Chapter 3 – Mr. Moody’s Early Life

Dwight Lyman Moody was born in the town of Northfield, Mass., February 5. 1837. He was the sixth of seven sons who, with two daughters, made up the family of Edwin and Betsy Holton Moody. The father had acquired a little farmhouse and a few acres of stony ground on a hillside just without the limits of the town, but the whole was encumbered by mortgage. Mr. Moody worked as a stonemason when the opportunity was afforded, using his leisure time to till his farm. The burden of his responsibilities proved too heavy; reverses crushed his spirit; and, after an illness of only a few hours, he died suddenly at the age of forty-one years, when Dwight was only four years old, leaving a large family unprovided for. 


Young as he was, the picture impressed on the boy’s mind by this sudden upheaval of the household, consequent upon his father’s death, remained vivid. He did not forget the desperate feeling which must have seized the family in that crisis; nor did he ever forget the wonderful fortitude with which his mother met the situation. Only a month after the death of the father two posthumous children were born – a boy and a girl. Neighbours advised Mrs. Moody not to face harsh conditions now confronting her. Keep your twin babies, but bind out your children, they urged. “It will be so long before they can be of any real service to you that their maintenance just now will be a greater burden than you should assume.” 

But Mrs. Moody was not the woman to be daunted by circumstances. The idea of separating from her children was not entertained. She took upon herself the task of snatching some tribute money from an unwilling soil, and of bringing up her children to wholesome manhood and womanhood – how well she succeeded is shown by the results. 


One incident of this early period proved a severe blow to the bereaved family. The oldest son, upon whom the mother was planning to place considerable dependence, ran away from home. Mr. Moody in later years related this incident and its sequel in the following words:

“I can give you a little experience of my own family. Before I was four years old the first thing I remember was the death of my father. He had been unfortunate in business and failed. Soon after his death the creditors came in and took everything. My mother was left with a large family of children. One calamity after another swept over the entire household. Twins were added to the family, and my mother was taken sick. The eldest boy was fifteen years of age, and to him my mother looked as a stay in her calamity, but all at once that boy became a wanderer. He had been reading some of the trashy novels and the belief had seized him that he had only to go away to make a fortune. Away he went. I can remember how eagerly she used to look for tidings of that boy; how she used to send us to the post office to see if there was a letter from him, and recollect how we used to come back with the sad news, ‘No letter.’ I remember how in the evenings we used to sit beside her in that New England home, and we would talk about our father; but the moment the name of that boy was mentioned she would hush us into silence. Some nights when the wind was very high, and the house, which was upon a hill, would tremble at every gust, the voice of my mother was raised in prayer for that wanderer who had treated her so unkindly. I used to think she loved him more than all of us put together, and I believed she did. On a Thanksgiving day – you know that is a family day in New England – she used to set a chair for him, thinking he would return home.


“Her family grew up and her boys left home. When I got so that I could write, I sent letters all over the country, but could find no trace of him. One day, while in Boston, the news reached me that he had returned. While in that city, I remember how I used to look for him in every store – he had a mark on his face – but I never got any trace. One day while my mother was sitting at the door, a stranger was seen coming towards the house, and when he came to the door he stopped. My mother didn’t know her boy. He stood there with folded arms and a great beard flowing down his breast, his tears trickling down his face. When my mother saw those tears she cried, ‘Oh, it is my lost son,’ and entreated him to come in. But he stood still. ‘No, mother,’ he said, ‘I will not come in until I hear first that you have forgiven me.’ Do you believe she was not willing to forgive him? Do you think she was likely to keep him standing there. She rushed to the threshold, threw her arms around him and breathed forgiveness.”

The Moody family were Unitarians. Dwight had early advantages of Christian training, attending, as soon as he was old enough, the church in the village, where the Rev. Mr. Everett was pastor. In his interest in the efforts of Mrs. Moody to earn a livelihood for her family, Mr. Everett once took Dwight into his family for a time, in order that he might attend school, making return for this privilege by running errands and doing chores. It may seem strange that a Unitarian training should have fostered a temperament which afterward became, in its expression, so purely evangelical. By way of explanation, it is said, that Mr. Everett was not one of those who questioned the divinity of our Saviour. Unorthodoxy had not as yet affected this church. The Bible as the Word of God, Jesus as the Son of God, the Church and its Sacraments – these were accepted beliefs of this country pastor. 

Dwight also had the benefits of religious training in the home. Mrs. Moody early taught her children to learn passages of Scripture and verses of hymns. These she would recite at her frugal table, and the children would repeat them after her. 


When Dwight was about six years old, an old rail fence one day fell upon him. He could not lift the heavy rails. Exhausted by his efforts, he had almost given up. “Then,” as he afterward told the story, “I happened to think that maybe God would help me, and so I asked Him; and after that I could lift the rails,” 

Another incident, which Mr. Moody has related, seems to have made so profound an impression upon his youthful mind that its influence in preparing his heart for the Gospel message cannot have been slight. He himself has related the story in these words:

“When I was a young boy – before I was a Christian – I was in a field one day with a man who was hoeing. He was weeping, and he told me a strange story, which I have never forgotten. When he left home his mother gave him this text ‘Seek first the kingdom of God.’ But he paid no heed to it. He said when he got settled in life, and his ambition to get money was gratified, it would be time enough then to seek the kingdom of God. He went from one village to another and got nothing to do. When Sunday came he went into a village church, and what was his great surprise to hear the minister give out the text, ‘Seek first the kingdom of God’ He said the text went down to the bottom of his heart. He thought it was but his mother’s prayer following him, and that some one must have written to that minister about him. He felt very uncomfortable, and when the meeting was over he could not get that sermon out of his mind.


“He went away from that town, and at the end of a week went into another church, and he heard the minister give out the same text, ‘Seek first the kingdom of God.’ He felt sure this time that it was the prayers of his mother, but he said calmly and deliberately, ‘No, I will first get wealthy.’ He said he went on and did not go into a church for a few months, but the first place of worship he went into he heard a minister preaching a sermon from the same text. He tried to drown – to stifle his feelings; tried to get the sermon out of his mind, and resolved that he would keep away from ‘church altogether, and for a few years he did keep out of God’s house. ‘My mother died,’ he said, and the text kept coming up in my mind, and I said I will try and become a Christian.’ ‘The tears rolled down his cheeks, as he said, ‘I could not; no sermon ever touched me; my heart is as hard as that stone,’ pointing to one in the field. I couldn’t understand what it was all about – it was fresh to me then. I went to Boston and got converted, and the first thought that came to me was about this man. When I got back I asked mother, Is Mr. L —– living in such a place?’ ‘Didn’t I write to you about him?’ she asked. They have taken him to an insane asylum, and to every one who goes there he points with his finger up there and tells them to seek first the kingdom of God.’ There was that man with his eyes dull with the loss of reason, but the text had sunk into his soul – it had burned down deep. O, may the Spirit of God burn the text into your hearts to-night, When I got home again my mother told me he was in his house, and I went to see him. I found him in a rocking chair, with that vacant, idiotic look upon him. As soon as he saw me, he pointed at me and said ‘Young man, seek first the kingdom of God.’ Reason was gone but the text was there. Last month, when I was laying my brother down in his grave, I could not help thinking of that poor man who was lying so near him, and wishing that the prayer of his mother had been heard, and that he had found the kingdom of God.”

It is doubtful, however, if young Moody had experienced any real religious feeling up to the time of his conversion in Boston. He was a boy like other boys – unlike the majority, too, in his imperious will, his indifference to obstacles, his boundless energy. He was as fond of mischief as the average boy. The influences of a farm-boy’s life, tempered though they were by the forceful direction of a devoted mother, were not calculated to cultivate in him a taste for the finer things of life. His passionate outbursts of temper are still remembered by those who early came into contact with him. His profanity is a matter of his own record. Still, he was doubtless in this regard merely a type of his environment. The notable thing about the boy was his force; he bore in his endowment great possibilities for good or ill. 


Perhaps only twelve terms at the district school constituted Dwight’s early education. A smattering of the three R’s” a little geography, and the practice of declamation made up the sum of his learning. The truth of the matter seems to be that he did not study faithfully. It was only during his last term that he began to apply himself with diligence, too late to make tip for what he had lost. His reading is described as outlandish beyond description. With his characteristic tendency to jump directly to the heart of a question, he never stopped to spell out an unfamiliar word, but mouthed his sense of it without full dependence upon his training or made up a new word which sounded to his ear as suitable as the original. 

Of his experiences as a schoolboy Mr. Moody has given the following in his sermon on “Law versus Grace”:


“At the school I used to go to when I was a boy, we had a teacher who believed in governing by law. He used to keep a rattan in his desk, and my back tingles now [shrugging his shoulders] as I think of it. But after a while the notion got abroad among the people that a school might be governed by love, and the district was divided into what I might call the law party, and the grace party; the law party standing by the old schoolmaster, with his rattan, and the grace party wanting a teacher who could get along without punishing so much. 

“After a while the grace party got the upper hand, turned out the old master, and hired a young lady to take his place. We all understood that there was to be no rattan that winter, and we looked forward to having the jolliest kind of a time. On the first morning the new teacher, whom I will call Miss Grace, opened the school with reading out of the Bible and prayer. That was a new thing and we didn’t quite know what to make of it. She told us she didn’t mean to keep Order by punishment, but she hoped we would all be good children, for her sake as well as our own. This made us a little ashamed of the mischief we had meant to do, and everything went on pretty well for a few days; but pretty soon I broke one of the rules, and Miss Grace said I was to stop that night after school. Now for the Old rattan, said I to myself; it’s coming now after all. But when the scholars were all gone she came and sat down by me, and told me how sorry she was that I, who was one of the biggest boys, and might help her so much, was setting such a bad example to others, and making it so hard for her to get along with them. She said she loved us, and wanted to help us, and if we loved her we would obey her, and then everything would go on well. There were tears in her eyes as she said this, and I didn’t know what to make of it, for no teacher had ever talked that way to me before. I began to feel ashamed of myself for being so mean to any one who was so kind; and after that she didn’t have any more trouble with me, nor with any of the other scholars either. She just took us out from under the Law and put us under Grace.”


The circumstances which led up to the departure of young Moody from home have been variously stated. He had come to the age of seventeen. In those days a boy of seventeen was supposed to be ready to enter upon the serious business of life. New ambitions were arising in Dwight’s heart. Mr. Edward Kimball, who afterwards led the boy to the Lord, is perhaps as well informed of the circumstances of his life in Boston as any man now living. He gave the facts as he was familiar with them at the time of Mr. Moody’s death. 

“To tell the story correctly,” said Mr. Kimball, “I must go back to Thanksgiving day forty-five years ago. A Thanksgiving family dinner party was assembled at the Moody home, which was on a farm a mile and a half from Northfield, Mass. At the table, among others, were Samuel and Lemuel Holton, of Boston, two uncles of the Moody children. Without any preliminary warning young Dwight, a boy of about seventeen, spoke up and said to his uncle Samuel: “Uncle, I want to come to Boston and have a place in your shoe store. Will you take me?” Despite the directness of the question, the uncle returned to Boston without giving his nephew an answer. When Mr. Holton asked advice in the matter from an older brother of Dwight, the brother told his uncle that perhaps he had better not take the boy, for in a short time Dwight would want to run his store. 


“Dwight was a headstrong young fellow who would not study at school, and who was much fonder of a practical joke than he was of his books. His expressed desire to go to Boston and get work was not a jest that the boy forgot the day after Thanksgiving. The two uncles were surprised when one day in the following spring Dwight turned up in Boston looking for a job. His uncle Samuel did not offer him a place. Dwight, when asked how he thought he could get a start, said he wanted work and he guessed he could find a position. After days of efforts, and meeting nothing but failures the boy grew discouraged with Boston, and told his uncle Lemuel he was going to New York. The uncle strongly advised Dwight not to go, but to speak to his uncle Samuel again about the matter. The boy demurred, saying his uncle Samuel knew perfectly well what he wanted. But the uncle insisted so that a second time the boy asked his uncle Samuel for a place in his store. 

“Dwight, I am afraid if you come in here you will want to run the store yourself,” said Mr. Holton. “Now, my men here want to do their work as I want it done. If you want to come in here and do the best you can, and do it right, and if you’ll ask me when you don’t know how to do anything, or if I am not here, ask the bookkeeper, and if he’s not here one of the salesmen or one of the boys, and if you are willing to go to church and Sunday school when you are able to go anywhere on Sundays, and if you are willing not to go anywhere at night or any other time which you would not want me or your mother to know about, why, then, if you’ll promise all these things, you may come and take hold, and we’ll see how we can get along. You can have till Monday to think it over.’ 

I don’t want till Monday,’ said Dwight; I’ll promise now. And young Moody began to work in his uncle’s shoe store. 

A remark the boy’s uncle made to me afterward will give an idea of the young man’s lack of education at this time. The uncle said that when Dwight read his Bible out loud he couldn’t make anything more out of it than he could out of the chattering of a lot of blackbirds. Many of the words were so far beyond the boy that he left them out entirely when he read and the majority of the others he mangled fearfully.”