7 Heroes of the Faith: Part 6 – D. L. Moody

D. L. Moody was an American evangelist whose mass crusades throughout England and America in the 1800s were the forerunners for the modern evangelistic crusades of Billy Graham and others. He was known for his powerful, uncompromising and persuasive preaching but his early life and character gave no hint of the destiny that God had chosen for him.

Dwight Lyman Moody was born in 1837 in Northfield, Massachusetts, the seventh of nine children. His father died when Moody was four years old after which his mother was unable to provide for all her children and so most of them were sent to live on nearby farms where they worked for their food and lodging. On one occasion, Moody complained to his mother that he was only fed cornmeal and milk three times a day at the farm where he now lived but his mother considered it sufficient and told him to be thankful for it. She ensured that all her children attended the Unitarian church where she also worshipped each Sunday – a church which was effectively a legalistic cult.

Moody left school at fifth grade, having been a poor student to that point with a low level of literacy. At the age of 17 he grew tired of farm work and moved to Boston where he looked for work. Unable to find employment, he approached his uncle who owned a shoe store and asked for a job. His uncle reluctantly agreed but because of Moody’s rough and rebellious nature he insisted that the young lad attend a local Congregational church as a condition of his employment.

On April 21st, 1855, Moody’s Sunday school teacher, Edward Kimball, visited him at work in the shoe store and spoke to him about the love of God and the grace that Jesus offered to sinners. He challenged the young lad to give his life to Christ which Moody did, kneeling and praying a simple prayer in the storeroom at the back of the shop. Reflecting some time later on his conversion, Moody’s Sunday School teacher, Edward Kimball, commented:

“I can truly say that I have seen few persons whose minds were spiritually darker than was his when he came into my Sunday School class; and I think that the committee of the Mount Vernon Church seldom met an applicant for membership more unlikely ever to become a Christian of clear and decided views of Gospel truth, still less to fill any extended sphere of public usefulness.”[1]

Moody’s conversion was the turning point of his life and resulted in an immediate and radical transformation. He soon moved to Chicago and opened his own shoe store which immediately began to prosper. At the same time he began volunteering at the local YMCA where he did maintenance work and spoke to boys and young men about Jesus. He also secured the use of an unused derelict building where he started conducting a Sunday School class, particularly targeting the poor and the underprivileged youth of Chicago. Moody’s own literacy level at this early stage was still extremely low but he was passionate and very persuasive in his proclamation of Jesus as the Lord and Saviour to whom everyone must turn.

A contemporary of Moody’s later commented:

“The first meeting I ever saw him at was in a little old shanty that had been abandoned by a saloon-keeper. Mr. Moody had got the place to hold the meetings at night. I went there a little late; and the first thing I saw was a man standing up with a few tallow candles around him, holding a negro boy, and trying to read to him the story of the Prodigal Son, but a great many words he could not read and he had to skip them. I thought, ‘If the Lord can ever use such an instrument as this for His honour and glory, it will astonish me.’ As a result of his tireless labour, within a year the average attendance at his Sunday School was 650, while 60 volunteers from various churches served as teachers. It became so well known that the just-elected President Lincoln visited and spoke at a Sunday School meeting on November 25, 1860.”[2]

Moody never went to college or seminary and was never ordained as a minister. His poor childhood education continued to be reflected in his adult letters and sermon outlines which abounded in misspelling and grammatical errors. But despite his poor level of education and low literacy, Moody demonstrated a remarkable ability to proclaim the gospel with great power and authority. He was a persuasive orator, using stories and vernacular language to engage with his audience and move their hearts toward the Saviour.

In 1861 Moody gave up his shoe business to work full time as an evangelist, sensing the strong call of God to devote his whole life to the work of the gospel. His ecumenical spirit and unconventional manner enabled him to draw teachers and supporters from all denominations to join him in the work of his Sunday School, and he relentlessly sought financial assistance from wealthy Christian businessmen to support his work. Despite his blunt, impetuous, unconventional nature, people recognised his undoubted giftedness as an evangelist and gave generously. The Sunday School grew rapidly, with children being offered candy and free pony rides for attending.

In 1864, six years after starting his Sunday School, he started a church in Illinois Street, Chicago, because his Sunday School had outgrown the available premises. The church grew rapidly under Moody’s clear, powerful preaching. He also oversaw the writing and distribution of gospel tracts throughout the city and held daily lunchtime Bible studies and prayer meetings.

In 1871, however, the Great Chicago fire destroyed his church and his own home, along with the homes of most of his congregation. After a period of initial discouragement, Moody decided to embark on a career as an itinerant evangelist. Having recently met Ira Sankey, a musician, singer and song writer, he teamed up with him and travelled to Great Britain to engage in a series of evangelistic crusades and rallies. Moody and Sankey formed a partnership that would last the rest of his years of ministry, with Sankey providing the music and Moody preaching the message. This was an innovation that blazed a trail for modern evangelistic rallies – a model that Billy Graham would eventually adopt so successfully.

Moody and Sankey’s evangelistic tour of Great Britain was a huge success. They spent two years holding rallies throughout England, Scotland and Ireland, with Moody often preaching to crowds of thousands. The most notable of these was when he preached at the Botanic Gardens Palace, which drew a crowd of 30,000. Moody’s fame quickly spread as people flocked to hear him and thousands were converted. Charles Spurgeon invited him to preach at one of his own rallies and thereafter endorsed and promoted Moody’s campaigns.

After nearly two years, Moody returned to America where news of his crusades had created great interest. He was inundated by requests to hold similar crusades in the United States and for the next few years he conducted evangelistic campaigns across the nation.

It was during his American crusades that Moody pioneered many innovative strategies that would become the exemplary model for the modern era of evangelistic crusades, particularly the crusades of Billy Graham. Prior to the commencement of a crusade in a town or city, Moody ensured that door to door canvasing and promotion among local residents was carried out, with personal invitations being extended. Local churches of all denominations were contacted and encouraged to join together in promoting and supporting the crusade. The support of local Christian businessmen was secured, appropriate auditoriums were hired and follow-up discipling was organised. Meanwhile, Sankey made the necessary arrangements for the music. In all of this, by the time Moody arrived and stood to preach, often to ten or twenty thousand people, a well-oiled machine had been in operation for weeks or even months in advance, ensuring that all the necessary preparations had been made for the crusade’s success.

Moody’s preaching was powerful and persuasive. He spoke in a rapid-fire manner (at an estimated 250 words per minute) with a style that was colloquial and often even blunt. His was not a refined manner of preaching – neither educated nor eloquent. Rather, he spoke the language of the common people and God used this to extraordinary effect, with hundreds and even thousands responding to the Gospel at each crusade.

Moody was also known for his quick wit and his occasional blunt manner. On one occasion he was confronted by a woman in the street who said to him, “Mr Moody, I don’t like the way you preach the gospel!” Moody replied, “Neither do I, madam. How do you do it?” Nonplussed, she said, “I don’t.” Moody then replied, “In that case, I prefer my way of doing it to your way of not doing it.”[3]

Moody was a tireless preacher of the gospel, preaching up to six sermons a day at times. But the character of the man is best attested by the comments of his own children, who would later describe him as a “fun-loving, robust, muscular Christian father[4] and a person of great integrity. His son, Paul, described him as “a stout and bearded Peter Pan; a boy who never really grew up.” But perhaps Moody’s best epitaph is the description of him, also by his son, Paul, as “the greatest man and the best man I have ever known.”[5]

Moody also started Bible schools and seminaries for training Christians in the Word of God, the most famous of which is the Moody Bible Institute which persists to the current day. But it is his tireless, energetic powerful preaching of the gospel that Moody is most remembered for. Perhaps no incident better illustrates his own zeal for serving the Lord than a remark he made very early in his ministry, before he became famous. He was walking home one evening after having just preached at a small gospel gathering when he was approached by a supporter who had not been able to attend the meeting. When asked how the meeting went, Moody replied, “Very well, thank you. Two and a half people gave their lives to Christ.” The supporter puzzled over this comment for a few moments before replying, “Do you mean two adults and one child?” to which Moody replied, “No. I mean two children and one adult. The two children have their whole lives ahead of them to serve the Lord, but the adult only has half a life left to spend in God’s service.”[6]

This pithy response epitomised Moody’s attitude to life and ministry. From the moment of his conversion he was gripped with an unrelenting passion to spend his whole life in service to the Lord who had saved him. He had an irrepressible energy that translated into a ministry schedule that left others breathless in his wake. One month before his death in 1899, at the age of 62, he was still preaching six times a day.

By the end of his life, Dwight Lyman Moody had preached to at least 10 million people worldwide and had reached a further 90 million through his printed literature. His crusades were revolutionary and paved the way for the modern crusades of the 20th century.

The life of D. L. Moody is a testimony to how God can take an underprivileged, uneducated person and use them in extraordinary ways for the extension of his kingdom. What God seeks from anyone is not sophistication, education, human credentials or eloquence, but simply a heart that is fully committed to serving him. God can deliver a mighty big blow with a blunt stick. And D. L. Moody was that blunt but willing stick.

“I am so thankful that I ever went into the field to do Christian work.  If I had a hundred lives, I would surely consecrate them all to the service of my Lord and Master.” – D. L. Moody.[7]

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[1] Paul Dwight Moody, “A Shorter Life of D. L. Moody”, 1900, Fleming H. Revell Co., Chicago, p.21.

[2] Quoted in Johnson, George D. (October 26, 2011). What Will A Man Give In Exchange For His Soul?Xlibris. ISBN 9781465380982.

[3] Quoted in “Deeper Christian Quotes”, on their website, April 11, 2017.

[4] Quoted by Dr David Maas, “The Life and Times of D. L. Moody”, article in Christian History magazine, Issue 25, 1990.

[5] IBID

[6] Quoted in various articles, including A-Z quotes website.

[7] D. L. Moody, in a letter. Quoted in article, “D. L. Moody Quotes”, on the Moody Centre website.