A Giant with Clay Feet: Dwight Moody and Race

Edited by James Spencer

Photo Courtesy of Moody Center

By Dr. Gregory Quiggle

Published November 1st, 2020

            For a man with limited educations and skills, the breadth and scope of Dwight Moody’s work is literally breathtaking. Historian Martin Marty claimed, “The Chicago-based evangelist could plausibly have been called Mr. Revivalist and perhaps even Mr. Protestant.”[1] George Marsden commenting on Moody wrote, “Scarcely a leader in American Protestantism in the next generation, it seemed, had not at some time been influenced by Moody.”[2] Timothy George saw Moody as “…the founder of contemporary interdenominational evangelicalism.”[3] Perhaps this quote from a letter written by Billy Graham to Dwight Moody’s daughter best captures Moody’s work, “I am wondering if you all are really aware of the many movements that now exist throughout the world that flowed from the ministry of Dwight Moody.”

            His evangelist work alone was extraordinary. At Moody’s funeral service, Theodore Cuyler estimated that, on average, Moody spoke to 40,000 to 50,000 people a week. One biographer notes that A. T. Pierson’s assertion that Moody presented his brand of the gospel by pen or voice to 100 million people is actually a conservative figure.[4] J. Wilbur Chapman, a colleague of Moody’s, wrote in the year following Moody’s death that he “reached more people during his lifetime than any other man possibly in the world’s history.”[5] In addition, Moody had a commitment to present the Gospel to at least one person individually every day. In fact, evangelism and discipleship were at the core of virtually all of Moody’s work.

            Moody was an innovator in education starting five different schools during the course of his lifetime. They were; the Northfield Seminary for Young Women, Mount Hermon School for Boys, Northfield Bible Training School, Moody Bible Institute and Glasgow Bible College. Three of these schools were dedicated to training evangelists, pastors, missionaries, Bible teachers and workers for urban relief ministries. Of the three, The Northfield Bible Institute, Glasgow Bible College and Moody Bible Institute, only Moody Bible Institute continues to exist and it maintains fidelity with Moody’s vision. It is almost impossible to calculate the numbers of people converted and discipled through the Institute’s work. 

            Moody almost single handedly created the modern Christian publishing industry. Frustrated by the dearth of inexpensive materials to help new converts, Moody created his own material. Working with his brother-in-law Fleming Revell, Moody pulled together sets of books designed to evangelize and disciple the reader. The books were mostly collections of his or Spurgeon’s sermons.

            Some even credit Moody with inspiring the modern missions’ movement. He was instrumental in the formation of the Student Volunteer Movement, what some see as a pivotal moment in the development of modern Evangelical Protestant missions. In fact, it has been described as, “… history’s single most potent mission organization.”[6] Ralph Winter, one of the leading Missiologists of the previous generation, goes so far as to say that the entire movement was indebted to three distinct movements, the most important Dwight’s Moody personal faith. As Winters put it, the Student Volunteer Movement was a, “striking illustrated in the simple authenticity of Moody’s spiritual life …”[7]

            Moody helped drive the Sunday School movement in America. His school in Chicago became a prototype for urban Sunday Schools. It became so popular; Abraham Lincoln made a point to visit on his way to his first inauguration. In addition, Moody led the YMCA and spearheaded its urban ministries. The YMCA combined aggressive Gospel presentations with practical ministry for the poor. As part of the YMCA, Moody helped develop the U.S. Christian Commission, a branch of the ministry designed to work with troops during the Civil War. Moody would return to this work again during the Spanish American War.

            A common theme throughout Moody’s life is non-sectarianism. Moody was dogged about this commitment. As he put it, “If I thought I had one drop of sectarian blood in my constitution, I would open a vein and let it out.”[8] The driving impulse behind his non-sectarianism was his burden for evangelism and discipleship, “Oh, yes, let us sink this party feeling and contend for Christ only. Oh, that God may so fill us with His love, and the love of souls, that no thought of minor sectarian parties can come in; that there may be no room for them in our atmosphere whatever; and that the Spirit of God may give us one mind and one spirit here to glorify His holy name.”[9] While Moody was not anti-denominations, but he prioritized evangelism and discipleship.

            Moody was not only non-sectarian, he was inclusive. As a young man, he listened to the powerful abolitionist’s speeches of William Lloyd Garrison, Elijah P. Lovejoy and Wendell Philips. While in Boston, he was involved in the anti-slavery demonstrations at Faneuil Hall. Moody hated slavery, he saw it as a sin against God. As he put it, “Nations are only collections of individuals, and what is true of the part in regard to character is always true in regard to the whole. In this country our forefathers planted slavery and an open bible together, and didn’t we have to reap?  Didn’t God make this nation weep in the hour of gathering the harvest, when we had to give up our young men, both North and South, to death, and every household almost had an empty chair, and blood, blood, blood, flowed like water for four long years?  Ah, our nation sowed, and in tears and groans she had to reap!"

            The five schools Moody started were all integrated. Moody aggressively recruited students from diverse racial backgrounds. This racial diversity was demonstrated during the first graduation ceremony at Mount Hermon. As the program put it, “William Moody, who goes on to Yale College, spoke for Americans; Louis Johnson, a full-bloodied Choctaw, spoke in his own language for the various Indian tribes represented in the school; Chin Loon, in full Chinese dress, spoke for his nationality, which has several representatives at Mount Hermon; Thomas N. Baker, a full-blooded Negro and a general favorite in the school, spoke for his race.”[10] However, Moody’s inclusivism had limits. During his revival work in the South, Moody would violate his own principles and run segregated meetings.

            Moody’s segregated meetings are both puzzling and troubling. As previously noted, he was a committed abolitionist and an avid supporter of the Union. The work over which he had personal control would remain integrated during his lifetime. Yet Moody bows to the pressure for segregated meetings when in the South. 

            Moody had emerged as a prominent evangelist during his first preaching tour of the United Kingdom in the early 1870s. During an earlier trip to the United Kingdom, Moody had received an invitation from several prominent local clergy to return and preach a series of meetings. Consequently, Moody determined to return to the United Kingdom in 1873. He was well received and his popularity increased.[11] Moody remained in the United Kingdom until 1875, preaching throughout England, Scotland and Ireland. Their tour climaxed with a four-month stay in London where approximately two and a half million people attended the meetings.[12] 

            The tour was widely covered by the American press and by the time it ended, Moody was in great demand as an Evangelist in the United States. Moody chose to start in Brooklyn on October 31, 1875. From Brooklyn, the meetings moved to Philadelphia, New York and Boston.[13] Finally, Moody headed west to his second home, Chicago. The Chicago crusade started October 1, 1876, in a 10,000-seat tabernacle. It would run for sixteen weeks, closing on January 16, 1877.[14]

            During the course of these meetings, Moody made an unplanned trip to visit meetings in Georgia in 1875. When Moody arrived in Georgia, he was astonished to find the meetings were segregated. All of his previous meetings had been fully integrated. Earlier that same year the congregation at one of his New York meetings had been described as “a mixed assemblage of all classes; some very poor, a few not very clean. Many black faces dot the congregation.”[15] His initial response to what he saw in Georgia was moral indignation. Moody declared that some Southern whites “might possibly be astonished someday to see these blacks marching into the kingdom of heaven while they themselves were shut out.”[16] The response from the white community in the South was swift and ferocious. If Moody were “endeavoring to change the relation of the black and white races,” he would face the “contempt and abhorrence of our entire people.”[17] 

            However, one of Moody’s associates, Major Whittle, intervened and argued to continue segregated meetings. Whittle understood Moody’s indignation; however, he also understood the South. Whittle told Moody that if they insisted on integrating the meetings, the white population of Georgia would not attend.[18] In the end, Moody followed Whittle’s advice. For the next two decades, when Moody ventured into the South his meetings were segregated.[19] 

            However, it was clear Moody was not comfortable with his decision and tried to hold separate meetings for black people in the South. In the 1880s, he offered to go to Louisville, Kentucky, to hold a series of meetings designed exclusively for blacks. He seemed to be searching for a way to reach blacks in the South, while maintaining a white audience. Consequently, Moody tolerated segregated meetings in order to maintain white audiences.[20]

            By the 1890s, however, Moody could no longer accept his own decision. At a series of meetings in Texas in 1895, Moody began defying Jim Crow laws and segregation. On entering the site of the planned revival, Moody became enraged when he saw a fence designed to separate blacks from whites. He was so angry he tried physically to tear the rail down. Although the rail withstood this initial assault, by the time of the meetings, workers had torn it down. From this point on, his meetings were integrated.[21]

            But by then, the damage had been done. One black pastor, outraged at Moody’s decision to segregate the meetings in Georgia, declared that he would not allow Moody to preach in a bar room, let alone a church.[22] Ida B. Wells commented, “I remember very clearly that when Mr. Moody had come to the South with his revival sermons the notices printed said that the Negroes who wished to attend his meetings would have to go into the gallery or that a special service would be set aside for colored people only.” Wells found this to be despicable.[23] Frederick Douglas was equally appalled. Frederick Douglass contrasted Moody’s meetings with those of the religious infidel Robert Ingersoll. “Infidel though Mr. Ingersoll may be called,” Douglass asserted, “he never turned his back upon his colored brothers, as did the evangelical Christians of this city [Philadelphia] on the occasion of the late visit of Mr. Moody.” Douglass continued by singling out religious segregation as one of the most pernicious forms of separation. “Of all the forms of negro hate in this world,” he proclaimed, “save me from that one which clothes itself with the name of the loving Jesus.” To Douglass, the hypocrisy of Moody’s revivals was galling: “The negro can go into the circus, the theatre, and can be admitted to the lectures of Mr. Ingersoll, but he cannot go into an evangelical Christian meeting.”[24] They were joined in their criticisms by Francis Grimke.[25] Numerous Black newspapers were also critical of Moody.[26]

            However, other black people were more circumspect with their comments. Booker T. Washington thought that Moody’s work was beneficial to people of all races.[27] A letter from pastor L. H. Smith of an A.M.E. church in Savannah, Georgia, began, “We, the Negroes of Savannah, thank you more than language can express … for the services you gave us at our churches.” The letter goes on to describe the “good and lasting results of your brotherly and divinely directed labors among us.” Smith commented that the local paper, The Morning News, had done well when it described Moody’s work among the Negroes during the Civil War. However, it would have done “itself, the South, the Colored people, yourself and the Master a lasting service had it reported your service with us, some of the many good things you said to us …” The letter concluded with Smith noting he and another pastor had collected $15.03 to support Moody’s effort to place literature in prisons and poorhouses.[28] Clearly, while Moody had critics among the black churches in the South, he also had some supporters.

            Moody’s toleration of segregation would lead to long term consequences that would shape the country and prolong and deepen racism in America. Clearly, this was not Moody’s intent. However, there is evidence to support this claim. Edward J. Blum’s Reforging the White Republic, argued that Moody’s message was instrumental in rebuilding the white republic by sanctifying reconciliation among northern and southern whites at the expense of African Americans. Specifically, during Reconstruction, former abolitionists in the North had a golden opportunity to pursue true racial justice and permanent reform in America. But why, after the sacrifice made by thousands of Civil War patriots to arrive at this juncture, did the moment slip away, leaving many whites throughout the North and South more racist than before? Blum focuses on the vital role that religion played in reunifying northern and southern whites into a racially segregated society. He charges Moody with promoting religious unity by keeping quiet in the face of racial prejudice, choosing unity among whites over human unity.[29] 

            There are a number of plausible explanations for Moody’s failure. He clearly believed in the Gospel’s ability to transform humans. However, given what Moody had seen during his life, it seems naïve to believe conversion would thoroughly destroy bigotry in all believers. The New Testament testifies to the power of human bigotry. In Acts 6:1, 2; tensions arise among the early church about unequal treatment of widows based on ethnicity. Galatians 2 records Paul confronting Peter about not eating with Gentiles. Sadly, bigotry in the Church was hardly new.

            Perhaps Moody was not ill equipped to deal with the conflict he faced in Georgia. A number of biographers have commented on Mr. Moody’s tendency to avoid dealing with conflict. Moody lost his father as a little boy. Not only was the death shocking to the boy, it pushed the family into poverty. Moody was forced to live with other families to help ends meet. Education was a luxury the family could hardly afford. Moody would bemoan his lack of education throughout his life. It is not hard to image the insecurities and abandonment issues these events would create within the maturing Moody. 

            Moody could have also been concerned about reigniting the Civil War. During the war, Moody went to the front on nine different occasions. He saw the carnage first hand. One of his first experiences was at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. After the battle he writes to his mother describing seeing dead soldiers strewn all over the battle field with no one to bury them. He writes of the rough treatment of the wounded.[30] Given what Moody saw, a desire to avoid more violence is understandable. 

            Whatever the reason, Moody failed. Even a person as zealous for the lost as Moody flinched. It would be easy to simply denounce Moody as a man lacking moral courage, but that is far too easy. We humans are frail and often our faith is weak. That is not to excuse Moody, but it is to remind us of Paul’s injunction in 1 Corinthians 10:12, “Therefore, if anyone who thinks that he stands, take heed lest he fall.” 

            From one angle, Dwight Moody towers as a man of great faith. Moody was a man with real limitations who gave himself fully to God. What God chose to do through Moody was astonishing. But, from another angle, this giant had clay feet. When faced with the besetting sin of his country, he backed down. In many ways, Moody’s failure should not be surprising, the Bible is full of stories of Godly men and women who failed in times of testing; Abraham, Sarah, Moses, David and Peter, to name a few. 

            Ultimately Moody’s life demonstrates the Gospel. In Moody we see a man gripped by the Holy Spirit, driven to bring people to Christ. We see a man devoted to scripture and prayer who genuinely loved children and the poor. We see a genuinely humble man who forgoes personal fame. And yet, when given the opportunity to stand against the sin of racism, Moody capitulated. But what we see in this moment of failure is the truth of the Gospel. While we may be inspired by the past lives of men and women of faith, we must ultimately look solely to Christ, the author and finisher of our faith. It is Christ alone who does for us what no human could ever accomplish. He alone brings spiritual life, forgiveness for sin, right standing before God and victory over death. That is a sentiment with which Dwight Moody would heartily agree.

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Footnotes:

            [1] Martin Marty, “Introduction” in Dwight L. Moody: American Evangelist 1837-1899, ed. James F. Findlay (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969), 1.
            [2] George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 33.
            [3] Timothy George, ed., Mr. Moody and the Evangelical Tradition (New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 1. 
            [4] Stanley Gundry, Love Them In: The Life and Theology of Dwight Moody (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1976), 10. Gundry cites Will H. Houghton and Chas. T. Cook, Tell Me About Moody (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1936), 117. For similar statistical estimates see Pollock, Moody: A Biographical Portrait, 166, 242, 283-84.
            [5] J. Wilbur Chapman, The Life and Work of D. L. Moody (Philadelphia: American Bible House, 1900) vi,17-21.
            [6] http://www.missionfrontiers.org/issue/article/four-men-three-eras
            [7] Ralph Winter, International Journal of Frontier Missions, vol. 2, no. 2 April 1985, 156. Winter’s article provides an excellent overview 
            [8] John Pollock, Moody: A Biographical Portrait of the Pacesetter in Modern Mass Evangelism (New York: Macmillan, 1963, 60.
            [9] Dwight Moody, New Sermons, Addresses and Prayers by Dwight Lyman Moody (Chicago: Thompson & Wakefield, 1877),14.
            [10] The class of 1889 included students from 32 nations, with one of the class officers being an ex-slave from Virginia. Carter, Burnham. So Much to Learn: The History of the Northfield Mount Hermon School in Commemoration of the 100th Anniversary 1980. Northfield, Mass: Northfield Mount Hermon School, 1976.
            [11] William R. Moody, The Life of Dwight L. Moody (Chicago: Fleming H. Revell, 1900), 154-60.
            [12] Lyle Dorsett, A Passion for Souls: The Life of D. L. Moody (Chicago: Moody Press, 1997), 206-7; and Findlay, American Evangelist, 171. The two and one-half million figure is a total number of attendees and does not allow for people who attended more than once. 
            [13] Findlay, American Evangelist, 195-205.
            [14] Dorsett, Passion, 247-48.
            [15] William R. Moody, Life of Moody, 277.
            [16] Findlay, 279.
            [17] Liberal Christian, 30 (May 20, 1876), 9; letter to the Atlanta Constitution (no date), quoted in the New York Times, May 10, 1876.
            [18] Whittle Diary, April, April 28, 1876. Whittle claimed that, “not to have done it would have… kept the white people away” and that there was, “no way we could carry on the meetings” without them being segregated. One of the reasons Whittle knew the South was he had served on General Sherman’s staff during his march to the sea during the Civil War. Dorsett indicates the diary was lost from the archives of Moody Bible Institute.
            [19] Findlay, 279. Findlay carefully documents Moody’s meetings in the South. 
            [20] Findlay, 281.
            [21] Edward J. Blum, Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion and American Nationalism, 1865-1898, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2005), 144, 145.
            [22] Findlay, 280.
            [23] Alfreda M. Duster, ed., Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 111-2, 151.
            [24]  66. “Oration of Frederick Douglass,” American Missionary 39, no. 6 (June 1885): 164.
            [25] Perry, Mark, Lift Up Thy Voice: The Sarah and Angelina Grimké Family's Journey from Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders, (New York: New York, 2002) Perry points out Grimke fought a running battle with Moody, because he deferred to Southern segregationist policies.
            [26] Just a few examples, “Do Not Want Moody,” Louisville Courier-Journal, February 13, 1888, p. 7; “Evangelist Moody Criticized,” New York Times, June 11, 1887, p. 8; Findlay, Dwight L. Moody, 280.
            [27] Bruce Evensen, God’s Man for the Gilded Age (New York: Oxford, 2003), 4. 
            [28] Letter from L. H. Smith to Dwight Moody, March 19th, 1896. Copies of the letter are available in Special Collections, Yale Divinity School Library, D. L. Moody Papers, and the Moody Bible Institute Archives, Chicago, IL.
            [29] Edward J. Blum, Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2005), 144-45. 
            [30] D. L. Moody, letter to mother, March 4, 1862, Special Collections, Yale Divinity School Library, D.L. Moody Papers

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