Black Protest against Dwight L. Moody, Part 4: “A Dividing Fence Was Put Up”

(Photo by Daniel Janzen on Unsplash)

Note: this is part 4 of a series giving context for an 1886 article by Francis Grimké; see:

Two Decades of “The Middle Wall of Separation”

In May 1876, Moody conducted a revival in Augusta, Georgia. An observer felt that “Perhaps there was never a time before now where religious feeling was stronger, deeper, or more general in Augusta… Mr. Moody thinks the cause of Christ ten-fold stronger upon earth than ever before, and that the great interest that is manifested in Augusta is but a type of the general spread of the gospel among the nations that is going on.” Of course, that “religious feeling” related to “piety” and “fervor” but had nothing to do with conviction over racism or white-supremacy. Apparently, at these meetings, whites literally put up a “wall of separation” to keep Black people in their place: 

“When he first began holding his open-air meetings here, negroes mingled so indiscriminately with the audience that it became disagreeable to the whites, and a dividing fence was put up. Mr. Moody did not like this, and spoke of it, when one of our pastors informed him that it was impossible for the blacks and whites to mingle even in a religious audience. Mr. Moody then said, “I see you have not gotten over your rebellious feelings yet.” “No,” said the minister, “I am proud of my rebellious feelings and will be a rebel until I die.” The conversation was designably interrupted by others, and the matter was dropped.”

Our Augusta Letter,” The Atlanta Constitution, May 4, 1876.

The matter was dropped, but the fence was not, and this “dividing fence” would remain a fixture at Moody’s meetings in the south for over two decades. This account of the “dividing fence” was reprinted across the country, in the New York Times, in the Chicago Tribune, in Boston, in Nashville, in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Iowa, and even across the Atlantic in England and in Scotland. ( search).

Moody may have been personally opposed to segregation, but at his own meetings, he actually practiced it for nearly twenty years.

“What Mr. Moody Did in Texas” (1895)

Two decades later, in 1895, Moody held a series of meetings in Dallas, Texas. Newspaper accounts mention Black people attending the meetings in “the colored people’s gallery” (“The Moody Meeting,” Dallas Morning News, February 21, 1895). The accounts were disparaging and paternalistic to the Black attendees: “The baskets were passed around the little group of colored brethren, and most of them dropped in quarters and halves, showing that they have hardly reached high modern civilization as yet in regard to giving—they overdo the matter. A nickel is the limit” (“Spiritual Power,” Dallas Morning News, February 23, 1895). They played to racial stereotypes: “Mr. Moody called on the colored people to sing a hymn. Brother Moody is a down-easter, but he has learned somewhere in his travels that if there is anything in the world a colored brother can do it is to sing” (“Plenteous Grace,” Dallas Morning News, February 26, 1895). On another night, they noted that Moody always selected a “swinging tune for the colored brethren. He seems to know their weakness for mellifluous music” (“The Love of God,” Dallas Morning News, February 27, 1895).

Nevertheless, the editor of The American Missionary, a monthly magazine published by the American Missionary Association, saw hopeful signs, and wondered, “Race Prejudice—Is It Waning?” An AMA affiliated pastor in the South had written in about the Moody meetings in Dallas, and recounted this:

“At the opening of the meet­ing Mr. Moody noticed the colored people sitting away off from the platform and railed in to cut them off from the whites. He did not like so unequal accommodation—so plain a distinction. When the meeting was over I waited and spoke with him. We walked down to the colored department. He said, “I don’t like this railing business,” and he threw himself against the railing, but it did not fall. He said, “Give me till to-morrow to get that down.” The next day when the colored people went to the tabernacle they found the railing torn away, the seats moved up near the platform, a stove put up and a curtain stretched in the rear to keep out the wind. From that time on the colored people flocked to hear the great evangelist. But Mr. Moody did not stop there. He came down and asked the colored people to sing. So unexpected was his invitation, it caught us unprepared. The next day 1 got my choir together and added a few from some of the other colored churches. The old sexton arranged seats for us and placed an organ there. At the night service Mr. Moody said, “ We will now ask the colored people to sing.” I arose and faced my choir, and the little organ pealed forth as it was touched by the hand of a colored girl, and the choir sang “ Scatter Sunshine.” There were about 7,000 or 8,000 people present, all save about 300 were white. It was a new feature. The people seemed to be surprised, astonished, excited. They stood on their feet, they peered over each other. When we were through singing, Mr. Moody said, “Why, it will never do to let them beat us that way,” and the audience responded with a hearty laugh. The next day the daily papers said we made “ fine music,” and the Dallas News was headed: “The great Moody meetings. An audience of 9,000 and a colored choir the feature.” I have not heard of any objection, censure, or anything concerning Mr. Moody’s method. No paper spoke against the colored people singing, and we sang one song at each service after that. White and black say such a thing never was done in Texas before.”

What Mr. Moody Did in Texas,” The American Missionary 49.7 (1895), 220–21; the Dallas News article can be found here: “Moody and Sankey,” Dallas Morning News, March 9, 1895).

Edward Blum sums up this scene well: 

“It was a marvelous turn of events. The most noteworthy evangelical of the late nineteenth century took a clear stand against racial segregation. Tragically, it was too late. Moody no longer wielded the public power he once had, and this action garnered almost no attention from the press. By this time his influence had waned considerably… 

At the height of his public power in the 1870s, Moody had not challenged the racial status quo. He had kept quiet; he had prized unity among whites over human brotherhood. In the years that white Americans flocked to hear him and sat riveted by his stories, he had refused to stand against he tide of racial prejudice and segregation. In fact, he had brought the force of his own spiritual authority to propel those waters. When Moody did raise against segregation int the 1890s, Jim Crow was too firmly entrenched in American society” (144).

Reforging the White Republic, 144.

Indeed, neither the Dallas Morning News, nor any other paper report I can find, made any mention of “What Mr. Moody Did in Texas,” other than a one page account in The American Missionary. This act of desegregating one of his meetings was too little, too late. The 1890s saw the peak of Black lynchings in the United States, and as Ida B. Wells noted, Moody never spoke out against it publicly. By 1895, allowing Black and white people to attend a revival meeting together was a nice gesture, but the crying need of the hour was for loud denunciation of the white lynch-mob.

Blum says that “Blacks and whites would not longer have separate seating arrangements at Moody’s revival” (144). Did Blum mean to claim that Moody’s revivals were integrated from this point on, or just that the revival in Dallas was integrated? Gregg Quiggle took him to mean the former and claimed that “From this point on, his meetings were integrated” (“An Analysis of Dwight Moody’s Urban Social Vision,” PhD Thesis, The Open University (2010), p. 243). I haven’t conducted an exhaustive search to see how many other meetings were integrated or segregated, but the following year in Nashville, Moody was back to his regular program, with separate services “for colored people” (“Four Special Sermons,” The Nashville American, February 10, 1896). It is possible that the action taken in Dallas was impulsive and momentary, not a sign of any decisive shift in practice.

Notes on Sources

James Findlay

I concur with Edward Blum: “For the best scholarly biography of Moody, see James F. Findlay, Dwight L. Moody: American Evangelist, 1837–1899 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969)”

This is published form of Findlay’s dissertation, completed at the University of Northwestern under Arthur S. Link (“Dwight L. Moody, Evangelist of the Gilded Age: 1837–1899” (1961). Findlay’s book includes a section documenting Moody’s segregated revivals in the 1870s and 1880s, and provides several footnotes that served as the starting point for this series.

Lyle Dorsett

Lyle W. Dorsett, A Passion for Souls : The Life of D.L. Moody (Chicago: Moody Press, 1997

Lyle Dorsett’s nearly 500 page biography of Moody makes only one brief reference to his segregated revivals, the initial meeting in 1876: “He considered holding his position and refusing to back down. But after much counsel he surrendered. The audiences remained segregated” (246).

Dorsett does not mention at all the segregation in the meetings throughout the 1880s, nor the Black protest that accompanied it. In fact, he emphasizes the “pain” and “turmoil” of Moody: “When the Whittles and Moodys left Georgia, D. L. Moody was limping emotionally from many wounds” (246). Moody’s hurt feelings and “humiliations” are centered; Black protest is totally ignored. Perhaps this is to be expected in a book published by Moody Press, with a Foreword by the President of Moody Bible Institute. Nevertheless, this is how whitewashed reputations are passed down from generation to generation, as Dorsett’s biography is probably the most accessible to the current generation of evangelicals.

Edward Blum

Edward J. Blum, “Inventor of Legends Miraculous: National Reconciliation and Racial Segregation during America’s Third Great Awakening,” in Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism 1865–1898 (2005): 120–45.

Edward Blum has examined the broad scope of Moody’s career as “the most famous and powerful evangelical leader in the United States” and in particular, his role in the “reunion” of the white North and the white South after the Civil War. Blum shows how Moody encouraged Americans to “set aside social and political issues in order to focus on spiritual conversions and personal piety” (123). This setting aside of “politics in the 1870s and 1880s “had a specific meaning. It invariably meant a rejection of radical Reconstruction and its emphasis on black civil rights and civic nationalism” (129). Blum documents how Moody “acted as a bridge between the white North and the white South. Reunion was forged at the expense of racial reform and African American rights, and people of color tried to resist it” (145). Blum’s chapter also contains a section on Moody’s segregated revivals in the 1870s and 1880s.

Michael S. Hamilton

Michael S. Hamilton, “The Interdenominational Evangelicalism of D. L. Moody and the Problem of Fundamentalism”in American Evangelicalism: George Marsden and the State of American Religious History, ed. Darren Dochuk, Thomas S Kidd, and Kurt W. Peterson (2014): 442–67.

What I’ve called the “Moody Machine” in individual revival campaigns, Hamilton traces as a broader “Moody movement” that created an infrastructure for “interdenominational evangelicalism” that is still with us today. 

“The popular movement that after 1925 came to be called “fundamentalism”—that is, the movement based in independent bible institutes, missionary organizations, and large autonomous urban churches—had been organized in the late nineteenth century by Dwight L. Moody and his lieutenants” (233).

“what Moody midwifed into being was in fact a new form of interdenominational evangelicalism that has reshaped American life” (234).

“The three institutional legs of the Moody network were Bible institutes, independent missionary organizations, independent missionary organizations, and large autonomous urban churches” (258).

Hamilton shows how Moody “had an extraordinary ability to bring together religious leaders who opposed each other on questions related to holiness, dispensationalism, the timing of the millennium, and other matters” including, as Hamilton highlights, the issue of evolution (248). Moody also wielded this ability, as Blum demonstrates, to bring together white Northerners and Southerners after the way, but he pointedly did not attempt to bring together Christians from across the color line. Though Hamilton does not discuss Moody’s segregated revivals, reading his chapter alongside Blum and Findlay shows some striking comparisons. For example, Hamilton spends a significant portion of his chapter on the way Moody and then later fundamentalists engaged the issue of evolution.  Moody was a “bridge” figure between Christian evolutionists, and fundamentalists who saw it as a threat. For example, a pastor named Henry Drummond had written a book “synthesizing evolution and evangelicalism. “Despite pressure from his subordinates to exclude Drummond, Moody never ceased inviting him to take a prominent role in his enterprises” (248–49). 

Moody’s willingness to resist pressure in the case of evolution is in sharp contrast to the constant excuses he gave when giving in to “local pressure” to segregate his southern campaigns. He was more than willing to do so in the one case, regardless of who he might “lose”; he was utterly unwilling to do so in the other. He was willing to bring “opposing parties” together on the issue of evolution; he was not willing to bring Black and white Christians together in the face of Southern racism. 

Mike McDuffee

Michael McDuffee

Michael McDuffee was professor of history & historical theology at the Moody Bible Institute for nearly twenty-five years, and has grappled hard with Moody’s legacy of white-supremacy. His post “Almost Done Leaves Things Unfinished” (2021) explores in depth Moody’s segregated meetings, relying heavily on Blum. In his 2013 post “I See Men Like Trees, Walking,” McDuffee documents Moody’s own endorsement of white-supremacist “evangelist” Sam Jones, and how Moody’s publishing company printed white-supremacist comments, Biblical commentary, and racist anecdotes for decades. McDuffee’s articles are a good model of how to grapple with a racist legacy, and advocate for meaningful institutional response.

Centering Black Voices

Throughout this series I have given extended quotes from the Black figures who protested Moody. This is an intentional effort to center their voices, an act of excavating material that has been buried under the years of white forgetting. White forgetting is itself a part of Moody’s legacy. Edward Blum notes that “Moody displayed an historical amnesia that mirrored and theologically justified the northern impulse to step away from radical Reconstruction” a “forgetfulness” that “glossed over the decade of horrible sectional and racial violence” (Reforging,132). In particular, I’ve highlighted the role that Francis Grimké played in these protest. This is due in part to personal interest—it would be possible to examine Black protest from the perspective of the A. M. E. Church, for example—but I think it is also warranted historically, by the prominence of Grimké’s reputation, and the effect that his protest had. My hope for those who have read this series, is that by reading Black voices directly, a complacent and forgetful white evangelicalism might be awakened to the true roots of our movement, and the courageous voices who advocated for change.


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