D. L. Moody was a man with a passion for Jesus Christ and a passion for souls. His evangelistic methods were innovative and contemporary, incorporating gospel presentations in song, and appealing to the Victorian music-hall generation. But his success was due not to his methods, but to his prayerfulness, and the evangelistic anointing on his life.
Dwight Lyman Moody was born in Northfield, Massachusetts, on 5 February 1837, the sixth child of Edwin and Betsey Moody. When he was four years old, his father died of alcoholism, and a month later his mother gave birth to twins, her eighth and ninth children.
They were raised under a strict but loving regime. Their schooling was sporadic, interspersed with working on the farm. Moody’s letters betray the deficiencies of his education, his atrocious spelling and non-existent punctuation making them almost indecipherable.
Betsey Moody reared her children in legalistic Unitarianism, teaching them that they could and should be good by their own efforts. Moody’s antidote to the hardness of his life and the severity of his religion was to become a keen sportsman and a great practical joker, and to remain so for the rest of his life.
Escape to Boston
With the arrival of the railroad in Northfield in 1848, the wider world beckoned. Moody took the earliest opportunity – the winter of 1853-4 – to escape. He went to Boston and found work in his uncle’s shoe shop. He joined the YMCA, where there were books to read free of charge. This, and the lectures at the YMCA, filled some of the gaps in his education.
Uncle Samuel insisted on Dwight’s attendance at church. He was assigned to a Sunday school class led by Edward Kimball, who challenged him directly about the state of his soul, and led him to faith in Christ, right at the back of the shoe shop.
Boston life was too staid for Moody, and in September of 1856 he moved to Chicago, a thousand miles from home. There he found himself friendless apart from Christ, but immediately made himself at home in the lively city.
Business opportunities were great, and Moody’s goal was to make money. This ambition was challenged at a series of revival meetings. He began renting four pews at Plymouth Church in Chicago, and filling them with young men from the nearby shops and streets.
Sunday school ministry
He also began to serve in the Sunday school of the First Baptist Church, starting by taking eighteen slum children with him. By 1859 there were 600 children attending Moody’s Sunday school. Sometimes he would have to stand up and address the children. From these faltering beginnings his preaching developed. In 1864, the Sunday school ministry evolved into the Illinois Street Church.
He would lose no opportunity, on streets or in trains, to lead people to the Saviour who had so captured his affection. He abandoned his business, and his dreams of becoming a millionaire, and devoted his time and energy to his church and the YMCA. During this time he was courting Emma Revell, who became his devoted wife and mainstay.
When the Civil War broke out, he went to minister to the troops, confronting young men who might soon be dead about their eternal destiny. After the war he returned to the work in Chicago.
In 1867, leaving their infant daughter in the charge of Emma’s mother, he and Emma left for England. Here, their most significant encounter was one which Moody dismissed at the time.
A young converted pickpocket named Harry Moorhouse offered to come to the USA to preach. Moody soon forgot him, but in 1868 Moorhouse did arrive in Chicago. Moody had always taught that God hates the sinner as well as the sin. Night after night, Harry Moorhouse preached from John 3:16, showing God’s love for mankind. As a result of this encounter, Moody’s preaching changed for ever.
He was searching for a song-leader, and in 1870 he met Ira D. Sankey, who gave up his career in the government’s Revenue service and came to Chicago to help him in his work. So was born a partnership that would bring the gospel to thousands in Britain and America.
In 1871, two ladies in Moody’s congregation began praying for him. He resented their suggestion that he lacked the power of the Spirit, but their persistence convicted him and gave rise to a great hunger for God. He reached the point where he did not wish to go on living if he could not have this power for God’s service.
But there was rebellion in his heart. God was calling him to a wider ministry, and he refused to leave Chicago. When finally he yielded, God gave him such an experience of his love that he had to ask him to stay his hand. From then on there was a new power in Moody’s ministry.
On 8 October 1871, Moody concluded his sermon by challenging people to go away, ask themselves what they would do about Christ, and come back the next week with their answer. ‘What a mistake!’ he said afterwards. ‘It seems as if Satan was in my mind when I said this’. That night Chicago was devastated by a city-wide fire, which crossed even the river, and many of his hearers did not have a week to consider his question.
In Britain again
In 1872, Moody again crossed the Atlantic for rest and study leave, but soon found himself accepting invitations to speak. On this trip a casual remark was made to him, which he never forgot: ‘Moody, the world has yet to see what God will do with a man fully consecrated to Him’. Moody determined to be that man. He returned to America, but came back to England and Ireland in 1873 for a preaching tour with Sankey.
They conducted meetings in the north of England, and copies of Sankey’s Sacred Songs and Solos were sold. The breakthrough came when they moved on to Edinburgh. The Scottish audiences were enraptured by Moody’s informal, anecdotal style of preaching, and people from every walk of life yielded to the claims of Christ. From then on they took Scotland and England by storm, preaching in many places, finishing at The Opera House in London’s Haymarket.
One day, on a train, Sankey read a poem in a magazine, which he thought would make a fine evangelistic hymn. Next day, Moody preached on the Good Shepherd, and then turned to Sankey for a song. Sankey took out the poem and began to play and sing to an improvised tune:
There were ninety and nine that safely lay
In the shelter of the fold;
But one was out on the hills away,
Far off from the gates of gold –
Away on the mountains wild and bare,
Away from the tender Shepherd’s care,
Away from the tender Shepherd’s care.
It became his most popular hymn. The pair left Liverpool in August 1875, leaving behind them a very different climate from the one they had found. Their effect on the religious and social life of Britain was deep and lasting.
Moody was already well known in America, but he returned a national hero. He arrived home to countless preaching invitations. He chose to go to the cities, believing that the gospel would spread from them like water running downhill.
His gift was for evangelism, but he was also concerned to see the churches strengthened and Bible study encouraged. The hymn-book sales were making huge amounts of money – an estimated $1,250,000 dollars by the time of Moody’s death. The royalties were given away to Christian work.
A critic examined Moody’s and Sankey’s financial affairs, seeking evidence of impropriety. But he was forced to conclude, ‘I withdraw the charge they are rascals but will say instead they are damned fools to let such money slip through their hands!’
Education, especially Bible education, was dear to Moody’s heart. In 1870 he met Emma Dryer who was teaching and visiting people made homeless by the Chicago fire. Moody took her work under the umbrella of his Illinois Street Church.
In 1879 Moody opened his seminary for young women at Northfield, followed by the Mount Hermon School for young men in 1881. Miss Dryer repeatedly exhorted him to found a school to train men and women as evangelists. Finally he was persuaded, and the Chicago Evangelisation Society, later to become the Moody Bible Institute, was formed with R. A. Torrey as its superintendent.
An indefatigable man
Moody played an active part in the life of the Institute, and continued to travel in America, Britain and elsewhere. He visited the Holy Land, and survived a shipwreck during a voyage home from Ireland. It is difficult to convey in one short article the enormous energy of this near-indefatigable man, or the extent to which the whole of America, Britain and Ireland were stirred by his message.
Moody was an involved and adoring father and grandfather, and nothing shook him as much as the deaths in 1898 and 1899 of two of his grandchildren. His own health was failing, and though he left for Kansas in November, he was unable to complete his mission there and returned home a sick man. On 22 December 1899 he left this life triumphantly, confident of waking in the presence of his Lord.