Evangelists To The Machine Age

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Moody opened a meeting, said one New York reporter, “as though his audience were the stockholders of a bank to whom he was about to make a report. He has the air of a business man to whom time is extremely valuable.” To an America (and perhaps to an England) whose business was business, this was no drawback in a preacher. The phraseology of the market, in fact, was perfectly at home in Moody’s quickly outlined message. He spoke of God’s grace as contrasted with the “grace period” on a banker’s loan. “That ain’t grace,” snapped the bearded man from Chicago. “Grace is giving the interest, principal and all.”

He described Jesus healing a sick servant on his master’s petition. “When He saw a genuine check presented for payment, He cashed it at once. He pays instantly in the gold of heaven, without any hesitation or discount.” Denying that a man could be saved by good works alone, he came straight to the point. “God isn’t down here selling salvation. And what have you to give Him if He was?”

Plain speech was part of Dwight Moody. Like Billy Graham’s “the Lord bless you real good,” it became an invaluable trademark.

Still, it would be too much to credit the success of the movement entirely to Moody’s account, just as it is a mistake to write up the industrialization of America as a personal achievement of captains of finance. Moody’s generation was ready to be evangelized, much as our own seems to be, and Moody had the breadth of imagination to undertake the task.

Americans of the Seventies were living in the shadow of a great war just concluded. The passions of that war were burnt out and a wistful popular will to recapture them lingered in the air. There was prosperity in the wind as the Far West opened up, but it was an uneasy prosperity, in danger of being whisked away by the caprices of the business cycle. Throughout the first Moody-Sankey campaign at home the depression which began in 1873 had a double armlock on the country. Labor was restless; it, too, was ready to organize and to revolt. Darwin’s ideas were apparently dissolving the foundations of an eternal and solid world, made and delivered by God in seven days. Immigrants jammed themselves into the cities, new factories went up and new machines hummed.

Precisely when the world was most aggravated by change, people tended to reassert their belief in the unchanging. Not sure what to expect next, not certain of the patterns on which life would be cut in a decade or two, Americans leaned towards a new orthodoxy. They were ready to pray publicly and often. Moody rode on the crest of this urge because it was in his nature to change the scope of popular religion and make revivalism consonant with a big age—of corporate leviathans, transcontinental railroads and telegraphs, electric lighting and the wonder-working power of the dynamo. Given the technological dispensations available to evangelism now, it is natural to ask the question framed in one of Sankey’s hymns: “What Will the Harvest Be?”