It’s little surprise when privileged men rise to prominence. Born into high circumstances, given an exceptional education, and exposed to remarkable opportunities, no one marvels when these men are successful. But we take notice when men rise from the lowest and least likely of circumstances to change the world. This is the case with a Christian man who became one of history’s greatest evangelists. He grew up in abject poverty and received only a meager education, yet he thrived because of the tenacity of a mother who endured the most severe affliction.
D.L. Moody was at his mother’s side when she died, and later recounted the experience. “At last I called, ‘Mother, mother.’ No answer. She had fallen asleep; but I shall call her again by-and-by. Friends, it is not a time of mourning. I want you to understand we do not mourn. We are proud that we had such a mother. We have a wonderful legacy left us.”
A Wonderful Legacy
Dwight Lyman Moody was born in Northfield, Massachusetts on February 5, 1837, the sixth of nine children born to Edwin and Betsy. Both parents were from old Puritan stock, and their forebears had been among America’s first settlers. The Moody family arrived in America around 1633, settling first in Roxbury, Massachusetts, then spreading to several points in New England until, by the time Edwin was born, they had made their way to Northfield. Betsy was a descendent of one of the town’s founders and a member of one of its stalwart families. When the two first began their family, Edwin was a successful stonemason who was devoted to his wife and children. But he developed a love for liquor and became rash with money, having to borrow to purchase even a small home on a poor piece of land. During the early years of marriage, the family’s debt compounded and trouble loomed, though it seems they were happy enough.
Tragedy came in 1841, when Edwin died of a sudden heart attack. Dwight was just 4 at the time, already a brother to six siblings. His mother was pregnant and soon gave birth to twins, leaving her a single mother of nine children, all under the age of 14. Because her husband had died in debt, creditors descended upon the house and took every last item the law allowed, all the way to the firewood stacked in the shed. The family was left utterly destitute, burdened by a mortgage and without any means of provision. Their poverty was so extreme that Betsy often had the children lie in bed until it was time to go to school, since she had no wood to heat their home. And still more creditors appeared, demanding payment, treating her cruelly. Friends told her that, for the sake of her children, she would need to break up the family and send them away to live with relatives. She stubbornly refused.
Mercy came through family members, who covered her mortgage payment for that first year, and through Oliver Everett, the minister of the nearby Congregational Church. He brought food and other necessities, spent time with the family as a kind of father figure, and encouraged Betsy to keep the family together. Betsy was committed to attending church and taught her children from the only books in the house—a Bible, a catechism, and a small devotional. She disciplined the children and, by necessity, maintained a strict home. The children responded well and, even in adulthood, all of them loved few things more than being with their mother in her home.
By necessity, she had to give the bulk of her time to the urgent concerns of providing for her family. She worked in every way that she could, plowing the ground and planting crops, seeking work from nearby families. In her home, she made her children’s clothes, spinning the yarn and weaving the cloth and darning them until they were past repair. Sometimes it seemed like the family would not be able to go on, but in the end, they always had enough, even if just barely. Through it all, she maintained a trust in God’s provision, and her simple faith was rewarded. “Trust in God” was her creed, and she trusted him even when called upon to sacrifice the little she had for those who had even less. Holding on to God’s strength, she maintained a sunny disposition in front of her children, even while crying herself to sleep at night.
Many years later, Dwight would honor his mother in the words of Proverbs 31:
“Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her.” She has been a widow for fifty-four years, and yet she loved her husband the day she died as much as she ever did. I never heard one word, and she never taught her children to do anything but just reverence our father. She loved him right up to the last.
“She seeketh wool and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.” That is my mother.
“She considereth a field and buyeth it; with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard. She girdeth her loins with strength and strengtheneth her arms. She perceiveth that her merchandise is good, her candle goeth not out by night.” Widow Moody’s light had burned on that hill for fifty-four years, in that one room. We built a room for her, where she could be more comfortable, but she was not often there. There was just one room where she wanted to be. Her children were born there, her first sorrow came there, and that was where God had met her. That is the place she liked to stay, where her children liked to meet her, where she worked and toiled and wept.
“She stretcheth out her hands to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.” Now, there is one thing about my mother, she never turned away any poor from her home. There was one time we got down to less than a loaf of bread. Some one came along hungry, and she says, “Now, children, shall I cut your slices a little thinner and give some to this person?” And we all voted for her to do it. That is the way she taught us.
“She is not afraid of the snow for her household; for all her household are clothed with scarlet.” She would let the neighbours’ boys in all over the house, and track in snow; and when there was going to be a party she would say, “Who will stay with me? I will be all alone; why don’t you ask them to come here?” In that way she kept them all at home, and knew where her children were. The door was never locked at night until she knew they were all in bed, safe and secure. Nothing was too hard for her if she could only spare her children.
A World-Changing Ministry
From a young age, Dwight was a mischievous and headstrong boy. Though he received a little bit of schooling, he was forced to do his bit to provide for his family, often through grueling manual labor. Sometimes he was able to do this from home, and at other times he had to be sent away to those who could put him to work. Almost all that he earned was surrendered to his mother for the care of the family.
In 1854, cutting logs with his brother, he decided he had had enough of such work and would go to the city to make his fortune. He meant to earn $100,000. A kind uncle in Boston gave him a job in his shoe store. Though he did well in this work, he was lonely, so he attempted to join a Congregational church. However, he was rejected because he failed a simple test of theological knowledge. While he found the church services difficult to endure, he thrived in Sunday school under the teaching of Edward Kimball. One morning, Kimball determined he would speak to Dwight about the state of his soul. He walked to the shoe store, marched up to him, and made his plea. He told “of Christ’s love for him, and the love Christ wanted in return.” It was then and there that the young man was saved.
Now a 19-year-old Christian, Dwight continued to pursue his business ventures and relocated to Chicago to pursue a career as a merchant. There he joined Plymouth Congregational Church, rented a pew, and ensured it was full each Sunday. He introduced himself to strangers and invited them to worship. Many did. Before long, he and a friend decided to start a mission in the city’s most neglected area, and they soon had tremendous success in reaching out to children and teaching them about Jesus. This evangelistic work served as the basis for a new church, which exploded in popularity. Following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, he felt compelled to begin a career as a traveling revivalist. The world would never quite be the same. Accompanied by musician Ira Sankey, he would travel across America and the world, preaching to crowds of thousands and tens of thousands, seeing countless numbers come to Christ.
Rise Up and Call Her Blessed
In 1875, Dwight returned to Northfield to preach, and Betsy decided to attend the meeting. The sermon was taken from Psalm 51, and at the end of the sermon he asked for any who wished to receive prayer to stand. He was overwhelmed with joy to see his mother rise to her feet. Was this her conversion, or was this simply a kind of spiritual awakening? We do not know. Yet it seems Moody must have believed the latter, since he spoke of her strong faith often before this event.
All throughout his life, Dwight would remain in close contact with his mother, even settling back in Northfield to be close to her. While away, he would write to her every day and seek her wisdom and counsel. “I thought so much of my mother I cannot say half enough. That dear face! There was no sweeter face on earth. Fifty years I have been coming back and was always glad to get back. When I got within fifty miles of home I always grew restless and walked up and down the car. It seemed to me as if the train would never get to Northfield. For sixty-eight years she has lived on that hill, and when I came back after dark, I always looked to see the light in mother’s window.” He would forever feel at home in her home and continue to care for her and to provide for her needs as she aged.
In the end, she lived to be 91 and died just three years before her son. He spoke at her funeral and, on behalf of his siblings, praised his mother:
I want to give you one verse, her creed. Her creed was very short. Do you know what it was? I will tell you what it was. When everything went against her, this was her stay, “My trust is in God. My trust is in God.” And when the neighbors would come in and I tell her to bind out her children, she would say, “Not as long as I have these two hands.” “Well,” they would say, “you know one woman cannot bring up seven boys; they will turn up in jail, or with a rope around their necks.” She toiled on, and none of us went to jail, and none of us has had a rope around his neck. … And if every one had a mother like that mother, if the world was mothered by that kind of mothers, there would be no use for jails.
Here is a book (a little book of devotions); this and the Bible were about all the books she had in those days; and every morning she would stand us up and read out of this book. All through the book I find things marked.… And on Sunday she always started us off to Sunday school. It was not a debatable question whether we should go or not. All the family attended.
I think she is one of the noblest characters this world has ever seen. She was true as sunlight; I never knew that woman to deceive me. It is a day of rejoicing, not of regret. She went without pain, without struggle, just like a person going to sleep. And now we are to lay her body away to await His coming in resurrection power. When I see her in the morning she is to have a glorious body. The body Moses had on the Mount of Transfiguration was a better body than God buried on Pisgah. When we see Elijah he will have a glorious body. That dear mother, when I see her again, is going to have a glorified body.
With that he looked at her face and said, “God bless you, mother; we love you still. Death has only increased our love for you. Goodbye for a little while, mother.” And then he thanked God for providing so godly a mother.