Edited by Robert V. Rakestraw (Sept. 18, 2016)

What can the great Chicago fire teach us?


“The listeners realized the hall was on fire they fled wildly from the building”

[Ed. note: On Sunday night, October 8,1871, evangelist Dwight L. Moody was preaching in Farwell Hall in Chicago. Just as he concluded his sermon the listeners realized the hall was on fire and fled wildly from the building. This was the great Chicago fire that destroyed their homes and much of the city. Following is part of Moody’s sermon 22 years later, on October 8, 1893, in the city’s central Music Hall, where he was asked to speak before a very large World’s Fair audience.]

“In the spring of 1871 . . . . I advertised that I would speak so many nights on the Bible characters. . . . . I intended to devote six nights to Christ’s life. . . . On the fifth Sunday night, October 8, I was preaching to the largest congregation I had ever had in Chicago, quite elated with my success. My text was, ‘What shall I do then with Jesus which is called the Christ?’ That night I made one of the greatest mistakes of my life. After preaching—or talking, as I did not call it preaching then—with all the power that God had given me, urging Christ upon the people, I closed the sermon and said, ‘I wish you would take this text home with you and turn it over in you minds during the week, and next Sunday we will come to Calvary and the Cross, and we will decide what we will do with Jesus of Nazareth.’

“I have never seen that congregation since. I have hard work to keep back the tears today. I have looked over this audience, and not a single one is here that I preached to that night. I have a great many old friends and am pretty well acquainted in Chicago, but twenty-two years have passed away, and I have not seen that congregation since, and I will never meet those people again until I meet them in another world. But I want to tell you one lesson I learned that night, which I have never forgotten, and that is, when I preach to press Christ upon the people then and there, I try to bring them to a decision on the spot. I would rather have that right hand cut off than give and audience a week to decide what to do with Jesus.

“I have often been criticized, and people have said: ‘Moody, you seem to try to get people to decide all at once. Why do you not give them time to consider?’ I have asked God many times to forgive me for telling people that night to take a week to think if over, and if He spares my life I will never do it again. This audience will break up in a few moments and we will never meet again. There is something awfully solemn about a congregation like this! . . . .

“I cannot detain you much longer, but I would like today to press upon you this one question: ‘What shall I do with Jesus Christ?’ I cannot speak for the rest of you, but ever since that night of the great fire I have determined as long as God spares my life to make more of Christ than in the past. I thank God that He is a thousand times more to me today than He was twenty-two years ago . . . I made some vows after that Chicago fire, and I want to tell you that God has helped me to keep those vows. I am not what I wish I were, but I am a better man than I was when Chicago was on fire.”

From Peter F Gunther, compiler, Great Sermons by Great Preachers (Chicago, Moody, 1960), pp. 6-8, 13,14. This selection, along with other articles and information, may be found on Dr. Rakestraw’s website/blog, gracequestministries.org where you may order his books GraceQuest and Heart Cries. You may write Dr. Rakestraw at bob@gracequestministries.org .