths, railway station entrances and anywhere else he could think of. It is estimated that he wrote the word around 500,000 times over the 35 years. Workers arriving in the city would see the word freshly written, but not the writer, and so, ‘The man who writes Eternity’ became a legend in the city.

The mystery was solved when Reverend Lisle Thompson, who preached at the church where Arthur worked as a cleaner, saw him take a piece of chalk from his pocket and write the word on the footpath. Thompson wrote about Arthur Stace’s life and an interview was published in the Sydney Sunday Telegraph on 21 June 1956.

Interestingly, after eight or nine years, Arthur tried to write something else, ‘Obey God’ and then five years later, ‘God or Sin’, but he could not bring himself to stop writing the God-given word ‘Eternity’.

Of course, his mission did not always go down well with the authorities as they had rules about the defacing of pavements, and the Sydney City Council brought Arthur to the attention of the police, so much so that he narrowly avoided arrest some 24 times. Each time he was caught, however, he replied with, “But I have permission from a higher source!”

Arthur Stace pictured next to one of his inscriptions

In 1963, photographer Trevor Dallen cornered Arthur and asked to take a few pictures of him writing his famous phrase. After four photos, Dallen ran out of film and asked Arthur to stay put while he got more, but on his return Arthur had gone.

In addition to his writing ‘Eternity’, Arthur also worked as an evangelist, memorising parts of the Bible and preaching on the streets of Sydney. Saturday nights would see him with a loudspeaker on a makeshift podium outside Sydney Town Hall, preaching to down-and-outs.

Arthur Stace died in 1967 at the age of 82. A few of his original chalk inscriptions of ‘Eternity’ survive, including one inside the Sydney General Post Office clock tower, which had been dismantled during World War II. When the clock tower was rebuilt in the 1960s, the bell was brought out of storage and as the workmen were installing it they noticed, inside, the word ‘Eternity’ in Arthur’s chalk. No one ever found out how he had been able to get to the bell, which had been sealed up!

A more visible memorial is in the Town Hall Square where in the 1970s a wrought aluminium replica of the word ‘Eternity’ in Arthur’s original copperplate handwriting was embedded in the footpath near a waterfall as a memorial to him. The ‘Eternity Playhouse’, was also named in his memory.

And as part of the celebrations for the new millennium, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was lit up with the word ‘Eternity’. A fitting tribute to a little man with eternity on his mind!

This article was taken from issue #42 of Heroes of the Faith.

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