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Innovator, Evangelist, World Changer

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Every era of church history is dominated by a handful of towering figures. While most of the work of ministry in any age is completed by the many and the unseen, there are always the few and the fascinating who continue to capture our attention even generations later. One of the towering figures of the second half of the nineteenth century was the great American evangelist D.L. Moody, the subject of a new biography from Kevin Belmonte: D.L. Moody — A Life.

Born in Northfield, Massachusetts in 1837, Moody lost his father at only four years of age and had to dedicate his younger years to supporting his family instead of to receiving an education. At seventeen he moved to Boston to pursue his fortune and began working in a store owned by his uncle. It was here, in Boston, that Moody heard and believed the gospel and became a Christian. Soon after his conversion Moody moved to Chicago where he became actively involved in ministry to children, gathering hundreds of children each week and teaching them about Jesus. This ministry led to the founding of a church—Illinois Street Church.

But Moody would soon find that his greatest strength lay not in pastoring but in evangelism. In the 1870s he began to travel through North America and Europe. Collaborating with gospel singer Ira Sankey, he held massive services where thousands or tens of thousands would attend and countless people were converted. Such crusades continued for three decades until his death in 1899. In his own way he was one of the most significant figures of his time in both the United States in Great Britain. Consider this write-up in the New York Times that followed a series of New York gatherings:

Whatever philosophical skeptics may say, the work accomplished this winter by Mr. Moody in this city for private and public morals will live. The drunken have become sober, the vicious virtuous, the worldly and self-seeking unselfish, the ignoble noble, the impure pure … The youth have started with more generous aims, the old have been stirred from grossness. A new hope has lifted up hundreds of human beings, a new consolation has come to the sorrowful, and a better principle has entered the sordid life of the day, through the labors of these plain men. Whatever the prejudiced may say against them, the honest-minded and just will not forget their labors of love.

D.L. Moody — A Life is the first substantial biography of Moody I’ve read and I enjoyed it tremendously. One thing that appeals about Moody is his normalcy. Where a man like his contemporary Charles Spurgeon was extraordinarily naturally gifted, Moody was not—at least, not to nearly the same degree. Belmonte portrays him as a normal person who was extraordinary mainly for the ways God chose to bless his ministry. If he did have amazing natural gifts, Belmonte does not dwell on them.

I was challenged by Moody’s passion and obedience. He believed the Lord had called him to preach the gospel, so that is exactly what he did. He preached it far and wide and preached it with great faith that the Lord would bring results. I was challenged by his love for people and his fervor in reaching them. I was challenged by the wide range of projects he founded and invested in.

With that said, the book left me a little bit dissatisfied. I wanted to know more of Moody and to know him better. I wanted to learn more about his friendship with Spurgeon, I wanted to know more about his marriage, I wanted to know him as a father, I wanted to know more about his sins and foibles. While Belmonte briefly mentions Moody’s overbearing leadership and the way he would sometimes hurt the people around him through force of personality and sharp words, he could have given us a more complete picture of the man by showing where he was prone to sin, where he led poorly, where his faith waned. With Belmonte’s skill as a biographer, the book could easily have been another sixty or eighty pages and I am convinced that the extra length would not have been wasted.

If I have a concern with the book, it is that Belmonte goes out of his way to prove Moody’s commitment to “mere Christianity”—a Christianity focused on the primary tenets of Christianity rather than being distracted by the minor and distinguishing points of doctrine. While this may be true, I tend to take the cautious approach when importing a popular and attractive modern term into an earlier period of history. While it is clear that Moody’s ministry transcended denominational boundaries, I am not as convinced that he had such a substantial focus on the “mere” and that his goal was ecumenism. It is possible, but I am not convinced.

Overall, D.L. Moody — A Life is a tremendous biography and a vivid, compelling look at a life lived for the glory of God. It is a powerful introduction to a man who was greatly used and whose legacy survives to this day.

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