Evangelists To The Machine Age

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December 31, 1875, was probably celebrated in the cities of the United States with the usual quota of well-spiked merriment. But some 10,000 citizens of Philadelphia spent the evening in a Pennsylvania Railroad freight depot at Thirteenth and Market Street which had been outfitted with chairs and a platform big enough to hold a choir of 500. There they joined in hymns and prayer, and listened raptly while a barrel-chested evangelist named Dwight Lyman Moody urged them to accept Christ that night, roaring that the way to be saved was “not to delay, but to come and take—t-a-k-e— TAKE .”

The hymns were led by another revivalist of more than 200 pounds, adorned with mutton chop whiskers, Ira D. Sankey, who slammed out the tunes on a portable harmonium. These two had been holding nightly meetings at the depot since the twenty-first of November. They had already attracted over 300,000 visitors and were to pull in a total of 900,000 (counting repeaters) before they closed their mission in the city.

Two Sunday evenings before, their platform had been graced with a delegation of guests which included President Grant, the secretary of (he navy, the postmaster general, a justice of the Supreme Court, the governor of Pennsylvania, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, two future presidential candidates (James G. Blaine and James A. Garfield), one bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, one senator and three members of the House.

Evangelism was nothing new, but this kind of crowd-catching was a phenomenon. Moody and Sankey were healthy, aggressive evidence of America’s first postwar boom in religion. They were pioneers in putting evangelism on a big-time basis, suited to the speed and size of the machine age.

Like his modern counterpart, Billy Graham, Moody seemed to come out of nowhere. He was born in 1837 on a farm in Northfield, Massachusetts, one of a large family. His childhood followed the common rural pattern of prodigious sweat for six days and old-time religion on the seventh. By the time he was seventeen, the boy had already more “get-up” than could be successfully yoked to a plow. He got permission to go to Boston to work in a shoe store belonging to one of his uncles.

The uncle was warned by another member of the family that Dwight would not be satisfied for long if he could not take over the business. It was good predicting. In two years Moody had outgrown the store and struck out for Chicago and the West. During his stay in Boston, however, a portentous event took place. He was “converted” by a Sunday School teacher, pledged himself to Christ, and became a member of the Mount Vernon Church of Boston, which was Congregational. He was advised by its pastor to refrain from speaking in meetings.

Chicago was new, hustling and grabby in 1856, and Moody loved it. He began as a shoe clerk, sleeping in the back of his employer’s store, branched out into bill collecting and then went to work with a house of commission merchants. By the time he was 24 he had an annual income of $5,000 and savings and investments totaling $7,000—big money for that day. Meantime he swung his organizing talent into the service of his newly acquired religion.

He recruited a Sunday School class for his church, Plymouth Congregational. He overflowed the church’s facilities quickly, and set up an independent institution, the “North Market Sabbath School.”

Moody rented the building, kept it clean himself, and recruited classes by rounding up Sunday morning loafers in the streets of the slums. His first scholars included twelve- to fourteen-year-olds named Madden the Butcher, Billy Bucktooth and Darby the Cobbler. Within a year of the school’s organization, it was ministering to nearly a thousand regenerated hoodlums. To finance operations on this scale, Moody issued 40,000 “shares” at a quarter each, and buttonholed the city’s business leaders to contribute money and to teach classes. By 1860 the school was a Chicago institution and Lincoln paid it a visit after the campaign.

In 1861 Moody fought “the hardest struggle I ever had in my life” and decided to give up his business career for full-time work in religion. It was a lucky day for anyone who might have become his competitor. It was a black one for the Devil.

When the Civil War broke out Moody went to the front as an agent of the Christian Commission, a volunteer organization which supplied religious materials and creature comforts to an army with few professional chaplains and no post exchanges. After the war he built a reputation as a demon fund raiser for missions, schools and churches. One contemporary called him “the lightning Christian of the lightning city.” But Moody was only building up to a second great turning point. He reached it in 1870, when, as president of the Chicago Y.M.C.A., he was sent to one of its conventions in Indianapolis.

Here he first met Ira D. Sankey. Sankey was three years junior to Moody, and of a more conventional background. The son of a bank president in Newcastle, Pennsylvania, he had been to high school, which was not then a common thing, and he was at a tender age made superintendent of the Sunday School of the town’s Methodist church. Part of his job was to lead the choir, and he found that he was the owner of a pleasant and powerful voice which helped to boost school attendance. When the Civil War came, he enlisted and presently found himself in Maryland with his unit. At religious services held in tents or around the campfire, he began to sing and attract notice. After a time he organized a chorus of bluecoats which occasionally helped out at local church functions.