The world has yet to see what God can do with and for and through and in and by the man who is fully and wholly consecrated to Him. . . . I will try my utmost to be that man.
Dwight Lyman Moody was the sixth child of Edwin and Betsy Moody in Northfield, Massachusetts. In the next four years, his parents would have three more children, and the last a set of twins. Tragically, on the morning of May 28, 1841, Edwin Moody would experience a deep pain in his side while working, return home at midday only to have it grow worse, and would collapse before his wife and die before either of them understood the severity of his condition. His mother, Betsy, was eight months pregnant with the twins at that time.
All of Dwight’s formal education had ended by the time he was ten and never totaled more than four years. After that he was deemed able to work to support himself. Then, at seventeen, he decided it time to strike out on his own. So, in April of 1854, he headed to Boston to see what he could make of himself.
A Little Fish in a Big Pond
Two of Dwight’s uncles, Samuel and Lemuel Holton, had left Northfield a few years before and now both had prospering shoe and boot stores in Boston. Young Dwight decided to follow them to the big city. For a teenager who had never seen a town larger than a thousand people before, Boston’s 150,000 must have been daunting.
Dwight went to work for his Uncle Samuel as a sales clerk. In three months, he became the shop’s best salesman, and soon was prosperous enough to buy his mother and siblings back home new shoes. He became the new family provider. He plugged in with his uncles, aunts, and cousins as if part of their immediate family, which proved to be a healthy support system for the young D. L. He also attended Mount Vernon Church at his uncle’s recommendation, but it held little interest for him, It was not uncommon to find him sleeping through the sermons because of his long work hours.
Moody Meets Jesus
Dwight’s Sunday school class was run by Edward Kimball, a devout middle-aged man who took some interest in the eighteen-year-old shoe clerk. On Saturday, May 21, 1855, Edward felt compelled to check on the state of Dwight’s soul rather than do his daily devotions. Dwight later remembered this of Mr. Kimball’s visit to the shoe store:
I had not felt that I had a soul till then. I said to myself, “This is a very strange thing. Here is a man who never saw me till lately, and he is weeping over my sins, and I never shed a tear about them.” But I understand it now, and know what it is to have a passion for men’s souls and weep over their sins. I don’t remember what he said, but I can feel the power of that man’s hand on my shoulder to-night. It was not long after that I was brought into the Kingdom of God.1
Forty years later, Dwight spoke of how things changed for him after coming to Christ:
I remember the morning on which I came out of my room after I had first trusted Christ. I thought the old sun shone a good deal brighter than it ever had before – I thought that it was just smiling upon me; and as I walked out upon Boston Common and heard the birds singing in the trees I thought they were all singing a song to me. . . . It seemed to me that I was in love with all creation. I had not a bitter feeling against any man, and I was ready to take all men to my heart. If a man has not the love of God shed abroad in his heart, he has never been regenerated. 2
Heading West – Dwight Moves to Chicago
In Boston, Dwight was beginning to feel “like a caged bird. The settled and finished condition of everything around him was a constant constraint. There seemed to be no room for him anywhere.” 3 He decided to follow his impulses and move west to Chicago.
While missions and Sunday schools were popping up throughout Chicago, Dwight noted a void. No one was reaching out to the children who were orphaned or lived in homes broken by alcoholism or poverty. Dwight’s heart went out to them and he decided to do something about it.
Dwight had again found success as a shoe salesman in Chicago, so he used his surplus earnings to rent a vacant saloon in the heart of ” The Sands” – the worst slum of Chicago, an area many referred to as “Little Hell” – and set it up as a “Sabbath School.” Children sat on the floor and he used an old discarded barrel as a pulpit.
Touching the lives of these “Little Arabs,” as they were not so affectionately called, become Dwight’s passion, and he was willing to throw convention out the window to do it. Dwight loaded his pocket with pennies and pieces of maple-sugar candy to offer children in exchange for coming to his school. Dwight earned the nickname “Crazy Moody” for his efforts.
By 1860, the Sabbath schools under Dwight’s leadership had grown to roughly 1,500 participants a week. As a recognition of the work, President-elect Abraham Lincoln visited the school in November. A few months later, when Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to save the Union, seventy-five that had heard him that day were among the first to enlist.
Stepping Out into Full-time Ministry
As the War Between the States erupted, Dwight felt the call to leave business and dedicate himself to ministry full-time. He gave notice at his work and informed his landlady he would be moving out. He began living as meagerly as possible to make his savings go as far as it possibly could and kept his conditions secret so that no one might pity him. When his friend John Farwell learned that he was sleeping on chairs he pushed together at the local YMCA – where he was also doing some janitorial work – John vowed his friend would never want for support again as long as he was able to provide it.
As Dwight was going though these initial adjustments to full-time ministry, the United States was having troubles of its own. Abraham Lincoln had drawn the line in the sand by being elected with the platform that he would not allow any new territories to become slaves states, and before he even took office, seven states seceded from the Union. This was quickly followed by four more after his inauguration. There was talk of a diplomatic settlement, but when the newly formed Confederacy attacked Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the executive response was to put down the rebellion.
Camp Douglas, just three miles north of Chicago, quickly filled with new recruits. Dwight, along with B. F. Jacobs and John Farwell, where put in charge of the YMCA’s efforts to minister to the spiritual needs of these soldiers. D. L. held between eight and ten services every day, and the association handed out thousands of tracts and other religious materials. Hundreds were converted and several times more rededicated their lives to Christ.
The YMCAs decided to better coordinate their efforts in a Christian Commission dedicated to ministering to the soldiers. Dwight was selected as the Chicago delegate for the commission. Dwight would travel to the front lines nine different times with General Ulysses S. Grant’s forces. Years later, Dwight would be among the first Northerners to enter Richmond when it fell to the Union. Somehow in the midst of all of this, he still found the time to marry Emma on August 28, 1862. Before the War drew to an end, they would also have their first child, a daughter named Emma after her mother and grandmother, born on October 24, 1864.
The First Trip to England
In 1867, Dwight decided to take his wife on a cruise to England so she could rest and strengthen herself against her asthma. Dwight also wanted to take the time to meet with George Williams, the London founder of the YMCA, and if possible, George Mueller and Charles H. Spurgeon.
In his uncouth yet blatantly honest way, Dwight made an immediate impression on England when he addressed a Sunday school convention he was invited to attend. According to one witness:
The vice-chairman announced that they were glad to welcome their “American cousin, the Reverend Mr. Moody, of Chicago,” who would now move a vote of thanks to the noble Earl who had presided on this occasion. With refreshing frankness . . . Mr. Moody burst upon the audience with the bold announcement:
“The chairman has made two mistakes. To begin with, I’m not the ‘Reverend’ Mr. Moody at all. I’m plain Dwight L. Moody, a Sabbath-school worker. And then I’m not your ‘American cousin’! By the grace of God I’m your brother, who is interested with you in our Father’s work for His children. . . .”
That opening fairly took the breath away from Mr. Moody’s hearers. Such talk could not be gauged by any standard. Its novelty was delightful, and Mr. Moody carried his English hearers from that time on. 4
The Moodys would spend four and a half months in the British Isles, and as was usual for Dwight, accomplished all they had set out to do.
Moorehouse’s John 3:16 Sermons
Several weeks after returning to Chicago, Dwight received a letter from Harry Moorehouse, who he had met in his trip to Great Britain, letting him know he was stateside and asking if he was still invited to speak. Dwight answered casually, thinking he would never hear from him again, but he did. In a few weeks, to the chagrin of Dwight’s staff, Dwight agreed to let him speak while he was out of town. Dwight returned on the third night he spoke, and what he heard changed his life. Harry Moorehouse spoke seven straight nights on John 3:16. His message on the love of God struck deeply into Dwight’s heart.
Dwight and Emma would have two more children in the coming years, both boys. William Revell Moody was born March 25, 1869 in Chicago, and their youngest, Paul, would be born during Dwight’s extended Baltimore campaign over a decade later on April 11, 1879. It would be an interim in which Dwight’s ministry was totally transformed – yet he would need one more important element before that would happen.
Empowered by the Spirit of God
While being transformed by the love of God was likely the most important revelation of God’s truth to Dwight, God was also trying to reach Dwight with the message of where his true power lie. Dwight said of this:
I remember once when I was first converted I spoke in a Sabbath school, and there seemed to be a great deal of interest, and quite a number rose for prayer, and I remember I went out quite rejoiced; but an old man followed me out. . . . He caught hold of my hand and gave me a little bit of advice. . . . “Young man, when you speak again, honor the Holy Ghost.” I was hastening off to another church to speak, and all the way over it kept ringing in my ears – “Honor the Holy Ghost.” And I said to myself, “I wonder what the old man means.” 5
Years later Dwight would have a similar encounter with two women. Each time he would speak with them after a meeting, they would tell him, “We are praying for you.” One night, he lost his patience and pointedly asked, “Why are you praying for me? Why don’t you pray for the unsaved?” They told him, “We are praying that you may get the power.”
In the autumn of 1871, Moody crossed paths with these two women again and asked more pointedly about what they meant. According to R. A. Torrey, who was the first superintendent of Moody Bible Institute, “They told him about the definite baptism of the Holy Ghost. Then he asked that he might pray with them and not they merely pray for him.” 6 Thus they agreed to meet in a YMCA building every Friday afternoon for prayer.
The leader of the two women was named Sarah Cooke, a devout Methodist who had moved to Chicago in 1868 with her husband and had received a burden from the Lord that Dwight might be baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. In the coming weeks they met on Fridays as planned, and on Friday, October 6, 1871, they seemed to have a breakthrough. Cooke later wrote of this, “At every meeting each of us prayed aloud in turn, but at this meeting Mr. Moody’s agony was so great that he rolled on the floor and in the midst of many tears and groans cried to God to be baptized with the Holy Ghost and fire.” 7 However Dwight reported that he left this meeting unchanged. He felt near his breaking point.
It was some months later, while walking the streets of New York, that Dwight had the following experience:
One day on his way to England, he was walking up Wall Street in New York; . . . and in the midst of the bustle and hurry of that city his prayer was answered; the power of God fell upon him as he walked up the street and he had to hurry off to the house of a friend and ask that he might have a room by himself, and in that room he stayed alone for hours; and the Holy Ghost came upon him, filling his soul with such joy that at last he had to ask God to withhold His hand, lest he die on the spot from very joy. 8
D. L. Moody’s Great Awakening
Dwight’s return trip to London was in June of 1872. He slipped quietly into the country. He quickly found some meetings to attend, sat in the back to take notes, and started what he had planned as a religious retreat. Then, one night at a prayer meeting at the Old Bailey – the building that formerly housed London’s central criminal court – Reverend John Lessey saw Dwight and begged him to speak at his church the next Sunday. Reluctantly Dwight agreed. That Sunday morning went uneventfully, but Sunday night was very different. Almost the entire congregation responded to his call for those who wanted to be saved.
Dwight immediately sensed that God wanted him to do more in England than take notes. When he received similar results after an invitation by an Anglican priest to preach at Chelsea Chapel, he determined God did want him to minister in Great Britain, so he decided he would return to the United States, find a singer to accompany him, solicit support for an extended campaign, get his family, and return as quickly as he could.
The British Revival
The Moody family and singer Ira Sankey and his wife boarded a ship for Liverpool on June 7, 1873 to return to the British Isles and minister there. They arrived ten days later to stunning news. The two largest benefactors promising to fund the campaign had both died, and they had no money for expenses. The two families set to prayer. Hearing of their arrival, George Bennett, the head of the YMCA in York invited Dwight to come there to speak. When Dwight told Sankey of the invitation, he said, “Here is a door which is partly open, and we will go there and begin our work.” 9
What happened next was phenomenal. York started slowly, with only fifty people attending the first meeting and six at the prayer meeting that first midday, but interest quickly grew as local pastors began to throw their support to the thirty-six-year-old evangelist. Dwight’s to-the-point, American style and anointing struck a cord with the British souls who were used to sermons that sounded more like history or philosophy lectures. As one listener put it:
He is a master in his work: he aims at one thing, viz.; getting people to consider their state before God, and he brings everything to bear on the one object – to accept Jesus, as offered to us in the Gospel. From this aim he is never for a moment diverted. His simplest illustrations, his most touching stories, his most pathetic appeals, his gentlest persuasiveness, his most passionate declamation, his most direct home thrusts, his (almost unfair) reference to people and places, all are used, and unsparingly, unfearingly, used, for the one purpose of touching the heart, that Jesus and the Father may come in and abide there. 10
In York, roughly two hundred people joined the churches, and Baptist Pastor Arthur A. Rees invited them to speak in Sunderland. There, churches began to overflow, and to avoid the appearance of favoring one denomination over another, the meetings were moved to a public hall. The tour would continue on over the next two years, on to Scotland, Ireland, and then return to England in November 1874, to continually overflowing crowds. In 1875, Dwight and Ira traveled to London for the final months of the campaign. The last service was held on July 12, 1875. In London alone, the evangelists had conducted 285 meetings and addressed 2,500,000 people. 11
The Moodys and Sankeys returned to New York on August 14. They were no longer simple Christian missionaries serving their Lord, they were now international celebrities, welcomed back to America with the fanfare usually reserved for the rich or famous.
Dwight’s Final Campaign
Dwight’s last campaign would begin on November 12, 1899 in Kansas City, Missouri. His last sermon would be on the 16th, from which he would retire exhausted and be told by his physician he needed rest. He returned to Northfield by train, but would not recover, nor would he see the twentieth century. According to his son’s biography, on his last day:
About six o clock he quieted down, and soon fell into a natural sleep, from which he awoke in about an hour. Suddenly he was heard speaking in slow and measured words. He was saying: “Earth recedes; Heaven opens before me.” The first impulse was to try to arouse him from what appeared to be a dream.” “No, this is no dream, Will,” he replied. “It is beautiful. It is like a trance. If this is death, it is sweet. There is no valley here. God is calling me, and I must go.”12
Following that, he had time to call his family to him side and speak with them awhile. Then, quieting, he fell asleep and never woke up. The date was December 22, 1899. Dwight was only sixty-three. Emma would survive him and die in 1903.
- J. Wilbur Chapman, The Life and Work of Dwight Lyman Moody (Philadelphia: American Bible House, 1900), 76.
- William R. Moody, The Life of Dwight L. Moody (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1900), 42.
- W. H. Daniels, D. L. Moody and His Work (Hartford, CT: American Publishing Company, 1875), 27.
- Moody, The Life of Dwight L. Moody, 132.
- From a sermon by D. L. Moody, in M. Laird Simons, “Dwight Lyman Moody,” Christian Biography Resources, 2007, http://www.wholesomewords.org/biography/biomoody.html.
- R. A. Torrey, Why God Used D. L. Moody, 1923, http://www.whatsaiththescripture.com/Voice/Why.God.Used.D.L.Moody.html.
- Sarah Cooke, Wayside Sketches: or The Handmaiden of the Lord (Grand Rapids, MI: 1895), 362.
- Torrey, Why God Used D. L. Moody.
- Ira Sankey, My Life and the Story of Gospel Hymns(New York: Harper, 1907), 38-39, in Lyle W. Dorsett, A Passion for Souls: The Life of D. L. Moody(Chicago: Moody Press, 1997), 177.
- Jane MacKinnon, “Journal of Mrs. Jane MacKinnon,” 61, 95, Yale Archives, in Dorsett, A Passion for Souls, 185.
- Chapman, Life and Work of Dwight Lyman Moody, http://www.biblebelievers.com/moody/10.html.
- Moody, The Life of Dwight L. Moody, 552.