D. L. Moody’s Contribution to Christian Publishing

EARLY IN HIS EVANGELISTIC CAREER and then again during his final years, D.L. Moody made contributions to Christian publishing that have received scant notice. Though his legacy in evangelism was greater, his influence on the early development of evangelical book publishing cries out for acknowledgment.

Origins of Fleming H. Revell Company

In 1869 Moody was a leading Christian layman in Chicago, known especially for his tireless efforts on behalf of the YMCA and his Illinois Street Church. He had been married to Emma Revell for seven years, and for at least a year they had had a boarder: Emma’s 20-year-old brother, Fleming. In that year Fleming established a publishing company at the urging of his brother-in-law.

The company initially published weekly Sunday school papers. Soon after a business trip to England and the destruction of his office in the Chicago Fire, Fleming turned to publishing books. His first was W. R. McKay’s Grace and Truth.

As Moody acquired an increasingly national and international reputation, his sermons appeared in newspapers and then in books—all pirated editions. Dissatisfied with the quality of these volumes, he named Revell the publisher of his sermons. In 1880 Revell issued Moody’s Twelve Select Sermons and one year later his Select Sermons. These volumes, as well as several more during the last five years of Moody’s life, helped to establish Revell by 1900 as the largest American publisher of religious books.

Moody’s role in Revell’s early history looms larger as one realizes that this company served as prototype for the large evangelical publishers of our century. Most of them are also privately owned, profit—making, nondenominational, parachurch, and lay—oriented.

Origins of Moody Press

By the early 1890s Moody devoted much of his time to evangelistic meetings in cities throughout North America. While preaching in midwestern and western states, he became aware that Christian books were stocked by few bookstores and were prohibitively expensive.

Drawing on his earlier business experience, Moody conceived of a series of pocket—sized paperback books that would be priced right: 10¢ The volumes would be reprints of established books or new books by established authors, books that were readable and nondenominational.

Early in 1895 the first two volumes appeared: All of Grace by Charles Spurgeon and The Way to God and How to Find It by Moody himself (seven of the first eleven books were his).

Moody established an organization to distribute these books, the Bible Institute Colportage Association (BICA), headed by his son-in-law, A. P. Fitt. Students at the Bible Institute, furnished with horse-drawn wagons stocked with books, sold the volumes throughout the nation’s hinterland, while the evangelist invited his audiences to subscribe to the series.

Moody did not, however, organize the new company to publish the books. For this he depended on Revell, which owned the rights to many titles Moody included in the series. Fleming Revell’s assistant, George Doran, became the liaison between the publisher and the evangelist.

Many years later Doran recalled the negotiations carried on by Revell and Moody: “Revell contended that as he was being invited to build up a strong competing organization, he was entitled to more than an ordinary profit. Mr. Moody, and especially Fitt, maintained that the Colportage work was benevolent and that Revell should not be extortionate.”

Doran surmised that Moody wished to avoid “an open rupture” with his brother-in-law. “I had many a battle with Revell over price-concessions to Mr. Moody and Fitt,” Doran wrote, “but in the end succeeded in preserving the balance of equity and deterred Fitt from embarking, as he very well might have done, on a publishing operation on his own account.”

By 1900, one year after Moody’s death, the Colportage Library included more than ninety titles. The fears of Revell and Doran that this library could become the foundation for a rival publishing house were not without reason. In 1941, after more than 12 million books in this series had been sold, BICA became Moody Press.

Evangelical publishing today owes D.L. Moody far more than the companies that bear his name and his brother-in-law’s. Perhaps Moody, more than any other person, deserves to be called the father of this influential medium that ministers to both evangelicalism and American society.

By Allan Fisher

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

Allan Fisher is editor, academic and reference books, for Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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