Christian History Home > Issue 25 > The Life & Times of D. L. Moody
The Life & Times of D. L. Moody
How an awkward country boy with a grade-school education became the greatest evangelist of the Gilded Age.
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 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.
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