A Passion for Souls: The Life of D. L. Moody

By Lyle Dorsett
Chicago : Moody (1997). 491 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. James Rosscup
9.1 (Spring 1998) : 102-104

This excellent biography is by the professor at Wheaton College who wrote the first full-length biography of the prayer warrior, E. M. Bounds, Man of Prayer (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991). Now he has provided the latest of about 60 chronicles on the famous evangelist, builder of Christian schools, and promoter of Christian books for the masses. The product is clear, vividly engaging, often stirring, and carefully documented. Dorsett has succeeded in finding new materials on Moody, and also in being candid about this leader's weaknesses (warts and all) as well as his strengths.

A critic agreed with Moody supporters that Moody "reduced the population of hell by a million souls" (21). Moody said, "I would rather save one soul from death than have a monument of solid gold reaching from my grave to the heavens" (21). Dorsett puts an accent where some biographers have not. They focus on Moody's evangelistic work. Dorsett does this but also looks at other work Moody did - racial reconciliation, showing the value of denominationalism, helping women in ministry, showing a balance of career and family, putting a focus on both formal and informal education, his involvement in the Civil War, and his publishing efforts (23-24).

Dorsett cites F. F. Bruce, NT scholar and church historian, to the effect that Moody's impact on people in his visits to Britain was not because of his appearance, delivery, or education. Rather, the effect "could not be put down to personal magnetism but must be ascribed to the power of God working through him" (25). Dorsett claims that apart from Billy Sunday and Billy Graham "no American has had the privilege of personally presenting the gospel of Jesus Christ to as many people" as Moody (21).

Many illustrations in the book will touch ministers and others deeply. An example is Moody's impact on Wilfred T. Grenfell, a medical doctor. When a man leading prayer in a meeting went on and on, Moody stood and asked the throng to join in a song while the man finished his personal devotions. Grenfell, unsaved and disgusted that the prayer seemed to have no end, had headed for the door but paused when Moody acted. He was saved as a result of Moody's preaching. He turned from a lucrative London career to become a medical missionary, building clinics and hospitals, treating bodily needs, and doing evangelism in Labrador for around 40 years (d. 1940). Other examples point out Moody's concern: for children needing Christ, women needing education, prayer, spending time with his wife Emma and their children, writing to his mother, and helping other ministers such as F. B. Meyer to be themselves, depending on the power of God.

Moody lived from 1837 to 1899, one of nine children in a poor family. The book recounts many touches of compassion and other spiritual values (cf. 33-34, 35, 84, 95, 98, 108, 161-62). At 17 Moody went from Northfield, Massachusetts to Boston, and worked as a shoe clerk. While there, the simple, caring witness of Edward Kimball, a Sunday School teacher, led to Moody's salvation (46-49). J. B. Stillson, a Presbyterian evangelist, loaned Moody George Mueller's A Life of Trust, which helped him to rely on God (63). Moody started an evening mission for children in "Little Hell," an area of Chicago, lived sacrificially, and led many to the Lord as his work began.

He went on to YMCA work, ministering to Civil War soldiers and seeing great answers to prayer (cf. 95-96). He devoured Spurgeon's sermons. He spoke at many Sunday School conferences, local churches, halls in England, Scotland, and Mexico and at schools he helped found. The most famous, of course, became The Moody Bible Institute.

Among Moody's strong points according to Dorsett were his high view of Scripture, commitment, passion for souls, humility, prayerful dependence on God, much praise to God, boldness to seize ways to reach people, enterprising ability, organizing skill, willingness to take risks, disciplined devotion of about six hours a day to study (he was also weak in doing this on occasion, going without study or rest), learning to say no in limiting an already heavy schedule, vision to get inexpensive books to people, selfless compassion to meet needs, and giving of his time to his family. His weaknesses included telling others what to do (bullying at times), abrasiveness, short temper, restlessness, pushiness as when he put pressures on his teenage son to be saved (later compensated for by showing interest in other aspects of his life) (322-23), dragging his feet at times, hiding from problems instead of acting promptly to make key decisions in crises as occurred at the schools. The book interweaves many evidences that Moody's wife had a profound role in his success by her devotion to Christ's cause and selfless acts that helped things work. Moody's children paid high tribute to him after his death.

A good section discusses Moody's "Secret of Power," a simple reliance on God (242-44). However, the term "baptism" of the Spirit appears where the appropriate phrasing would be "filling in a new surge" or enablement.

Dorsett offers readers many views of Moody's simplicity as on his buggy rides behind the horse "Nellie Gray," his love for chickens, dogs, and horses, his sitting on granite juttings to watch the morning sun dissipate the mist, his talking with God to seek directions for months and years ahead (259-63).

The book has detail on Moody and his wife keeping their romance fresh in later years at their lovers' retreat and on Moody's words in his last hours. An appendix summarizes biographies on the man, entries in church histories, references in general works, sections in British and Canadian histories, and unpublished theses and dissertations. The biography's indexes of persons, subjects, and places are helpful.

For teachers, pastors, other ministers, and Christian laity the book can quicken the heartbeat for God, enhance dependence on Him, and stretch the vision for what God can do through a servant yielded to Him. It is one of the better all-around biographies of a Christian leader, both fact-filled and refreshing, that this reviewer has read. He heartily recommends it for giving a new impulse to ministry.