In 1860, a poor Yankee preacher named Dwight L. Moody met the Illinois rail-splitter, Abraham Lincoln, in a Chicago slum.
Moody was teaching Sunday school to poor boys. Lincoln was waiting to take the oath of office as president of the United States. Though Dwight L. Moody had only about five years of formal schooling, he had more than Lincoln, who had only about two.
Lincoln spoke to the boys with a message that applied to their teacher as well.
Dwight L. Moody
Dwight L. Moody was born Feb. 5, 1837, in the town of Northfield in western Massachusetts, a region with a long history of evangelical revivalism, beginning with Jonathan Edwards.
He was the seventh child in a poor family. On a lovely day in May 1841, his father, a stonemason, dropped dead. Creditors came and took away nearly everything the family owned.
A month later, his mother gave birth to twins. The family had so little money his mother sent some of the children off to work for their room and board. Young Dwight complained he ate cornmeal, porridge, and milk three times a day, but his mother told him to be grateful he had enough to eat.
At the age of 17 he stepped off a train in Boston without a penny in his pocket. He persuaded his uncle to give him a job at his shoe store. But his uncle attached a string to his employment: He had to attend church and Sunday school.
His teacher, Edward Kimball, converted Dwight L. Moody to evangelical Christianity. “ I have seen few persons whose minds were spiritually darker than was his when he came into my Sunday school class”, Kimball said. Today, a plaque on Court Street in Boston commemorates the conversion of Dwight L. Moody.
He moved to Chicago at the age of 19 as a shoe salesman. He met a wealthy merchant named John V. Farwell, a religious man who agreed to support the Christian mission that Moody ran in his spare time.
Moody started out in an abandoned saloon in a slum called Little Hell, where he taught poor Irish, Scandinavian and German immigrant children.
He wore a slightly disheveled suit, and he made grammatical errors when he spoke. His Yankee accent must have sounded strange to the Chicago children: He pronounced ‘mercy’ as ‘mussy,’ ‘heart’ as ‘haat.’ But he reached the boys, bringing them food and candy, sometimes clothes, and he let them ride his pony.
A man named William Reynolds came to visit him one night in the former saloon:
The first meeting I ever saw him at was in a little old shanty that had been abandoned by a saloon-keeper. Mr. Moody had got the place to hold the meetings in at night. I went there a little late; and the first thing I saw was a man standing up with a few tallow candles around him, holding a negro boy, and trying to read to him the story of the Prodigal Son and a great many words he could not read out, and had to skip. I thought, “If the Lord can ever use such an instrument as that for His honor and glory, it will astonish me.”
After that meeting was over, Mr. Moody said to me, “Reynolds, I have got only one talent: I have no education, but I love the Lord Jesus Christ, and I want to do something for him, and I want you to pray for me.”
Dwight L. Moody would eventually earn accolades as the children’s friend.
His school grew, though, and he moved to a larger, still grimy, venue known as the North Market Hall (now Courthouse Place at 54 W. Hubbard).
In 1860, Dwight L. Moody gave up business in 1860 to do missionary work. On Sunday, Nov. 25, 1860, Abraham Lincoln came to visit the 23-year-old teacher on condition he didn’t have to say anything. Lincoln had won election as U.S. president with 39.8 percent of the vote, but he hadn’t yet left for Washington.
Moody ignored Lincoln’s admonition about speaking. He urged the president-elect to speak. Lincoln stood up and addressed the boys:
I was once as poor as any boy in this school, but I am now President of the United States, and if you attend to what is taught you here, some of you may yet be President of the United States.
Lincoln, of course, would become one of America’s greatest presidents. Dwight L. Moody would win worldwide fame and influence as one of the greatest evangelists of the 19th century. He founded the Moody Church, Moody Bible Institute and Moody Publishers in Chicago, and the Northfield School and Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts (now Northfield Mount Hermon School). He died in Northfield in 1899.
With thanks to D.L. Moody by Kevin Belmonte. This story last updated in 2022.