‘Greatest show on earth’ wasn’t a circus

By Bill Federer

New York Great Roman Hippodrome
New York Great Roman Hippodrome

“The Greatest Show on Earth” was owned by P.T. Barnum, who died April 7, 1891.

Selling millions of tickets, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus had big draws including General Tom Thumb, a man only 25 inches tall, and elephant “Jumbo,” whose name entered the dictionary.

Barnum, who was received by President Lincoln and gave a command performance for Queen Victoria, stated: “Most persons, on the whole, are humbugged by believing too little, than by believing too much.”

Barnum said:

  • “Politeness and civility are the best capital ever invested in business.”
  • “The best kind of charity is to help those who are willing to help themselves.”
  • “The desire for wealth is nearly universal, and none can say it is not laudable, provided the possessor of it accepts its responsibilities, and uses it as a friend to humanity.”

As the circus was not open on Sundays, Barnum let his New York Great Roman Hippodrome be used by Dwight Lyman Moody for evangelistic campaigns. When Barnum’s show began traveling, D.L. Moody, with help from J.P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt, transformed the Hippodrome into a revival tabernacle.

Services began Feb. 7, 1876, with 7,000 people in the main hall, 4,000 in overflow, thousands outside, 500 ushers and 1,200 singers directed by Ira Sankey. Sunday attendance hit 25,000. It was perhaps Moody’s most important campaign, for impacting New York impacted the nation.

D.L. Moody began his ministry in 1858 as a traveling shoe salesman who started a Sunday School mission for underprivileged children in Chicago. Classes were taught in an abandoned saloon.

D.L. Moody stated: “It is a masterpiece of the devil to make us believe that children cannot understand religion. Would Christ have made a child the standard of faith if He had known that it was not capable of understanding His words?”

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By 1860, the class had grown to over 1,000 attendees, with even President-elect Abraham Lincoln visiting Nov. 25, 1860, on his way to Washington, D.C.

During the Civil War, D.L. Moody ministered to soldiers on the battle-lines, and served as president of the Y.M.C.A. (Young Men’s Christian Association) from 1865-1870. D.L. Moody built the Illinois Street Church in Chicago, but it was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

D.L. Moody said: “We can stand affliction better than we can prosperity, for in prosperity we forget God.”

He rebuilt the church and renamed it the Chicago Avenue Church. It grew to an attendance of over 10,000, with 6,000 waiting outside.

D.L. Moody stated: “Moses spent 40 years thinking he was somebody; 40 years learning he was nobody; and 40 years discovering what God can do with a nobody.”

D.L. Moody preached to tens of thousands in England, meeting preacher Charles Spurgeon and Hudson Taylor, missionary to China. D.L. Moody supported the Israeli settlement of their homeland. He preached to hundreds of thousands across America, holding evangelistic meetings from Boston to New York, to San Francisco and Vancouver. Even President U.S. Grant and his cabinet attended one of his meetings on Jan. 19, 1876.

D.L. Moody commented:

  • “There are many of us that are willing to do great things for the Lord, but few of us are willing to do little things.”
  • “God doesn’t seek for golden vessels … but He must have clean ones.”
  • “The Bible will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from the Bible.”

D.L. Moody started the Chicago Bible Institute, renamed the Moody Bible Institute after his death, with R.A. Torrey succeeding him as president.

Dwight L. Moody remarked:

  • “Treat the Lord Jesus Christ as a personal friend. His is not a creed, a mere doctrine, but it is He Himself we have.”
  • “I know the Bible is inspired because it inspires me.”
  • “Faith makes all things possible … love makes all things easy.”
  • “Preparation for old age should begin not later than one’s teens. A life which is empty of purpose until 65 will not suddenly become filled on retirement.”
  • “Death may be the King of terrors … but Jesus is the King of kings!”

The Chicago Avenue Church was renamed The Moody Church in 1906 and continues to make an international impact with Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer as its pastor.

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