Dwight L. Moody (1837 - 1899), the most indomitable and influential evangelist of the nineteenth century, turned revivalism into big business. His work became the benchmark for all revivalists who followed him. A pushy shoe salesman turned pushy evangelist, he refused to be limited by his lack of education and low social status, turning private religion into a public campaign. It is said that he once stopped a man on the street and asked, as was his custom, "Are you a Christian?" "It's none of your business," the offended pedestrian replied. "Yes, it is," insisted Moody. "Then you must be Mr. Moody," the man said.
Born in Northfield, Massachusetts, he had a difficult childhood. His alcoholic father died when Moody was four, leaving his mother in debt and alone with nine children. The farm was put into foreclosure, and the older children were sent out to families, where they worked for their room and board. Even little Dwight was soon sent to live with a family, working for them more than attending school and barely learning to read. At seventeen he moved to Boston to work in his uncle's shoe store. Moody's conversion came at the prompting of his Sunday school teacher right there in the store.
Moody was enthusiastic to follow Jesus, and what he lacked in book learning he made up for in street smarts and salesmanship. He moved to Chicago where he excelled in sales and organized evangelistic outreach, shoddy as it was.
This work led to the founding of a Sunday school of some six hundred children and sixty volunteers. It was so noteworthy that on November 25, 1860, President-elect Abraham Lincoln visited and offered remarks to the class. How did Moody attract so many youth in his ministry outreach? As a salesman he used the tricks of the trade: passing out candy and offering free pony rides. Needing a permanent home for the growing class, he started a church in Chicago, the Illinois Street Church, as a home for poor immigrant families. For several years he also headed up the Chicago YMCA.
In 1858, he met fifteen-year-old Emma Revell. Despite the striking difference in their social status, they married four years later. Throughout their marriage she worked beside him and managed the family. He regarded her as a more effective teacher and one-on-one evangelist than he was.
In 1871 Moody teamed up with gospel singer Ira D. Sankey. Two years after the Great Chicago Fire, he and Sankey set out for England. As a self-made American rags-to-religion hick, Moody rose to superstar status. Students flocked to his meetings. Among his converts were the "Cambridge Seven," some of them England's most celebrated cricket players, who now headed overseas as missionaries with the China Inland Mission.
He returned to America in 1875 as an internationally famous revivalist. Every city wanted him to hold a campaign. Reporters jostled each other in getting the lead story; his self-deprecating style and his quotable quips perfectly suited the hungry press, eager to sell penny-papers, and his lack of education and proper etiquette, his poor grammar and pronunciation made him all the more endearing.
Moody's uncle once quipped, "My nephew Dwight is crazy, crazy as a March hare." Another observer offered a different slant: "There was the revivalist Moody, bearded and neckless, with his two hundred and eighty pounds of Adam's flesh, every ounce of which belonged to God." H. L. Mencken, the wit and satirist of the day, was the source for much of the contemporary reflection on Moody. "When he started out, an evangelist had no more dignity and social position among us than a lightening-rod salesman," wrote Mencken. "When he finished, he was friendly with leading merchants, industrialists, and public figures of the day, including Cyrus McCormick and such august characters as John Wanamaker, Morris K. Jesup, and General O. O. Howard."
Moody, however, was more than a charismatic revivalist. The uneducated shoe salesman became an educator, establishing three all founded in part to train more evangelists. When Moody died three days before Christmas in 1899, it was a time of mourning and homage. "Chicago at one time claimed this mighty preacher," a hometown newspaper eulogized. "But when he died the whole world claimed him."