MOODY, D. L. (DWIGHT LYMAN) (1837–1899)
From 1875 until 1899 Dwight L. Moody was unquestionably the chief spokesman for the revivalist wing of the flourishing American evangelicals of his day. In addition to regular evangelistic tours through American and British cities, Moody through personal contacts helped shape a network of Christian activities that he or his close associates controlled. His central leadership role was very similar to that played by Charles Finney before the Civil War or that of Billy Graham in the era after 1950.
Moody himself was a Horatio Alger figure—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. Moody left his boyhood home of Northfield, Massachusetts, at age seventeen to seek a career in Boston. There he was converted and joined a Congregational church. He soon left Boston, however, moving in 1856 to Chicago, where in a few years he developed a very successful business as a shoe salesman. In the meantime he was touched by the enthusiasm of the city revivals that spread through America in 1858, and he turned more and more toward Christian work. He was especially concerned with the spiritual needs of persons in the growing American cities. Accordingly, in 1860 he abandoned his shoe business to work full time with YMCA evangelism to young men in the cities and to found a Sunday school for poor children. These activities were partially interrupted by the Civil War, during which Moody spent some time doing Christian work among soldiers. Soon after the war he became president of the Chicago YMCA and also built the Sunday school into the independent Illinois Street Church. Throughout his career it was characteristic of Moody to carry on his work independent of denominational structures, even though he was sympathetic to many denominations and cooperated with them in his revival campaigns. This move by Moody toward independent nondenominational work had important influences on later American fundamentalism and evangelicalism.
By the early 1870s Moody was a well–known local Chicago evangelical leader, but he was unknown nationally. His rise to fame resulted from a modestly conceived evangelistic tour of Great Britain in which Moody was accompanied by his singing associate, Ira Sankey. In Scotland the evangelists suddenly met with immense success, which was followed by similar triumphs in other British cities, especially London. When Moody and Sankey returned home after this tour, which had lasted from 1873 to 1875, they were virtually national heroes. Moody needed only to choose the cities in which to hold his campaigns, since religious leaders of every metropolis were eager to supply him with whatever cooperation or accommodations he wanted if Moody would supply his services. Some even built giant auditoriums especially for his meetings. Moody’s success continued throughout America much as it had in Britain, reaching not so much the poor and immigrant elements of the cities who had never heard the gospel as those in the middle classes whose encounters with Christianity and God needed to be renewed or intensified.
Moody’s style on the platform was not sensational or spectacular, but more like that of a nineteenth–century businessman who won the hearts of his audiences by homely illustrations that effectively appealed to their sentiments. His message was essentially simple. It has been characterized by the “Three R’s: Ruin by sin, Redemption by Christ, and Regeneration by the Holy Ghost.” Moody focused his ministry on saving souls. His most famous remark was, “I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ’Moody, save all you can.’” To do this he thought that one should concentrate on verbal proclamation. This was a departure from his earlier city work in which he had combined speaking the Word with acts to relieve poverty. This change in emphasis, which was part of an important shift taking place in American revivalist evangelicalism, was not due to a lessening of interest on Moody’s part in the welfare of the poor. Rather, he was convinced that the best way to help the poor was to lead them to seek first the kingdom of God, after which other things would be added to them.
This shift toward emphasizing rescuing souls out of the world was accompanied by the growth in America after the Civil War of the premillennial movement, of which Moody became an important part. Although Moody did not espouse any precise dispensational schemes, he did regularly preach on the hope of Christ’s coming to rescue God’s people out of the world and then with them to set up a kingdom on earth. Many of Moody’s close friends and associates—notably Reuben A. Torrey, James M. Gray, A. J. Gordon, C. I. Scofield, and A. T. Pierson—were deeply involved in promoting a more exact and doctrinally militant form of dispensational premillennialism. Moody, however, refused to become involved in any theological debates that might detract from his evangelistic work. He therefore remained moderate on millennial questions. And unlike many of his younger followers who eventually became militant fundamentalists, he was most reluctant to condemn professed Christian leaders because of their liberal leanings.
Other than through his personal work, Moody’s principal means for perpetuating his influence was through establishing educational institutions. In 1879 he founded a school for girls at his home base, which was in Northfield, Massachusetts, and in 1881 followed it with the Mount Hermon School for boys. In 1886 he adopted Emma Dryer’s recently founded Bible training school, the Chicago Bible Institute (later Moody Bible Institute) to quickly train “gapmen” or laymen in those things necessary for them to become effective Christian workers. Perhaps more important at the time were Moody’s summer Bible conferences held at Northfield beginning in 1880. At these conferences Christian leaders from all parts of the English–speaking world assembled to learn particularly about evangelism and the necessity of Spirit–filled lives of holiness. The outstanding outgrowth of these Northfield conferences was the formation of the immensely influential Student Volunteer Movement in 1886. This movement inspired missionary efforts by thousands of young persons during the succeeding decades, carrying with them the motto of the Student Volunteers, which also summarized the goal of the lifework of D. L. Moody, “the evangelization of the world in this generation.” G.M.Marsden
This Biographical Sketch comes from…
Who’s Who in Christian History
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