Academic journal article Journalism History

"Expecting a Blessing of Unusual Magnitude": Moody, Mass Media, and Gilded Age Revival

Academic journal article Journalism History

"Expecting a Blessing of Unusual Magnitude": Moody, Mass Media, and Gilded Age Revival

Article excerpt

Tributes to Mother Teresa at her death in September 1997 described her ambivalent feelings about the press. Sitting for interviews felt like "a crucifixion." But she acknowledged that public attention to her work with the poor of Calcutta aided that work. Dwight L. Moody, the bestknown evangelist of the nineteenth century, shared her ambivalence. When a New York Herald reporter clamored aboard the steamship Spain in the early morning of August 14, 1875, with the assignment of "penning a picture of the great exhorter" following his spectacular success in the British revival, he found Moody "uninterested" in answering personal questions about his voyage or health. Moody emphasized that he was not the story; God was. When the interrogator, thus chastened, asked Moody where he might minister next, Moody was "very glad" to answer. A "long conversation" followed, with Moody insisting that he was not "a revivalist" who led "revivals," despite what the press on both sides of the Atlantic was now saying. "The Holy Ghost alone had the power to revive," Moody told his interviewer, and it was "very erroneous" to report otherwise.'

Two days later, Moody arrived at his home in Northfield, Massachusetts, to the news that Charles Finney had died. The New York Times eulogized the 82-year-old ex-president of Oberlin College as "the Moody of his day" because of the "great revivals that followed his efforts."2 As the living link between the Great Awakening of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, Finney was a transitional figure in the growing nineteenth-century reliance on man-made means to spiritually excite the slothful. Where Edwards and Whitefield and their contemporaries would have expected God's lead in stirring the dry bones of indifferent congregations, Finney, from 1824 onward, preached the proper use of "all available means" in bringing men and women to repentance.3 For Moody that meant bringing a businessman's sense of organization and marketing to bear on Gilded Age audiences who otherwise might be unmoved by the gospel. That strategy, first in evidence during the Great British Revival of 1873-1875, made felicitous use of the mass media in promoting civic spectacles and citywide crusades that socially sanctioned his purposes in evangelism. The publicity that Moody so assiduously sought for God's work helped transform the former shoe salesman with a fourth-grade education into God's man for the Gilded Age. In attempting to draw attention to "the work of the spirit in bringing revival," he also attracted press attention to himself, becoming a celebrity evangelist, perhaps the nation's first, but certainly not its last.4

This article analyzes the techniques of Moody's mass-mediated revival work in Britain and the consequences that flowed from it. Moody's recognition that the engine of mass communication could be used in the service of Christ's coming kingdom makes him an important subject for journalism historians. This examination of the links of media and mass evangelism offers a new area of inquiry for historians who have recently begun examining the cultural and social significance of religious reporting in the daily press.5 Moody's unexpected celebrity placed him at the center of the Gilded Age's media gaze and anticipates the twentiethcentury tendency to look to human agency in reporting what Moody would have recognized as the moving of the spirit. Moody saw great crowds and anxious inquirers as a sacred assembly and a certain sign of God's favor on his labors. The secular press would read Moody's success quite differently, attributing to his powers of persuasion the long lines of those eager to be in his presence.

The excitement could hardly have been anticipated by anyone who knew the largely anonymous layman as he embarked on his solemn mission "to win ten thousand British souls for Christ."6 By the time he returned to New York, he was afforded celebrity status by dockside reporters who pressed in to chronicle the great man's coming, to cite his many sayings, and to promote his tales of past triumphs and plans for future adventures. …

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