What D.L. Moody Taught Me About Tribalism

Edited by Drew Friesen

Photo Courtesy of Phillip Goldsberry

By Amar D. Peterman

Published October 1st, 2020

            When I arrived at Moody Bible Institute in the Fall of 2015, I was handed a 200-page biography of Dwight Lyman Moody. Like most of my classmates, I read about twenty pages before getting lost in the chaos and excitement of a new school in downtown Chicago. Little did I know, besides a brief lecture in a class on American Protestantism, I would not hear much more about the life of Mr. Moody over the next four years of my education. In fact, it was not until I began my graduate studies at Princeton Seminary that I found a substantial opportunity to study the life and writings of my undergraduate namesake.

            In my first semester, I enrolled in a class on social Christianity and American inequality taught by Dr. Heath Carter.[1] It was a timely study, as conversations surrounding racial and social inequality loomed over the Seminary’s recent historical audit.[2] In his class, Dr. Carter posited the category of a grassroots movement known as the “social gospel” or “social Christianity.” While the Social Gospel movement (proper) began in 1907 with the publication of Walter Rauschenbusch’s The Social Crisis, Carter argues for the categorization of a grassroots movement upon which the proper movement is predicated. This nineteenth-century movement saw Christianity and the Gospel of Jesus as directly having something to say about the societal strife that impoverished and disenfranchised communities faced daily. This story of the grassroots social gospel did not begin in German Universities, but rather in the lives of marginalized and oppressed communities who bore witness to the injustice around them and attested to God’s purposes in their midst.

            As I sat in Dr. Carter’s class with these issues of social inequality on my mind, I began to wonder what D.L. Moody thought of the societal issues of his time. What if a conservative evangelist like Moody, far from the lived experience of Jane Addams, Mary McDowell, Henry McNeal Turner, Frederick Douglass, or Dorothy Day, could also be placed in Carter’s category of social Christianity? In my final paper, I explored this question and drew parallels between the themes discussed in the class and D.L. Moody’s urban vision for Chicago.

            To be honest, I did not think I would find much. The legacy of the Moody Bible Institute is not remotely tied to the Social Gospel movement (proper). In fact, Moody’s succeeding presidents, R.A Torrey and James M. Gray, are some of the most prominent fundamentalist leaders from the early 20th century - the former an editor and the latter a contributor to the monumental creed The Fundamentals: A Testimony to Truth (1910-1915). Both Torrey and Gray saw Rauschenbush and the Social Gospel movement as inherently evil, a distraction from the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.

            Yet, what I learned about D.L. Moody and his vision for urban reform revealed my own lack of charity in seeking to understand the history of conservative Christianity in America. My semester-long study confronted me with my own assumptions about the evangelical tradition and the legacy of Dwight Moody. In my research, I found that D.L. Moody’s vision of reform, like many social Christians, was not born in the academy, but rather it was informed by the lived experience of those on the margins of society and in the very places ignored by those elevated above the working class. Like Mary McDowell, D.L. Moody understood the horrors found in Chicago’s “the back of the yards.”

            Mr. Moody also relied deeply on the power of the Holy Spirit for lasting societal reform. While Moody preached “God has got grace enough for every one of us, and if we were only full of the Holy Ghost what power we would have!,”[3] Jarena Lee heard the audible voice of the Spirit saying, “thou art sanctified!” As an evangelist, Moody believed the Spirit’s power was made manifest through the preaching of the Gospel. Lee and Moody certainly would have agreed that the message of Jesus was the skeleton key to chains of bondage. Moody was not shy in preaching about how Jesus spoke directly to unjust societal structures and offered a liberative, culture-transforming message. Indeed, Moody’s theology was one for the public square.

            In line with this, Moody was a grassroots reformer, and believed institutions were a primary way of equipping the individual. Moody, of course, founded numerous schools in the United States and another in England; he also started his well-known Mission Sunday School, founded and pastored the Illinois Street Church, and worked closely with the YMCA of Chicago. Like his social Christian contemporaries, Moody took upon the responsibility of social reform, dedicated his life to such work, and encouraged others to do so as well.

            I concluded my research by framing Moody’s work within the context of nineteenth-century Christianity in Chicago. Heath Carter writes “the battle was not between Christianity and secularism, but rather between competing interpretations of the Christian gospel.”[4] The social and ideological climate in which Moody ministered was the era of abolitionists like Fredrick Douglass, a moment in history marked by the Civil War and the question of chattel slavery. What Carter’s observation highlights is that D. L. Moody could have, as a white man, chosen the Christianity of the oppressor. Instead, Moody chose the Christianity of the oppressed, marginalized, and poor; the Christianity which spoke to the discrepancies and injustices of those in need, rather than a Christianity propagated systems of white supremacy.

“I do hope we shall get back to those days when men make restitution, for when men begin to make restitution, the world will have confidence in the religion we preach.”

- D.L. Moody [5]


            When I began my study, I wrongly placed D.L. Moody in the category of his fundamentalist successors and held an uncharitable view of his ministry. I realized I had never studied Moody as a layperson seeking to serve Christ; instead I made assumptions based on those who claimed to inherit his legacy. I failed to acknowledge his unique work both in the city of Chicago and his global ministry. Indeed, I failed to see Mr. Moody as an individual.

            I don’t think I am alone in this experience. Christians today often make an enemy of the “other” at the expense of knowing the individual. Even more, this trend is not only outward facing, but also internal. Progressive Christians fail to see a distinction between a militant, political “white Evangelicalism” and a movement of young, diverse evangelicals on the frontlines of social justice efforts. Christian conservatives also fail to see the effects of systemic racism, toxic masculinity, and white privilege that affect their fellow brothers and sisters, and are quick to label progressive Christians as “marxists” or “critical race theorists.” On both sides of the aisle, we have traded knowing the “other” for broad categories and sweeping generalizations.

            As political and cultural tensions run high in the US, I believe it is important to recognize figures like D.L. Moody, who often lay outside of the common perception of social Christianity. In doing so, we practice Christian charity towards ideological camps with whom we disagree with. We are reminded of the humanity of those with whom we disagree with. In a polarized society defined by rampant tribalism, our Christian witness may be found in our ability to find good in the “other” and work towards goals like justice and love for our neighbor.



            [1] For Dr. Heath Carter’s profile, see https://www.ptsem.edu/people/heath-w-carter

            [2] For an in-depth look at these conversations, please see https://slavery.ptsem.edu/

            [3] Wilbur J. Chapman. In The Life and Work of Dwight L. Moody: Presented to the Christian World as a Tribute to the Memory of the Greatest Apostle of the Age, (Bradley-Garretson, 1900), 411.

            [4] Heath W. Carter, Union Made Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017).

            [5] Dwight Lyman Moody, Moody: His Words, Work, and Workers: Comprising His Bible Portraits; His Outlines of Doctrine, as Given in His Most Popular and Effective Sermons, Bible Readings, and Addresses. Sketches of His Co-workers, Messrs. Sankey, Bliss, Whittle, Sawyer, and Others; and an Account of the Gospel Temperance Revival, with Thrilling Experiences of Converted Inebriates, Edited by W.H. Daniels (United States: Nelson & Phillips, 1877), 248.

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