Evangelists To The Machine Age

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Every meeting was carefully planned to move toward a specific goal. Moody, pounding the lectern and waving the soft-covered Bible which he knew to the last comma (he rose at 5 A.M. every day to study it), would deliver a short and pungent talk urging his listeners to forsake sin and accept Christ. Sankey would sing a solo or two and lead the group through familiar hymns. At the end, ushers would direct those professing a desire to “become Christians” to special, closed “inquiry rooms.” There, other workers selected beforehand and held in reserve would speak with the penitents individually and pray with them.

For weeks before a campaign these special assistants were schooled for their job. In Philadelphia a four-man committee of ministers from Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian churches put 300 through their training, according to the recollections of a contemporary clergyman.

Schedules were carefully arranged. Skimping was discouraged. The Philadelphia stand cost $30,000 to prepare. During a mission, classes would be conducted for laymen and clergy. In Philadelphia they covered such topics as “How to Conduct Prayer Meetings,” “How to Get Hold of Non-Church-Goers,” and “How Should the Music Be Conducted in the Lord’s Work?” The advice given at these was of a practical turn. Leaders were advised to open windows, keep talks short, and invite questions and comment from the audience.

Into this work Moody poured the devastating energy exuded by the Nineteenth-Century American businessman. He fought unrighteousness like a railroad builder fighting impassable grades, cautious bankers and competition. A day’s schedule in Glasgow called for a noon prayer meeting, individual counseling from one to two, a Bible lecture at five, a general meeting at seven, a young men’s meeting at nine. His wife’s diary noted him preaching at nine, eleven, six and eight o’clock on one occasion, and topping the day off with a 9:30 prayer meeting and discourse with the “anxious” until eleven. One of Sankey’s hymns promised that “In the Christian’s home in glory there remains a land of rest,” but Moody lived by his brisk advice to a New York crowd: “We will have all eternity to rest in. ... We should understand that we come into the church to work.”

The sermons of the earlier evangelists had bristled with dogma. They shot words such as “election,” “predestination,” “reprobation” and “sanctification” like red-hot projectiles at their audiences, and spent the time between campaigns wrestling with doctrinal foemen. Moody steered clear of denominational controversy. He concentrated on one simple but infinitely powerful idea—he that believed should have eternal life.

The guest platform was always studded freely with ministers of every local denomination which wished to send representatives. They were permitted to invoke blessings before the work began, though if they became long-winded Moody was capable of stepping to the front of the stage and announcing: “Mr. Sankey will lead us in a hymn while our brother is finishing his prayer.”

There was no room for politics in a Moody revival, nor for any attack on social evils. In Chicago he undertook a good deal of spur-of-the-moment social work involving food baskets and free coal deliveries to the poor districts, but he would not join any reform crusade. “A heart that is right with God and man seldom constitutes a social problem,” he said. The result was that evangelism and reform, which had been partners before the Civil War, swerved apart dramatically and perhaps finally.

Both movements lost something in the divorce. But thanks to this stand, humanitarians, evolutionists and hard-shell fundamentalists could feel equally at home in his meetings. Accordingly the crowds multiplied. Moody considered the conflict between science and religion irrelevant. Were parts of the Bible apparently confuted by reason? “The Bible was not meant to understand.” Was the universe incomparably vaster than the description in Genesis allowed? So much the more glory to God for creating it. When had man been created? It did not matter; he had a soul to be saved.

Sankey’s contribution was probably considerable, though he was willing to play a somewhat secondary part. His instinct for choosing hymns of universal appeal was the stuff of a music publisher’s dreams. His compendium of favorites, Sacred Songs and Solos , enjoyed a sale in millions in its initial half century. It even went well at the start in Scotland, where, in the Seventies, church music was still looked on as iniquitous in some circles. Sankey could compose well, too.

Moody himself repeated endless variations on one theme. God was a father waiting patiently for His wayward children to return and be forgiven. Every sermon was filled with stories of gray-haired mothers, rum-drinking sons, trustful children, older brothers dying contrite and alone in faraway lands. Industrialism was prying apart the close-knit rural family and the cities lured the country boys to the gas lamps in droves; Moody’s generation was ready for his message. Popular literature floated on a tide of sentimentality. Death and separation were common realities not yet softened by medical success and the telephone. Moody’s audience was ready to weep with him.

Moody’s language, a pure west-Massachusetts dialect with the country sharpness of buttermilk, was beamed toward the common ear. It did not balk at “had ought to have done” and “they come and said.” It translated Bible verses into vivid staccato bursts which pointed even the simplicity of the King James version.