Dwight L. Moody and the Swedish Mission Friends

A review of D. L. Moody and Swedes: Shaping Evangelical Identity among Swedish Mission Friends 1867–1899. A PhD. dissertation by David Gustafson

reviewed by Runar Eldebo

This dissertation by David M. Gustafson is a masterpiece. Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899) is the most famous revivalist of the late 1800s. He exercised a deep and lasting influence on the Protestant world, even reaching Swedes. Though he himself was of Anglo-American heritage, never visited Sweden nor any of the Scandinavian countries, and did not speak the Swedish language, he was the outstanding revivalist among Swedish Mission Friends in Sweden and in America. The dissertation examines the effect of Moody’s popular movement on Swedes as they engaged his ideals, beliefs, methods, and subsequent conflicts. It identifies the marks of this new evangelical identity and praxis among Swedish Mission Friends. Gustafson proposes that this new evangelical identity and praxis occurred within the context of the religious pluralism of America and the increasing religious diversity in Sweden during that time.

The study describes and analyzes the historical events and connections between Moody and Swedish Mission Friends. In the study Gustafson focused on Swedes who were receptive to the ideal, the beliefs and the methods of Moody, and were shaped by him in their views and identity.

The major questions Gustafson addresses provide the energy and the logistics of the study. They are:

  • Did Moody shape evangelical identity of Swedish Mission Friends in Sweden and America, either directly or indirectly, and if so, in what ways?
  • What common traits did he share with Mission Friends that drew them together as kindred spirits in the first place?
  • What distinguishing marks of Moody—marks attributed to his influence—became evident among Mission Friends?
  • Which periodicals published his sermons and reported his campaigns, and were they favorable or critical of him, and why?
  • Who quoted him in sermons, articles, and books, and were they favorable or critical of him, and why?

The study proceeds on the idea that Dwight Lyman Moody was a “hero” among Swedish Mission Friends meaning that he was a respected personality who embodied a variety of characteristics that Swedish Mission Friends admired.

As to time frame, the study begins with the first contact between Moody and Swedish Mission Friends in the city of Chicago in 1867 and ends in 1899, the year of the death of D. L. Moody.

Some of the vocabulary of the study is introduced and explained. “Influence” refers to the moral power of a person to produce an effect on others, either directly or indirectly, moving them in a particular direction. “Evangelical” refers to a reformed tradition of Christians, in addition to Lutherans. It revived again through the Great Awakening, and was adopted by organizations such as the Evangelical Alliance.

Gustafson argues that most biographers of Moody have overlooked both the ethnic and international aspect of Moody’s ministry. Second, he contends the study is relevant to Swedish church history. Third, he examines differences in the histories of the Evangelical Covenant Church and the Evangelical Free Church. He especially sheds light on the formative factors in the development of the Evangelical Free Church.

The author relies on two methods for the study: (1) the historical-critical method and (2) an analysis of identity and pluralism. His primary sources are mainly Swedish-language newspapers; secondary sources are dissertations, articles, books, and biographies.

Gustafson describes the interplay of pietistic and reform impulses of the American evangelical scene, the context in which Moody appears. The second, larger part, of the study is more descriptive than analytical. He explores the Moody story through an historical-critical lens. He sees Moody’s success in Great Britain as a prelude to the rest—the “Moody fever,” the alliance ideal, the shift in evangelical identity, special events like the visit of a future Swedish archbishop, interactions between Moody and Swedes, and the singer, Ira D. Sankey. In the third part the author employs identity and pluralism as a research tools to analyze criticism, common traits, and identity marks. The analysis builds upon the historical section.

There are helpful introductions to each chapter posing the questions the chapter addresses. He concludes each chapter by summarizing the questions and the answers he provides.

Against the backdrop of religious diversity in America, the Great Awakening fostered by George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards in the 1730s and 1740s stressed the sinful nature of human beings and their absolute inability to overcome depraved human nature apart from God’s saving grace through the Holy Spirit. Conversion begins with “spiritual anxiety”—a serious concern over the state of one’s soul. The Second Great Awakening, in the middle of the 1800s, with Charles Finney, gained prominence and prestige in American society in which education was stronger.

The second chapter covers the factors that shaped Moody. It is reported that he was inspired by Plymouth Brethren views on conversion, biblical authority, lay preaching, and the pre-millennial return of Christ. From this source Moody also got the overwhelming truth that God loves and is love.

Moody’s primary contact with the Christian community was the YMCA of Chicago rather than a denomination. This shaped his profile distinctively. At the YMCA he practiced the evangelical idea that charity and evangelism go together by offering clothing, coal, and bread together with the Bread of Life. In this non-sectarian center for evangelism Moody first met the Swedish immigrant community. His generosity and enthusiasm appealed to Swedes who admired and respected his congenial attitude, concern for souls, and emphasis on conversion. Moody´s democratic American view, as well as ad Arminian theology, drew Swedish immigrants who were eager for a more democratized Christianity that preached and practiced the priesthood of believers.

Moody and his singer, Sankey, became internationally famous. They were well-known and admired in Sweden. The author contrasts the non-sectarian attitude of Moody—highlighted by his non-clerical stance, preferring the status of a Sunday-school worker or lay preacher to an ordained member of the clergy—with the provincial attitude of the Church of Sweden. Moody employed methods such as after-meetings, in which a faith-aiming conversation takes place between a believer and a non-believer.

Chapter four addresses Moody’s idea of alliance in which various churches and Christian confessions cooperate in evangelism. I label this as a kind of purpose-driven coexistence. The author connects this cooperative understanding as leading to the development of the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden.

When Moody returned from his visit to Great Britain, he held meetings in cities such as New York and Chicago with large populations of Swedes. He preached his distinctive pre-millennial view of Christ’s Second Coming to rapture the church prior to the Great Tribulation, a seven-year period, followed by Christ’s thousand year earthly reign. This view influenced preachers like Fredrik Franson, who had moved to the U.S. and later returned to Sweden. He shared the ideal, the beliefs, and the methods of Moody. He became known as “Moody’s Swedish disciple.” A free, or “freer,” cluster of Mission Friends embraced America’s religious freedom. As they adopted more of Moody’s revivalism, they departed further from Lutheran confessionalism than some of the other Swedish Mission Friends.

Though Moody’s pre-millennialism had connections to John Nelson Darby, for Moody the alliance ideal was of more importance than any theological detail such as pre-millennialism. The author maintains that Moody’s alliance ideal was neither anti-denominational nor pro-denominational. In my words I again consider this a purpose-driven coexistence for evangelism.

In chapter seven we encounter the struggle over evangelical identity in the foot-steps of Moody’s influences. The “freer” Mission Friends resisted formation of a denomination or formal union and embraced the alliance ideal, pre-millennialism, and independent congregationalism. The majority of Mission Friends supported a union of churches and established a Covenant Church body, related to the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden though more intentional in ecclesial and denominational structure. They sought greater order and organization than their Swedish sister church.

Preachers like Johan Gustaf Princell and E. August Skogsbergh stressed different aspects of Moody’s influence. Princell preferred alliance meetings and stressed the importance for denominations to lay aside denominational barriers. Skogsbergh could see need for denominations, for covenants to gather different churches into unions, and then as denominations to cooperate with initiatives from individuals like Moody. The author explores the connections between Paul Peter Waldenström, one of the founders of the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden, and Moody. They respected and benefited from one another though there were tensions. For example, both rejected a hyper-Anselmian view on atonement but, according to Gustafson, while Moody preached a moderate Anselmian view Waldenström was clearly non-Anselmian.

Chapter eight traces the spread of Moody’s influence not only in Sweden but in the other Scandinavian countries during the 1870s and 1880s. The author explores two major persons who were influenced by Moody—Fredrik Franson and Nathan Söderblom, later to become the archbishop of Sweden. The influences are interpreted through the lenses of other developments occurring in Scandinavia during these decades. Franson is considered the main protagonist of Moody in Scandinavia. He employed mass evangelism, after-meetings, the new pre-millennial doctrine of Christ’s return, prophetic conferences, evangelist courses, and the use of a gospel singer following the pattern of Moody himself. There was opposition, chiefly from state churchmen fearing religious competition and pluralism. Franson’s message and methods were received mostly by “freer” Mission Friends in Sweden. Later these people found themselves in churches, like Svenska Alliansmissionen—The Swedish Alliance Mission, and Evangeliska Frikyrkan—The Evangelical Free Church.

The influence on Söderblom, the future archbishop, was Moody’s character and his zeal for gathering Christians while transcending denominational factions more than about beliefs and methods or ideals.

As to the songs and singing of Ira D. Sankey, the author concludes that they had a similar effect on Mission Friends as the sermons of Moody. Though these songs did not have the classical elegance of Wesleyan hymns, they struck a favorable chord with people of the late 1880s. The songs are characterized by a simplified theology, simple words, an emphasis on conversion, and rich images. The impact was foundational on all Mission Friends not just the “freer” friends.

In the final chapters the author moves from description to analysis. He focuses on the Swedes’ reactions to Moody in a number of ways. He explores the common traits shared by Moody and Mission Friends that drew them together as kindred spirits. The author elaborates five characteristics or common traits: Biblical authority—the primacy of the Bible over theology in general; conversion as an act of the will; God’s love at the cross, emphasizing God’s love, mercy and forgiveness without denying substitution; lay evangelism, dissolving the clergy-laity distinction and breaking down the traditional roles of men and women in evangelistic work; and finally living faith and piety—an ethos of living faith, spiritual vitality, zeal for souls, and an overall humility.

Gustafson also explores Moody’s critics. The disagreements, he concludes, were about sacraments, creeds, order of grace, church membership, and the role of clergy and laity in Lutheran confessionalism and Swedish pietism.

In Chapter twelve, the author turns particularly to the Swedes who were receptive to the ideal, the beliefs, and the methods of Moody, and were shaped by him in their views and identity. This is the peak of this study and the purpose of this dissertation. He observes six distinguishing marks, namely: evangelical ecumenism; new pre-millennialism; after-meetings with mass meetings; independent congregationalism; Bible institutes; and Sankey’s songs. Moody was non-sectarian in his campaigns. He encouraged P. P. Waldenström and others to aim for an evangelical alliance that did not hold to all points of the Augsburg Confession and thus aimed beyond confessional Lutheranism.

The after-meeting is considered to be the greatest innovation of Moody. Though his genius was sometimes more to popularize ideals and teachings than to originate them, the after-meeting was his. Finney had invited sinners to come to the “mourners’ bench,” Moody furnished the “inquiry room” where people could seek genuine conversations, information, counsel, and prayer without pressure. In his non-clerical way, he also provided for an independent, non-sectarian church with a congregational form of government and two baptismal fonts, one for sprinkling the infants and the other of immersing believers choosing baptism.

Men like P. P. Waldenström and Nathan Söderblom followed relatively few of the hallmarks of Moody while Fredrik Franson preached and practiced Moody’s ideal, beliefs, and methods in general.

Franson and Princell, the “freer” of the followers of Moody, adopted a simple ecclesial view of church life, as they perceived it in the New Testament. Waldenström, and Skogsbergh, remained closer to Lutheran pietism and interacted with Moody and Anglo-American influences in a more critical manner than the Free.

The author concludes that without Moody there would not be the Free but there would still be a Mission Covenant in America, formed in the Lutheran pietist tradition.

Runar Eldebo is a Pietisten correspondent from the Mother land--Sweden--who teaches in the Swedish Seminary.

See all articles by Runar Eldebo