A little book and the last man executed in Australia

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This year our denomination celebrates a couple of milestone birthdays. The first is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which began with the publishing of Luther’s 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg University Church on October 31. The second: the 125th birthday of that quintessential Adventist icon, Steps to Christ, by Ellen White.

Across its hundreds of iterations, covers and languages (160), it has influenced untold numbers around the world to accept the principles of Luther’s work.

This booklet, in just 13 short chapters (it started out with 12), covers the basics of Christianity at a personal level. And if you haven’t already read it, it’s a book everyone can enjoy. It’s also a book to share.

On your behalf, as editor of Signs of the Times, I’ve given away thousands of Steps to Christ over the past two decades. And it all began this way.

In the 1960s, Keith Johanson operated a timber-felling business in the forests to the east of the town of Warburton, Victoria.

Among his employees was one Ronald Ryan, whom Keith described as hard working and intelligent.

But Ryan also had a problem with gambling.

To fund his hobby, Ryan executed a few dodgy deals and schemes, including insurance fraud. Unsurprisingly, he eventually found himself in Melbourne’s infamous Pentridge Prison, serving a relatively short sentence. But chaffing under the confinement, he plotted an escape, which resulted in a person being shot dead, allegedly with a rifle wrested from a prison guard on the way over the wall. Ryan was recaptured, tried for murder and sentenced to hang. But not before Johanson, being his former employer, had made several visits to him.

Although access was limited and difficult to obtain, he was able to give Ryan, an Irish Catholic, a copy of Steps to Christ, which Ryan accepted and read, and according to Johanson, reread.

Somewhere in her writings Ellen White says that we should take the words of her publications and make them our own.

According to prison chaplain Father John Brosnan, the words of Steps to Christ got through to Ryan when neither his pleas, nor even the tears of Ryan’s mother, could. It was his constant companion on death row inside “D” Division of Pentridge Prison until he walked those last few metres to the gallows at 8am, February 3, 1967.

Ryan was infamously the last person subjected to capital punishment in Australia, and the most protested. It was the view of Brosnan and Johanson that Ryan went to the gallows a saved man!

When we published this story in Signs of the Times in the ’90s (it was published in Australasian Record, April 29, 1968), we were impressed to include a free offer of Steps to Christ to readers, beginning a tradition that continues today.

A few months after publication I received a request from a man incarcerated in a Philippines prison, responding to the offer. He was doing two life sentences for murder and had been intrigued by Ryan’s story.

Our offers don’t usually extend internationally but I was impressed to send him the booklet. A few months later I received another letter from him, signed by the prison chaplain and governor, with accompanying photos, showing his baptism and a chapel he was helping to build in the prison grounds. He had yielded to the appeals of the book and accepted Christ, and now was helping others to faith. [pullquote]

I once “wrote” an article for Signs, which was published under the title “Seven Myths About Salvation”. I say “wrote”, but really all I did was condense a chapter from Steps to Christ.

The chapter is called “Repentance”. As I undertook the work, I began to contemporise the words, making them “my own” in a literal sense. The chapter gives encouraging insights into how and where salvation begins, one by one dismissing the impediments and excuses for coming to Christ. Here’s a sample: “[Sinners] think they cannot come to Christ unless they first repent, and that repentance prepares for the forgiveness of their sins. . . . We can no more repent without the Spirit of Christ to awaken conscience than we can be pardoned without Christ” (p 26)—I have to repent before I can come to Christ; “If you see your sinfulness, do not wait to make yourself better . . . There is help for us only in God . . . We can do nothing of ourselves” (p 31)—I need to clean up my act first, before God can accept me; and, “As you see the enormity of sin, as you see yourself as you really are, do not give up to despair. It was sinners that Christ came to save” (p 35)—salvation is too hard.

So be it in a literal or metaphoric sense, I urge you to make the words of this volume yours, taking them to heart for encouragement, comfort or improvement—and sharing.

In an online review1 of a commemorative edition celebrating Steps to Christ‘s birthday, Adventist Today contributing editor John McLarty describes its origins and the addition of that 13th introductory chapter, which publishers asked Ellen White to add. It gives an insight into its soul-winning appeal.

“While all of the material in the current version of the book came from the writings of Ellen White, the difference in spiritual tone set up by the two different beginnings is significant. The current first chapter, ‘God’s Love for Man’, echoes the optimism of American transcendentalists. The original first chapter, ‘The Sinner’s Need of Christ’, echoes Puritan pessimism. Certainly these two ideas are not mutually exclusive, but the spiritual tone of the book is fundamentally shifted by the addition of the new chapter. This shift in tone in the book mirrors a profound shift in the inner life of Ellen White herself (as expressed in her writings). Beginning in her childhood, White struggled intensely and long with an overwhelming sense of dread and unworthiness before God. The frown of God was far more vivid to her than God’s smile.”

And it is the smile that we see in the pages of Steps to Christ, while it is Christ’s eternally nail-scarred hands extended that we see on its cover.

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