Harry A. Ironside tells this remarkable story about being challenged to a debate.
Early in his ministry Ironside was living in the San Francisco Bay area, working with some Christians called Brethren. One evening as he was walking through he city he came upon a group of Salvation Army workers holding a meeting on the corner of Market and Grant Avenues. When they recognized Ironside they asked if he would give his testimony. So he did, giving a word about how God had saved him through faith in the bodily death and literal resurrection of Jesus.
As he was speaking, Ironside noticed that on the edge of the crowd was a well-dressed man who had taken a card from his pocket and had written something on it. As Ironside finished his talk the man came forward, lifted his hat, and very politely handed Ironside the card. On one side was his name, which Ironside recognized immediately. The man was one of the early socialists who had made a name for himself lecturing against Christianity. As Ironside turned the card over he read, “Sir, I challenge you to debate with me the question ‘Agnosticism versus Christianity’ in the Academy of Science Hall next Sunday afternoon at four o’clock. I will pay all expenses.”
Ironside reread the card aloud and then replied:
I am very much interested in this challenge. Frankly, I am already scheduled for another meeting next Lord’s Day afternoon at three o’clock, but I think it will be possible for me to get through with that in time to reach the Academy of Science by four, or if necessary I could arrange to have another speaker substitute for me at the meeting already advertised. Therefore I will be glad to agree to this debate on the following conditions: namely, that in order to prove that this gentleman has something worth debating about, he will promise to bring with him to the Hall next Sunday two people, whose qualifications I will give in a moment, as proof that agnosticism is of real value in changing human lives and building true character.
First, he must promise to bring with him one man who was for years what we commonly call a “down-and-outer.” I am not particular as to the exact nature of the sins that had wrecked his life and made him an outcast from society–whether a drunkard, or a criminal of some kind, or a victim of his sensual appetite–but a man who for years was under the power of evil habits from which he could not deliver himself, but who on some occasion entered one of this man’s meetings and heard his glorification of agnosticism and his denunciations of the Bible and Christianity, and whose heart and mind as he listened to such an address were so deeply stirred that he went away from that meeting saying, “Henceforth, I too am an agnostic!” and as a result of imbibing that particular philosophy found that a new power had come into his life. The sins he once loved he now hates, and righteousness and goodness are now the ideals of his life. He is now an entirely new man, a credit to himself and an asset to society–all because he is an agnostic.
Secondly, I would like my opponent to promise to bring with him one woman–I think he may have more difficulty in finding the woman than the man–who was once a poor, wrecked, characterless outcast, the slave of evil passions and the victim of man’s corrupt living, perhaps one who had lived for years in some evil resort, utterly lost, ruined and wretched because of her life of sin.
… But this woman also entered a hall where this man was loudly proclaiming his agnosticism and ridiculing the message of the Holy Scriptures. As she listened, hope was born in her heart, and she said, “This is just what I need to deliver me from the slavery of sin!” She followed the teaching until she became an intelligent agnostic or infidel. As a result, her whole being revolted against the degradation of the life she had been living. She fled from the den of iniquity where she had been held captive so long; and today, rehabilitated, she has won her way back to an honored position in society and is living a clean, virtuous, happy life–all because she is an agnostic.
“Now.” he said, addressing the gentleman who had presented him with his card and the challenge, “if you will promise to bring these to people with you as examples of what agnosticism can do, I will promise to meet you at the Hall of Science at four o’clock next Sunday, and I will bring with me at the very least one hundred men and women who for years lived in just such sinful degradation as I have tried to depict, but who have been gloriously saved through believing the gospel which you ridicule. I will have these men and women with me on the platform as witnesses to the miraculous saving power of Jesus Christ and as present-day proof of the truth of the Bible.”
Dr. Ironside then turned to the Salvation Army captain, a woman, and said, “Captain, have you any who could go with me to such a meeting?”
She exclaimed with enthusiasm, “We can give you forty at least, just from this one corps, and we will give you a brass band to lead the procession!”
“Fine,” Dr. Ironside answered. “Now, sir, I will have no difficulty picking up sixty others from the various missions, gospel halls, and evangelical churches of the city. So if you will promise to bring two such exhibits as I have described, I will come marching in at the head of such a procession, with the band playing Onward, Christian Soldiers,’ and I will be ready for the debate.”
Apparently the man who had made the challenge had some sense of humor, for he smiled wryly and waved his hand in a deprecating kind of way as if to say, “Nothing doing!” and then edged out of the crowd while the bystanders applauded Ironside and the others.
H.A. Ironside, Random Reminiscences from Fifty Years of Ministry, 99-109