Biography of D. L. Moody, American Evangelist

The Shoe Salesman Who Became a Powerful Evangelist

D.L. Moody
American evangelist, D.L. Moody founded his Bible Institute for Home and Foreign Missions, now the Moody Bible Institute, in Chicago in 1889.

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D. L. Moody (1837-1899) started his career as an uneducated shoe salesman but turned into one of the greatest evangelists of all time. With only a fifth grade education, he seemed to be uniquely unqualified for his lifelong calling. His grammar was terrible, and he was far from an eloquent orator. But he took his plain talk approach to evangelism and preached the gospel throughout the United States and Great Britain, leading hundreds of thousands of people to faith in Jesus Christ. Moody is remembered today as the most effective evangelist of the late 19th century.

Fast Facts: D. L. Moody

  • Full Name: Dwight Lyman Moody
  • Known For: One of the most successful revival preachers of the late 19th-century and founder of the Moody Church and Moody Bible Institute in Chicago
  • Born: February 5, 1837 in Northfield, Massachusetts
  • Parents: Edwin Moody and Betsy Holton
  • Died: December 22, 1899 in Northfield, Massachusetts
  • Spouse: Emma Revell Moody
  • Children: Emma Reynolds Moody, William Revell Moody, and Paul Dwight Moody.
  • Published Works: Secret Power (1881); Heaven (1884); Prevailing Prayer—What Hinders It? (1885); Weighed and Wanting: Addresses on the Ten Commandments (1898).
  • Notable Quote: "Character is what a man is in the dark."

Early Life

Born on February 5, 1837, D. L. Moody began life in near poverty on a small farm in Northfield, Massachusetts. His father, Edwin Moody, supplemented the family's meager farm income by working as a bricklayer. In 1841, when Dwight was only four, his father died unexpectedly, leaving his mother, Betsy, with seven children and pregnant with twins.

With extreme difficulty, Betsy managed to hold the family together, but Dwight and his older brothers were required to live and work on other farms as hired hands for several months each year. By the time Moody was 17, he had accumulated no more than four years of education at the local one-room schoolhouse. But the ambitious teenager was determined to escape the backbreaking toil of farm labor, so he moved to Boston, where he worked in his uncle's shoe shop as a salesman.

Shoe Salesman to Preacher 

Moody's conversion happened in the stockroom of his uncle's store. Since living in Boston, Moody had been regularly attending Mount Vernon Congregational Church every week at his uncle's insistence. He was touched by the kindness of his Sunday school teacher, Edward Kimball, who spoke to him of the love of Christ.

One Saturday afternoon, on April 21, 1855, Kimball visited Moody at the shoe shop, where he found the young man alone wrapping shoes in the back room. There he talked with Moody about his need for a savior and led him in a simple prayer of salvation. Many years later, Edward Kimball recalled that no one at the church would have ever imagined that Moody would go on to become a great spiritual leader throughout the English-speaking world.

In the fall of 1856, Moody moved to Chicago to pursue the shoe business there. He prospered beyond his wildest dreams, earning over $5,000 a year, an enormous amount in those days.

D.L. Moody with a group of orphans.
American evangelist D.L. Moody (1837 - 1899) with a group of orphans at one of his Chicago missions. MPI / Getty Images

To serve the neglected youth of the city, Moody taught Sunday school and worked as a janitor at the local Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). His Mission Sunday School catered to orphans, the uneducated, the poor, and abused. By 1860, Moody left his business pursuits to minister full time.

The school outgrew the former saloon building and was replaced by the Illinois Street Church in Chicago, today's Moody Church. As Moody was making a name as a preacher in Chicago, the American Civil War erupted in 1861. Moody took to the field, ministering to both Union and Confederate soldiers.

After the war, Moody continued to teach and preach in Chicago. In 1871, the Chicago fire devastated the city, and Moody reassessed his life. He yearned to preach the gospel to the world.

Reaching England and Beyond

Moody sailed to England in 1872, then returned to that country in 1873. His partner in evangelistic campaigns was Ira D. Sankey, a talented singer and musician, who entertained the crowds and led hymns.

A religious revival was sweeping the United Kingdom at the time, with Moody and Sankey playing a major role. Everywhere they went, masses of people overflowed the buildings.

Against the advice of friends, Moody and Sankey went to Ireland, where Catholics and Protestants had been fighting for centuries. Moody was a simple man who trusted implicitly in God. Denominations and differences meant nothing to him. His burning desire was to take the gospel to as many people as possible. As a result, the Irish campaign was a resounding success.

D.L. Moody and Ira David Sankey
Evangelists Dwight Lyman Moody and Ira David Sankey. Chris Hellier / Getty Images

Breaking New Ground

On returning to the States, Moody settled back in his hometown of Northfield, Massachusetts. He and Sankey toured the country for the next three years, filling churches and assembly halls in key cities.

Just as he had reached out to the neglected youth of Chicago, Moody recognized that women could play a vital part in evangelism. He founded the Northfield Seminary for Young Women in 1879. Shortly after, he started the Mount Hermon School for Boys, to give the underprivileged an education.

By the mid-1880s, Emma Dryer, one of Moody's associates in Chicago, convinced Moody to support a training school for men and women in that city. The Chicago Evangelization Society later became Moody Bible Institute.

Family Man

Despite his tireless preaching schedule, Moody was a devoted family man. He married Emma Charlotte Revell in 1862, and they had three children: Emma, William, and Paul. Emma gave direction and support to her husband throughout his demanding public ministry life. Besides caring for their three children, she managed the family's finances and served as Moody's personal secretary, writing his correspondence. From age 15 until the year she died in 1903, Emma took every opportunity to teach, including Sunday school classes at the Old Home in Northfield.

Moody himself was a fun-loving father who cherished carefree family vacations with his children and grandchildren at their farm in Northfield.

Death and Legacy

D. L. Moody spent the last decade of his life preaching throughout the United States and tending to his schools in Massachusetts. He died of heart failure in 1899, at the age of 62.

Fellow evangelist R.A. Torrey revealed the secret to Moody's incredible success:

"The first thing that accounts for God's using D. L. Moody so mightily was that he was a fully surrendered man. Every ounce of that 280-pound body of his belonged to God: everything he was and everything he had, belonged wholly to God."

Once the Holy Spirit caught fire in Moody's heart, he was unstoppable. He brought Christianity to children, women, and men, filling auditoriums in the United States and Great Britain, preaching on the streets, in churches, wherever people would listen. One biographer estimated that during his 44-year career, Moody brought over 1 million souls to Jesus Christ.

Ira David Sankey and D.L. Moody at Agricultural Hall
Evangelical duo of Ira David Sankey and D.L. Moody at Agricultural Hall, Islington, London, United Kingdom, engraving from Illustrated London News, No 1858, March 20, 1875. De Agostini / Icas94 / Getty Images

Moody was an enthusiastic man whose sincerity drew thousands to hear his messages. In a century when speakers were valued for their fancy word pictures and classical eloquence, Moody was a plain talker who penetrated the hearts of common men and women. More than a hundred years later, his sermons are still compelling in their simplicity.

Despite his limited schooling, Moody was a determined student of the Bible. Over his career, he kept hundreds of files of newspaper clippings and Bible verses, which he used as material for his sermons. He believed unswervingly in the inerrancy of the Bible, which made him welcome in churches of several denominations.

Today, more than 100 years after his death, Moody's lasting legacy includes the Moody Bible Institute, which trains men and women for evangelism and Christian work; the Moody Broadcasting Network, serving an audience of over 30 million; Moody Aviation, which trains missionary pilots and mechanics; and Moody Church in Chicago.

Sources

  • "Moody, Dwight Lyman." Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals (p. 433).
  • Pocket Dictionary of Church History: Over 300 Terms Clearly and Concisely Defined (p. 99).
  • The Gallery—Key People in the Life of D.L. Moody. Christian History Magazine-Issue 25: Dwight L. Moody: 19th C. Evangelist.