D.L. Moody and 19th-Century Mass Evangelism
By William P. Farley
In 1871, Sarah Cooke and Mrs. Hawxhurst attended the church where 34-year-old D.L. Moody was pastor. Despite his earnestness and sincerity, these women were convinced that he lacked something important — spiritual power. So, they sat in the front row and prayed.
They shared their convictions with Moody and began praying with him for spiritual power. Moody’s longing for God’s power grew. One day he “rolled on the floor in the midst of many tears and groans and cried to God to be baptized with the Holy Ghost and fire.”1
While in New York on business, the Holy Spirit’s power fell. Here is how Moody described it. “One day, in the city of New York — oh, what a day! — I cannot describe it, I seldom refer to it; it is almost too sacred an experience to name. Paul had an experience of which he never spoke for 14 years. I can only say that God revealed himself to me, and I had such an experience of His love that I had to ask Him to stay His hand.”2 Moody was sure that if God did not lift His hand, he would die.
A few months later, in 1873, he planned a preaching trip to the British Isles. With him came his newfound friend and song leader, Ira Sankey. Moody began to preach; and something had changed. “The sermons were not different,” he noted. “I did not present any new truths, and yet hundreds were converted. I would not now be placed back where I was before that blessed experience [New York] if you should give me all the world — it would be as the small dust of the balance.”
Thus began D.L. Moody’s Spirit-empowered stage of ministry. Before his trip to England, he was little known. From England, news rapidly spread of the supernatural power that attended his ministry. When he returned to America, he was an international celebrity.
So great was the power that attended his work that some called it a “third Great Awakening.” For the next quarter century he traversed the English-speaking world. He preached to an estimated 100 million people, established colleges and schools, and left his imprint on 19th-century Evangelicalism. His was a remarkable life. “Without higher education, he founded three schools. Without theological training, he reshaped Victorian Christianity. Without radio or television, he reached 100 million people.”3
“The history of the world,” wrote Thomas Carlyle, “is but the biography of great men.”4 In this sense, 19th-century Christian history cannot be understood without a close look at D.L. Moody; and, we cannot appreciate Moody without an understanding of the times in which he lived.
Moody was born into an agricultural world that had changed little for 1,000 years. By contrast, he lived during a period of turbulent change. Cities swelled as the numbers engaged in agriculture rapidly declined. By his death in 1899, the United States had become an industrialized nation. His generation witnessed the inception of the telegraph, the railroad, the use of steam-powered ocean-going vessels, and the discovery of germs and bacteria.
It was also a time of epochal theological change. Methodist Arminianism conquered the Calvinist “orthodoxy” of America’s New England fathers. The later decades of Moody’s life saw the rise of pre-Millennialism, the increasing popularity of Keswick higher-life theories of sanctification, renewed interest in the Holy Spirit, and the beginning of the Holiness Movement.
Moody’s personality fit into this world of turbulent change. In some ways, he was a poster boy for 19th-century freewheeling capitalist America. Successful in business, “Moody was a Horatio Alger figure,” notes George Marsden. “The boy born in modest circumstances, who through initiative and imagination, rose to fame and success. In this sense, he was a man of his era.”5
Moody was born in 1837 in Northfield, Massachusetts. At age 4, his father died. His poverty-stricken mother raised him and seven siblings with the necessary moral timbre for God’s later call on his life. Growing up in a sleepy Massachusetts village, he obtained little more than a grade school education. His mother baptized him into the Unitarian church.
In 1854, at age 17, Moody left home for Boston, where he took a job as a shoe salesman. He was outgoing, confident, hard working, and optimistic. Through the influence of a Sunday School teacher from a Boston Congregational Church he placed his faith in Christ. Ironically, when he applied for church membership, the elders turned him down. His Unitarian background had not equipped him with adequate biblical knowledge. A year later the elders accepted his membership.
Chicago was a bustling city of 80,000 on the Western frontier — a dynamic center of business opportunity. In 1856, Moody moved there to pursue his fame and fortune. He was 19. Determined to become wealthy, he became an instant success. By age 23 he had amassed $8,000 ($800,000 in today’s currency).6 He was earning the equivalent of $500,000 per year. While in Chicago, he involved himself in Sunday School work and joined the local YMCA — an organization that had influenced him in Boston.
In 1860, Moody gave up his business ambitions and become a full-time children’s evangelist for the YMCA. Although he was extremely energetic, Moody’s ministerial skills needed work. In his early years “he was anything but a fluent speaker,” notes D.O. Fuller. “After a midweek service at which he had tried to say a few words, someone advised him that he would serve God most effectively by keeping still.”7
Moody started a Sunday School to reach poor children from the slums of North Chicago. His biographer notes that he “pursued this assignment with a zeal and determination which was almost frightening in its single-mindedness.”8 His work quickly grew to 800 weekly attendees. As the teens grew into adults, Moody formed a church to meet their spiritual needs and the needs of their parents. This was his principal ministry during the 1860s.
In 1862, Moody married 19-year-old Emma Revell. He was rough, without formal education, and lacking social graces. Emma, however, was cultured and refined. Under her influence he quickly acquired the social graces that would be so important in his later ministry. In addition, she handled all of his correspondence, the family finances, and raised their three children. She was “the backbone of Moody’s success.”9
After his 1873 “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” for that is what he always called it, his ministry took a dramatic turn. When the power first appeared, Moody was bewildered. He had never experienced it, and did not know what to do. Here is an eyewitness account: “A large chapel was filled to hear Moody; a deep impression was made. I have just come from the evening service, where every aisle and standing place, the vestries and lobbies, even the pulpit stairs, were crowded nearly half an hour before the evening service commenced. The Holy Spirit worked mightily, sinners in all positions in life sought the Lord earnestly, and Christian brothers and sisters of the Church of England, Friends, and of every denomination, were constrained without invitation to speak and pray with them.”10 The British tour ended with 4 months in London. Some have estimated that he spoke to 2 1/2 million people while there.
“When Moody and Sankey returned home after this tour, which had lasted from 1873 to 1875, they were virtually national heroes,” notes George Marsden.11 Invitations to hold crusades came from Brooklyn, Philadelphia, New York, and other main North American population centers. For the remainder of his life, he traveled extensively, (some estimate 1,000,000 miles), and preached revival sermons to overflow crowds.
Careful preparation, the cooperation of local churches, and effective, advance publicity characterized Moody’s ministry. In this respect, he forged the template that would later be used by 20th-century mass evangelists such as Billy Graham and others.
But Moody did more than preach. In the late 1870s, his evangelistic powers began to subside. Seeking to prepare full-time evangelists and lay workers, he turned to Christian education. In 1879, he founded a school for girls in Northfield, Massachusetts. A school for boys, Mount Hermon, followed in 1881. In 1886, he began a Chicago Bible school to train lay ministers. After his death, it was renamed The Moody Bible Institute.
He also entered the publishing business. In the 1880s, he hired his brother-in-law, Fleming Revell, to publish some of his books. The success of Moody’s writings made his brother-in-law’s publishing business a success. Revell Publishing became a model for later Christian publishing enterprises.
In late 1899, while campaigning in Kansas City, Moody became ill. He died of heart disease in December, a few weeks before the turn of the century. Throughout the country, the church mourned his passing.
Uniqueness Of Moody
Compared with other evangelists, Moody was unique. With the equivalent of a grade school education, he preached to millions. His lack of education, however, hindered him. Most of his life he struggled to spell properly, use correct punctuation, and speak with proper grammar.
An old saying goes: “There are no great men who are not great readers.” Moody might have been an exception. Action, not reading theology or spending time in contemplation, was the hallmark of his life. At age 62, a few weeks before his death, he was still preaching up to six times a day. Although he read the Bible diligently, he read little theology or church history other than the writings of his friend, C.H. Spurgeon. Pragmatism, not the life of the mind, engaged his interest.
Second, he was never ordained. He was the consummate businessman-evangelist. All of his great evangelist predecessors — Whitefield, Edwards, and Finney — were ordained ministers, but Moody broke the mold. Technically, he was a lay preacher, and he insisted that people call him, “Mr. Moody.”
Third, he was the first mass evangelist. Prior to George Whitefield in the 18th century, local pastors evangelized their congregations. Itinerant evangelists were unknown. The ministries of Asahel Nettleton (1783–1844) and Charles Finney (1792–1875) followed in Whitefield’s steps, but neither conducted mass rallies like Moody.
Moody approached his rallies with the efficient organizational skills of the businessman he was. When invited to a city, he required unity among Protestant leaders, prearranged financial backing, door-to-door canvassing of the city, and sometimes required the erection of suitable buildings before he would agree to come. His team organized everything in advance. Nothing was left to chance. In his later years, the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit had all but departed.
Fourth, whereas most 19th-century evangelists belonged to a denomination, Moody never joined one. He was not against them. Instead, he used his neutral status to build bridges between himself and disparate Christian organizations. His ministry promoted ecumenism among those he served.
As with many great men, Moody has affected the church profoundly.
First, his life changed the public perception of an evangelist. His example encouraged the separation of theology and evangelism in the public mind. He said “while what one believes is important, in whom one believes is of ultimate importance.”12 Such statements leave the impression that theology and experiencing Christ can be separated or are different subjects. His life and ministry promoted the idea that critical thinking is not important to the work of evangelism.
Like many men, Moody did have a theology, but he kept it simple. He summarized it using the three Rs: Ruined by sin, Redeemed by the blood, and Regenerated by the Holy Spirit.
Moody also popularized Bible schools. In contrast to seminaries, Bible schools de-emphasize church history, the formal study of theology, and the study of the original languages. The result is an emphasis on “me and my Bible.”
Moody’s ministry also introduced a new sentimentality into Christian work. He often preached for an emotional response. His message was simple, sincere, and straightforward. Down-home, simple exhortation, littered with personal anecdotes characterized his preaching. This style was in direct contrast to the older evangelism that appealed to human reason. Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit converted thousands through his ministry.
Moody’s ministry made lasting contributions to both the church and society. He encouraged and motivated lay involvement in evangelism, church unity, and interdenominational ministry.
Moody was an average speaker who got above average results because God’s power accompanied him. The result was many people trusted in Christ, not D.L. Moody. His ministry constantly reminded men of their need for the Holy Spirit’s power.
Like most Christian workers, Moody’s ministry impacted the church in many unseen ways. Moody deeply influenced F.B. Meyer. Meyer, with his new evangelistic fervor, influenced J. Wilbur Chapman. Chapman helped the ministry of Billy Sunday, who had a profound impact on Mordacai Ham. Ham, holding a revival in North Carolina, led Billy Graham to Christ. God moves in mysterious ways, and the ministry of D.L. Moody constantly keeps this truth before us.
Truly, history is His story.
- Vinita Hampton and C.J. Wheeler, “The Gallery,” Christian History Magazine 9, no. 25, (1990):13.
- William R. Moody, The Life of Dwight L. Moody,(Albany, Ore.: Book for the Ages, Ages Software, 1997), 127.
- See front cover, Christian History Magazine 9, no. 25.
- J.D. Douglas, P.W. Comfort, D. Mitchell, Who’s Who in Christian History, (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1997; republished in a digital format by Libronix Digital Library System).
- James F. Findlay, Dwight L. Moody: American Evangelist, 1837–99,(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 61,88. A workingman’s annual wage in 1860 was $350. Moody had accumulated $7,000 or 20 year’s wages. Today’s annual wage is about $40,000. Twenty times this figure is $800,000.
- David Otis Fuller, Valiant for the Truth,(New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961), 413.
- Findlay, 77.
- Hampton and Wheeler, “The Gallery,” 12.
- Moody, The Life of Dwight L. Moody, 138.
- Douglas, Comfort, Mitchell, Who’s Who in Christian History.
- Stanley Grundy, “The Three R’s of Moody’s Theology,” Christian History Magazine 9, no. 25, (1990):19