The 2016 movie Ben-Hur is the second film incarnation with stars Jack Huston and Morgan Freeman following on five decades after the unprecedented worldwide success of the Academy Award winning movie which starred the legendary actor Charlton Heston. Both movies were brilliant creations, but Ben-Hur is far more than a movie. It began life as an epic novel written by a retired US Army General and former Ambassador to Turkey, Lew Wallace. Ben Hur made a huge impact, not only on his generation, but on every generation since. It was the best selling American novel of the nineteenth century and has remained on the best sellers list ever since.
Lew had started life as a serious problem child. He was always in trouble. Born in Indiana, USA, he just had too much energy. In and out of fights, his contemporaries said he seemed to know neither fear nor how to give in.
Lew’s mother died when he was just seven, and he initially refused to accept his 19-year-old step-mother. But Lew became seriously ill with croup. She nursed him through it and won his love and respect. At age nine, Lew joined his brother at boarding school several miles away. He hated it, ran off home alone and never went back. At 13, he played truant from school for twelve days, attending a political rally. He became an instant hero when he climbed a roof and tore down a petticoat flying in mockery of the opposition’s Presidential candidate.
The only thing that could calm Lew’s wild streak was a good book. He loved books. Lew devoured adventure novels and history books and he soon and began writing his own stories. Joining the army as a young man, his bravery and outstanding abilities enabled him to leave as a General. Serving for a while as Governor of New Mexico, he eventually became the US Ambassador to Turkey. He retired with a glittering career behind him.
A gifted man in so many ways, Lew still had one gift which stood out above the rest. His greatest love was still writing.
The Writing of Ben-Hur
Lew was an occasional church-going Methodist, but he was surprised at how little he knew about Christianity when challenged by a well-known atheist and old military companion Colonel Robert Ingersoll. Unintentionally, Ingersoll goaded Lew Wallace into actually taking Christ and his teachings seriously. Lew later wrote,
“…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.”
Lew decided to do some research and to write a novel which was based in New Testament times. Although he admitted he was not really a Christian at this point, Lew was fascinated by the coming of Christ and the religious and political conditions of the Roman world at the time. It took seven years to research, but the result was the epic novel Ben-Hur.
In the book, the character of Judah Ben-Hur is a wealthy Jewish merchant who is wrongly accused of attempted assassination of a Roman Governor. The accuser is Judah’s former childhood friend Messala, who has changed as he has grown up and is now a ruthless career soldier. Judah is sent to the Roman galley ships, a lifetime sentence. His mother and sister are imprisoned and his wealth is confiscated. Judah begins to plot revenge against Messala, but a number of encounters with Jesus Christ change his heart. He eventually becomes a believer and a man of forgiveness.
Lew Wallace received countless letters of thanks shortly after writing the book, including many who said they became Christians through it. One man wrote that he was brought under such a deep conviction that “…I could scarcely work, eat or sleep… since that time I have been blessed with a new home, a new life, and a perfect peace of mind.”
The novel has been so popular that since it was written (over a century ago) it has never been out of print. The legacy of Ben-Hur is enormous. The book has sold over fifty million copies. Both movies have also been watched by many millions worldwide. It is impossible to calculate just how many lives have been dramatically changed for the better through this exceptional story, but it also likely numbers in the millions. And it all stated when an atheist goaded a half-hearted Christian into taking his faith seriously.
Photo: Charlton Heston & 1959 MGM Movie Poster. Photo attribution: Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0 Generic.