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Evangelists To The Machine Age
Calling millions to repentance, Moody and Sankey devised a new method of spreading the gospel
August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
Sankey was working as a collector of internal revenue when he met Moody at the Y.M.C.A. convention. Arriving late at a prayer meeting, he found it languishing, and was invited by a friend to enliven matters with a hymn, which he did. Moody was present, and on being introduced to him afterwards, promptly told him: “I have been looking for you for eight years,” and urged him to come to Chicago at once. Thinking of his family, Sankey asked for time to consider. The next day, he received a note from Moody asking him to appear on a certain street corner at six o’clock. When the puzzled ex-soldier showed up, Moody dashed into a store, borrowed a dry goods box, and hustled him up onto it with instructions to commence a hymn. In a few minutes, a good-sized sidewalk meeting was under way.
It did not take the “lightning Christian” very long after that to convince Sankey to give up his job and join in the conduct of traveling evangelistic missions. With a persuader like Moody at work, Sankey never really had a chance to say no.
Moody’s gift from heaven was that of knowing what the public wanted, and he gauged correctly the appeal which popular music, well and simply delivered, would add to a gospel message. With Sankey he was ready to conquer new worlds.
Only a few had money. Millions could be exhorted to give to God what every individual on earth possessed—his soul. There was a campaign of persuasion to challenge a really big man. As Moody once told a committee of visiting sponsors, “It is souls I want. It is souls I want.”
The two evangelists sailed for England in the spring of 1873. They ran squarely into suspicion and coldness as they began to work their way up towards Scotland. But in Edinburgh in November the title began to turn. They were presently speaking to crowds of 2,000 a night and to others at prayer meetings held throughout the city during the day. By the time they reached Glasgow, in February, 1874, they were able to pack some 5,000 listeners into the Kibble Palace, while an overflow crowd of 2,000 on the green outside was addressed by local clergymen.
In October of that year they were holding meetings in Dublin at the Exhibition Palace. There were only 40,000 Protestants in the city, but on one Sunday afternoon they attracted 12,000. When they followed their advance billing into Birmingham in the last two weeks of January they spoke to an estimated total of 156,000 people in eight days.
They came to London as a confirmed national sensation. In lour months of meetings held at five separate auditoriums they pulled over three million people through the doors. (All these figures, however, included those who came again and again to hear Moody’s crisp sentences and Sankey’s harmonium.)
It was not merely a mass audience which they reached. An impressed London journal noted the presence in the hall, on April 15, of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales. At other times the Earl of Shaftesbury, the Duchess of Sutherland, the Duke of Marlborough, the Countess of Gainsborough and many more notables came to listen. It was even suggested to Queen Victoria that she visit one meeting; she replied in a frosty letter that it would not do for her to be seen at public places. But there was more than enough respectability on hand even without her.
There was opposition. Some British papers derided Moody as “an American ranter of the most vulgar type.” The New York Times passed on the rumor that the visit had been financed by P. T. Barnum. Another explanation came later from Friedrich Engels, who wrote that the British ruling classes had imported the Americans to augment the native supply of opium for the people.
Despite all this, Moody and Sankey returned to America as conquerors. In the spring of 1876 their preaching and singing filled New York’s Hippodrome nightly for two months. In the summer they swept through the South and West, touching at Nashville, Louisville, St. Louis and Kansas City. On October i, 1876, they returned to Chicago and opened meetings on Moody’s home grounds. There were 7,000 waiting in line for one 8 A.M. Sunday service. A special tabernacle had been built for them, but as one reporter described it, when the doors opened 8,000 seats disappeared from view “like a field of wheat under a visitation of locusts,” and an overflow auditorium accommodating 2,300 was filled in five minutes.
Those years may have been the high water mark, but for the next two decades there was hardly an American city which could claim big-town standing unless it had been blessed with a campaign. During the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 the evangelists rented one of the tents used by Forepaugh’s circus for a Sunday morning. They drew 18,000 visitors, many of whom lingered on the grounds afterwards. The gratified circus owners begged Moody to supply them with a disciple to travel with the show and repeat the performance as a regular attraction. He was refused, of course.
Moody never kept track of the numbers he converted. Critics objected that his influence was ephemeral and that those whom he “saved” would backslide once they were out of the range of his voice. Whether this was true or not, he was a major force in American religion until his death in 1899. He had discerned and mastered an incredible bull market in piety.
How was it done? Part of the answer lay in the times, but part in Moody’s unerring touch. He understood the principles of success in the contemporary world. He organized. He publicized. He consolidated.