The Great Fire of Chicago began about 9 pm Sunday, October 8, until early Tuesday, October 10, 1871. This rapidly spreading fire killed approximately 300 individuals, destroyed roughly 3.3 square miles Chicago, and left over 100,000 residents homeless. This devastating fire would greatly impact the life of American evangelist D.L. Moody.
It is believed that the Great Chicago fire spread so quickly because wood was the main building material used in Chicago. This included the building frames, walls, shingles, and even the sidewalks. To make matters worse, roofs that weren’t topped with wooden shingles were made of flammable tar. Once the fire started, there were only 185 firefighters with 17 horse-drawn steam engines available to protect the entire city. The firemen themselves were already worn out from fighting fires earlier in the week and were initially sent to the wrong location.
Moody’s church was destroyed, as was his family’s home and the homes of many of his congregation. Moody himself said that he was able to save nothing but his reputation and his Bible. But there was a more disturbing aspect to the Great Chicago Fire that involved Moody, however.
D. L. Moody held his usual service the Sunday evening the fire broke out. At the close of the service, he asked his congregation to evaluate their relationship to Christ and to return the following week to make a decision. This, he thought, would give them time to really think things over and result in a lasting decision. He wanted to make sure that they were sure about accepting Jesus Christ, not wanting to pressure them into making a decision they wouldn't stick with. Sounds reasonable, doesn't it?
While Ira Sankey was singing the closing hymn, it was drowned out by the sound of fire trucks and church bells. To his dying day, Moody regretted delaying their decision to the following Sunday.
It would be a Sunday that many in that meeting hall would not live to see. Within a matter of hours, many of those who sat under Moody’s words were dead. There is no way of knowing how many that night could have gotten their hearts made right with God had an altar been given, and there is no way of knowing how that sat under Moody's voice that night many died in the fire and were not ready to meet God.
Moody would never be the same after that incident. He became very ill because of the guilt he carried. As a dedicated soul winner, D.L. Moody took such missed opportunities very, very seriously.
“I have never since dared,” Moody later said, “to give an audience a week to think of their salvation. If they were lost they might rise up in judgment against me. I have never seen that congregation since. I will never meet those people until I meet them in another world. But I want to tell you of one lesson that I learned that night which I have never forgotten, and that is, when I preach, to press Christ upon the people then and there and try to bring them to a decision on the spot. I would rather have that right hand cut off than to give an audience a week now to decide what to do with Jesus."
Sara McCaslin is an engineer, a computer scientist, and a freelance writer.