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Arthur Stace: ‘Mr Eternity’

On New Year’s Eve 1999, an estimated 2 billion television viewers around the world watched Sydney’s spectacular millennium fireworks celebrations. The year 2000 was going to be a big year for Sydney. It was going to host the Olympic Games later in the year, and the whole country – actually, the whole world – was watching.

At the climax of the celebrations, just after midnight on 1 January 2000, the word Eternity lit up the Harbour Bridge. 

The huge crowds that were clustered around the Sydney Harbour foreshores applauded as one. Somewhere in their inner being they recognised the importance of this single mighty word.

Why was this word chosen to be put ‘up in lights’ on the bridge for this world-famous celebration?

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

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 being a derelict drunkard to being a good citizen who cared for others – and a national celebrity.

Australia during the Great Depression of the 1930s was a traumatised and divided country. One in every three men was unemployed. Many poor families were evicted from their homes (asked to leave their homes by their landlords), and hundreds of thousands of people lived on the edge of starvation. Governments could not work out 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 parents with a lot of problems, he was given up by his mother when he was seven years old and sent to live in Goulburn in foster care. At the age of 14 he started work in a dangerous coal mine at Port Kembla, and a few years later, back in Sydney, he fell into crime.

After serving as a stretcher-bearer helping wounded men to get to medical care during World War I, Arthur returned to Sydney in 1919 a sick and shattered man. The 1920s passed him by in a blur. He became addicted to ‘grog’ (alcoholic drink). The ‘coppers’ (police) lost count of the number of times they arrested him for drunkenness and vagrancy (living on the streets, without a home). He spent many nights sobering up in the cells of the Darlinghurst and Redfern police stations before being kicked out the next morning.

On 6 August 1930, Arthur was at the end of his tether. It was a bleak winter’s evening when, with a few of his down-and-out mates, he walked into St Barnabas’ Anglican Church on Broadway in Sydney. The minister there, the Reverend RBS Hammond, promised a cup of tea and a rock cake to everyone who came to his meetings.. But first they had to listen to a sermon.

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

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 worked hard for decades in charitable work for unemployed, alcoholic and mentally ill men, initially under RBS Hammond’s supervision but ultimately doing work that he started himself.

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

He was a committed Christian, studying the Bible deeply and leading prayer groups. 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.

But by far his most famous achievement was as a graffiti artist! Almost every day for 35 years, from 14 November 1932 onwards, 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 preacher, John Ridley.

Arthur was a modest man, and for 24 years he wrote ‘Eternity’ in secret. Finally, in June 1956, the Sunday Telegraph newspaper made his identity public. By the time he died in 1967, Arthur Stace had become a ‘household name’, famous across all of New South Wales. And his legend lived on for decades afterwards, coming to life again in the use of ‘Eternity’ on 1 January 2000 during Sydney’s millennium celebrations.

Arthur’s life has inspired the work of creative Australian people in all sorts of ways: painting, poetry, opera, song, tapestry, sculpture, film and fiction. When the New South Wales Parliament changed the law about graffiti to permit the use of chalk on public footpaths, that section of the law became known as ‘Arthur’s law’.

The true story of Arthur Stace is stranger than fiction. His life reflects how powerful it is when someone meets Jesus in the Bible and chooses to live a new life.

Written by Roy Williams.

Resources and further reading

Roy Williams is the author (with Elizabeth Meyers) of Mr Eternity: The Story of Arthur Stace (Acorn Press, 2017).

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