How D. L. Moody Paved the Way for Today’s Evangelicals

Trevin Wax
Trevin Wax
2014 16 Sep

I recently caught up with Kevin Belmonte about his book D.L. Moody – A Life: Innovator, Evangelist, World Changer. Here is an excerpt of our conversation.

Trevin Wax: How did the Chicago fire impact Moody’s life and ministry?

Kevin Belmonte: On a personal level, it was devastating. Moody and his wife Emma lost a home they loved. And on the night of the fire, they sent their daughter and son for safety’s sake to stay with friends.

That said, it was unknown for several hours whether the children had indeed reached safety, and their daughter remembered that Emma Moody’s hair began to turn white during that awful night of worry.

In terms of the future course of Moody’s life and legacy, he relocated to his birthplace, Northfield, Massachusetts, within a year or so of the Chicago fire.

To be sure, Chicago always held a special place in his heart, not least because of the famous mission school he started there in the slum called Little Hell – a school Abraham Lincoln once visited in 1860.

And of course, he founded the Chicago Avenue Church there (the predecessor of the great Moody Church today) and the Chicago Bible Institute (the forerunner of Moody Bible Institute).

But increasingly, in the years after the fire, Northfield became Moody’s base of operations, with all that this meant for the schools he founded there, the world-famous “Northfield Summer Conferences,” the Student Volunteer Movement, and much else besides.


Northfield Auditorium Towers

Trevin: In what ways did Moody’s ministry and ecumenical partnerships lay the groundwork for the neo-evangelical movement led by Carl Henry, Billy Graham, and Harold Ockenga?

Kevin Belmonte: Moody’s mere Christianity was at the heart of his public profession of faith. It was never more in evidence than when he said:

“Talk not of this sect and that sect, of this party and that party, but solely and exclusively of the great comprehensive cause of Christ …. There should be one faith, one mind, one spirit – and in this city let us … actualize this glorious truth …. Let us contend for Christ only … May the Spirit of God may give us one mind and one spirit to glorify His holy name.”

One might say as well that if C.S. Lewis was the great champion of “mere Christianity” in the 20th century, Moody was the same in the 19th. Why so?

1. Look at the four schools Moody founded. When created, Moody Bible Institute – or the Chicago Bible Institute, its name in Moody’s lifetime – was, in his phrase, “undenominational, or, better, interdenominational.”

The Northfield Seminary, Mount Hermon School, and The Northfield Bible Training School were just the same.

By Moody’s death in 1899, over 5,000 young people, from 18 countries, had been educated in The Northfield Seminary and Mount Hermon School alone. That’s reflective of considerable influence among educators and young people of his time.

2. Look at the books published as part of “The Moody Colportage Library,” a series of books which sold in the millions during his lifetime and had an international readership.

This library was described as “a series of books by well-known Christian authors, undenominational, thoroughly evangelistic, for all classes of readers, in several languages.”

3. Look at the world-famous Northfield Summer Conferences, held for two decades prior to Moody’s death in 1899. Eight hundred students from Yale alone attended them. These conferences were noted for their “catholicity.”

The description given by Moody’s Irish-born son-in-law, A.P. Fitt, is revealing:

“… not a single truth held by evangelical Christianity has failed of due honor in the teaching from the Northfield platform. Not only so, but presentation has been effected through men of every branch of the universal church. A bishop may be followed by an unordained evangelist.

This means more than mere interdenominationalism. While no sect or denomination is ever allowed to present the particular point or points of its difference, it is felt that each stands for certain truths held alike by all branches of evangelical Christianity. Hence, while no controversy arises to mar the sweetness of fellowship, there results a majestic harmony of affirmation.

The value to constructive faith of this agreement…can hardly be overestimated. Northfield undoubtedly finds in this one great secret of its influence.”

In the last summer of his life, 1899, Mr. Moody himself defined the Northfield Conference platform:

“The central idea of the Northfield Conference is Christian unity, and the invitation is to all denominations and to all wings of denominations; but it is understood that along with the idea of Christian unity goes the Bible as it stands.

We seek at these meetings to find points of common belief. Too frequently when Christians get together they seek for the points upon which they differ, and then go at it. The Christian denominations too often present a spectacle of a political party split into factions…”

4. Look at the writers represented in Moody’s classic anthology: One Thousand and One Thoughts from My Library (1898). Here, Moody cited 225 authors – covering nearly all the centuries from the advent of Christianity to 1898.

Of ancient writers, Moody owned books that held the wisdom of Anselm, Augustine, Seneca, and Tertullian. Christian mystics were represented in the writings of Madame Guyon, Madame Swetchine, and Thomas à Kempis.

Catholic writers were also on his shelves. Apart from those already cited, Moody’s book held selections from Francis de Sales and Nicolas Caussin.

The Anglican/Episcopalian tradition was well represented in passages from Richard Baxter, Phillips Brooks, Richard Cecil, John Newton, Jeremy Taylor, and H.W. Webb-Peploe, prebendary of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. Puritan writers had a place as well, among them Thomas Brooks and John Flavel.

Moody often cited women writers such as Geraldine Guinness, Frances Ridley Havergal, Leila Mott, Elizabeth Prentiss, and Hannah Whitall Smith.

Many dissenters as well, from across the denominational landscape, were in Moody’s book, including John Bunyan, Thomas Chalmers, Timothy Dwight, A.J. Gordon, Matthew Henry, Blaise Pascal, and Charles Spurgeon.

One key theme sets Moody’s book apart. It’s a very fine anthology in its own right, but it also stands testament to the emphasis on mere Christianity that pervaded his life and career.

5. Look at the tribute paid by distinguished Moody scholar Dr. Lyle W. Dorsett:

“Although he saw no virtue in abolishing denominational distinctives, he carried an abiding aversion to focusing on what he considered nonessentials. He particularly disliked labeling, criticizing, then breaking fellowship with brothers and sisters of different traditions.”

Dorsett also wrote that “class lines as well as denominational ones were constantly crossed” during the revival in Great Britain during the 1870s.

6. Look at the church Moody founded in Chicago. Will Moody, his son and biographer, said of The Illinois Street Church:

“There was mutual concession in unessentials. If some parents wished to have their infants christened this was [done]; but if there were others who were convinced that they must receive the believer’s baptism and that by immersion, this too was provided for by a special baptistry built beneath the pulpit. In the fellowship of the Illinois Street Church, at its inception, was illustrated the spirit of the old Latin motto: ‘In essentials loyalty; in unessentials liberty; in all things charity.’”

The manual of this church, when its name changed to The Chicago Avenue Church after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, was “revised by Mr. Moody and his brethren, a short time previous to his departure for England” in 1873. That manual stated:

“This body of believers desire to be known only as Christians, without reference to any denomination; yet regarding all who hold and preach the truth contained in our articles of faith as equally belonging to the same Head; and are thereby free to co-operate and unite with them in carrying on the work of our common Master.”

7. Last of all, look at the Dedication Bronze for the Memorial Chapel at The Mount Hermon School.

It celebrates the Anglo-American heritage of Mere Christianity. Though built expressly as a memorial for Moody’s sixtieth birthday, he wouldn’t allow this to be mentioned on the bronze tablet in the vestibule, which reads:

“This chapel was erected by the united contributions of Christian friends in Great Britain and the United States, for the glory of God and to be a perpetual witness to their unity in the service of Christ.”