Written by Dave Boling
Lakeside in the summer of 1882 was abuzz with activity. There were bishops, local church leaders, and missionaries. Former first lady Lucy Webb Hayes and her husband Rutherford B. Hayes were present as were evangelists and those who dreamed of being gospel bearers in Ohio after their time at Lakeside that summer.
At its core, everything about Lakeside gives birth to love. Sometimes from the preacher’s pulpit, sometimes among those who meet for the first time and discover they are connected in ways far beyond their imagination to places where only God had dreamed.
Such was the story of Henry Willis and Anna Ruddick.
Henry grew up in the Brethren church, in its Ohio heartland, near Ashland, Ohio. He was just beginning his ministry as a Methodist evangelist when he came to Lakeside that summer to hear Rev. Thomas Harrison, known around the country for his evangelistic zeal. Harrison would preach at least twice each day of the camp meeting and bring hundreds of people to their knees in prayer, praying for God’s forgiveness and grace. It was said that “Lakeside had never before enjoyed such a tidal wave of salvation.” The whole auditorium, or tabernacle in camp meeting terms “was at times converted to an altar for seeking souls.”
Young Henry, 24 years old, saw Harrison as a mentor, a guide, if you will of how an evangelist labored in the fields of God. He had no idea how much he would impact his life when he arrived at Lakeside that summer.
Anna Ruddick, age 20, lived in Clyde, Ohio, with her parents. She was a teacher and her father was the pastor of the Methodist church in Clyde. I can imagine he was probably Florence Nickerson’s pastor for he pastored Florence’s church and had been a teacher in Clyde as well. Surely, Anna and Florence knew each other.
It was during the camp meeting that Henry and Anna met for the first time. They were like spirits, with a common desire to spread the Gospel. “They quickly discovered their hearts were indeed joined together.” In the biography of Henry Willis written in partnership with his wife the author says it this way, “After much pure association together, and after much prayer on the part of both, it became evident that God intended them for each other, in the journey and work of life.”
After Lakeside they went their separate ways, Henry to Ashland, Anna back home to Clyde. Apparently, separation does indeed make the heart grow fonder. Henry proposed and they were married on October 12, 1882 by Anna’s father in Republic, Ohio. They became husband and wife partners in evangelism, working across northern Ohio. Henry was called the “Boy Evangelist from Ohio.” It was a compliment that would humble his heart, as Thomas Harrison, who he had heard at Lakeside was known the “Boy Evangelist” a moniker he carried with him his entire life.
Soon they felt called to Philadelphia, they connected to again to Thomas Harrison, and served in his church. While there, they talked about becoming missionaries and decided to write to Bishop William Taylor, the leader of Methodist missions in Africa. (You may recall, he too was a speaker at Lakeside.) Taylor laid out all the challenges of being a missionary and despite all the perils of missionary work, Anna and Henry left New York harbor for Africa on January 22, 1885. They reached Africa a month later.
Anna was especially plagued by illness while in Africa and it was decided in August of 1885 that they would sail back to the United States. It’s not recorded, but one can imagine that it must have been a heart-breaking time for both Henry and Anna who wanted to serve by “winning souls for Christ” only to be stopped by illness.
But it was Henry who became seriously ill on the ship after leaving Africa and on August 30, 1885 he died and was buried at sea. Anna made it back to the States where Rev. Thomas Harrison helped her through the challenging times of losing her husband and recovering her health. Later that year he preached a memorial service for Henry Willis. Anna was 23 years old.
Anna went on to be an evangelist in her own right, traveling to camp meetings and Chautauquas, leading people to Christ. Did she remarry? Did she move back with her parents in Ohio? When did she die? Where is she buried? Did she ever return to Lakeside? These questions and others are lost to history.
Nonetheless, it’s a Lakeside love story, one of many, across its history. If only the trees could talk, the stories they could share.