Months after the end of World War II, leaders of Youth for Christ sent evangelists to work in the battered cities of Europe.
The rally teams were led by two of the new ministry’s rising stars. The preacher in southern Europe was the Rev. Billy Graham of North Carolina, and, in northern Europe, the Rev. Jess Moody of Texas filled that role.
That says something about the oratorical skills of Moody, whose life story was later turned into a Gospel Films feature, “Riding the Pulpit.”
So it was no surprise that Moody later served as president of the Pastors’ Conference of the Southern Baptist Convention and, in 1969, was asked to address tensions in the Vietnam War era. Moody’s sermon — “The Christian and War” — left many pastors stunned and others infuriated.
“My country is sick and cannot seem to get well,” he roared, offering what he called a “personal paraphrase” of the Prophet Jeremiah. “My countrymen have not been ashamed when they commit all kinds of hell-raising. ... It has become impossible for them to blush. This means they are going to fall.”
Then Moody veered into another life-and-death issue affecting those committed to ministry in urban America.
“This is my blood I’m spilling in this sermon,” he said. “I’ve been loyal to this convention for the past 25 years, and I intend that every breath I take of God’s free air will be a Baptist breath, but you listen. ... It takes the black and the white keys to play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’! And you can’t do it without both.
“We must solve the problem of racial hatred within the next 10 years or prepare to become the dinosaurs of the 21st century.”
Moody died last month at age 93, after several decades out of the spotlight. He lived to see Southern Baptists slowly, but surely, denounce the sin of racism. In 1995, the SBC repudiated “historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past.” America’s largest Protestant flock apologized to African-Americans for “condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime.”
Tensions lingered, and in 2017 the SBC made headlines by repudiating “white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as a scheme of the devil” that continues to attack America, while urging advocates of “racist ideologies” to repent.
It’s crucial to remember that Moody built thriving congregations in South Florida and in greater Los Angeles — cultures far from Bible Belt life, said the Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mohler grew up in Florida, during an era when Moody “was a force of nature” there, leading the First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach and, in 1968, founding what is now Palm Beach Atlantic University (where I taught from 2001-2005).
“Jess spent most of his ministry working in places where the new America was taking form. ... He knew about the realities that were emerging in a more complex and diverse America,” said Mohler, who recently commissioned a blistering 72-page report on the sins of slavery and racism in the history of the seminary he leads in Louisville, Kentucky.
Moody was, Mohler added, both a “great preacher and a showman” who wasn’t afraid to deliver messages that made many Baptists cheer, while others “would hang their heads. ... He was never afraid to speak his mind, to say the least.”
Consider, for example, these passages from that 1969 sermon — decades before today’s moral earthquakes in American public life.
“Oh, United States, there is only one thing to do. Get down on your knees and repent deeply,” said Moody. “Mourn until you weep over your ways. ... Change your lowdown ways of doing things and you can keep your nation intact. Stop trusting in Madison Avenue manipulation, and tying it in with the worship of the house of God.
“If you repent deeply enough so that the people can once again trust each other ... and stop all this killing and stop your fouled-up idea that one religion is as good as another, then I’ll make it possible for you to have peace.”
Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.