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The Moody Church Story

The Moody Church Story poster

The story of The Moody Church is the story of a man, a mission, a movement, and a memorial, the secret of which has been the power of the Spirit of the Living God fulfilling His purpose through many yielded instruments. Dwight Lyman Moody was the man. His personal ministry, beginning with a few poor, ragged children in the alleys of Chicago, and extending indirectly around the world, is the mission; the founding, growth and activity of a great church, the movement; and that church’s present existence the memorial, a fitting monument to a spiritual giant, who, hearing it said, “The world has yet to see what God will do with and for and through and in and by the man who is fully and wholly consecrated to Him” replied, “I will try my utmost to be that man.”

The Man

D.L. Moody’s ancestors came from England in the early 1630s and eventually settled in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts, where for two hundred years they lived their quiet lives in the seclusion of their farm homes. From that hardy stock he inherited an iron constitution, capable of great physical endurance and a capacity for hard, continuous work. He developed the distinguishing traits of his New England forebears—a strong love of liberty, loyalty to conviction, courage in the face of obstacles and sound judgment in organization; and these constituted his most valuable legacy from his seven generations of Puritan ancestors.

Born at East Northfield, Massachusetts, February 5, 1837, the sixth of nine children, the boy was left fatherless when not yet four, and early came to know the pinch of privation as the burden of the family fell upon the shoulders of Mother Moody whose courage and stamina and faith in God were her chief resources in the conflict with poverty.

At seventeen, Dwight left the old home and went to Boston where he obtained employment in a shoe store owned by two of his uncles. He promised, as a condition of employment, to attend church regularly, which he did and was assigned to a Sunday School class taught by Mr. Edward Kimball who led this fiery young man to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Immediately he sought membership in the church but was refused on account of his lack of knowledge concerning doctrinal matters. Persistently he pursued his desire until, eventually he was accepted into the membership of the Mount Vernon Congregational Church of which the Rev. Dr. Edward N. Kirk was the pastor.

In the fall of 1856 Mr. Moody came to Chicago, obtained employment at Wiswall’s Shoe Store, transferred his membership to the Plymouth Congregational Church, became active in gathering up children for several Mission Sunday Schools, this being the only form of Christian service for which he was fitted. He rented a pew at the church to which he brought his friends and acquaintances and later rented three more which he endeavored to fill at every preaching service.

Hon. John V. Farwell recalls that he first met Mr. Moody at this time in a nine-o’clock class-meeting in the Clark Street Methodist Church to which Mr. Moody came nearly an hour late. “The recollection that I then thought him a very lazy Christian haunts me still,” wrote Mr. Farwell, “for I ascertained afterwards that he came in after spending all the morning getting poor children into a Mission Sunday School, while I was attending only because it was one of the rules of the church and not to get spiritual motive power for Mission work for Christ as he did.”

Mr. Moody promised a class of thirteen boys that if they would maintain good conduct and attend the Sunday School regularly through the summer and fall, he would give each of them a new suit of clothes for Christmas. Twelve of the body did so and received the suits. Mr. Moody had them photographed in their ragged street clothes and captioned it, “WILL IT PAY?,” then took another picture of the boys in their new suits and labelled it, “IT DOES PAY!”

The Mission

About this time, 1958, Moody opened his own Sunday School in an old saloon building which soon became so crowded that the Mayor of Chicago offered him the North Market Hall for a meeting place. Here he filled a variety of offices from janitor to superintendent. Of those days he mused, “Sunday was a busy day for me then. During the week I would be out of town as a commercial traveler selling boots and shoes, but I would always manage to be back by Saturday night. Often it was late when I got to my room, but I would have to be up by six o’clock to get the hall ready for Sunday School. Every Saturday night a German society had a dance there, and I had to roll out the beer kegs, sweep up the sawdust, clean up generally and arrange the chairs.

This usually took most of the morning, and when it was done I would have to drum up the scholars and new boys and girls. By the time two o’clock came we would have the hall full, and then I had to keep order while the speaker of the day led the exercises. We had to keep things moving to keep up the children’s interest. When the school was over I visited absent scholars and found out why they were not at Sunday School, called on the sick, and invited the parents to attend the evening gospel service.

By the time I had made my rounds, the hour had come for the evening meeting, where I presided, and following that we had an after-meeting. By the time I was through the day I was tired out. I didn’t know much at that time, for after going from early morning till late at night with only a few crackers and some cheese, I was faint and fatigued. Sometimes after such a day’s work I thought I sinned in going to sleep over my prayers, when I was a fool for neglecting the dictates of common sense.”

Attendance in the North Market Hall grew rapidly, soon a thousand, then fifteen hundred and in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln visited Chicago after his first election, he was an invited guest to Moody’s Sunday School on the agreement that he would not be asked to make a speech. As Mr. Lincoln was about to leave, Mr. Moody remarked to the school, “If Mr. Lincoln desires to say a word as he goes out, of course all ears will be open.” Mr. Lincoln did say a few words—including these, “With close attention to your teachers and the hard work to put into practice what you learn from them, some one of you may also become President of the United States in due time like myself, as you have had better opportunities than I have had.”

In spite of Mr. Moody’s unquestioned sincerity, his unfeigned humility and his unlimited activity, it had not yet occurred to him that the principle aim of the Sunday School should be to win the lost for Christ. “I thought numbers were everything,” he later confessed. “I worked for numbers, still none were converted. There was no harvest. Then God opened my eyes.”

With that he threw himself into soul-winning and soon conversions began to multiply. He was elated. He began to see God’s plan for his life. At once he sensed a deep need of Holy Spirit power. He enlisted the prayer support of everyone he knew and still his heart longed for a more realistic sense of Divine unction.

Two important events changed the course of his life at this time. First he met the girl who four years later became his wife. Only fifteen at the time, yet much superior educationally, Emma Revell, sister of Fleming H. Revell of publishing fame, was to become his most able assistant in every undertaking. The second was his decision to give up business and go into Christian work. As a hustling young businessman of twenty-four with an annual income of $5,000, his ambition was to become a successful merchant, like many of his associates of whom he once remarked, “I felt I could equal any of them, except one—and that one was Marshall Field.”

Turning to full-time Christian service, he forsook all and without guarantee of any kind, with no Board or Society or Organization to assist him or to raise his living expenses, he determined to trust the Lord, feeling confident that since the Lord had called him to the work, He would support him in it. If not, he could go back to selling shoes, for had not St. Paul made tents to pay expenses? And so with the aid of an Indian pony, which he called his “missionary horse,” he dashed here and there about Chicago, the brunt of many jokes and misunderstandings and often referred to as “Crazy Moody.” Years later Henry Drummond wrote, “No public man is less understood, especially by the thinking world, than D.L. Moody.”

The Movement

As the number of converts grew, it was Moody’s desire that they seek membership in the local church of their choice and this he urged constantly but without results. The converts preferred to remain with Mr. Moody who saw that some provision must be made for their continued nurture and edification. A permanent church organization was formed with twelves members and the Illinois Street Independent Church was built to house the newly formed organization with an auditorium seating fifteen hundred and several additional class rooms, February 28, 1864 being the opening date. The Rev. J.H. Harwood was called as the pastor and Mr. Moody served as one of the deacons.

Crowds filled the building and great blessing attended the nightly services, the meetings for mothers and young women, Bible readings, prayer and praise meetings, missionary services and similar activities of regular occurrence. In the homes of the members, cottage meetings were also gathered, while open-air services were held regularly during the summer.

The Great Chicago Fire destroyed this building in 1871 and Mr. Moody made a trip East to raise money to rebuild. It was on this trip, as he walked along a street in New York City, that he received the answer to his prayer for the infilling of the Holy Spirit. Of it he said, “I was crying all the time that God would fill me with His Spirit. Well, one day in the city of New York,—O what a day! I cannot describe it. I seldom refer to it. It is almost too sacred an experience to name. I can only say God revealed Himself to me and I had such an experience of His love that I had to ask Him to stay His hand! I went to preaching again. The sermons were not different, yet hundreds were converted.”

On December 24, 1871, two months and fifteen days after the fire, the North Side Tabernacle was dedicated at Ontario and Wells streets, just a short distance from where the other building had stood. Immediately it became an important relief center for the distribution of food and clothing to thousands made homeless by the fire.

A year later, plans were begun to erect a permanent building. A lot was purchased at the corner of Chicago Avenue and LaSalle Street. Contributions came from far and near, thousands of Sunday School children contributing five cents each to place a brick in the new edifice. For two years the basement, roofed over, served as a meeting place. In 1876, with funds from the sale of the Moody and Sankey hymn books, the building was completed and dedicated, debt free. Mr. Moody, until the time of his death, December 22nd, 1899, was a member of the Chicago Avenue Church, and in 1901 it was renamed, in his honor, The Moody Church.

Glorious indeed were the days that followed as The Moody Church became the center of a ministry of Bible teaching and evangelism where rich and poor, learned and unlearned were welcome to hear the unsearchable riches of Christ expounded by men like R.A. Torrey, A.C. Dixon, Paul Rader and other world renowned evangelists and Bible teachers in a non-sectarian fellowship of all who loved the Lord. Doubtless those were the best days of the work up to that time and rapidly it became evident that larger quarters were again necessary.

In 1915 a plain wooden tabernacle seating 5,000, with sawdust floor and plain wooden benches, was erected at North Avenue and Clark Street, and for a number of months services were held nightly with great blessing. Dear to the memory of hundreds are the experiences of those tabernacle days.

Although known as The Moody Church since 1901, it was not until 1924 that work was begun on the present building which was designed to be a fitting memorial to the man whose spiritual genius forerun it all. On ground valued at $500,000 and costing $1,000,000 for building and furnishings, it was dedicated on November 8, 1925, as The Moody Memorial Church. [Editor’s note: The church organization is The Moody Church; the sanctuary building is The Moody Memorial Church].

How was such a program financed? Surely there were many men of means who made it possible! On the contrary, the building was entirely financed through the sacrificial giving of a great number with only average means but with a great love for God and a deep devotion to His cause. The first step was the sale of part of the original lot which would not be needed for the new construction. This sale netted $300,000. Pledges were taken to be paid over a period of five years. Bonds were then issued to realize cash as needed for the work of construction as it progressed. During the depression days of the early thirties, when most bonds were being discounted, The Moody Church bonds were redeemed at 100% face value.

A word is in order here about the men whose pastoral leadership was so valuable at this time. Dr. P.W. Philpott was the pastor when the planning, financing and construction took place. Then came Dr. Harry A. Ironside under whose leadership the project was brought to a glorious climax when on December 31, 1943, with Dr. Philpott present, the mortgage-burning ceremony was witness to the fact that once again God had undertaken in behalf of The Moody Church.

Unique among churches, architectural inspiration was drawn for it from St. Sophia’s church of Constantinople and certain Romanesque churches of Lombardy, Italy, built over 800 years ago. The 1,700 seat balcony, constructed on the cantilever principle, and the 2,300 seat main floor, give an entirely unobstructed view of the pulpit and the choir loft. One of the largest Protestant churches in America, most of the chairs were gifts as were the stained glass windows.

The four-manual Reuter organ, with approximately 4,400 pipes, divided into 73 ranks, each with a different tone quality, name and draw-knob, has a speaking range from the lowest 32 ft. bass to the highest 2 in. treble. Valued at $100,000 and entirely reconditioned in 1953 at a cost of $25,000 which included a new console, this mighty instrument is one of the truly great organs in this country.

Adjacent to the auditorium is the Sunday School building, consisting of Philpott Hall, Dixon Hall, Woolley Hall, Jacoby Hall, Harper Hall, Kappeler Hall, Aitchison Hall, Hitchcock Hall, Torrey Chapel, the Borden Library, the Ladies’ Lounge and the Nursery. Beneath the choir loft is Towner Hall and below the main auditorium is Sankey Auditorium, which seats 1,000.

A pattern of inspiration to other independently minded church groups all over America and in other lands, The Moody Church stands at the head of a great family of independent, fundamental churches which may well claim as their originator the late Dwight L. Moody.

Recognized as a great world center of evangelicalism, The Moody Church stands hard by the surging sea of restless humanity whose weary waves lap unceasingly at our doors even as when D.L. Moody saw them casting up mire and dirt, turned his back upon success and fortune and gave himself to the task of throwing out the lifeline. The need, great a hundred years ago, is infinitely greater now and the compassion and compulsion which motivated Moody then is that which must motivate us if we would properly perpetuate the ministry of the man whom we memorialize in this great building.

In Conclusion

The full story of The Moody Church will not be written by the hand of any living person. Only Almighty God has the complete record and only He knows the full details of such a work as this. But these lines are an attempt to acquaint the stranger with something of what goes on about these sacred precincts as men and women and youth cooperate faithfully in the great unfinished task of making Christ known to a needy world. It is with inexpressible gratitude to God that this story is told, for apart from Him, His grace, His guidance and His gifts, there would be no Moody Church Story.

And now that you have read it, please join us in prayer that the power that was upon D.L. Moody may be upon all of us and that together we may see the work which he began, carried forward with ever increasing blessing and victory until the day when earthly labors cease and the coming of the Lord “shall prove each man’s work of what sort it is”—gold, silver and precious stones or woody, hay and stubble!

He that doeth the will of God abideth forever.”