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D. L. Moody

February 2000 | by Derek Thomas

Controversial Evangelist

Born into an agricultural community in February 1837, in Northfield, Massachusetts, Dwight Lyman Moody was the grandson and son of stonemasons. His father died when he was only four years old. Nearly all the parental influence, therefore, came from his mother, Betsey Moody, who lived to within a few years of the death of her son.

By all accounts, she was a woman of character whom Dwight would often extol publicly. When her husband Edwin died, she was left with seven young children and shortly afterwards, twins were born. The harshness of life for a widow with nine children can only be imagined, but these factors help explain many of the tender and unassuming attributes of D. L. Moody.

Conversion

When he was five, he and the rest of his family were baptised when his mother became a member of the local Unitarian church. The church had been formed by a split from the liberal Congregational church. By all accounts his schooling was unremarkable and may account for the difficulty he had with grammar and spelling throughout his life, something about which he was deeply conscious and sensitive.

Sometime in 1854, at the age of seventeen, he left Northfield for Boston, taking a room near his uncle’s shoe shop. Here he came into contact with Mount Vernon Congregational Church and its ‘revivalist’ preacher, Edward N. Kirk.

In his uncle’s shoe shop, he was visited by his Sunday school teacher. He ‘simply told him of Christ’s love for him and the love Christ wanted in return’, and asked whether he was ready to commit himself to Christ.

Moody recollects that the following day the ‘old sun shone a good deal brighter than it ever had before… I fell in love with the birds… It seemed to me I was in love with the creation’. His attempt to become a member of the church, however, was flatly rejected, because he ‘could not tell what it was to be a Christian; had no idea of what Christ had done for him’.

A year later, and following tutelage from two men in the church, he was still unable to impress the office-bearers, but was admitted on account of ‘his sincerity and earnest determination to be a Christian’.

Evangelism

Shortly afterwards, Moody moved to Chicago, where he continued in the shoe industry, developing a considerable business acumen. He once admitted during this time that he hoped, eventually, to accumulate $100,000. As a salesman, he evidently prospered materially.

However, it was the Evangelical Awakening of 1857-8 that influenced him most. He became deeply concerned about the ‘waywardness’ of his mother, brother and sisters, and wrote as much to them.

He joined the Chicago branch of the YMCA, and started his own mission Sunday school on the north side of the city. His criticism of the leadership in the Congregational church he attended caused him to branch out on his own. This may have led to Moody’s lifelong distrust of organized religion.

By 1860, and following the death of a friend from tuberculosis, Moody decided to engage full time in the work of evangelism. He held street meetings, often combating hecklers, and was known to some as ‘crazy Moody’. He tried unsuccessfully to overcome Henry Ward Beecher in debate, an incident that remained a vivid and painful memory for many years.

The Civil War

In 1862, he married Emma Charlotte Revell, then only nineteen years old, a woman of considerable beauty, keener judgement and frail health, who bore him three children.

Moody was to witness the Civil War at first hand, visiting the fallen Confederate capital of Richmond in 1865. But it was in Camp Douglas, on the southern edge of Chicago, that he spent the major part of the war. He held prayer meetings, published tracts, and compiled a soldier’s hymn-book. He was an untiring supporter of the northern cause, actively recruiting for Lincoln’s armies from the local YMCA.

Following the civil war, and the establishment of the federal army, Moody went to Kentucky and southern Illinois as a representative of the YMCA. Evidently he was so popular that one regiment asked him to stay as chaplain, but he was unable to comply.

By this time, Moody was filling engagements in many states, including Iowa, Wisconsin, Kansas, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. It was in Bloomington, Illinois, in 1869 at a Sunday school convention, that Moody called for an act of ‘re-consecration’ at the close of the meeting and watched in fascination as ‘the whole assembly rose’. At another similar meeting the following year, in Quincy, Moody noted the powerful effect music could have, particularly in a setting of potential strife. This led to the famous partnership with Ira D. Sankey.

‘Second conversion’

In 1867 he made his first trip to England, encountering the Plymouth Brethren, a movement which had begun in the 1820s under the leadership of John N. Darby. Although he accepted Darby’s eschatological views, the latter’s strong predestinarian beliefs were at odds with Moody’s Arminian theology. Darby was to say of Moody that he was ‘deep in the mud of this [lack of understanding]’.

His visit to Britain also brought him into contact with leading evangelicals, including C. H. Spurgeon who presided over a week of prayer meetings during the visit.

In 1871, in the great fire of Chicago, Moody lost to the flames his home, the YMCA building, and the church that had grown out of the mission Sunday school. It was the event which would later cause him to leave Chicago.

It was in 1871, during a visit to New York, that Moody experienced what he described as his ‘second conversion experience’. He made a decision to leave everything and commit his life to freelance evangelism. The emergence of ‘new light’ Presbyterianism made it easier for Moody to be widely accepted.

Moody and Sankey

In 1872, Moody and Sankey made their second and most famous trip to the UK, visiting such towns as York, Sunderland and Newcastle with limited success. His move north to Scotland was different, however.

Beginning in November 1873, he spent five months, first in Edinburgh and then in Glasgow, speaking to large crowds and giving a series of lectures at the Free Church college in Glasgow.

When the Moderator of the Free Church General Assembly spoke of the revival, and the contribution of the two Americans, the delegates broke into applause, particularly since the Synods of Fife, Perth and Stirling had all been influenced.

In the first half of 1874, Moody visited Paisley, Kilmarnock, Stirling, Perth, Arb-roath, Nairn, Elgin and Inverness. In the autumn he left Scotland for Dublin, and then on to England and the great industrial towns of the Midlands, until the summer of 1875.

Moody’s methods

The applause wasn’t unanimous, however. One Free Church minister, criticising his Arminian theological methodology, wrote of his ‘hyper-evangelism’. But the prevailing opinion was favourable, if cautious. This caution is partly explained by R. W. Dale’s remarks that ‘a very large number of Scottish Presbyterians came to believe that in some sense Christ died for all men’.

Moody retained an echo of Finney’s ‘anxious seat’, believing that it was necessary to personally converse with potential converts. To this end, he ensured that enquirers would meet apart from the main auditorium, sometimes having them walk to the nearest evangelical church.

The enquirers’ meeting would begin with a choir singing ‘Just as I am, without one plea’, while workers would walk about engaging enquirers in conversation. Moody believed it important to strike whilst the conscience was tender, the heart softened, and the gospel still ringing in the sinner’s ears. A Dublin Catholic newspaper referred to these meetings as ‘the Protestant confessional’. Thousands attended such after-meetings.

Opposition and defence

Moody returned to the United States and engaged in further evangelistic projects. He was also a considerable opponent of the emerging school of biblical criticism. He died in 1899 at sixty-two years of age.

The Independent religious weekly commented: ‘He understood what was the breadth of Christian Life and faith, and there was no bitterness in his soul for those who held a more liberal faith than he. For denominations he cared nothing; for Christianity he would give up his life. Every one believed in him, no matter of what faith or unfaith; all knew Dwight L. Moody was an honest, sincere, devoted Christian’.

Moody’s visit to Scotland, in particular, produced a flurry of opposition and defence. In 1874, John Kennedy of Dingwall wrote a tract entitled Hyper-Evangelism: ‘Another Gospel’, in opposition to much that he had witnessed of the ‘revival’.

His chief criticism was that ‘no pains are taken to present the character and claims of God as Lawgiver and Judge, and no indication is given of a desire to bring souls in self-condemnation, to accept the punishment of their iniquity’.

Moody stressed the love of God, rarely mentioned God’s wrath or his determination to judge the unrighteous. Other criticisms included a tendency to antinomianism in the so-called converts.

Horatius Bonar replied in the same year with an eighty-page rejoinder: The Old Gospel: Not ‘Another Gospel’ but the Power of God Unto Salvation. Kennedy was to reply to this in the following year with a tract called A Reply to Dr Bonar’s Defence of Hyper-Evangelism. Bonar attempted, despite misgivings, to give a more irenic interpretation of what he had seen, and seems not a little suspicious that Kennedy may well have been guilty of hypercalvinism!

Kennedy’s closing words to the first tract were: ‘if there continue to be progress in the direction, in which present religious activity is moving, a negative theology will soon supplant our Confession of Faith, the good old ways of worship will be forsaken for unscriptural inventions, and the tinsel of a superficial religiousness will take the place of genuine godliness’. On the surface at least, Kennedy seems to have been proven right.