Evangelists To The Machine Age

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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.

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?”