Excerpts from an essay I’ve posted on the American Society of Church History blog.

Robert G. Ingersoll and Dwight L. Moody were two of the best known speakers of their generation, from roughly 1875 to 1899, the year both died.  They represented two poles on the religious spectrum, the rationalist debunker of orthodoxy, and the orthodox evangelist.

In my blog post of August 11, I described Ingersoll’s career and beliefs.  Dwight L. Moody’s development took the opposite trajectory.  Born into a Unitarian family, he converted to orthodox Christianity at age 18, after he had left home.  He worked as a salesman until he felt the compulsion to teach and to preach the Gospel.  He first was a teacher, moving into evangelism after 1871.  A tour of Britain in 1875 began the period of his peak success, in his famous collaboration with the musician Ira Sankey.   Moody’s focus was on immigrants in the cities.  He was supported by coalitions of churches and by business leaders.  He introduced many businesslike aspects in his revivals, including advance men and rooms where volunteers could meet with those who answered the altar call.  Moody himself came to recognize that the revivals were not having the effects desired and turned his focus back to education, though he continued to preach extensively.

Moody’s message addressed behavior as well as conversion.  This is evident in a sermon variously called “Sowing and Reaping” or “Reaping Whatsoever We Sow.”  It is based on the text from Galatians 6:7-8:  “Be not deceived.  God is not mocked.  For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.  For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.” Moody begins by stressing that God cannot be deceived and giving examples, from individuals to nations, of consequences arising from sin.  In the version I have seen of this sermon Moody intertwines consequences in this world, confession and making amends in this world, and confession to God, repentance and the promise of eternal life.  The free grace of God is almost lost: “He will forgive you the sin, though He will make you reap what you sow.”  God forgives, but society does not.

Robert Ingersoll responded to this sermon with a lecture in which he pointed out that Moody was contradicting himself.  Most of the lecture laments the fact that Moody has not read some useful books, such as Darwin and Spencer.  Ingersoll’s climax points out the inconsistency: that a man can convert just before death and be forgiven, but when a man appears before God moments after death, God sends his soul to hell.  (Moody, of course, avoided the death-bed conversion scenario entirely, calling for conversion at the time he spoke.)  Ingersoll concludes with the idea that Moody is behind the times. “Yes, the people are becoming civilized, and so they are putting out the fires of hell.  They are ceasing to believe in a God who seeks eternal revenge.”

Was Moody behind the times?  Would reason win out over revivals?  For the complete essay, go to:

http://www.churchhistory.org/blogs/blog/revivals-and-reason-rationalist-protests-1875-to-1920/

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