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D. L. MOODY
By KEVIN BELMONTE
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2010 Kevin Belmonte
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE FATHERLESS AND THE WIDOW
Underlying it all was the New England landscape, that varied and haunting beauty of rolling hills with their spring and autumn splendor ... best of all [was] the river itself, flowing forever, like human life, out of mystery into mystery. Even if his boyhood was not very conscious of these things, they got hold of Moody and kept hold of him all his days. -Gamaliel Bradford
When asked about his family heritage, D. L. Moody once replied: "Never mind the ancestry! A man I once heard of was ambitious to trace his family to The Mayflower-and he stumbled over a horse-thief."
One could be forgiven for thinking this witty, disarming quip more reminiscent of Mark Twain than someone now regarded as the greatest evangelist of the nineteenth century-but that was D. L. Moody-a man whose great good humor accounted in no small measure for his winsome faith.
From boyhood, Moody retained the puckish side of his personality-a remarkable thing in itself. For if his was in so many ways an eventful and celebrated American life, the story of his earliest years reads like the text of a New England tragedy.
Four-year-old Dwight Moody had only just begun to attend school when, on May 28, 1841, a neighbor poked his head in at the window of the schoolhouse in Northfield, Massachusetts, and asked if any of Ed Moody's children were there. Their father, the man said, had just died. Coming home, complaining of a great pain in his side, the rugged stonemason had staggered to his bedside and collapsed.
We know nothing of the sad and hurried return home Ed Moody's children endured, nor any details of the scene that met them when reunited with their grief-stricken mother, Betsy. All that remain are two stark but telling descriptions Moody gave in later life: "The first thing I remember is the death of my father. It was a lovely day in [May] when he fell suddenly dead. The shock made such an impression on me, young as I was, that I shall never forget it. I remember nothing about the funeral, but his death has made a lasting impression upon me. After my father's death the creditors came and took everything."
And the second: "I had been in this world only three or four years when my father died bankrupt, and the creditors came and swept away about everything we had."
"It brings the tears to my eyes [when] I think of it," Moody recalled many years afterward. "We had a hard struggle ... My mother ... cried herself to sleep at night."
Little Dwight's grief was profound, and the pain he felt over the loss of his father seems never to have left him. In later years there is every indication that his experiences as a father caused poignant memories to resurface. "I shall ever remember one of [Mr. Moody's] illustrations," a friend recalled. "He had told one of his children that he was not to be disturbed in his study, and after a little while the door of the study opened and the child came in. 'What do you want,' [he said], and the little fellow looking up into his father's face said, 'I just wanted to be with you,' and the tears started into the great evangelist's eyes."
Even as the pain of his father's sudden passing persisted, young Dwight was also troubled by a lingering fear of death. I well remember how in my native village in New England it used to be customary, as a funeral procession left the church, for the bell to toll as many times as the deceased was years old.
How anxiously I would count those strokes of the bell to see how long I might reckon on living! Sometimes there would be seventy or eighty tolls, and I would give a sigh of relief to think I had so many years to live. But at other times there would be only a few years tolled, and then a horror would seize me as I thought that I, too, might soon be claimed as a victim by that dread monster. Death. Death and judgment were a constant source of fear to me.
In the aftermath of Edwin Moody's passing, one crisis followed hard upon another. "My mother," Dwight remembered, "was left with a large family of [seven] children. One calamity after another swept over the entire household. [A month after my father's death] twins were added to the family, and my mother was ... taken sick."
Members of Betsy Moody's extended family rallied to her, nursing her till she recovered, helping to put food on the table. Her brothers in Boston helped her to pay the interest of the mortgage on her home, which consisted of "a little farmhouse and a few acres of stony ground on a hillside just [outside] the limits of the town."
Counseled by some to break up her family and let others rear them, she refused, saying: "Not as long as I have these two hands."
"One woman cannot bring up seven boys," she was admonished. "They will turn up in jail, or with a rope around their necks." Such Yankee straight talk fell on deaf ears. Betsy Moody would not yield.
As it happened, her determination was well founded. She knew something her well-meaning neighbors didn't-she had relations like her brother Cyrus, whose kindness during the first dark days after Edwin Moody's death was long remembered. Young Dwight never forgot one morning when he and the other children had been told to stay in their beds until school-time because they had no wood for a fire to heat their home: "I remember just as vividly as if it were yesterday, how I heard the sound of chips flying, and I knew someone was chopping wood in our wood-shed, and that we should soon have fire. I shall never forget Uncle Cyrus coming with what seemed to me the biggest pile of wood I ever saw in my life."
Despite the kindness of Uncle Cyrus and other members of Betsy Moody's family, another bitter experience soon followed the death of her husband. Dwight never forgot it:
The next thing ... was that my eldest brother [Isaiah], to whom my mother looked up to comfort her in her loneliness and in her great affliction, all at once left home and became a wanderer. He ... was seized with the belief that all he had to do to make his fortune was to go away, and away he went. I need not tell you how my mother mourned ... how she longed and waited day by day and month by month for his return. Night after night she watched and wept and prayed.... Many a time we were told to go to the post-office to see if a letter had not come from him.... Many a time I have waked up in the night and heard her pray, "Oh, God, bring back my boy!" We would huddle together around the fire on an evening and ask her to tell us about our father, and she would talk for hours about him. But if the name of our eldest brother was by chance mentioned, then all would be hushed, for she never spoke of him except with tears. She would try to conceal them, but in vain. I used to think she loved him better than all of us put together, and I believe she did. When Thanksgiving Day would come she used to set a chair for him, thinking he would return home. Her friends and neighbors gave him up, but mother had faith to believe she would see him again.
As Betsy Moody was grieving the loss of her eldest son, an unlooked-for grace entered her life in the person of the Reverend Oliver Everett of the Northfield Unitarian Church. Alone among her friends, he urged her "not to part with [her] children, but keep them together as best she could." What is more, he promised to help.
He proved as good as his word. And though his pastoral compensation was modest at best, provisions from his larder were continually sent to the Moody household. He befriended Betsy and her children, modeling kindness for each of them. As W. H. Daniels wrote: "True to his promise, Pastor Everett used to help the widow [Moody] in the care of her children. He would visit them betimes, cheer them up with some pleasant words, settle quarrels among the boys, give the little ones a bright piece of silver all round, and bid the mother keep on praying, telling her God would never forget her labour of love. At one time he took little Dwight into his family to do errands and go to school."
Betsy Moody warmed to this compassionate man. Several weeks after Edwin Moody's funeral, Everett baptized her and all her children "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost." This was somewhat out of the ordinary, as Everett was a Unitarian. He appears to have been a Unitarian largely in name only, however, as he was quite orthodox in his beliefs concerning the central tenets of Christianity. He "believed in the Bible as the inspired word of God, in Jesus Christ as the Saviour of all sinners ... in the Sabbath, and in the church and its sacraments."
Young Dwight Moody was little less fond of Everett than his mother was, and the depth of the affection he bore for the old pastor was revealed in the days following the appointment of a successor. The new pastor was a man in whom the milk of human kindness had run dry. Dwight could not remember "that the minister ever said a kind thing to me, or ever once put his hand on my head" in a gesture of kindness. "I don't think that he ever noticed me."
Everett's successor undid much, if not all, of the good work Everett had invested in the Moody family, especially where Dwight was concerned. He now began "to look upon Sunday with a kind of dread," and soon ceased to have any interest in church at all.
But a hunger for fatherly kindness still persisted, revealed in one of Moody's most oft-repeated childhood stories.
It seems that several years after his father's death, Moody's brother Luther had gone to the neighboring town of Greenfield, hiring out to do chores for people there. "He was so homesick," Moody remembered,
that he was constantly writing for me to come. He wanted me so much that he wrote that he would come home for me. I said I wouldn't go. But one cold day in November-I have never liked November-my brother came home, and said he had found a good place for me, and I must go down and spend the winter in Greenfield. I said I wouldn't go. But as my mother and I sat by the fire she said: "Dwight, I think you will have to go. I don't think I shall be able to keep the family together this winter." It was a dark night for me. But mother's wish was enough. If she said I ought to that settled it. I didn't sleep much that night. I cried a great deal. The next morning after breakfast I took my little bundle and started. I was about ten years old.
Moody joined his brother in Greenfield, but the happiness of their reunion was short-lived. He grew more homesick than Luther. At length, he said:
"Brother, I'm going home."
"What are you going home for?"
"You'll get over it if you stick it out."
"No, I won't. I don't want to get over it. I can't stand it. I don't like those people here, anyway."
"Dwight, come out and take a walk with me," my brother said. He took me out near the courthouse square, led me to some shop windows, and showed me some jackknives. My eyes were full of tears. I didn't care for these things.
"I'm going home," I said.
All at once my brother, who was looking ahead, brightened up and said: "There comes a man that will give you a cent."
"How do you know?"
"Why," he said, "he gives a brand-new cent to every new boy that comes to town, and he will give you one."
He was a feeble, white-haired man, and I was so afraid that he would pass me by that I planted myself directly in his path. As he came up to us my brother spoke to him, and he stopped and looked at me.
"Why, I have never seen you before, you must be a new boy," he said.
He asked me about my home, and then, laying his trembling hand upon my head, he told me that, although I had no earthly father, my Heavenly Father loved me, and then gave me a bright new cent. I do not remember what became of that cent, but that old man's blessing has followed me for over fifty years; and to my dying day I shall feel the kindly pressure of that hand upon my head.
* * *
It was a bright moment amidst the hard work and struggle Dwight knew from the time that he could remember anything. A strong and sturdy little boy, he was set to work earning money early. "The first thing I did to earn money was to turn the neighbor's cows up on Strowbridge Mountain. I got a cent a week for it.... It was to go to mother [and] went into the common treasury."
One by one, Betsy Moody's children went to work, young as they were, and however modest the wage. "[When my brother] George got work, we asked who was going to milk the cows. Mother said she would ... She also made our clothes, and wove the cloth, and spun the yarn, and darned our stockings."
Such recollections create an impression that young Dwight Moody was a dutiful son, susceptible to kindness, yearning for fatherly affection, and often thoughtful and sensitive.
All of these things are true. But it is no less true that as he grew older there were many times when he was a trial to his mother and others. W. H. Daniels, one of Moody's first biographers, took time and care to interview Moody himself, as well as various relations and close friends. Those he interviewed-including, it seems, Moody's mother-spoke with honesty and candor. The resulting portrait presents a young man who had many fine qualities but was in other ways a troubled and restlessly headstrong teen.
Moody's mother set the stage when she told Daniels: "He used to think himself a man when he was only a boy." He "soon came to feel himself his own master." Strong, and taller than most (standing five feet ten inches when fully grown), he had "boundless ambition" and "a will strong enough to break down all opposition." For him, "anything was easier than submission."
On the positive side "there were few things [Dwight] would not do for his mother: at her urgent entreaty he would even do a little studying." That speaks well of him, since he had little inclination to study and heartily detested the local schoolmaster-"a man of violent temper, which he made no effort to control, and who severely used a rattan on the boys' backs upon the least provocation."
Nearly all the time, there seems to have been a pitched battle in the little red schoolhouse, which stood almost opposite the house where the Moodys lived. "There were some bad boys who ran things," he remembered. "I was one of the worst."
The consensus of friends and near relations was that young Dwight was a bundle of contradictions. He would usually obey his mother, Daniels wrote,
but she was the only person in all the world who ever was able to manage him. He was proud and wilful to the last degree, but full of generous impulses. He was ungovernable ... Still there was nothing vicious in his disposition. If he could be made to see that he had wronged anyone, he was ready to beg his pardon for it, and do better ... [Still] he was the leading spirit among the boys, and so much mischief did he lead them into that at length the teacher was in despair, and threatened to turn him out. At this his ... mother was sorely grieved. She told him how ... ashamed she should be to have one of her sons turned out of school, and directed him to go to the teacher, ask forgiveness for his bad conduct, and try to be a credit to his mother rather than a disgrace.
Aside from his rather dismal performance as a student, Dwight was incurably fond of practical jokes. In this he was much like his contemporary Mark Twain, a boy whose intelligence and ability went long unrecognized and were masked beneath the conduct of a rabble-rouser. It was not unusual, for example, for Dwight to post a notice for a temperance lecture in the name of a noted speaker, only to draw a large crowd for a nonexistent event. He took pleasure in startling a farmer's horses, just as the hapless man was taking a drink, tipping him back into his wagon. When asked to give a public recitation of Mark Antony's oration over Caesar's coffin during a "Closing School Exercises" night, Dwight agreed. He then hid a half-wild, yet silent kitten inside the coffin, and at the conclusion of his speech, he whacked the coffin hard, expelling the frightened, caterwauling creature amid screams that broke up the event.
Excerpted from D. L. MOODY by KEVIN BELMONTE Copyright © 2010 by Kevin Belmonte. Excerpted by permission.
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