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The Northfield Schools
For Dwight L. Moody the main task in life was evangelism, to “win men to Christ,” to save souls.
The salvation message, then, must be delivered as persuasively and as clearly as possible, and by as many evangelists as could be summoned for the task. Moody conceived of education as the means to prepare religious workers—first by converting them and then by training them to evangelize others. Not only seminary-trained pastors with B.D.’s were to be enlisted for the effort, but also legions of devoted laypersons who had received a brief but effective training. Since in Moody’s mind education and evangelism were so closely connected, most of his notions about education derived from his conception of the evangelistic task.
Moody’s Own Education
Moody himself had received only the most rudimentary education—about the equivalent of the fifth grade. In an era when most people did not attend high school, this was not remarkable, except that the lack of learning and polish showed all over Moody. During his early days in Chicago his grammar was impossible; his pronunciation smacked of the Massachusetts hill country of his boyhood; his vocabulary was poor; and his spelling can be described only as imaginative. His physical appearance struck even the street Arabs of Chicago as “uncouth.” He moved awkwardly, spoke awkwardly, and stumbled when he read. In short, Moody was not only ill educated; he also struck observers as a country bumpkin, a rube in the big city. An early Chicago acquaintance recalled, “No one ever thought he would amount to much on account of that fact that he was so poorly educated.”
Eventually Moody’s more polished and better educated wife, Emma Revell, gently went to work on him. Reportedly they spent an hour every day studying to make up Moody’s deficit. As a result, the evangelist became more presentable, though his grammar, spelling, and pronunciation always remained rough and uncertain.
He never became a student, never a real reader. He was too restless, too constantly intent on action. Theology never greatly interested him, nor did literature. The details of contemporary events the frequent labor troubles, the radical political movements, American involvement abroad failed to capture his attention. The clash of ideas did not stimulate him; mostly he surrounded himself with workers who agreed with him. He remained immune to theorizing, systematizing, and the codification of ideas; one gets the feeling that he regarded theorizers tolerantly as somewhat curious and quaint creatures. One book truly captivated his attention: the English Bible. An acquaintance recalled the Moody library as crowded not with works of theology or literary classics but with Bibles and biblical commentaries and interpretations. Even in this respect, Moody was far from a scholar. He was oblivious to the higher critical theories then achieving currency in the United States. Nor did he care about studying the Bible in its original languages.
In fact, Moody regarded the Bible as remarkably unproblematic, uncomplicated; it was self-interpreting if only one approached it in the proper spirit. Problems of consistency and obscurity of meaning that worried conservatives and liberals alike gave him hardly a moment’s pause. For Moody the Bible was a sort of commonplace book, a source of compelling stories and quotations, any of which was capable of going unaided directly to the human heart. Bible study need not even be very systematic. One of the women in Moody’s Chicago church recalled that after one Sunday meal, Mr. Moody said, “ ‘Now we’ll have honey out of the rock.’ He would go around the table calling on each one for a thought from the Bible.”
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