The Life & Times of D. L. Moody

MOST AMERICANS TODAY probably would fail even to identify Dwight Lyman Moody as a nineteenth-century evangelist. Yet during his day, he was internationally renowned. Moody often spoke to audiences of ten thousand to twenty thousand people. He presented the plan of Salvation, by voice or pen, to at least one hundred million people. D.L. Moody might well be considered the nineteenth century’s “Mr. Protestant.”

The Victorian Age

Moody was born in 1837, a few months before Queen Victoria began her reign, and he died in December, 1899, just nine days before the turn of the century. Moody’s ministry took place in the Gilded Age, a period of dramatic industrial expansion, urbanization, and economic growth. One historian, obviously critical of both the excesses of the Gilded Age and evangelists like Moody, sarcastically wrote: “There was revivalist Moody, bearded and reckless, with his two hundred and eighty pounds of Adam’s flesh, every ounce of which belonged to God.” Such a narrow perspective, however, fails to understand Moody..

Moody was not only a product of his age, but also a herald of a new one. He pioneered techniques of evangelism that remain largely unchanged today. He proclaimed a new eschatology of premillennialism and fostered a new ecumenical spirit.

As one ponders Moody’s deprived, rural boyhood, his career as an evangelist and educator, and his role as a father, he quickly sheds the image of a Victorian antique and emerges as a real person..

Moody’s Youth

Moody’s youth contains no hints that he would later become a famous evangelist. He was born in Northfield, Massachusetts, into a brick-mason’s family. His father died when he was only 4, leaving his mother, Betsey, in charge of raising nine children, all under 13 years of age..

Possibly because of the size of her brood, Betsey Moody never encouraged Dwight to acquire a good education or to study the Bible. Consequently, his total schooling was the equivalent of a fifth-grade education today. At age 18, when he attempted to join a Congregational Church, he failed a simple test of Bible knowledge administered by the deacons. Moody’s education was, by most standards, inadequate: he never went to college or seminary, nor was he ever ordained as a clergyman. He spelled phonetically, so his adult letters and sermon outlines abounded in spelling errors, as well as grammatical ones.

If Moody’s education was inadequate, other aspects of his childhood did equip him for his future career. His humble beginnings meant that as an adult he never lost touch with common folk; he disliked pretense or deference toward those of higher social position. From his mother’s heroic efforts to hold the family together, Moody learned the virtues of thrift, hard work, and close family ties. From her he also acquired tenderheartedness. As an adult he repeatedly broke into tears upon realizing that he had unwittingly hurt or offended someone. His public apologies to the offended person were profuse and sincere. Growing up in a farm village that, during his childhood, became a town with several businesses, meant that he felt comfortable in both rural and urban environments. So comfortable, in fact, that at age 17 he struck out on his own to seek employment as a shoe salesman in his uncle’s Boston store.

Moody As Evangelist

In Boston, Moody worked in his uncle’s shoe store and joined the local YMCA because it offered excellent educational and social opportunities. At age 18, at the urging of his Sunday school teacher, he trusted Christ for forgiveness of sin and was converted. Shortly after this he moved to Chicago, where he had such great success selling shoes, for a variety of employers, that within four years he had saved $7,000. Contemporaries who knew him during these years recalled his boundless physical energy, natural shrewdness, self-confidence, and eternal optimism. Moody might have become an industrial statesman like John D. Rockefeller or a robber baron like Jay Gould, but instead he was drawn away from business and toward missionary work among poor German and Scandinavian immigrants in the inner city.

In 1858 he established a mission Sunday school at North Market Hall. (From this work, six years later, the precursor to Moody Memorial Church was formed.) In 1861 he gave up business to work full time in social and evangelistic endeavors at the YMCA and his Sunday school. Moody’s ecumenical spirit and nondenominational preference permitted him great latitude in enlisting teachers and pupils. Tireless, innovative, and unconventional, he recruited new students by offering them candy and free pony rides. Although a monotone singer, he enthusiastically led songs, taught the Bible lesson, and dismissed each student by name. Meanwhile Moody relentlessly sought financial contributions from rich evangelical businessmen such as John Farwell and Cyrus McCormick. Despite Moody’s direct, blunt, impetuous personality, philanthropists recognized that he genuinely cared for the urban poor.

Moody also devised ministries to the adult community of Chicago. Under his leadership the YMCA developed a citywide distribution of tracts and held daily noon prayer meetings. His mission held prayer meetings in the evening for adults, as well as Friday teas, and classes in English for recent immigrants. In 1864 he expanded his mission into a church—the Illinois Street Independent Church—for immigrant families. As president of the Chicago YMCA for four years and a successful church organizer, he became a popular speaker at YMCA conventions and once spent four months visiting and speaking in YMCAs in England.

The Great Chicago Fire in October 1871 caused Moody to leave church work for a career as a traveling revivalist. The famous fire destroyed his church, his home, and the local YMCA. At first he was spiritually depressed, but eventually he realized that too much of his energy had been spent in committee work and fund raising. He determined now to focus on preaching the gospel of Christ, for he was convinced that the world would be changed not by social work, but by the return of Christ and the establishment of his millennial kingdom on earth. His conscious rejection of the old notions of postmillennialism and acceptance of premillennialism impelled him in a vigorous missionary effort for the “evangelization of the world in this generation.”

In the summer of 1873 he boldly set out on faith for England with his song leader, Ira Sankey, and their families. After preaching for two years in England, Scotland, and Ireland, he returned to America as an internationally famous revivalist. Immediately, representatives from numerous American cities lobbied him to hold a crusade in their cities. For the next three years, from 1875 till 1878, Moody conducted revival campaigns in both large cities like Philadelphia and small towns like Newburyport, in structures ranging from converted skating rinks to abandoned railroad depots. During these crusades he pioneered many techniques of evangelism: a house-to-house canvass of residents prior to a crusade; an ecumenical approach enlisting cooperation from all local churches and evangelical lay leaders regardless of denominational affiliations; philanthropic support by the business community; the rental of a large, central building; the showcasing of a gospel soloist; and the use of an inquiry room.

Moody As Educator

Although continuing to conduct evangelistic crusades, in 1879 D.L. shifted the main focus of his ministry to education. In that year he established Northfield Seminary for girls, followed two years later by Mount Hermon School for boys. Finally, in 1886, Moody launched the Bible Work Institute of the Chicago Evangelization Society (renamed the Moody Bible Institute shortly before his death). He hoped that providing a Bible-centered education would produce an army of trained lay people for the work of evangelism in the growing cities of America.

In 1880, Moody invited adults and college-age youths to the first of many summer Bible conferences at his home in Northfield. His ecumenical spirit and lack of theological training kept Moody from rigid doctrinal positions, such as those that characterized contemporaries in the holiness, perfectionism, or dispensationalist movements. He invited speakers from diverse theological traditions to these summer conferences. At one conference, The Student Volunteer Movement was founded by one hundred collegians who pledged to work in foreign missions after their college education. In 1894, as part of the lay training at Moody Bible Institute, he started the Colportage Association, an organization using horse-drawn “Gospel Wagons” from which students sold religious books and tracts throughout the nation.

Moody as Father

Moody is usually seen only as a tireless, solidly built revivalist always pleading with sinners on the sawdust trail.

While it is true he preached six sermons a day just a month before his death, it was in his role as a father that his personality is best revealed. In 1862 he married Emma Revell, who became the proverbial personality behind the scenes. She mothered his three children—Emma, William, and Paul—while also serving as his personal secretary.

All three Moody children fondly recalled experiences with a fun-loving, “muscular Christian” father. Paul proudly remembered his dad as “the greatest man and the best man I have ever known.”

Moody loved those vacations with his family on his Northfield farm where he could discard his black suits and dress in “disreputable” old clothes. Here he played the role of a gentleman farmer, daily riding horse and buggy at breakneck speed through the fields, taking an afternoon nap, or huddling over hundreds of letters that he personally signed and then spread around the room for the ink to dry. Dinner guests observed his quick-witted, goodnatured personality and his unceasing activity verging on restlessness; they were frequently startled when he opened his mail and then flipped the letter at them, brusquely remarking, “Answer that!”

As a son remembers him at home, Moody was “a stout and bearded Peter Pan, a boy who never really grew up.” Possibly compensating for his earlier deprived childhood, he did everything on a dramatic scale. He took baths three times a day in ice-cold water. Noting a shortage of china, he ordered barrels of the same pattern. He bought ascots and suspenders by the gross. His son recalls how once his dad couldn't decide which of several Oriental rugs to buy, so he impulsively bought them all. Moody was a wonderful storyteller, spending time with both his children and his beloved grandchildren. He relished practical jokes, from mild pranks of hiding a deck of playing cards in his son’s college room, to dumping a bucket of water on some unsuspecting Northfield students. His advice to his children was often expressed in pithy mottoes: “Don't wait for something to turn up. Go and turn up something.” Or, “The devil tempts most men, but a lazy man tempts the devil.”


The life of Dwight Lyman Moody poses a set of fascinating questions:

Why did God choose such a poorly educated, sometimes self-indulgent man?

Would Moody have become a wealthy tycoon had he channeled his dynamic energies into the business world?

If Moody lived in our sophisticated age, would multitudes throng to hear him preach in his rapid style of 230 words per minute, or was he a man that appealed only to hearers of the Victorian era?

In the end, we must answer that it is best to avoid such speculations and instead recognize that God empowered a willing, tireless servant who often said, “There is no use asking God to do things you can do yourself.”

By Dr. David Maas

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #25 in 1990]

Dr. David Maas is professor of history at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.
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