How Moody Changed Revivalism
It was as a successful evangelist in Britain—among (according to The New York Observer) “men who are not emotional or enthusiastic, who are the furthest removed from religious fanaticism”—that D.L. Moody first achieved fame. With his campaigns in 1873 and succeeding years, he was catapulted into the foremost place in the transatlantic revivalist world.
It was an opportune time, for society was changing in broadly parallel ways on the two sides of the Atlantic. Industrialization was gathering force; by 1880 nearly half the American and well over half the British workforces were employed in industry. The ups and downs of the business cycle meant that unemployment, with its attendant misery and discontent, was a serious threat. More strikingly, however, industry had brought prosperity. In both countries real wages roughly doubled between 1860 and 1890. With increased leisure time and improved transport, working people had money to spend on entertainment—in saloons and music halls, billiard parlors and sports grounds. And more of them lived in urban areas—by 1870 a quarter of the American population and already more than half the people of Britain. Chicago and Glasgow—the two cities Moody knew best—experienced a mushroom growth and felt proud of their modernity. Could evangelical religion flourish in the new urban-industrial age as it had in the less-developed past?
It was Moody’s achievement to help ensure the future of evangelicalism by adaptation. Already, before Moody’s rise to prominence, revivalism had been altering its character. Moody observed the direction of change, identified himself with it, organized it, and accelerated it.
Moody’s impact was felt in six key ways.
In the previous generation the greatest revivalists, such as Methodist James Caughey, had commonly confined their ministry to a single denomination. Now the trend was toward interdenominational work. The Young Men’s Christian Association, whose work markedly expanded during the Civil War, existed to combine Christians of different traditions for special forms of mission, particularly in the burgeoning cities. Moody’s early training came from the YMCA, and later on his outreach scrupulously avoided giving offense to any Christian body. In Scotland combined support for Moody’s missions helped to heal the wounds inflicted by forty years of sharp intra-Presbyterian rivalry. It is no exaggeration to see Moody’s work as one of the roots of the ecumenical movement. Men in his circle, of whom John R. Mott is probably the most famous, went on to promote rapprochement between the churches in the twentieth century.
A second trend was toward greater lay participation and leadership—from all social strata—in revivalist activities. Moody was a layman and reinforced the unclerical tone of his campaigns by using halls and theaters rather than churches. Businessmen such as John Wanamaker, the Philadelphia pioneer of department stores, gave him generous support. Higher social groups were penetrated in Britain, where weekends at the home of Lady Ashburton were remembered for Moody’s “energetic croquet.” Yet Moody did not buckle to his superiors. He stubbornly refused to alter his London preaching place even at the request of the redoubtable Lord Shaftesbury. The respectability of Moody’s campaigns—he dropped, for instance, the “anxious seat” for isolating awakened sinners—was as much a matter of his choice as of his patrons’ preferences. Perhaps some working people, whom Moody eagerly wanted to reach, were deterred from attending by the preacher’s association with the elite. Yet Moody was successful in inducing the wealthy to help promote the interests of the gospel.
Moody reinforced the existing link between revivalism and social reform. It is unjust to see him as a social conservative. He frequently insisted that there must be public display of the fruits of the faith, and he was associated with many of the progressive causes of his day. “Although their mission,” observed a Scottish newspaper of Moody and Sankey, “is not distinctly to promote the Temperance cause, it has operated powerfully in this direction.” In Glasgow free breakfasts for sleepers out at night and day refuges for destitute children were begun in the wake of the visit of the evangelists. Several councillors were inspired to set about making the city a model of civic virtue. Moody, noted a leading Scottish minister, issued a “Christian call to righteousness and even philanthropy.” It is increasingly appreciated that the social gospel movement had evangelical roots. Some of them were nurtured in soil prepared by Moody.
Romanticism in Theology
The fourth trend was in the sphere of theology. Moody was not, as is sometimes supposed, an Arminian, dismissing predestination and believing that redemption was achieved for all. In Britain Methodists upholding that view criticized his preaching; Calvinists defended him. Moody’s position was compatible with traditional Reformed teaching but avoided doctrinal matters as far as possible. The right perspective is to see Moody, like a growing number of evangelical leaders in his day, as influenced by Romanticism, the body of thought stressing will and emotion in reaction against the emphasis on reason in earlier Christian thinking swayed by the Enlightenment. Such an appreciation of Moody’s intellectual position helps explain why sentimentalism was allowed to enter so many of his addresses. It also shows why he favored certain specific teachings that derived from Romantic ways of looking at the world.
One was premillennialism, the doctrine that the Second Advent is imminent, preceding the millennium. Moody probably derived this view from the so-called Plymouth Brethren, whose brand of premillennial teaching was spreading in revivalist circles around 1870; the ultimate source of this teaching was Edward Irving, the erratic London preacher of the 1820s who posed as a Romantic genius.
Another strand of popular theology with which Moody was associated was the holiness movement, again Romantic in inspiration. Although he never identified with the Keswick form of holiness teaching (let alone any other variant), he did appear on the Keswick platform in 1892, and his attitude toward sanctification came close to its principle of holiness by faith rather than by works.
The idea that mission must be undertaken in faith, waiting on God for his provision, also affected his message. Again it was a Romantic notion going back to Irving. Moody’s encouragement of foreign missions along such lines had its effect. After a visit to Cambridge, England, in 1882, a group of young men from the university, the “Cambridge Seven,” offered themselves as missionaries; and a student conference summoned by Moody at his Northfield, Massachusetts, base in 1886 led to the creation of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions. The emphases in Moody’s preaching caught the imagination of the young for they were part of the rising spirit of the age.
A fifth tendency that Moody accelerated was the refinement of revivalist technique into a more efficient tool of evangelism. The spontaneous, community-based revivals of the early nineteenth century were giving way by the 1870s to carefully organized events more appropriate to sophisticated city dwellers. Moody’s greatest innovation was to team up with Ira D. Sankey, whose expressive singing was as powerful in its way as his partner’s preaching. At the start of a meeting there would be half an hour of congregational singing; at the end those seeking spiritual guidance would be invited to a separate inquiry room. Methods begun in Britain were applied in America: organizational preparations in advance and house-to-house visitation. Moody kept on learning, but at no time did he make general appeals for money. He did, however, seek to multiply his work by training lay missionaries at Northfield, Chicago, and (under his inspiration rather than direction) Glasgow. Women were not excluded. He even permitted them to preach from the pulpit. John Kennedy, a doughty Highland divine, censured Moody for his willingness to change. Perhaps, on the contrary, that was the essence of his genius.
If Moody helped turn evangelicalism into new and effective channels, his further achievement was the preservation of its unity. Conservative and liberal tendencies were already apparent in the movement on both sides of the Atlantic. Eventually they would issue in the controversies of the fundamentalists against the modernists in the 1920s. But Moody kept the tendencies together in interaction. Once in 1893 when the Scottish college evangelist Henry Drummond aroused opposition from conservatives at Northfield, no doubt for his pro-evolution sympathies, Moody insisted that he be allowed to speak. Moody’s legacy, as we have seen, included the liberal causes of church unity and social reform as well as the conservative ones of premillennialism and faith missions. He was big enough to combine what others put asunder. Deeply attached to the four cardinal evangelical verities of conversion the Bible, the cross, and activism, Moody was a bridge between the conservative and the liberal, as well as between the old and the new.
Dr. David W. Bebbington is lecturer in history at University of Stirling in Stirling, Scotland.
Copyright © 1990 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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