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D.L. Moody, An Unlikely Servant

Erwin W. Lutzer | January 19, 2014

Selected highlights from this sermon

D.L. Moody had a heart for the poor, especially children.  Uneducated yet filled with passion, he set up schools and founded The Moody Church. 

He serves as a profound example to us as believers.  Can we also give up our lives of success for eternal priorities?  Moody desired to be a man who was wholly yielded to the desires of God.  Regardless of abilities and backgrounds, God was not limited by Moody’s shortcomings, and the Lord is not limited by our faults either.  So let us share the gospel as Moody did!

Someone wrote of him, “He dropped out of school when he was 13 but he inspired students at Cambridge University in England, and founded an internationally known school and church. He once preferred to only teach children because he was uncomfortable with adults due to his lack of education. But he ended up being one of the most persuasive orators of his day. He was born on a remote farm in rural Massachusetts, but became famous for conquering whole cities for Christ. He was in love with money but ended up changing his priorities and living in austere conditions so that more money could go for the spread of the Gospel.”

Someone else has written, “He had the impulsiveness, quick temper and rough humanity of the Apostle Peter, the single-mindedness and strategic skill and heartiness of the Apostle Paul, and the love and steady growth and devotion to God of the Apostle John.”

Today it is my privilege to talk to you about the life and the ministry of Dwight Lyman Moody, and not only to speak about his life and ministry, but today I have the opportunity of doing that while standing behind D. L. Moody’s pulpit here at The Moody Church. And what a privilege it is because I know that if this pulpit could talk it would tell us stories about the Gospel of Jesus Christ going forth throughout the entire world through the ministry and the life of Dwight Lyman Moody. What a privilege it is! It is indeed humbling for me to be able to stand here today and to know that D. L. Moody preached behind this pulpit.

Now you can tell he was a little shorter than I am. You can tell by the pulpit. And, by the way, and many of you may not be able to see it, behind me is his chair, and you notice how wide it is. It’s wider than it would have been necessary for me, but D. L. Moody was rotund, if I can put it that way, and so that’s the chair in which he sat.

Today we are here to honor the Lord Jesus Christ, but we are going to do it through telling the story of a very unlikely servant of God. There was nothing in D. L. Moody’s background that would suggest greatness. He was born in 1837 in rural Massachusetts, the fifth child of nine. His father drank too much whiskey and died suddenly and unexpectedly when Dwight was four years old.

And then he dropped out of school in the fifth grade so that he could help the family, and after doing that what he decided to do at the age of 17 was to go to Boston and his uncle’s shoe shop so that he could sell shoes. It is there that he met Edward Kimball because his uncle said, “Yes, that’s fine, but you must go to Sunday school,” so he attended the Congregational Church there. And Edward Kimball talked to him in the shoe shop, and at the back of the shoe shop led D. L. Moody to saving faith in Christ.

There’s an incident about Kimball that Moody remembered very well. When Kimball was teaching, Moody was told that in his Bible he should find the Gospel of John. Well he began to look for it in the Old Testament, and Kimball very wisely gave him his copy of the Bible opened to John and then took Moody’s Bible and then, of course, found it for himself. Moody never forgot that Kimball kept him from such embarrassment. In Boston today you can actually go to the place. Rebecca and I were there many years ago. There’s a plaque on the wall that says, “This is the place where D. L. Moody received Christ as Savior.” Wow!

Then he decided to come to Chicago to really earn a lot of money. He wanted to earn $100,000 in his lifetime, which in the mid-1800s was a huge amount of money, but he was a great salesman. And so he came here and began to also sell shoes, and then the young people challenged him. And in those days you had to buy a pew in a church, and you’d purchase it so that you could sit in it, and this would help pay the bills of the church.

Moody ended up buying four pews in the Plymouth Congregational Church, and he would recruit kids. Sometimes he even went into the bars on Saturday night and encouraged some of the young people to come to church. So he filled his pews – all four of them, but the people weren’t very impressed with that because these kids were rowdy. They were smelly. They were not used to any kind of discipline, and so they were really not welcome in the church. Well as a result of that Moody had to begin his own Sunday school.

You’ve probably heard the story of how Moody went to the worst part of the city. It was called The Sands. It was also called The Little Hell, and not even the police wanted to go there. Someone said, “It was filled with bad women and worse men who had stooped so low they had nowhere else to go and they did not feel at home anywhere else.” You have to understand that many of these children were beaten and abused. They came from broken homes, and D. L. Moody knew that there was no ministry to the lowest of the low and the poorest of the poor, so he went to them. He felt more comfortable there.

A man from Peoria came into the little shanty because D. L. Moody rented a wooden saloon that he cleaned up, and he said that D. L. Moody was there with candles. It was evening time, and on his lap was a little Negro boy. In those days African Americans were called Negroes, and D. L. Moody was reading to him the story of the prodigal son, but he couldn’t pronounce all the words so he would skip the words but he still knew the story. And so there was Moody reaching out to the poorest of the poor.

And he bribed kids. I mean he promised them some maple candy, some pennies, a ride on his pony. He did everything he could and, of course, he was criticized. People said, “Is that really the reason why kids are coming to Moody’s Sunday school because he’s doing all these things to bribe them to come?” Moody didn’t care. What only mattered is that these kids would come to his Sunday school.
But because of his enthusiasm (I mean the experts say he had many of the characteristics of A.D.D.) and his flightiness, his riding around on the pony with signs trying to get kids to come, he was known as Crazy Moody. But as a result of that Sunday school, it grew so much they had to go into what was known as the North Market Hall, which held 1,000 or 1,200 kids. And can you believe that that Sunday school was so famous that in 1860 Abraham Lincoln, on his way to Washington to be inaugurated as President (He was president-elect at the time.), actually stopped to visit the Sunday school? He left a dinner meeting early so that he could. Abraham Lincoln said that he would go if he didn’t have to say anything. Moody said, “The President does not want to speak but if he did have something to say, we would be very eager to listen.”

And Abraham Lincoln gave a brief speech, and if you read this book, you’ll find…. (laughter) I’ll tell you! Do you get the impression I’m excited about this? I looked through it this morning and I’m going to just use the word and say that it is awesome. But if you read it you’ll see a first-hand account there of what Abraham Lincoln said.

Now as we move on we discover that Moody really rejoiced in the fact that people no longer called him Crazy Moody now that the President had stopped by. They called him Brother Moody (laughter) and that was an improvement to be sure.

Now because he couldn’t find a church that wanted all these rough kids, he had to begin a church. 1864 – the founding of the Illinois Street Church, which would later become known as The Moody Church. There were four different locations because the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 of course, destroyed the first one on Illinois Street. They built a temporary tabernacle and they had services there, and they also used it as a distribution point to all those who were devastated as a result of the fire. And then they built a church called The Chicago Avenue Church where Moody Bible Institute is today.

Now I don’t want to overdo it, but if you get a copy of this book (laughter) what you’ll discover is an entire page and it is a picture of The Chicago Avenue Church. It was a spectacular church but it only held 1,500 people so as time went on they decided that they’d come up here and they’d have a tabernacle, which was right over here where the service station is today, and yes, this book has a picture of that tabernacle. And then, of course, this church was dedicated in 1925.

But here’s the thing. When Moody began his church there in 1864 because other churches didn’t want all of these rough, rowdy, undisciplined kids, he had written on it a sign that said Ever Welcome to the House of the Lord, This House of Worship to the Strangers and the Poor. The original sign has been destroyed. I think it was actually stolen. I hope that if it was stolen that it was stolen by someone who was poor and a stranger so that he could sell it. But if you go out on Clark Street you’ll notice an almost exact replica today - Ever Welcome in This House of Worship are the Strangers and the Poor. What a legacy we have today! What an opportunity to reach out to people as we think about the church. (applause)

Now what I’d like to do is to give you three very important lessons from the life of Moody that I have been praying would change your life, even as I have been deeply affected and deeply touched in the preparation of this message.

Lesson number one is simply this. Moody decided considering the legacy that he left, and that will become a little clearer in a moment. How could this man who could scarcely read (though later on he taught himself to read) leave such a great legacy? Here are three life-transforming lessons for you and for me.

Number one, he decided to trade success for a life of real significance. Let me tell you a story that you’ve often heard me tell, and it brings tears to my eyes and perhaps yours also. Here he is in Sunday school and they have a girls’ class that nobody could control. These girls were so rowdy and so disobedient that Moody said that when he taught them they laughed in his face, and he felt like telling them to leave.

Their teacher, who did his best, God bless him, told Moody that he was sick. He said, “I have to go out east to live with my widowed mother to die.” He had some fluid on his lungs. He was told his life would be very short. But the man said, “My problem is that none of these girls have received Christ as Savior. I’m concerned about their souls.”

Moody said, “Well let’s rent a carriage and let’s visit each one individually before you leave.” The first girl’s name was Mary. They went and they befriended Mary. They explained the Gospel and she believed on Jesus Christ. They went to the second girl, the third and the fourth – and to the sixth and the seventh. Every single one of those girls received Christ as Savior.

Now it’s time for them to say goodbye to the teacher, and so they have a bit of a farewell. And Moody said, and these are all in his own words, “We all knelt in prayer (Moody and the teacher and the girls).” The teacher prayed for Moody. Moody prayed for the teacher, and Moody was about to stand up when suddenly one of the girls began to pray, and then the next one prayed, and then the next one and the next one. And all of these girls who had received Christ that week prayed. Moody said it was as if heaven and earth met together that day. He said, “I would rather die than miss the blessing of what I experienced that night.”

He said that the next day he went back to his business as a shoe salesman. He said that he lost all interest in the business. Money would never tempt Moody again. He told his friends that he was resigning, which he did. He left the business. They told him that what he was doing was foolish. “It was,” to quote the words here that I have written down, “a wild undertaking.” Moody already had made more than $5,000. That was a huge amount of money in the mid-1800s. And now he was leaving all of that.

He left a more expensive apartment, lived more simply, lived on crackers and cheese, sometimes slept outside on park benches because he decided that there is something in life more important than making money. There can be a life of investment and eternal significance.

And do you know what Moody said? He said that he doubted that he would have left the business and gone into full-time ministry were it not for that experience. And you know, let’s just think about it for a moment. What would have happened if instead of Moody Bible Institute we were to have something like a Moody Hotel? After all this was the day of the Field’s and the McCormick’s and the Palmer House. Moody could have done all of that. What if instead of Moody Church it was The Moody Recreational Center and instead of Moody Publishers, which he founded, what if it were just Moody Pub? What would that be like?

You know, when God teaches us about value, and we’ve been singing about heaven, we begin to realize the need for us to exchange worldly success for eternal significance. Moody wrestled with this. This was not an easy decision. It took him weeks to finally yield to God and say no to all of that money. But look at what happened as a result.

There’s a second lesson that we must learn from the life of D. L. Moody and that is that God is not limited by human ability. I have to say this. I have read a couple of biographies. There are about 60 I think that have been written. I have only read two or three, and there is no connection between Moody’s abilities and what he did.

Here he is with a grade 5 education, and what does he accomplish? He founds and begins four schools. Three of them are out east. Some of them no longer exist but the one that we remember the best is Moody Bible Institute, of course, which is next to us, our sister institution. What a legacy he left behind.

And you know when it comes to racial diversity, Moody was so far ahead of his times. I read something this week I didn’t know before. In the graduating class of the Mount Vernon School there were 32 different nations represented. And Moody had someone speak on behalf of the Chinese, on behalf of the American Indian, and on behalf of the different races that were there at the school, because to Moody the Gospel was for everyone, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ makes us all level at the foot of the cross. And Moody believed that very, very deeply. (applause)

I’m sure that Moody up in heaven has better things to do than to worry about what we are doing here, but I believe that his heart would be overjoyed if he knew that here at the Moody Church today we have people from more than 70 different countries of origin, reminding ourselves that the Gospel is for everyone. And around the Throne of God there will be people from every race, every kindred, every nation upon the earth, and we want to represent that here at the Moody Church. (applause)

Moody was also ahead of his times by utilizing women in the ministry. You know when he would have prayer meetings he would always allow the women also to pray, and that was something new. And I don’t have to tell you that along the way he became criticized for that but he had a great ministry. And in England when he was leaving a city, in one of the instances at least he left all of the follow-up work to a woman and entrusted it into her hands. Moody believed that God can use all people, all races, all genders, and he lived what he believed.

But just think of all of the things that he accomplished. Here he begins four schools. He goes to the British Isles in 1873. He’d been there before for smaller missions, and the man who was in charge of Moody’s ministry and preparation had died so they had no place to go. Moody said, “God has closed all of the doors but what we’re going to do is just trust Him, and He’s going to have to open them.” Well, a church in York said, “You can come here,” and so meetings began with a few people, but the congregation began to expand, and pretty soon huge crowds came. From York they went to Edinburgh and Newcastle. In Glasgow they met in a large stadium called the Crystal Palace.

In London when he ended nearly two years later he was there over two years in the British Isles. Imagine this. He’s there for a couple of months. He has 285 meetings, sometimes preaching to 20,000 and 30,000. His message was taken down by shorthand and in the morning the London newspaper on the front page would carry his message. All of that news, of course, came to the United States, and when Moody was here in the United States, coming back, it is said by biographers the entire British Isles were at his feet.

I can even tell you stories of being in Edinburgh, and talking to people whose parents and grandparents were influenced by the large crowds and the ministry of D. L. Moody and Sankey. We’re going to tell you that story at a future time.

He comes here to the United States with crusades in Boston, in Philadelphia, in Chicago and in Kansas City. When you think now of Moody, think of Billy Graham, except there was no microphone. So they set up various sounding boards, and so forth, but Moody’s voice had to permeate the entire area for as many as could hear. It is said that in that London campaign that I told you about he spoke there alone to 2.5 million people. There is no relationship between his gifting and the marvelous unbelievable ministry of D. L. Moody and what he accomplished.

Well you say, “Didn’t he have any faults?” Yes, he did. We don’t emphasize that when we speak but he was sometimes difficult to get along with. He wanted to control situations. You can imagine it was something like working with a whirlwind and trying to contain it, but my, what an ability to recruit people. What a vision D. L. Moody had! So that’s a second lesson. God was not limited by man’s abilities.

And now I emphasize that he kept the main thing the main thing, and here’s another turning point in Moody’s life. When he was visiting London, and this was before he went there for his famous campaign, he met a man by the name of Henry Varley, and Varley said these words. He said, “We have yet to see what God can do through a man who is totally yielded to Him.” Now those words really stuck in Moody’s mind. “The world has yet to see what God can do through a man who is totally yielded to Him.”

Moody said that when he was on the ship coming back to America it was as if those words were painted on the boards of the ship. “God can use a man the world has yet to see.” Moody said that as he thought about it, he thought, “You know, Varley did not say, ‘The world has yet to see what God can do through an educated man who is totally yielded to him.’ He didn’t say that. He didn’t say, ‘The world has yet to see what God can do through a gifted man who is totally yielded to him.’” Moody said, “He just said a man.” And he said, “By the grace of God I’ll be that man.” And I believe that by the grace of God he was that man. What a yieldedness to the Lord!

Now when we talk about such yieldedness it isn’t just simply singing a song, though we are going to sing a song of yieldedness in a few moments. It is really a death to self. It is such brokenness and humility before God that you are willing to simply say, “Lord, anything.” And I might say today that we quote the words of D. L. Moody, but the world has yet to see also what God can do through a woman – through all of us if we are totally yielded to Him. And I might say here at The Moody Church we have many ministries, and many women with powerful far-reaching ministries because the world can see what God can do to those and through those who are totally yielded to Him.

Moody was a humble man. I mean you can imagine the fame that surrounded him. Crowds greeted him wherever he went. One day somebody shook hands with him and said, “Oh, I am getting to shake hands with the great D. L. Moody,” and Moody bent down and he scooped up some dirt and he said, “Look at this. This is D. L. Moody. Dirt!”

Remember that story I told you a few moments ago about the man from Peoria who came to the shanty when D. L. Moody was having his Sunday school? D. L. Moody was trying to read to this boy the story of the prodigal son but couldn’t pronounce the words. What Moody would do, by the way (even in his crusades) when he came across a word he couldn’t pronounce is he’d stop just before it, say a few words, and then carry on, on the other side. It was said that he could pronounce the word Mesopotamia in one syllable.

Do you know what he told that visitor? He said to him afterwards, “I have no abilities. I have only one thing.” He said, “I love the Lord Jesus, and would like to do something for Him. I have only one thing.”

Now Moody had a great social consciousness. Sometime I may explain that to you (a long story) and tell you about all of the things that he did. He visited, of course, the Civil War four times – the front battle lines of the Civil War. He had a great ministry to the solders on both sides, but he always kept the main thing the main thing. It’s like the biographer said. Moody was a plain man who preached the plain Gospel plainly. And that’s really all that he cared about, or the centrifugal force of what he cared about.

He’s only 62 years old. He’s in Kansas City for a crusade and he becomes ill so he’s taken back to Northfield. Rumors circulate that Moody is dead, but he’s not yet. And he comes there to Northfield, and he comes home to die. And when he was growing up he was always afraid of death, and that’s understandable considering the fact that his father was working out on the farm and came home with a pain in his side and died. But this time Moody said these words to his son and others that were there. “Earth recedes; heaven opens. If this be death it is glorious.” And you know in those days when people were not under medication when they died they could already oftentimes (not always) actually see heaven during the transition. And Moody could see even some of his children who had died, who were waiting for him.

You know, this pulpit would cry up against me if I ended this message without explaining the Gospel that was so effective during Moody’s time. Moody preached a great deal on the love of God. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.”

If you are here today listening to this and you have a troubled conscience and don’t know what to do with your sin (and none of us do know what to do with our sin), then you come to Jesus Christ who is the Savior if you feel within your heart that He is speaking to you about where you are in your relationship with God. You may have a formal relationship but not a personal relationship from the heart. If that is you today I urge you to come to Jesus Christ who can cleanse you, who can give you a new heart. As the Bible says, we must be born again to enter into the kingdom of heaven. I encourage you to do that.

This pulpit has heard that message many, many times, and may it ever be said of Moody Church if it should last for another 150 years, may the same Gospel of Jesus Christ be proclaimed from this pulpit to the future generations to come. (applause)

About 20 years ago I had the privilege of being in Northfield, Massachusetts, and the home where Moody grew up is still there. It’s like a museum today. Unfortunately it was closed at the time. It’s always closed because nobody in that area has any interest, but I connected with somebody who had a key to let me in. In it, by the way, is a Bible given to Moody by Spurgeon, the great preacher of London, with Spurgeon’s handwriting, “To my good friend, D. L. Moody.” And the Bible is there and I asked the people if they realized how important the Bible was. I’m not sure that the folks who showed us the home understood its importance.

But then I went over just a little ways along the way and there’s a knoll there along a grassy area, and there’s the grave of Moody. Moody’s favorite text was found in 1 John. “The world passes away and all of its lusts, but he who does the will of God abides forever.” Wow! So on the tombstone is a snatch of that verse. “He who does the will of God abides forever.”

God may be speaking to you today. There may be areas of your life that you have never surrendered to Him. You have never said, “God, You are the Potter. I am the clay. I stand here today to say that as best as I know how I yield myself to You, whatever that cost may be,” because the world continues to see what God can do through men and women who are totally yielded to Him.

Salvation is free. It’s a free gift that I extend to you through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but if you know Him, let His lordship and His sovereignty control your life and mine.

Let’s bow together in prayer.

Our Father, we marvel, we stand amazed at how You just proved that it’s not a matter of ability. It’s a matter of availability. You just proved that You can use anyone – gifted, not so gifted, educated, uneducated. Father, we thank You today for this legacy and ask only that by Your grace we might be faithful, even as Moody was for Your glory, for Your honor and for Your credit. We desire only Your glory. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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