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God's Man for the Gilded Age: D.L. Moody and the Rise of Modern Mass Evangelism
God's Man for the Gilded Age: D.L. Moody and the Rise of Modern Mass Evangelism
Bruce J. Evensen
Oxford University Press, 2003
240 pp., 115.00

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Reviewed by Dale Suderman

Moody, the Media, and the Birth of Modern Evangelism

A cautionary tale.

The death of D. L. Moody in 1899 was a headline story for the American press and the final installment in a 30-year symbiotic relationship between the evangelist and daily newspapers both in America and Great Britain. Bruce J. Evensen, a communications professor at DePaul University, masterfully recounts both how the newspapers elevated Moody to celebrity status and how they came to occupy a central role in modern mass evangelism. Less satisfactory is the author's portrayal of the religious, economic, and social forces which swirled around the Moody revival campaigns. The author's adulation of both Moody and his 20th-century spiritual heir, Billy Graham, makes this a bright shining portrait of urban revivalism unclouded by even a shadow of irony.

Evensen meticulously mines the minutia of press coverage to portray six urban campaigns conducted by Moody: the ascent to fame in Britain in 1873, the faltering Brooklyn revival and the success stories in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, and Boston.

Moody and musician Ira Sankey arrived in Britain in 1873, unheralded by the press on either side of the Atlantic. Two years later Moody returned to New York as an international celebrity. With growing expertise in each successive city in Scotland, Ireland, and England, Moody had mastered a technique for drawing crowds by a rational process of uniting Protestants across denominational lines, using saturation publicity in both the secular and religious newspapers. The stir created by this skillful strategy attracted unbelievers who might otherwise never have attended a local church service.

Moody returned to a bidding war for his next American campaign. Unwisely perhaps, he accepted the option of church-dominated Brooklyn over Philadelphia. The Brooklyn revival drew newspaper coverage and crowds, but Moody was preaching to the choir of the converted and the event was almost overshadowed by the cause celebre of Brooklyn preacher Henry Ward Beecher, who had been caught in a messy scandal of alleged adultery. Beecher—by this time a sad, anxious man—lurked around the edge of the crowds drawn to Moody.

The nine-week campaign in Philadelphia was a greater success. The city's powerful business establishment—led by John Wanamaker, George Stuart, Anthony Drexel, and Jay Cooke—was firmly behind Moody. Wanamaker had 300 of his department store employees "volunteer" as ushers. Indeed, Wanamaker secretly owned the Grand Depot where the revival was held, and two months after Moody left, converted the tabernacle into a new location for his department store The campaign neatly coincided with the city's centennial, and President Grant and other national political figures attended while in town, further heightening the hype surrounding the revival.

In 1876 Moody went to New York City, transforming the newly bankrupt P. T. Barnum's Hippodrome into a tabernacle for revival. Again the barons of the Gilded Age, this time headed by J. Pierpont Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt, underwrote the campaign. Evenson admits their possibly mixed motives for such benefice. "Certainly they hoped for a spiritual revival in their city, and almost as decidedly did they pray that the excitement might overwhelm the public's growing disaffection with national scandal and depression."

Later that same year, Moody returned to Chicago, this time as a prophet with honor in his own land. The Chicago Tribune and rival papers boosted Moody's revival as a point of civic pride. The city, recently devastated by a horrendous fire—which destroyed Moody's first attempt at building a tabernacle—could not be outshone by east coast cities.

When the crowds faltered, Moody devised theme promotions to renew public interest. For instance, there was the special night for "fallen women," intended to attract prostitutes who worked less than a mile away. Evensen is coy about whether this was a crass publicity stunt to increase newspaper coverage, or a sincere outreach to suffering women. Even less clear is what welcome would later await the converts who went to the inquiry room in local churches.

Seventy-eight local churches organized the Boston campaign in the winter of 1877. The two competing local newspapers made Moody a headline event with daily transcripts of his sermons on their front pages. Unitarians kept their distance, but a wide range of Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Baptists united behind Moody. The Tremont Tabernacle, with seating for 7,000 souls was built in the shadow of A. J. Gordon's Baptist Church. When attendance flagged, special trains offering free or half-price fares brought in small-town and rural folks to fill the seats. By the conclusion, a million people had attended the revival, and 6,000 new converts were reported. (Evensen ignores the fact that Boston was no stranger to systematic citywide revival. The 1858 Boston revival had used techniques similar to those used by Moody.)

The raucous Gilded Age free press was underfinanced and desperate for copy to attract local readers. No longer house organs financed by political parties and factions, newspapers needed advertising and market share to sustain themselves. They combined crime stories, local scandals, and gossip with boosterism and competing visions of civic reform in attempts to claim reader loyalty. All this was happening in an urban market that was increasingly foreign-born and developing its own foreign-language press.

Moody used the press brilliantly. He placed reporters front and center at a reserved press table complete with inkwells, paper, candles, and press aides to whisper the names of pastors who led prayers. Reporters were even allowed to bring their girlfriends with them to sit in the choice seats. To accommodate the stenographers who struggled to keep up with his machine-gun delivery, Moody slowed his preaching to 220 words per minute. He held afternoon meetings with the press to share anecdotes for the evening press. (A daily schedule of events was an early form of the modern-day press release.) Moody said, "I don't know what will become of me if the newspapers continue to print all of my sermons"—while at the same time making every effort to continue to be front-page news.

The press reciprocated Moody's accommodations. Walt Whitman, drawn to Boston to see the celebrity preacher, noted "Moody's wonderful murder of syntax" and too frequent use of the word "I." For Whitman, Moody was a newspaper commodity in the style of police reports and patent medicines. But the press cleaned up Moody's syntax when they placed entire transcripts of his sermons on the front page; and when crowds thinned, reporters ignored the empty seats. Moody's civic spectacle was simply too good for circulation and local pride.

Preaching in American cities to immigrants, mostly Irish Catholics, who shared desperate poverty and a growing sense of their own political power, bringing with it new political machines, worker unrest, and attempts at urban reform, Moody largely ignored these issues. With no apparent sense of its emblematic implications, Evensen quotes from a press account of a young girl working in a factory, recently converted at a Moody revival, who stoically sang a revival hymn while her fingers were methodically cut off in an industrial accident. Moody's one notable contribution to social reform was preaching temperance. (Francis Willard—soon to expand her range of reforms to include an editorial position on a Christian socialist magazine—was working alongside Moody in Boston with afternoon temperance sermons but is ignored entirely by Evensen.)

Unfortunately, God's Man for the Gilded Age makes only passing mention of Moody's involvement with the 1894 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Evensen does not tell us that the World's Fair board offered Moody a site for a revival campaign—and obtained for themselves the fringe benefit of keeping the Fair open on Sunday. After all, this was a religious event. Moody's preaching was now in proximity to the world's first Ferris wheel, the glitter of the Mid-Way carnival, and the spectacle of electric lighting. Evensen makes brief mention of Moody's competing for attention with the World's Parliament of Religions. But perhaps a bigger story, another detail unremarked by Evensen, concerns Turlington W. Harvey, local lumberman and long time Moody funder. Harvey used the gatherings to sell lots for his alternative suburb south of Chicago. This effort exists today as the impoverished city of Harvey, Illinois.

Evensen has done landmark research on Moody and the urban press. Missing is a sense of Moody's Gilded Age context and of what it might mean to be God's man in a time so named. The result is a book full of facts, but insufficiently grounded in the kind of critical theological or historical reflection that could tease out those facts' larger significance.

Dale Suderman is an addictions counselor for the Salvation Army in Chicago. He writes a newspaper column for his hometown paper in Hillsboro, Kansas and occasional book reviews for The Common Review.

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