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Evangelists To The Machine Age

May 2024
12min read

Calling millions to repentance, Moody and Sankey devised a new method of spreading the gospel

December 31, 1875, was probably celebrated in the cities of the United States with the usual quota of well-spiked merriment. But some 10,000 citizens of Philadelphia spent the evening in a Pennsylvania Railroad freight depot at Thirteenth and Market Street which had been outfitted with chairs and a platform big enough to hold a choir of 500. There they joined in hymns and prayer, and listened raptly while a barrel-chested evangelist named Dwight Lyman Moody urged them to accept Christ that night, roaring that the way to be saved was “not to delay, but to come and take—t-a-k-e— TAKE .”

The hymns were led by another revivalist of more than 200 pounds, adorned with mutton chop whiskers, Ira D. Sankey, who slammed out the tunes on a portable harmonium. These two had been holding nightly meetings at the depot since the twenty-first of November. They had already attracted over 300,000 visitors and were to pull in a total of 900,000 (counting repeaters) before they closed their mission in the city.

Two Sunday evenings before, their platform had been graced with a delegation of guests which included President Grant, the secretary of (he navy, the postmaster general, a justice of the Supreme Court, the governor of Pennsylvania, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, two future presidential candidates (James G. Blaine and James A. Garfield), one bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, one senator and three members of the House.

Evangelism was nothing new, but this kind of crowd-catching was a phenomenon. Moody and Sankey were healthy, aggressive evidence of America’s first postwar boom in religion. They were pioneers in putting evangelism on a big-time basis, suited to the speed and size of the machine age.

Like his modern counterpart, Billy Graham, Moody seemed to come out of nowhere. He was born in 1837 on a farm in Northfield, Massachusetts, one of a large family. His childhood followed the common rural pattern of prodigious sweat for six days and old-time religion on the seventh. By the time he was seventeen, the boy had already more “get-up” than could be successfully yoked to a plow. He got permission to go to Boston to work in a shoe store belonging to one of his uncles.

The uncle was warned by another member of the family that Dwight would not be satisfied for long if he could not take over the business. It was good predicting. In two years Moody had outgrown the store and struck out for Chicago and the West. During his stay in Boston, however, a portentous event took place. He was “converted” by a Sunday School teacher, pledged himself to Christ, and became a member of the Mount Vernon Church of Boston, which was Congregational. He was advised by its pastor to refrain from speaking in meetings.

Chicago was new, hustling and grabby in 1856, and Moody loved it. He began as a shoe clerk, sleeping in the back of his employer’s store, branched out into bill collecting and then went to work with a house of commission merchants. By the time he was 24 he had an annual income of $5,000 and savings and investments totaling $7,000—big money for that day. Meantime he swung his organizing talent into the service of his newly acquired religion.

He recruited a Sunday School class for his church, Plymouth Congregational. He overflowed the church’s facilities quickly, and set up an independent institution, the “North Market Sabbath School.”

Moody rented the building, kept it clean himself, and recruited classes by rounding up Sunday morning loafers in the streets of the slums. His first scholars included twelve- to fourteen-year-olds named Madden the Butcher, Billy Bucktooth and Darby the Cobbler. Within a year of the school’s organization, it was ministering to nearly a thousand regenerated hoodlums. To finance operations on this scale, Moody issued 40,000 “shares” at a quarter each, and buttonholed the city’s business leaders to contribute money and to teach classes. By 1860 the school was a Chicago institution and Lincoln paid it a visit after the campaign.

In 1861 Moody fought “the hardest struggle I ever had in my life” and decided to give up his business career for full-time work in religion. It was a lucky day for anyone who might have become his competitor. It was a black one for the Devil.

When the Civil War broke out Moody went to the front as an agent of the Christian Commission, a volunteer organization which supplied religious materials and creature comforts to an army with few professional chaplains and no post exchanges. After the war he built a reputation as a demon fund raiser for missions, schools and churches. One contemporary called him “the lightning Christian of the lightning city.” But Moody was only building up to a second great turning point. He reached it in 1870, when, as president of the Chicago Y.M.C.A., he was sent to one of its conventions in Indianapolis.

Here he first met Ira D. Sankey. Sankey was three years junior to Moody, and of a more conventional background. The son of a bank president in Newcastle, Pennsylvania, he had been to high school, which was not then a common thing, and he was at a tender age made superintendent of the Sunday School of the town’s Methodist church. Part of his job was to lead the choir, and he found that he was the owner of a pleasant and powerful voice which helped to boost school attendance. When the Civil War came, he enlisted and presently found himself in Maryland with his unit. At religious services held in tents or around the campfire, he began to sing and attract notice. After a time he organized a chorus of bluecoats which occasionally helped out at local church functions.

Sankey was working as a collector of internal revenue when he met Moody at the Y.M.C.A. convention. Arriving late at a prayer meeting, he found it languishing, and was invited by a friend to enliven matters with a hymn, which he did. Moody was present, and on being introduced to him afterwards, promptly told him: “I have been looking for you for eight years,” and urged him to come to Chicago at once. Thinking of his family, Sankey asked for time to consider. The next day, he received a note from Moody asking him to appear on a certain street corner at six o’clock. When the puzzled ex-soldier showed up, Moody dashed into a store, borrowed a dry goods box, and hustled him up onto it with instructions to commence a hymn. In a few minutes, a good-sized sidewalk meeting was under way.

It did not take the “lightning Christian” very long after that to convince Sankey to give up his job and join in the conduct of traveling evangelistic missions. With a persuader like Moody at work, Sankey never really had a chance to say no.

Moody’s gift from heaven was that of knowing what the public wanted, and he gauged correctly the appeal which popular music, well and simply delivered, would add to a gospel message. With Sankey he was ready to conquer new worlds.

Only a few had money. Millions could be exhorted to give to God what every individual on earth possessed—his soul. There was a campaign of persuasion to challenge a really big man. As Moody once told a committee of visiting sponsors, “It is souls I want. It is souls I want.”

The two evangelists sailed for England in the spring of 1873. They ran squarely into suspicion and coldness as they began to work their way up towards Scotland. But in Edinburgh in November the title began to turn. They were presently speaking to crowds of 2,000 a night and to others at prayer meetings held throughout the city during the day. By the time they reached Glasgow, in February, 1874, they were able to pack some 5,000 listeners into the Kibble Palace, while an overflow crowd of 2,000 on the green outside was addressed by local clergymen.

In October of that year they were holding meetings in Dublin at the Exhibition Palace. There were only 40,000 Protestants in the city, but on one Sunday afternoon they attracted 12,000. When they followed their advance billing into Birmingham in the last two weeks of January they spoke to an estimated total of 156,000 people in eight days.

They came to London as a confirmed national sensation. In lour months of meetings held at five separate auditoriums they pulled over three million people through the doors. (All these figures, however, included those who came again and again to hear Moody’s crisp sentences and Sankey’s harmonium.)

It was not merely a mass audience which they reached. An impressed London journal noted the presence in the hall, on April 15, of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales. At other times the Earl of Shaftesbury, the Duchess of Sutherland, the Duke of Marlborough, the Countess of Gainsborough and many more notables came to listen. It was even suggested to Queen Victoria that she visit one meeting; she replied in a frosty letter that it would not do for her to be seen at public places. But there was more than enough respectability on hand even without her.

There was opposition. Some British papers derided Moody as “an American ranter of the most vulgar type.” The New York Times passed on the rumor that the visit had been financed by P. T. Barnum. Another explanation came later from Friedrich Engels, who wrote that the British ruling classes had imported the Americans to augment the native supply of opium for the people.

Despite all this, Moody and Sankey returned to America as conquerors. In the spring of 1876 their preaching and singing filled New York’s Hippodrome nightly for two months. In the summer they swept through the South and West, touching at Nashville, Louisville, St. Louis and Kansas City. On October i, 1876, they returned to Chicago and opened meetings on Moody’s home grounds. There were 7,000 waiting in line for one 8 A.M. Sunday service. A special tabernacle had been built for them, but as one reporter described it, when the doors opened 8,000 seats disappeared from view “like a field of wheat under a visitation of locusts,” and an overflow auditorium accommodating 2,300 was filled in five minutes.

Those years may have been the high water mark, but for the next two decades there was hardly an American city which could claim big-town standing unless it had been blessed with a campaign. During the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 the evangelists rented one of the tents used by Forepaugh’s circus for a Sunday morning. They drew 18,000 visitors, many of whom lingered on the grounds afterwards. The gratified circus owners begged Moody to supply them with a disciple to travel with the show and repeat the performance as a regular attraction. He was refused, of course.

Moody never kept track of the numbers he converted. Critics objected that his influence was ephemeral and that those whom he “saved” would backslide once they were out of the range of his voice. Whether this was true or not, he was a major force in American religion until his death in 1899. He had discerned and mastered an incredible bull market in piety.

How was it done? Part of the answer lay in the times, but part in Moody’s unerring touch. He understood the principles of success in the contemporary world. He organized. He publicized. He consolidated.

Every meeting was carefully planned to move toward a specific goal. Moody, pounding the lectern and waving the soft-covered Bible which he knew to the last comma (he rose at 5 A.M. every day to study it), would deliver a short and pungent talk urging his listeners to forsake sin and accept Christ. Sankey would sing a solo or two and lead the group through familiar hymns. At the end, ushers would direct those professing a desire to “become Christians” to special, closed “inquiry rooms.” There, other workers selected beforehand and held in reserve would speak with the penitents individually and pray with them.

For weeks before a campaign these special assistants were schooled for their job. In Philadelphia a four-man committee of ministers from Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian churches put 300 through their training, according to the recollections of a contemporary clergyman.

Schedules were carefully arranged. Skimping was discouraged. The Philadelphia stand cost $30,000 to prepare. During a mission, classes would be conducted for laymen and clergy. In Philadelphia they covered such topics as “How to Conduct Prayer Meetings,” “How to Get Hold of Non-Church-Goers,” and “How Should the Music Be Conducted in the Lord’s Work?” The advice given at these was of a practical turn. Leaders were advised to open windows, keep talks short, and invite questions and comment from the audience.

Into this work Moody poured the devastating energy exuded by the Nineteenth-Century American businessman. He fought unrighteousness like a railroad builder fighting impassable grades, cautious bankers and competition. A day’s schedule in Glasgow called for a noon prayer meeting, individual counseling from one to two, a Bible lecture at five, a general meeting at seven, a young men’s meeting at nine. His wife’s diary noted him preaching at nine, eleven, six and eight o’clock on one occasion, and topping the day off with a 9:30 prayer meeting and discourse with the “anxious” until eleven. One of Sankey’s hymns promised that “In the Christian’s home in glory there remains a land of rest,” but Moody lived by his brisk advice to a New York crowd: “We will have all eternity to rest in. ... We should understand that we come into the church to work.”

The sermons of the earlier evangelists had bristled with dogma. They shot words such as “election,” “predestination,” “reprobation” and “sanctification” like red-hot projectiles at their audiences, and spent the time between campaigns wrestling with doctrinal foemen. Moody steered clear of denominational controversy. He concentrated on one simple but infinitely powerful idea—he that believed should have eternal life.

The guest platform was always studded freely with ministers of every local denomination which wished to send representatives. They were permitted to invoke blessings before the work began, though if they became long-winded Moody was capable of stepping to the front of the stage and announcing: “Mr. Sankey will lead us in a hymn while our brother is finishing his prayer.”

There was no room for politics in a Moody revival, nor for any attack on social evils. In Chicago he undertook a good deal of spur-of-the-moment social work involving food baskets and free coal deliveries to the poor districts, but he would not join any reform crusade. “A heart that is right with God and man seldom constitutes a social problem,” he said. The result was that evangelism and reform, which had been partners before the Civil War, swerved apart dramatically and perhaps finally.

Both movements lost something in the divorce. But thanks to this stand, humanitarians, evolutionists and hard-shell fundamentalists could feel equally at home in his meetings. Accordingly the crowds multiplied. Moody considered the conflict between science and religion irrelevant. Were parts of the Bible apparently confuted by reason? “The Bible was not meant to understand.” Was the universe incomparably vaster than the description in Genesis allowed? So much the more glory to God for creating it. When had man been created? It did not matter; he had a soul to be saved.

Sankey’s contribution was probably considerable, though he was willing to play a somewhat secondary part. His instinct for choosing hymns of universal appeal was the stuff of a music publisher’s dreams. His compendium of favorites, Sacred Songs and Solos , enjoyed a sale in millions in its initial half century. It even went well at the start in Scotland, where, in the Seventies, church music was still looked on as iniquitous in some circles. Sankey could compose well, too.

Moody himself repeated endless variations on one theme. God was a father waiting patiently for His wayward children to return and be forgiven. Every sermon was filled with stories of gray-haired mothers, rum-drinking sons, trustful children, older brothers dying contrite and alone in faraway lands. Industrialism was prying apart the close-knit rural family and the cities lured the country boys to the gas lamps in droves; Moody’s generation was ready for his message. Popular literature floated on a tide of sentimentality. Death and separation were common realities not yet softened by medical success and the telephone. Moody’s audience was ready to weep with him.

Moody’s language, a pure west-Massachusetts dialect with the country sharpness of buttermilk, was beamed toward the common ear. It did not balk at “had ought to have done” and “they come and said.” It translated Bible verses into vivid staccato bursts which pointed even the simplicity of the King James version.

Moody opened a meeting, said one New York reporter, “as though his audience were the stockholders of a bank to whom he was about to make a report. He has the air of a business man to whom time is extremely valuable.” To an America (and perhaps to an England) whose business was business, this was no drawback in a preacher. The phraseology of the market, in fact, was perfectly at home in Moody’s quickly outlined message. He spoke of God’s grace as contrasted with the “grace period” on a banker’s loan. “That ain’t grace,” snapped the bearded man from Chicago. “Grace is giving the interest, principal and all.”

He described Jesus healing a sick servant on his master’s petition. “When He saw a genuine check presented for payment, He cashed it at once. He pays instantly in the gold of heaven, without any hesitation or discount.” Denying that a man could be saved by good works alone, he came straight to the point. “God isn’t down here selling salvation. And what have you to give Him if He was?”

Plain speech was part of Dwight Moody. Like Billy Graham’s “the Lord bless you real good,” it became an invaluable trademark.

Still, it would be too much to credit the success of the movement entirely to Moody’s account, just as it is a mistake to write up the industrialization of America as a personal achievement of captains of finance. Moody’s generation was ready to be evangelized, much as our own seems to be, and Moody had the breadth of imagination to undertake the task.

Americans of the Seventies were living in the shadow of a great war just concluded. The passions of that war were burnt out and a wistful popular will to recapture them lingered in the air. There was prosperity in the wind as the Far West opened up, but it was an uneasy prosperity, in danger of being whisked away by the caprices of the business cycle. Throughout the first Moody-Sankey campaign at home the depression which began in 1873 had a double armlock on the country. Labor was restless; it, too, was ready to organize and to revolt. Darwin’s ideas were apparently dissolving the foundations of an eternal and solid world, made and delivered by God in seven days. Immigrants jammed themselves into the cities, new factories went up and new machines hummed.

Precisely when the world was most aggravated by change, people tended to reassert their belief in the unchanging. Not sure what to expect next, not certain of the patterns on which life would be cut in a decade or two, Americans leaned towards a new orthodoxy. They were ready to pray publicly and often. Moody rode on the crest of this urge because it was in his nature to change the scope of popular religion and make revivalism consonant with a big age—of corporate leviathans, transcontinental railroads and telegraphs, electric lighting and the wonder-working power of the dynamo. Given the technological dispensations available to evangelism now, it is natural to ask the question framed in one of Sankey’s hymns: “What Will the Harvest Be?”

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