There was one ground-breaking novel that dared to use Jesus as a character in American literature and set a precedent many would follow yet few would match, Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. I can’t imagine that anyone who’s reading this article hasn’t seen the classic MGM 1959 movie production starring Charlton Heston. Yet, I dare say, few people have actually read the novel published in 1880. I didn’t until a week ago.
Using Jesus as a character in fiction was a dicey, if not dangerous, proposition 135 years ago. But utilizing a literary device called “direct address” (any fan of Shakespeare should recognize this), Wallace comforts his readers and silences critical religious objections at the same time. He speaks, as the narrator, directly to the readers. Not as an “aside” mind you, but to his audience throughout the novel reassuring and guiding them before and in between the pages of his epic; even the subtitle A Tale of the Christ is wisely chosen, I think, to allay any and all fears of using Christ for – well – fictional literary profit. It’s a tale, ergo a story, therefore not to be taken as gospel truth. Wallace also took pains, using the King James Bible, to only quote Christ from the words of the gospel writers themselves.
But, he didn’t stop there. He meticulously researched his work. Enough so, that one would surmise that Wallace was intimate with both Rome and the Holy Land; but Wallace had never been there. Quite a feat as any author would tell you. The result was no less amazing. Ben-Hur broke all records. It eclipsed Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin as America’s best -selling novel. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries no other book could match its popularity except the Bible itself.
Initially, the press panned it. The public and pulpit did not. Christian denominations across America and throughout the world not only praised Wallace’s triumph, they preached it. Reportedly, Pope Leo XIII, himself, blessed it. This was an astounding achievement.
But, before we go any further on the novel itself, let’s take time to consider the man and not the author.
Hold onto your seat. You’re in for quite a ride.
Born in 1827, Lew Wallace was the son of West Point graduate and attorney, David Wallace, who became the 6th Governor of Indiana. Lew didn’t care for school, hated mathematics, but was intrigued by painting, a fascination which never left him. During the Mexican-American War he was mustered into service and appointed first, as sergeant, then second-lieutenant, but saw no action. Still the experience would serve him well later in life. He returned home and went back to school, eventually becoming a lawyer and State Senator. At the onset of the American Civil War he was appointed by the governor to organize volunteers for the Union cause. He exceeded expectations, raising multiple regiments, and was named colonel of the regiment of his choice.
In 1862, in the Western Campaign, under U.S. Grant, he led his troops with distinction at the Battle of Fort Donelson, in Tennessee, where he masterminded a brilliant counterattack against Confederate forces trying to escape from the beleaguered fort. A month later, he was named the youngest major general in the Union Army. But, still later that year, his conduct was called into question on the first day of the Battle of Shiloh. There was nothing said, in particular, about his gallantry under fire or his duty to follow orders. His regiment simply wasn’t where it was supposed to be on the battlefield. Wallace and his men were one day late. He was relieved of command and sent home in disgrace (it’s my opinion he was used as a scapegoat for the sheer brutality of the engagement, but I’ll leave that for another time).
He was still, however, widely respected. In September of that same year, he was asked to take command of the defense of Cincinnati from enemy attack. He succeeded and earned the affectionate title the “Savior of Cincinnati.”
President Lincoln then reinstated Wallace and put him in charge of the VIII Corps serving in Baltimore, in 1864. It was not quite vindication from the charges leveled against him at Shiloh since the post in Maryland was mainly administrative.
However, Wallace once again found himself in the thick of the war. In order to relieve pressure off of Gen. Lee’s army, which was being besieged by Gen. Grant at St. Petersburg, Virginia, Lee sent Lt. Gen. Jubal Early on a campaign into Maryland. The only thing to stop Early from an attack against Washington, D.C., which was left wide open because of Grant’s aggressive tactics, was Wallace’s scant forces.
Lew Wallace lost at the Battle of Monocacy, only 30 miles from the Union capital. Yet, he managed to delay Jubal Early’s advance by one day. This one day proved to be a life time in military history, because it left Grant enough time, by telegraph and rail, to rush in reinforcements and save the capital. The situation was so dire Lincoln’s staff had already planned evacuation of the government, and the president, even as Jubal Early gazed upon the partial gleam of the Capitol’s partially built Dome. Ironically, the Battle of Monocacy was the northernmost victory for the southern Confederacy during the entire war. To add insult to irony, Gen. Early, because he was one day late, was forced to withdraw his army back to Virginia.
In 1865, Wallace was sent on a secret mission to Mexico in order to stop the supply chain to what remained of the Confederacy. He then returned to Washington where he was put second-in-command of the Lincoln Assassination Trial. During the famous trial, Wallace sketched and later painted “The Conspirators.” It became his best known painting. Soon after the war, Wallace was named the President of the Court for the trial of Henry Wirz, the commander of the notorious Confederate prison at Andersonville. Wirz was promptly hanged.
Under the auspices of the federal government, in 1866, Wallace returned to Mexico and supplied Benito Juárez guns and ammunition in his struggle against Emperor Maximilian (some sources claim Wallace was offered a major generalship in the Mexican Army, but this author cannot collaborate this). The French forces were defeated and Maximilian was executed.
In 1878, Wallace (through political connections) was appointed Governor of the New Mexico Territory by President Hayes. This was truly the Wild West, complete with gunslingers, desperados, and lawless lawmen. Here, Governor Wallace signed the death warrant of William H. Bonney (“Billy the Kid”). Here, also, Lew Wallace completed a novel called Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.
Okay, you can relax. Now, let’s get back to the novel.
It differs so much from the movie versions, especially the one we all remember that plays every Easter on our TV sets. You could say that about many books replicated on the silver screen. You know, they didn’t mention this or that. But, here, whole characters are missing, the plot takes a completely different direction, and the depth and truth of the story are distorted.
Wallace began writing a story of the magi not of a Jewish prince, certainly not of the mission of the Messiah. This all changed when, on a train excursion to a Civil War reunion, he met fellow Shiloh veteran and colonel of the 11th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Cavalry, Robert “Bob” Ingersoll. The colonel and the general had an overnight discussion on the existence of God. Ingersoll did most of the talking. He was the nation’s premier orator on atheism and nicknamed “The Great Agnostic.” Like Wallace, he was die-hard Republican. Though Ingersoll was never elected to public office, he was quite influential in national politics. The one-sided conversation on the train threw Wallace into a tailspin: although not a member of any particular denomination, he believed in a Christ-centered universe and in the Holy Bible, but he didn’t know much about them. Wallace felt himself travelling in the darkness and he didn’t like it. How could he defend something he had no knowledge of?
He decided to correct himself by redirecting and expanding the course of his book on the magi. Now, in order to learn about Christ, he would write about Him. This is remarkable. I don’t believe I’ve heard of this before. Usually the author writes what he knows, not what he does not.
In the novel, besides Judah (the Jewish prince) and Massala (the Roman Tribune), the main characters are Balthasar (one of the magi) and Simonides (the faithful servant). In fact, Balthasar is the only constant character with a physical presence from beginning to end. It may be Judah’s story, but it is Balthasar’s quest. Christ is a constant also, from Bethlehem to Golgotha, but in between He exists more as an idea than anything else: to Simonides, Christ is a Caesar-like King; to Balthasar, Christ is the soul-Savior. This creates a tension between not just them, but in the very mind of Judah who must choose between the two.
A crucial character missing from the movie is Balthasar’s beautiful and bewitching daughter, Iras, whose betrayal is even greater than Massala’s. It is Iras who eventually kills the Roman Tribune, not Judah in the chariot race. In fact, the race is not at the end of the story, as in the film, but occurs towards the middle of the novel. Because Judah then becomes, like Lew Wallace at Shiloh, a general in the field, and thus begins another race: the contest for the human soul – ours and the author’s.
The Hoosier general finally did receive vindication from U.S. Grant. The Battle of Shiloh was no more a torment to his soul. He wrote a novel that finally proved his agnostic colonel wrong, paradoxically strengthening the faith of Americans for half a century instead of tearing it down. Unlike Fort Donelson, the Citadel of believers would still hold firm in their faith. And like Prince Judah of the House of Hur, Lew Wallace was enlightened and given the grace to overcome the darkness.
(My thanks to the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum in Crawfordsville, Indiana, for their inspiration and research material).