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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
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.
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.