Sunday, March 30, 2008

"But now I have a river that carries me."

The year was 1871. Dwight Lyman Moody, who had arrived in Chicago in 1856, had gone from being a shoe salesman and Sunday School teacher at Plymouth Congregational Church to become the pastor of his own congregation. The Illinois Street Church quickly grew to be a great church. The building seated 2500; and, in those days when there was very little in the way of wholesome activities to occupy people in the evenings, the church held services that were filled almost every night.

Moody had gained an international reputation. Still in his thirties, he had been invited to preach in prestigious churches in New York City. He had met the great British pastor, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and had preached in England. His popularity was growing and invitations to preach all over the world were increasing. Many pastors would have been satisfied. They would have said it was enough.

But Moody was restless, feeling that there had to be something more. On top of that, he became increasingly dissatisfied with his own preaching, realizing that it was not as effective as it once had been.

God intervened in Moody's life through two women: Sarah Anne Cooke, a Free Methodist who had recently immigrated from England, and her friend, Mrs. Hawxhurst. Mrs. Cooke had attended a camp meeting in the summer of 1871 and reported that, "a burden came on me for Mr. Moody, that the Lord would baptise him with the Holy Spirit and with fire." She soon enlisted her friend, Mrs. Hawxhurst, and the two began to pray for Moody.

The two ladies began sitting on the front row every time Moody preached. At the conclusion of each service they would say, "Good night, Mr. Moody. We're praying for you." This began to bother Moody. One evening, he asked the two ladies, "Why are you praying for me? Why don't you pray for sinners to come to the Lord?" The ladies responded, "We're praying for you because you need the power of the Holy Spirit." Disgusted, Moody muttered through his beard, "I need the power?"

The two ladies continued to sit on the front row, and Moody became increasingly irritated. Finally he invited them to his home to talk with them. When they met, the women poured out their hearts in prayer, asking God to fill Moody with the power of the Holy Spirit. Unexpectedly, Moody's attitude changed and a great hunger formed in his soul. He asked the ladies to pray with him in his office each Friday afternoon. On Friday, October 6, 1871, as Mrs. Cooke later reported, "Mr. Moody's agony was so great that he rolled on the floor and in the midst of many tears and groans cried to God that he would be baptised with the Holy Spirit and with fire."

That Sunday evening, October 8, a capacity crowd filled the church. As Ira Sankey sang "Today the Savior Calls," the commotion of fire bells and the clattering of horse-drawn fire company wagons could be heard outside. Those who went outside saw a disturbing red glow in the southwestern sky. Inside, Moody dismissed the meeting and sent people to their homes. The winds picked up to a gale force and the red glow rapidly grew nearer. It was what is known today as "The Great Chicago Fire." The fire raged for two days and destroyed several square miles, encompassing all of downtown Chicago, including Moody's church, his home, and the dwellings of most of his members.

Moody could not look to his congregation for help in rebuilding the church. In a day when property insurance was rare, they had lost their homes as well. Moody was forced to travel to cities from coast to coast to solicit help from Christian leaders and philanthropists to aid his congregation and to rebuild their church.

One day, after calling on some Christian benefactors in New York City, Moody was walking down the street, tired and discouraged. Reflecting that he had certainly been "baptised with fire," he began to wonder about the Holy Spirit. Suddenly an overpowering sense of God's presence came upon him. Hailing a passing horse-drawn cab, he gave the driver the address of a family he knew lived nearby. Arriving at the house, he declined his friend's invitation to come in and share dinner, saying urgently, "I wish to be alone. Let me have a room where I can lock myself in."

His understanding friend quickly showed him to a room at the rear of the house and closed the door behind him. Moody stretched prostrate on the floor as wave after wave of God's love and power flooded his soul. More than two hours passed. Moody lay still, both unable and unwilling to move. Of this mountaintop experience, Moody would later write, "I can only say that God revealed himself to me, and I had such an experience of his love that, at last, I had to ask God to stay his hand or else I could not have stood it."

Friends later said of Moody that his resolute will and determination came under new management that day, as God remolded him and left him as gentle and tender as a baby. Moody wouldn't try to choose his own path any longer; he would leave everything up to God. Moody remarked thankfully, "I was all the time carrying water. But now I have a river that carries me."

Moody, who was considered by all who knew him to be a great man of God, became fully God's man that day. And Moody, who was already a great pastor, went on to be the evangelist who led over a million souls to Christ.

What can God do with us? What does God want to do with us? We will only know when listen to God like Sarah Anne Cooke and when we are as fully surrendered and filled with God's Holy Spirit as Dwight L. Moody was.

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Additional References:
  • Dwight L. Moody (from Wholesome Words).

  • Ira D. Sankey (from Wholesome Words).

  • Duewel, Wesley L., "Dwight Lyman Moody," in Heroes of the Holy Life. Zondervan, 2002.

  • Harvey, Bonnie C., D.L. Moody, The American Evangelist. Barbour Publishing, 1997.