Moody, Dwight (1837–1899)

Dwight Moody was the leading Christian evangelist of the late nineteenth century. Although a Congregationalist, he advocated a nondenominational approach to ministry. He first came to fame through evangelical campaigns held in the British Isles between 1873 and 1875. Moody advocated theological education for the masses and founded what became Moody Bible Institute.

Dwight Lyman (D. L.) Moody was born in 1837 in Northfield, Massachusetts. He was the fifth son in a family of nine children. His father died when he was four years old, and his mother raised the family. Moody's family joined a Unitarian church when he was five, and he continued in that denomination until he was a teenager. He never attained a high level of education, and in 1854 he went to Boston to make his way as a businessman. He worked for his uncle in a shoe store and became involved in the Boston Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). While he was in Boston, Moody joined the Congregational denomination, where he would remain for the rest of his life, and he converted to evangelical Christianity.

In 1856, Moody left Boston for Chicago. Continuing in the shoe business,

Dwight Moody was a very popular and effective late 19th-century evangelist. The creator of modern mass evangelism, he preached to audiences of thousands in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain.

Dwight Moody was a very popular and effective late 19th-century evangelist. The creator of modern mass evangelism, he preached to audiences of thousands in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. (Library of Congress)

On August 28, 1862, Moody married Emma Charlotte Revell. They had three children, named Emma, William, and Paul. During the Civil War, Moody worked with the Christian Commission, traveled for the organization, and expanded his work near Chicago at Camp Douglas, a prison camp. He also continued his Sunday school and increased his efforts at the Chicago YMCA. He was elected president of the Chicago YMCA in 1866 and served for four years. As Moody became prominent in his work with the YMCA and the Illinois Sabbath School Union, a Sunday school organization, he began speaking at locations throughout the United States.

Moody's rise to international prominence began with his campaigns in the British Isles between 1873 and 1875. Moody had visited England in 1867 and 1872 and used the contacts that he had made then to launch his evangelical mission. He traveled with Ira Sankey (1840–1908), who sought to evangelize through music. The trip began poorly, but when he arrived in Edinburgh in late 1873, his message was warmly received, and the campaign flourished. Moody traveled throughout the British Isles, culminating with four months in London between March and June 1875.

During his time in England, Moody developed his method for mass evangelism. In planning and conducting these meetings, Moody's business background gave him an advantage. He valued unity among the churches in the cities where he held meetings and avoided cities that could not give this agreement. Theologically, Moody avoided doctrinal debates and pointed to God's love as his theme. He utilized local men to manage the major aspects of preparation, including adequate facilities, and insisted on firm financial backing so he would not need to take a monetary offering during the meetings. Moody and Sankey designed every aspect of the meetings to influence the unconverted. Moody presented himself as a common man with whom many among the masses could identify. After the sermon, Moody invited those concerned for their souls to come to inquiry rooms in the facilities to talk with faithful Christians. Moody started conducting mass evangelism by meeting in a central location in a city, but by the late 1870s, he changed his model to holding multiple meetings in different areas of a city during the course of a campaign.

Despite Moody's efforts to reach the unchurched poor, his campaigns typically appealed to middle- and upper-class churchgoers. After attempting many different ways of reaching the poor, Moody shifted his efforts into training laymen to evangelize. He founded schools in his hometown of Northfield and Chicago. In Northfield, he opened the Northfield School for Girls on November 3, 1879, and the Mount Hermon School for Boys on May 4, 1881. In Chicago, Moody founded a Bible institute to train laymen for urban evangelization in 1886. In October 1890, he established the Northfield Bible Training School for women, with a similar aim as his Chicago school. These schools were one aspect of his mission to equip the faithful. He also established his Northfield Conference in 1880, an annual gathering where invited speakers taught the Bible to those who came. A result of that conference was the formation of the Student Volunteer Movement for foreign Protestant missions in 1886. In 1894, he began the Bible Institute Colportage Association, which distributed religious literature.

As a rule, Moody avoided discussing politics in the pulpit, but privately he supported Republican endeavors. Despite his concern for the conversion for the poor, he was silent on social injustice. Moody died on December 22, 1899. His efforts in developing mass evangelism provided a model for successors, such as William “Billy” Sunday and more recently Billy Graham. His later efforts in Northfield and Chicago heavily influenced the nascent Bible conference and Bible institute movements of evangelicalism.

Nathan V. Lentfer

See also: Evangelicalism and Populism ; Gilded Age ; Poverty Campaigns ; Rauschenbusch, Walter (1861–1918) ; Social Gospel ; Sunday, Billy (1862–1935) ; YMCA/YWCA


Dorsett, Lyle W. A Passion for Souls: The Life of D. L. Moody. Chicago: Moody Press, 1997.

Evensen, Bruce J. God's Man for the Gilded Age: D. L. Moody and the Rise of Modern Mass Evangelism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Findlay, James F., Jr. Dwight L. Moody: American Evangelist 1837–1899. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.