In the quiet pre-dawn darkness as Australia’s largest city sleeps a shadowy figure silently walks the streets of Sydney like a phantom in the night – unseen and unknown. He walks with purpose and intent along the footpath, stopping every 30 metres or so to crouch down and write a mysterious message, a one-word message, to Sydney’s residents. Just one word, written in distinctive copper-plate lettering style. Now fast forward 50 years.
It’s New Year’s Eve, 1999/2000, the new millennium is fast approaching, and the eyes of the world are on Sydney. About 2 billion people around the world watch transfixed as the city celebrates on its famous harbour, with a firework’s display of epic proportions. At the stroke of midnight, the world marvelled at the sight of the southern skies ablaze with colour, with spectacular fireballs of colour erupting in the sky and engulfing Sydney Harbour Bridge. New Year’s colours rained down on the harbour city. Then, 30 minutes later, it ended. And, as the smoke cleared, through the haze, one word appeared emblazoned on the bridge. Just one word. It was written in illuminated letters 18 metres high, in a distinctive copper-plate lettering style.
It was the single word, “Eternity.”
The massive Sydney crowd immediately recognised its significance and sent up cheers of delight. They knew what it meant – a simple word but an enormous concept. It was something that was truly iconic for many Sydneysiders. It had become a word ingrained in Sydney culture for over 50 years. But the people of the great cities of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas must have wondered. That night, at the beginning of a new millennium, Sydney sent a message to the world. What was that message? And who was the mysterious little man who’d started it all?
Well it’s actually one of Sydney’s greatest mysteries, and one of Sydney’s greatest legends. It’s actually the mystery of “eternity.” Join me as we investigate the story of “Mr Eternity” and his message to Sydney and to the world.
Arthur Stace was born in a small derelict dwelling at Redfern, a suburb of the inner west of Sydney, in 1885. He was the fifth child in a family with alcoholic parents. Arthur was brought up in neglect and poverty in a Balmain slum.
He used to sleep on bags under the house and survived childhood by stealing bottles of milk from the doorsteps, shoplifting food and searching for scraps of food in bins. He lived on the streets until he was seven, when his irresponsible father deserted the family. Three weeks later the mother and children were evicted from their home for non-payment of rent. His mother couldn’t cope, and Arthur was given up to foster care.
Arthur was sent to Goulburn, about 190kms south-west of Sydney, where he spent the next seven years living with an elderly widow. He attended school there intermittently and got a limited education. His reading and writing skills were so poor that he was barely literate and so left school as soon as he could. By the time he was 14, he was working in a South Coast coal mine.
With his first pay, he went to the local pub where he purchased his first alcoholic drink. By the time he was 15, he was being carted off to jail drunk. His drinking became a habit, and Arthur quickly became a hopeless alcoholic, just like his parents before him. In his early 20’s, he returned to Sydney living with his sister Minnie in a Surry Hills brothel. His sisters were prostitutes and he soon became a petty criminal as a lookout for the brothels and illegal gambling dens, as well as a local break and enter gang.
Arthur also had the job to deliver alcohol from the pubs to those playing the illegal gambling game played in Australia at the time, called ‘Two-Up’. Arthur Stace, in his own words, said, “I became a bad man.”
When World War I broke out in 1914, Arthur saw an opportunity to escape the life of crime and gambling he was living and gain some self-respect. So, he decided to join the AIF, Australian Infantry Forces, and fight for his country. But at only 161cms or 5 foot 3 inches tall, he was too short to make the height requirements, let alone the character tests for enlistment.
However, Arthur’s opportunity came after the horrific death toll at Gallipoli – where the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp suffered heavy losses. Recruitment plummeted, and the army was forced to reduce its height requirements, and background checks on recruits became less rigorous. The army just needed men. So, on the 18 March 1916, Arthur enlisted in the 19th Battalion.
The 19th Battalion was raised at Liverpool in New South Wales as part of the 5th Brigade. Arthur Stace served on the battlefields of France as a stretcher bearer. He witnessed the most appalling scenes. There was a scale of violence unknown in any previous war. There were terrible combat casualties – millions of them. And the horrific conditions meant fevers, parasites and infections were rife on the frontline and ripped through the troops in the trenches.
Arthur Stace often had to pick up the shattered bodies of his mates. Stretcher bearers in wartime typically earnt the highest place in the esteem of their comrades. But in April 1917, Arthur was wounded when a gas-filled shell exploded beside him. After he had recovered in England he was discharged and sent back to Australia. The official reasons for his discharge were recurring bouts of bronchitis, pleurisy, and the shellshock resulting from the horrors he had experienced.
Back in Sydney, Arthur soon slipped back into his bad old ways and before long he was into a life of alcohol, gambling and crime again. He wandered the streets eating out of rubbish bins and drinking methylated spirits. In his own words, Arthur became, ‘a petty criminal, a bum, and a metho drinker.’ By 1930, Sydney was in the grip of the Great Depression. Unemployed men wandered the streets desperately looking for work. And during these challenging times, a dishevelled metho-drinker like Arthur, was the least likely person to get a job.
That year, Arthur was convinced that he would never escape the grip that alcohol had on his life, and so on one occasion he staggered into Regent Street Police Station and begged the Sergeant to lock him up. He said, “Sergeant, put me away. I am no good and I haven’t been sober for eight years. Give me a chance and put me away“. But the sergeant said to him, “You stink of metho. Get out!”
On the 6th August 1930, not long after Stace tried to have himself locked up, he attended a meeting at St Barnabas’ Church on Broadway. Many Christian churches at that time would hold meetings for the down-and-out men of Sydney, where if they sat and listened to the sermon, they’d get something to eat afterwards. And it was the promise of food that attracted Arthur to the meeting.
The preacher that day was Archdeacon Bob Hammond. There were about 300 grubby-looking men in the audience, along with six clean looking and well-presented people sitting on separate seats at the front. Arthur was sitting next to his friend, a well-known Sydney criminal, and he turned to him and asked about those neat and tidy people, Who are they?
His companion replied, “I’d reckon they’d be Christians.” And Stace said to him. “Well, look at them and look at us. I’m having a go at what they have got. That’s what I want to be like.” Arthur knew that his life was in a mess. He knew that he desperately needed help.
That night, Arthur heard the Good News that Jesus Christ loves sinners, people like him, even though they’ve made a mess of their lives. He found out that Christ died for him, and that He rose again and has power to save and change people like him. It was the best news he’d ever heard. When the meeting finished, Arthur came here to Victoria Park, and under a giant fig tree, he fell on his knees, and cried out to God, ‘Be merciful to me a sinner!’
Later, speaking about the meeting that day, Arthur used to say, ‘I went in to get a cup of tea and a rock cake but I met the Rock of Ages.’ And now, finally, Arthur was able to do what he had never, ever, been able to do before. He gave up drinking, and he found himself a part-time job. He was a changed man. Changed by getting to know Jesus Christ! He discovered that Christ was stronger than alcohol, stronger than his addictions.
Arthur became totally committed to helping other people like himself, to find the Good News about Jesus, that completely transformed his life. Now, instead of spending his time hopelessly drunk, he would spend his spare hours preaching on street corners to anyone who would listen. For over twenty years, he led open air evangelistic meetings on the corner of George and Bathurst Streets. Arthur dedicated himself to working at a self-help hotel in a converted factory in Chippendale, where he helped unemployed men to be fed, shaved, and tidied up in order to improve their chances of finding work. He loved doing all of these things and helping others, but still, he had not found his life’s purpose. Arthur became a janitor at the Burton Street Baptist Tabernacle in Darlinghurst, where he joined the congregation. Sadly, neither that church nor the original St Barnabas church in Broadway exist anymore. Today it is the Eternity Playhouse.
In November 1932, Arthur heard the popular evangelist John Ridley deliver a sermon on eternity. Ridley’s sermon was called “The Echoes of Eternity,” and was based on Isaiah 57:15. Let me read the text to you:
“For thus says the High and Lofty One Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, With him who has a contrite and humble spirit.”
The preacher’s words struck Arthur powerfully. The preacher said,
Eternity, eternity, I wish that 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?
In an interview many years later, Arthur said, “Eternity went ringing through my brain and suddenly I began crying and felt a powerful call from the Lord to write “Eternity.”
That day, the 14 November 1932, Arthur happened to have a piece of chalk in his pocket, and as he left the church, he bent down and wrote the word, “Eternity” on the pavement for the very first time. Stace stood up and looked at what he’d written, and he couldn’t believe it. He had always struggled with reading and writing. Yet, he said,
The funny thing is that before I wrote I could hardly have spelled my own name. I had little schooling and I couldn’t have spelt “Eternity” for a hundred quid. But it came out smoothly in beautiful copperplate script. I couldn’t understand it and I still can’t.
Today in the National Museum in Canberra, there is an entire display to Arthur Stace and the beautiful script of the word, “Eternity”, as a sign of his impact on Australian culture.
In later years, Stace tried writing other things, like, “Obey God” and “God or sin,” but he couldn’t write them the same way. He later said, I’ve tried and tried but Eternity is the only word that comes out in copperplate. Stace knew that God had given him a special gift, and that he had found his calling in life.
And so, Stace would regularly wake up at 4 am, pray for an hour, and then leave home with his pieces of chalk, and before dawn he would write the word “Eternity” every 30 metres or so on footpaths, train station entrances, and wherever he believed that God led him to write. And he did it for the next 35 years from Kings Cross to Liverpool – right across the city.
Meanwhile in January 1942, when Arthur was 57, he married Pearl Dawson who was 42. The ceremony was conducted at his church, St Barnabas’ on Broadway by Archdeacon RBS Hammond, the revered public figure known for his charitable and evangelistic work in Sydney and the first preacher Arthur had heard at the church in 1930.
When Arthur enquired of Hammond about the cost of the marriage ceremony, he said, “What do I owe you, guv?” The grand old man shook his head, took his wallet from his pocket, and extracted a five-pound note. He handed it to Arthur. “For the honour,” he said. Arthur and Pearl lived all their married life (19 years) in a tiny rented cottage at 12 Bulwara Road, Pyrmont.
Stace wrote the word “Eternity” – in chalk or crayon on the pavements of Sydney more than half a million times between 1932 and 1966 – on hundreds of Sydney streets. Almost every day during those years he would spend hours hand-writing ‘Eternity’ around Sydney. Stace took his mission very seriously, as something between he and God alone: a unique way that he could preach using a special gift that God had given him.
Stace believed that he was doing the work of God, so when he’d go out in the mornings, he would be dressed in his best outfit – usually a threadbare suit, a battered felt hat, collar and tie – a tiny man who moved in the dark and early morning light of Sydney.
Later in the mornings, the bustling workers would arrive in the city and see the word freshly written – a powerful one-word sermon – but they would never see the writer. And so, “The man who writes Eternity” became a legend in Sydney. For most of the time, his identity would largely remain a mystery. He was unseen and unknown.
The mystery was finally solved when Reverend Lisle Thompson, who preached at the church where Stace worked as a cleaner, saw him take a piece of chalk from his pocket one day and write the word on the footpath. Stace’s identity was finally publicly revealed when Thompson wrote a story about Stace’s life in the Sydney Sunday Telegraph on 21 June 1956. But still, he remained elusive.
In 1963, photographer Trevor Dallen cornered Arthur and asked to take a few pictures of him writing his famous word, Eternity. After four photos, Trevor ran out of film and asked Stace to wait while he got more film. When he returned, Stace was gone. Today, this photo, in the National Library of Australia, is the only photo still in existence of Arthur Stace at work.
The City Council had a rule about defacing the pavement, and the police “very nearly” arrested him 24 times, but he would tell them, “I have permission from a higher source.”
By the mid 1960’s, Stace had become unwell. He was cared for in a nursing home until his death from a stroke on July 30, 1967, when he was 83. Arthur Stace bequeathed his body to science as his final act to help others. Two years after his death, his earthly remains were laid to rest with those of his wife, Pearl, at the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park. The statue here is a memorial to his life and legacy.
Much of the Sydney that Stace knew is gone today. But the city has never forgotten him, a small man of only 161cms, or five foot three, who wrote the word ‘Eternity’ an estimated 500,000 times, became a giant among the legends of Sydney.
Sydney remembered him when it celebrated the 2000 Olympics. It remembered him at the turn of the millennium, emblazoned in light on its famous harbour bridge. And then the word, Eternity is engraved on one of the great bells that rang out over the city from the Sydney General Post Office.
And when the area between St Andrew’s Cathedral and the Sydney Town Hall was redeveloped, there in front of a waterfall, is an aluminium replica of Stace’s perfect copperplate handwriting of the one word: “Eternity.”
What’s behind this mysterious word, “Eternity”? And why did Arthur Stace devote his life to sharing just this one word? Well, eternity means forever. It’s time without end. Eternity stretches forever into the past and forever into the future.
Our lives here on earth are limited by time. There’s never enough time! That’s why we use clocks and watches to tell us what the time is. Because it seems like eternity doesn’t exist. But it does. Some people ask, what was there before God? The answer is that there was never a time before there was God.
Long before you or I existed, or even before even our planet came into being, there was God. He was in the beginning. There was nothing before him. He was before all things, and everything that exists was made by him. And somewhere in that eternal past. He lovingly planned for you to have an eternal destiny with him. That’s what Ephesians 1:4 means when it says that, He chose us [in Christ] before the foundation of the world.
And that’s why humanity has in its heart, a yearning for eternity. It’s what Blaise Pascal, the famous mathematician, called a “God-shaped hole.” It’s a hole that only an eternal God can fill. The Bible tells us that, “[God] has… set eternity in the human heart” [Ecclesiastes 3:11]
We are never truly complete until we find eternity through Jesus Christ. What is eternity? It’s forever. It’s time without end. Well, eternity is how much time God wants to spend with you. That’s why God sent his Son into the world, so, ‘that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)
Arthur Stace found the most important thing in life. He discovered eternity. Stace had found that ultimately only the eternal power of God could save him from himself. It was only through the power of God that he was able to overcome his alcoholism and addictions. Stace had grown up in misery and squalor, always searching for the meaning of life, for happiness, for inner-peace, and for acceptance from others. He only found it when he accepted the gift of eternity that God offered him in Jesus Christ.
Arthur Stace spent the rest of his life telling others about eternity. Why? because God’s gift of eternal life is so huge and so amazing that when you understand it and receive it, it fills you with happiness and brings you inner peace. You just can’t stop telling others. Even if it’s by writing a single word – Eternity – on the pavement, half a million times.
That’s the life of Arthur Stace – Mr Eternity. Perhaps like Arthur, you’re feeling trapped in an endless cycle of addictions, toxic relationships, illness, and disappointment. Or perhaps it’s an emptiness you feel. Perhaps there’s just something in you that cries out for more out of life.
That’s because you were made for eternity too. God has left His mark, His fingerprint, in your heart. You have a longing for eternity that only God can satisfy. God wants you to spend eternity with Him. Throughout history, from the ancient Egyptians, to the modern cosmetics industry, humanity has looked for eternity in all the wrong places – in things that don’t work and don’t satisfy.
But the simple secret that opens eternity to you is found here in the Word of God. And I’d like to read to you one of the greatest passages of Scripture that I know. It’s found in 1 John 5:11–13: “This is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (NIV).
The secret of eternity is that it’s simply a gift. And it’s received when you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour. If you would like to know more about how you can receive God’s gift of eternity, then I’d like to recommend the free gift we have for all Incredible Journey viewers today.
It’s the booklet, Learning to be Led by God. This easy to read booklet will take you on a journey with some of the famous people in the Bible and you will discover how despite their setbacks and circumstances, they committed themselves to God and were guided by Him to a place where they found peace and happiness on earth and more importantly the secret of eternity.
If you would like to find out more about eternity, then I’d like to encourage you to accept our gift for you today. It is absolutely free and I guarantee there are no costs or obligations whatsoever. So, make the most of this wonderful opportunity to receive the gift we have for you today.
If you’ve enjoyed today’s journey through the streets of Sydney in the footsteps and life of Sydney legend, Arthur Stace, and our reflections on God’s gift of eternity, then be sure to join us again next week when we will share another of life’s journeys together. Until then, let us pray for God’s blessing, leading and guidance in our lives.
Dear Heavenly Father, we are so grateful that you have put eternity in our hearts. Please fill the emptiness in our lives with the joy, hope and assurance of an eternity with you. We accept Jesus Christ as our Saviour. And through the work of His Spirit in our lives, please replace our weakness with strength, our fear with courage, and our sadness with joy. And make your face to shine upon us and give us peace. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.