On December 23, 1899, newspapers across North America were filled with stories of a man whose death the day before marked the end of an era in American Christianity. Lay evangelist Dwight L. Moody had for a quarter of a century stirred audiences of thousands on both sides of the Atlantic. Life had hardly left his huge frame before publishers were feverishly vying for biographies of the man who was eulogized as "the great evangelist of the nineteenth century" and even the "world's greatest evangelist." Fourteen biographies appeared within twelve months of his death!Within a very few years eulogy turned into controversy as various persons and institutions claimed to be the heirs to Moody's mantle. An interesting sidelight of the modernist-fundamentalist debate in the 1920s can be partially traced in the pages of the Christian Century and the Moody Bible Institute Monthly as they debated whether Moody's sympathies would have been with the modernists or the fundamentalists.

From our perspective, both the eulogies and the controversies seem to be uncritical and overdrawn, but his should not obscure the significance that Moody had for both British and American Christianity in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Indeed, historians have recently begun to take another look at the man who Martin E. Marty has said "could plausibly have been called Mr. Revivalist and perhaps even Mr. Protestant" at a critical stage in American religious history. Having spent three years in detailed research in the life and sermons of D. L. Moody, I have not only been impressed with his significance for his own time but have also seen that certain themes emphasized and exemplified in his ministry need very much to be reiterated today. (Most of the following quotations from Moody may be found with documentation in a book compiled by Patricia Gundry and me, The Wit and Wisdom of D. L. Moody, Moody Press, 1974.)

The low shall be lifted up

Moody's life itself was an example of a principle that he himself often emphasized: God can take what seems small and insignificant to the human eye and use it greatly if it is given over completely to him. Moody declared:

It will be found that more has been done by people of one talent than by those who have many. If each one with one talent would wake up to realize this responsibility, what a work would be done to wake up and say, "Here am I, use me to do the work Thou hast for me to do" Look at the widow's two mites her all; look at Mary's precious box of ointment. Empires have come and gone since then and are no more heard of, but her name has come through the ages with the sweet savour of her loving service.
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Moody's early years gave no indication of the impact he was to have later, and his natural endowments and circumstances offered no such promise. It is thought that he had no more than a fifth- or sixth-grade education, and the quality of even that is suspect. His widowed mother struggled to keep the family together, and apparently there was little religious training in the home. When young Moody left his Northfield, Massachusetts, home for Boston in 1854 and attended his first Sunday-school class, he thumbed through Genesis looking for the Gospel of John.

Moody's Sunday-school teacher shortly thereafter led him to Christ, but when the young convert presented himself to the membership committee of the Mount Vernon Congregational Church his application was deferred because of his utter ignorance of Christian teaching. His Sunday-school teacher, Edward Kimball, was on that committee and years later testified that he had seen few persons whose minds were spiritually darker than Moody's and that the committee had seldom had applicants who seemed more unlikely to fill any sphere of public or extended usefulness. And yet Moody was drawn into evangelical Christian circles in Boston and later in Chicago, eventually becoming a leader in the YMCA and in the Sunday-school movement. He began to read and to educate himself by plying Christian ministers and teachers with questions whenever he found himself in their presence.

By the late 1860s Moody was widely sought after as a speaker, but it was not until the fall of 1873 that he and Ira Sankey began to capture the attention of the English-speaking world with their evangelistic meetings in England and Scotland. Their tour continued through Scotland, Ireland, and back into the great industrial cities of England till mid-1875. Large churches and public halls were packed with thousands, even at inconvenient hours and in bitter cold, to hear the two Yankees sing and preach the Gospel. They returned to America as celebrities and made an evangelistic tour of large cities here between 1875 and 1878. Although these years were the high-water mark of Moody's ministry, till the end of the century he normally attracted thousands whenever he preached and captured front-page headlines wherever he went. Verbatim accounts of his sermons appeared in newspapers for a quarter of a century, and scores of books reprinting the sermons were published. And his impact went far beyond this. He started a Sunday school that developed into one of America's great churches, established three schools, opened a summer Bible conference, and exerted his influence in countless other ways. Although historians disagree in their estimates of Moody, there can be no contesting the fact that no religious leader of his time had greater public visibility or impact.

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How do we account for this? While Moody did have natural leadership qualities and developed into a forceful speaker, his limited training and abilities gave little hint in his early life of his future achievements! His ministry is an example of the principle that God can take what seems to be small and insignificant and use it greatly if it is given over completely to him. In 1867 Moody heard Henry Varley say, "The world has yet to see what God will do with and for and through and in and by the man who is fully and wholly consecrated to him." Moody determined to be that man.

In 1871 he experienced a spiritual crisis in which he was driven to give up selfish ambition and submit himself to the Spirit's power and control. Shortly thereafter came his sudden rise to fame as an evangelist. In view of his own commitment to God, it is not surprising that at the beginning of his meetings he would warn Christians, "It is not our strength we want." "It is not our work to make them believe. That is the work of the Spirit. Our work is to give them the Word of God." "I cannot convert men; I can only proclaim the Gospel.

"Moody lived and preached consecration to God and reliance upon him, but he also believed that God held human beings responsible to do their best, using their energies wisely for him. Moody said:

I want to add another word to "consecrate," and that is "concentrate." We are living in an intense age. The trouble with a great many men is that they spread themselves out over too much ground. They fail in everything. If they would only put their life into one channel, and keep in it, they would accomplish something. They make no impression, because they do a little work here and a little work there. They spread themselves out so thin they make no impression at all. Lay yourselves on the altar of God, and then concentrate on some one work.

"Many people are working and working, like children on a rocking horse," he said; "it is a beautiful motion, but there is no progress."Today we are devotees of the cult of bigness and success. We can relearn from Moody that what seems small and unpromising can become very effective when God is in it.

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Nothing beats reality

One cannot study the life and sermons of D. L. Moody very long without being forcefully reminded of another basic Christian tenet: God wants his people to be real. Two insidious tendencies threaten the evangelical cause in our own day, the thin veneer of pretended piety and the false image often projected for public-relations purposes. What a tragedy when decisions are made on the basis of conviction! Although Moody understood the value of advertising, he did not project a false image, and he pointedly rejected anything that smelled of sanctimony. He was not a sensationalist in either his programming or his preaching. Even those who were not especially sympathetic to his message were impressed with his evident genuineness, as are many recent scholars who have studied his career.

He was free of pretensions and hypocrisy and had a realistic view of himself. He knew that he was nothing more than simply "Mr. Moody."He spoke often against what he called "religious cant," by which he meant something akin to religious pretension. Long public prayers were especially irksome to him because they seemed to be showy. "Some men's prayers need to be cut short at both ends and set on fire in the middle," he would warn. "A man who prays much in private will make short prayers in public." Moody said:

Any place where God is is holy, and this putting on another air and a sanctimonious look when we come into the house of God and laying it aside when we go out, thinking that this is going to be acceptable to God, is all wrong. Every place ought to be holy to a true child of God.

"We may sing our hymns and psalms, and offer prayers, but they will be an abomination to God, unless we are willing to be thoroughly straightforward in our daily life." Repeatedly he would say words to this effect:

What we want is to be real. Let us not appear to be more than we are. Don't let us put on any cant, any assumed humility, but let us be real men and women, and if we profess to be what we are not, God know all about us. God hates a sham.

Moody not only said it; he lived it!

The tie that binds

Some of Moody's most eloquent statements were on a theme for which he carried a burden throughout his career: There is a unity that binds all true Christians together for work and fellowship. John Pollock has called Moody the "grandfather of ecumenism." That is reasonable if one remembers that Moody's ecumenism was founded on an evangelical understanding of the Gospel and basic Christian doctrine. Nineteenth-century evangelicals were not noteworthy for their sense of Christian unity. Petty denominational interests and doctrinal controversy did anything but bring them together. And yet Moody, while recognizing the legitimacy of denominational concerns, succeeded in placing them in proper perspective by emphasizing the centrality of the gospel message: ruin by the fall, redemption by the look, regeneration by the Spirit. By focusing on this he was able to galvanize British and American Christians of widely divergent theological traditions into fellowshiping and working units. Speaking of the English ecclesiastical scene he suggested:

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Suppose Paul and Cephas were to come down to us now, they would hear at once about our Churchmen and Dissenters. "A Dissenter!" says Paul, "what is that?" "We have the Church of England, and there are those who dissent from the Church." "Oh, indeed! Are there two classes of Christians here, then?" "I am sorry to say there are a good many more divisions. The Dissenters themselves are split up. There are the Wesleyans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Independents, and son on; even these are all divided up." "Is it possible," says Paul, "that there are so many divisions?" "Yes: the Church of England is pretty well divided itself. There is a Broad Church, the High Church, the Low Church, and the High-Lows. Then there is the Lutheran Church; and away in Russia they have the Greek Church, and so on." I declare I do not know what Paul and Cephas would think if they came back to the world; they would find a strange state of things. It is one of the most humiliating things in the present day to see how God's family is divided up. If we love the Lord Jesus Christ the burden of our hearts will be that God may bring us closer together, so that we may love one another and rise above all party feeling.

Typically, Moody would warn believers in cities where he ministered:

Talk not of this sect and that sect, of this party and that party, but solely and exclusively of the great comprehensive cause of Christ. In this ideal brotherhood there should be one faith, one mind, one spirit, and in this city let us starve it out for a season, to actualize this glorious truth. Oh that God may so fill us with His love, and the love of souls, that no thought of minor sectarian parties can come in; that there may be no room for them in our atmosphere whatever; and that the Spirit of God may give us one mind and one spirit to glorify His holy name.
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One of the more divisive issues among evangelicals of Moody's day was eschatology. Premillennial schemes of interpretation were rising in popularity, but by the 1890s the premillennialists were finding their own ranks rent by controversy. A premillennialist himself, Moody nevertheless warned, "Don't criticize if our watches don't agree about the time we know he is coming." He even extended the olive branch to post-millennialists and said, "We will not have division." The evangelical climate today suggests that many of us still need to take these words to heart.

They will know we are Christians by our love

Moody's concern for Christian unity points to another theme that pervaded his preaching from beginning to end: God is love, and love is the mark of God's people. Moody's emphasis on the love of God rather than the terror of hell was a departure from what had been characteristic in American revivals and evangelism. While we would occasionally affirm his orthodoxy by stating his belief in the wrath of God and the existence of hell, it was more typical for him to say:

A great many people say I don't reach up the terrors of religion. I don't want to don't want to scare men into the kingdom of God. I don't believe in preaching that way. If I wanted to scare men into Heaven, I would just hold the terrors of hell over their heads and say, "Go right in." But that is not the way to win men. They don't have any slaves in Heaven; they are all sons, and they must accept salvation voluntarily.

Sons would be drawn to God by love, not fear; fear would only produce slaves. "If I could only make people believe God love them, what a rush we would see for the Kingdom of God."

You ask me why God loves. You might as well ask me why the sun shines. It can't help shining, and neither can He help loving, because He is love Himself, and any one that says He is not love does not know anything about love. If we have got the true love of God shed abroad in our hearts we will show it in our lives. We will not have to go up and down the earth proclaiming it. We will show it in everything we say or do.

What was true of God was to be true of God's people. "If you go through the world with love in your heart, you will make the world love you' and love is the badge that Christ gave His disciples." "The test of religion is not religiousness, but love." "The man that hasn't any love in his religion, I don't want it; it is human. The man that hasn't any love in his creed may let it go to the winds: I don't want it." Similarly, work that did not spring from love was of no value. "I am tired of the word duty," Moody declared, "tired of hearing duty, duty, duty." God hates the great things in which love is not the motive power; but He delights in the little things that are prompted by a feeling of love." "There is not use working without love. A doctor, a lawyer, may do good work without love, but God's work cannot be done without love.

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"Moody was painfully aware of the Church's inconsistency in not holding to the necessity of love. He observed:

If love don't prompt all work, all work is for naught. If a man in the church ain't sound in his faith, we draw our ecclesiastical sword and cut his head right off; but he may not be sound in love, yet we do nothing in his case. The great want in our churches is the want of love in them.

If D. L. Moody were to look at the church today, would he still find this "great want"?

This article was originally published in the December 20, 1974, issue ofChristianity Today. When he wrote this, Stanley N. Gundry was a member of the theology faculty of Moody Bible Institute. He is now Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of the Book New Media Group at Zondervan Publishing House, and author of Love Them In: The Life and Theology of D.L. Moody, just reissued from Moody Press.

Related Elsewhere

See today's related article, "Why We Still Need Moody | The man who invented modern evangelicalism," for links to Moody-related sites.