D. L. Moody: Bringing Souls to Christ

Chapter 1
Who Would Have Guessed?

Dwight Lyman (D. L.) Moody swung open the door of Agricultural Hall in Islington, London. He stopped to stare at the cavernous place with its large gaslights hissing overhead, casting a golden hue over the empty chairs. Normally the hall was used for horse and cattle shows, but not tonight. Where the horses and cattle usually paraded, seats had been arranged in long rows as far as the eye could see. Against the far wall stood a high platform with a wooden rail running along the front and steps up to it at the side. D.L. took a deep breath. In just over an hour he would be standing on that platform preaching to thousands of people.

Several months of planning had gone into this meeting and the ones that would follow. D.L. checked to make sure that everything was in order. When he was satisfied that all of the details had been attended to, he headed for a side room behind the hall to pray.

An hour later D.L. emerged, his Bible in hand. He took several deep breaths before heading for the platform, where a group of local clergymen and other dignitaries were seated. As he climbed the steps onto the platform, the hall fell completely silent.

D.L. strode to the rail at the front edge of the platform and looked out on Agricultural Hall. The hall that had been empty when he entered the side room to pray was now packed to capacity. Somehow eighteen thousand people had squeezed themselves in. Their expectant faces were focused on D.L., who hoped his voice would carry to the far corners of the hall.

In his nearly two years of preaching in England, D.L. had spoken to some large crowds, but this was the biggest audience he had ever faced. He surveyed the faces in the hall, reminding himself that the people were not here to see him but to hear from God. He prayed a silent prayer for God to speak through him.

As he opened his Bible to begin his sermon, D.L. chuckled to himself. Who would have thought that eighteen thousand people would be eagerly waiting to hear him preach the gospel? If these people could have seen him when he first applied for membership in the Mount Vernon Church in Boston! The examining deacons had rejected him because of his lack of knowledge of the Bible and the Christian faith. How things had changed. In fact, D.L. was as surprised as anyone. No one, least of all D.L., would have guessed that he would end up an evangelist. His life had certainly taken some surprising turns since his boyhood in Northfield, Massachusetts.

Chapter 2

Dwight Moody sat proudly beside his older brother Luther in the red clapboard schoolhouse in Northfield, Massachusetts. He was only four years old, but he had begged his mother to let him go to school for the winter months, and the teacher had allowed it. At the moment, the class was learning to recite the presidents of the United States. Dwight proudly chanted along with the other students: “George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler.”

Dwight was proud that he could remember all ten presidents, including William Harrison, who had been sworn into office two months before in March 1841 and had died one month later. The teacher was describing the city of Washington, D.C., where the president resided, but Dwight was finding it difficult to picture the place. For one, it seemed so far away. And then there were the wide avenues the teacher talked about, and the White House where the president lived, and the large, domed-roof Capitol building, where the House of Representatives and the Senate met. It was unlike anything in or around Northfield.

The teacher was explaining about the war of 1812. British soldiers had attacked Washington, D.C., in August 1814 and had ransacked the city, burning the White House and the Capitol building. Dwight heard a deep voice at the window next to him: “Got any of Ed Moody’s children in here? Better send them home. Their father’s dead.”

Dwight tried to think what this meant. His big, strong, happy stonemason father was named Edwin Moody. Suddenly Dwight felt his only sister, Cornelia, pull on the back of his shirt. “Come on,” she said grimly. “We’d better go and see what’s become of Ma.”

Cornelia led the way out the door, followed by Dwight and his four older brothers: Isaiah, George, Edwin, and Luther.

None of the six Moody children spoke as they ran home across the cow pasture and past the sugar maple trees. Dwight wanted someone to stop and tell him what was happening, but he knew better than to ask. As the second youngest member of the family, he knew things had a way of becoming clearer with time.

As the children reached the house, Dwight was on edge. Two horses were hitched to the post out front, and a buggy was coming up the road. The front door was ajar, and Dwight could hear the wailing voice of his pregnant mother coming from inside. His youngest brother, Warren, waited anxiously on the porch.

It did not take the Moody children long to learn what had happened. Their father had come home from his job at lunchtime complaining of a sore stomach. Their mother had insisted that he lie down while she fetched him some tea. When she came back, forty-one-year-old Edwin Moody was slumped over his bed, dead.

Dwight tried to imagine what being dead was like. Last month two of the family’s kittens had died, and he had seen their little bodies all stiff with their eyes glazed over. He wondered whether that was what his father now looked like.

The funeral and burial were a blur of images. People were dressed in black, and Boston relatives Dwight was meeting for the first time were kissing him. His grandmother sobbed while the minister encouraged his mother to have faith. Worst of all, Dwight overheard whispered conversations urging his mother to give up the children and send them to work for farmers who could afford to feed them.

“You’ll never get by,” Dwight heard a neighbor tell his mother. “Why, your baby could come any day now. You’re mighty ready, and by the looks of it, it might even be twins.”

Dwight’s mother, Betsy Moody, whispered in reply, “No, Eunice. I’ll keep the children together. They deserve a family. We’ve made it this far. We’ll keep going by the grace of God.”

“You’ll need more than God’s grace, Betsy,” came the neighbor’s tart response. “Your private business will be hung out as public as the washing on the line. You mark my words. Your husband’s creditors won’t have any pity on you. They’ll be over for the money, and if you don’t have it for them, they’ll strip this place bare. Edwin couldn’t have left you at a worse time.”

It did not take long for the neighbor’s prediction to come true. A man named Richard Colton came soon after the funeral and stripped the property of anything of value. He led away the horse and buggy and sent someone back for the cows. He even loaded up the family’s firewood supply. Dwight’s oldest brothers hid their father’s stonemason tools and led one calf down the hill to a neighbor’s so that the animal would not be taken. Dwight didn’t understand why this was happening, except that apparently his father drank too much and had mortgaged the house during hard times. Thankfully, the Dowager’s Law in Massachusetts made it illegal to turn their mother out of the house, since she was a widow.

A month later Betsy gave birth to twins, a boy named Samuel and a girl named Elizabeth. The twins had the same dark hair and eyes, and Dwight figured they would most likely share the same stocky build that was the hallmark of most of the Moody children.

While Dwight’s mother was still in bed recovering, another creditor, Ezra Purple, came to collect the mortgage payment. All of the children were sent outside while Betsy and Mr. Purple talked. Dwight and his siblings were astonished when Ezra stormed out of the house cursing and swearing. Later that day, they learned that he had fallen off his horse minutes after leaving the Moody house. Many of the townsfolk thought this was fitting for paying Mrs. Moody such a heartless visit.

Two of Dwight’s uncles, his mother’s brothers, Charles and Cyrus Holton, promised to help their sister pay the mortgage on the house until she could get back on her feet. They also urged Betsy to send the children to live in the homes of others in exchange for their board and keep, but Betsy would not hear of it.

Dwight could not imagine being taken away from his mother, and he was grateful that she so strenuously resisted the idea. He also understood that his father’s death had changed his oldest brother Isaiah’s role in the family. Now, at thirteen years of age, Isaiah had to find a job and help support them all, including the newborn twins.

One day not long after their father’s funeral, a second shock awaited the family. Isaiah, unable to take the pressures put upon him, ran away. There was no trace of him, though one of the local residents recalled seeing him walking westward. Even at four years old, Dwight knew that this was a serious blow to his mother, who now had five sons and two daughters to raise on her own.

Many times since the funeral, the Reverend Oliver Everett of the Unitarian Congregational Church had come by to see how the family was faring. He was a kind man who often gave Mrs. Moody money or brought the family vegetables or wild game. He constantly urged Betsy to have faith that God would keep the children safe and the family together.

Crops in Northfield, mainly wheat and corn, were planted each spring and harvested in the fall. The Moody family picked chestnuts and tended a large vegetable garden that provided food for them. Dwight went back to attending school on and off—though he did not like to concentrate on his schoolbooks and he found spelling and grammar tedious.

Dwight also watched his mother’s hair turn prematurely gray as she toiled to keep the family together. Betsy made sure the entire family attended church every Sunday, and the only book in the house was the family Bible, which she read aloud regularly. She worked hard to keep the family clothed, spinning her own cotton thread and wool yarn, weaving it on a small loom, and then sewing it into clothes that had to be constantly darned and mended.

The children each owned one pair of shoes, which they seldom wore except in church. They would carry their shoes until they were in sight of the church and then put them on. Keeping them in good repair meant that the shoes could be handed down through three or four children.

Life became more difficult for the family when Dwight was ten years old. His three older brothers had been hired out to earn money. In November 1847, Dwight’s mother told him it was his turn to go to work. It was a terrible struggle for Dwight to leave home. His brother George walked back from Greenfield, thirteen miles to the southwest, to pick Dwight up.

Dwight begged his mother to change her mind, but she would not. The two brothers set out in the early morning and walked across the frozen Connecticut River that divided Northfield. Dwight looked back sadly at the house on the hill where he had been born. He had never been more than a few miles from home, and he thought his heart was going to break. After a while he sat down on a log and began to cry. This did not change anything, however, and George urged him to keep walking. It was much too cold to sit around in their thin clothing.

Dwight trudged on, hoping that he would find a warm fire and a kind word at the end of his journey. Unfortunately, he did not. The couple he had been sent to live with and work for were old—too old to do simple chores like milking the cow—and Dwight was set to work right away. An hour later Dwight escaped from the couple and ran to the neighboring farm, where George worked.

“I’m going home, and you can’t stop me!” Dwight announced to his brother.

George looked up startled. “Why?” he asked.

“I’m homesick. I want to see Mother.”

George laughed. “You’ll get over it in a few days. Now go back before they notice you’re missing.”

Dwight remained firm. “No. I’ll never get over it as long as I live. I’m going home, now!”