The Northfield Schools

Beginning in 1879, Dwight Moody, by then the nation’s leading revivalist, began another career, in Christian education. He never gave up his passion for and commitment to large-scale revival campaigns. Yet the new work reflected Moody’s persistent efforts to develop means other than mass revivalism to bring Christianity to the nation. Striking out on this new path perhaps also was a hint that the great urban revivals of the mid- and late-seventies were waning in their effectiveness, and that Moody somehow sensed this. Whatever the case, between 1879 and 1881 the evangelist embarked on his new course of action in his birthplace of Northfield, Massachusetts, where he had settled permanently just a few years before. With the support of businessmen friends, especially in Boston and other cities in New England, Moody purchased land adjoining his home in Northfield and opened the Northfield Seminary for girls in 1879. Across the nearby Connecticut River he established Mt. Hermon School for boys in 1881. The two secondary academies quickly became known as “The Northfield Schools,” which has remained their formal title to this day.

Developing “gapmen”

The religious purposes of the two schools were clear from the beginning. The first announcement of the Ladies’ Seminary spelled out Moody’s intentions explicitly: “The Bible is intended to form the basis not only of the belief, but of the life, of the institution.” Biblical and theological courses became the core of the curriculum at both schools. A committee of Harvard professors who visited Mount Hermon in 1894 noted that a distinct spirit pervaded the campus, that religious instruction was designed to bind together the students “into a harmonious working force, and certainly that result is, in some way or another, attained.”

Moody also possessed specific ideas about the role his new schools ought to play in the larger religious community. He hoped they would become centers for the training of lay evangelists (like himself) who could spread the gospel effectively throughout the country. Mt. Hermon, the boys’ school, was to be the chief training center (perhaps a commentary on Moody’s rather traditional view of female work in the church, an attitude often contradicted by women’s actual roles in most Protestant churches in the late nineteenth century). There was a separate curriculum available at Mount Hermon-and not at the Northfield Seminary-for students “preparing for special Christian work.” In 1886 the great evangelist put it this way: The students at Mt. Hermon (and later the Bible Institute) should serve as “gapmen,” or “middlemen to stand in the breach; men who will give their time to visiting homes, hold cottage meetings and meetings in halls and stores; … men who will strike night after night.” These vivid words seem to confirm Moody’s changing view of his work, namely, that he must develop means other than mass revivals to inject new life into the churches. There also was a practical need for such workers. In his revivals the evangelist had found the need for qualified assistants in the “inquiry rooms,” laypersons with ample understanding of the Scriptures who could help to bring questioners to a new or renewed sense of faith. By the 1880s Moody wanted intellectually prepared people who carried on evangelism outside, as well as within, revivals. The many graduates of the Northfield Schools would be “helpers” in evangelism, “well equipped for their work.”

New England influences

Interestingly, Moody’s first experiment in education was two private, secondary academies, a much different genre than the Bible Institute that came later in Chicago. Given the area of the country, however, these institutions were quite logical. Northfield is located in western Massachusetts, a region that even in the nineteenth century was noted for its fine schools. From the summit of nearby Mt. Tom, a friend of Moody’s noted in 1889 the schools and colleges he could envision in his mind’s eye in the Connecticut River valley stretched out below: the Northfield Schools, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, and Trinity Colleges, Williston Seminary. Private secondary academies like Moody’s were typical of the area and influenced by the system of collegiate education that also flourished there.

This competitive environment forced Moody’s little schools to follow well-defined paths to survive. Moody was away conducting revival campaigns for much of each year, and the leadership of the schools was placed in the hands of other people-for the most part, trained educators. From the beginning the seminary had a close relationship with Wellesley College. Henry Durant, one of the businessmen-founders of Wellesley, was one of the first trustees of the seminary. Moreover, during the seminary’s initial decade the first principal and almost half the teachers were graduates of, or former students at, Wellesley. By the mid-eighties the boys' school also was attracting college-trained people to its staff, including former students at Amherst, Bowdoin, Mt. Holyoke, Oberlin, and Williams. In many ways, then, in the early, shaping years of the Northfield Schools, the revivalist’s influence was limited, at least regarding daily operations.

Moody’s personal mark

The historical evidence suggests strongly, however, that Moody left clearly identifiable marks on the two institutions. He lived in Northfield; his home was on the campus of the women’s seminary. His presence and example created a distinctive atmosphere that permeated the academies. In a variety of ways he sought to inculcate in the students his deeply held beliefs in piety, hard work, and scholarship. He preached frequently in the chapels at both schools. The evangelical sabbath was rigorously observed-cooks prepared Sunday meals on Saturday, and at Mt. Hermon no classes were held on Monday to allow the young men to study the books and subjects they were forbidden to consider on Sunday. Frequently before starting a major revival campaign, Moody would call a prayer meeting so that students could pray with him for his success. For a number of years he had a “Hermon Quartette” to assist him in his evangelistic tours. Graduates later could recite endless stories of small monetary rewards that the revivalist impulsively handed out to students in need or to those whose work particularly pleased him. At commencements Moody personally awarded prizes for excellence in handwriting, deportment, and especially study of the Bible.
Further, for almost two decades Moody raised most of the money that financed the daily operations of the Northfield Schools. Moody’s success in financing the two schools in Massachusetts, and eventually the Bible Institute in Chicago, was truly a major achievement. It is estimated that between 1879 and his death twenty years later, he raised almost two million dollars, a princely sum for that era, in support of his three schools. These steady efforts at fund raising enabled the schools to remain solvent throughout his lifetime.

“Gapmen” unrealized

Moody’s vision for the training of “gapmen,” however, never became a full reality at the Northfield Schools. Moody never obstructed the steady evolution of the schools into rather typical New England private academies. But neither did he give up on his idea of training, in the words of the headmaster at Mt. Hermon, “men of deep piety and with more knowledge of the Bible than most Christian laymen have, to tell or sing the story of the Cross in neglected old towns, or on the far and new frontiers, and in the degradation of city slums.” These facts help to explain the evangelist’s decision to return to Chicago in 1886 to found the Bible Institute. Moody’s friends in Illinois were offering him an opportunity to establish an institution that directly confronted the problems of city evangelization, an issue that greatly troubled him. It was a chance to try again to implement his concept of a school for lay evangelists. Because the environment and the leadership in Chicago were different, this time Moody’s plan was carried out much more successfully.

For most evangelicals today, the connections between Dwight Moody and the Bible Institute in Chicago that bears his name are well known. It is less well known, but no less important to remember, that the great revivalist also founded two private, secondary schools that continue today with strong academic reputations and an underlying religious orientation.

The early years of the Northfield Schools provide instructive ironies: “gapmen” unrealized, yet realized laterelsewhere; two superb Christian academies founded by an unlettered popular revivalist possessing little more than a third-grade education. The record of these years also reminds us of the special nature of Dwight L. Moody, the founder-his commitment to large visions, his determination, and his largeheartedness, especially regarding young people and the value of education. These characteristics are as apt today as they were a hundred years ago.

By James Findlay

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

Dr. James Findlay is professor of history at the University of Rhode Island. He is the author of Dwight L. Moody, American Evangelist: 1837–1899 (University of Chicago Press, 1969), which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in biography and the Albert Beveridge Award in American History.
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