Recently I have been reading the inspiring biography of evangelist Dwight L. Moody written by his son, William. During the last quarter of the 19th century, until his death in 1899, Moody preached on average to over 40,000 people per week – without the aid of modern electronic voice amplification. The descriptions of halls, opera houses, and large wooden tabernacles filled beyond capacity for months with thousands of people night after night to hear the gospel is thrilling.
By modern standards, the response to Moody’s meetings and message is almost unbelievable. What drew such enormous crowds across the United States and Great Britain? The services usually consisted of a choir, congregational singing, a solo by Moody’s associate Ira Sankey, and preaching by Mr. Moody. His sermons were simple, “homespun.” He never attended college or seminary. There was little if anything else in the services. And it was not just the crowd size and the duration of the meetings that was amazing. The positive impact on churches, families, and society in general was substantial.
Can we not replicate this great gospel endeavor and see similar success 150 years later, in our own time?
One characteristic of the great 19th century Moody/Sankey meetings is often overlooked. Vast multitudes crowded to hear the gospel, with hundreds converted to Christ in nearly every service. But William Moody records that before and during these evangelistic meetings, there were enormous gatherings of a different kind. Weeks before a campaign would begin in a particular city, Mr. Moody would lead great prayer meetings. These were also held earlier on the days of the evening gospel services. Thousands – yes, thousands – would gather to sing and then to pray for souls and for revival. God blessed the Moody/Sankey meetings in part because God answers prayer.
There is no program that will guarantee success to an organized mass evangelistic effort. However, there is a formula in the Bible that assures us of God’s power and blessing. “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” (Mt. 7:7) “All things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing ye shall receive.” (Mt. 21:22) “… how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (Lk. 18:6) “Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” (Jn. 14:13) “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will and it shall be done unto you.” (Jn. 15:7) “Let us therefore come boldly before the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:16) “… The effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” (Js. 5:16) “This is the confidence that we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will he heareth us. And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him.” (I Jn. 5:14, 15)
In this 21st century we have material resources unknown in the days of Moody, but according to the historical record, the Christians of Moody’s day had a far greater faith and fervency in prayer than we do today. Therefore, I would suggest that they actually had greater resources than we do. God will still have “all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (I Tim. 2:4) And the Bible still says because of this, “I exhort therefore that first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men.” (I Tim. 2:1)
R. W. Dale, a pastor from Birmingham, England, recorded his candid impressions of Moody’s ministry in his city in 1875. “On Tuesday I told Mr. Moody that the work was most plainly of God, for I could see no real relation between him and what he had done. He laughed cheerily, and said he should be very sorry if it were otherwise.”