I have had a long association with the school. Members of my family have been either students or faculty at NMH for 77 of the past 82 years. This is my 46th Founder’s Day in this chapel and I will enjoy celebrating my 50th reunion this June. I consider Mount Hermon to not only be my home, but also the place in which I grew up to become the person I am today. Maybe the sum of all my experiences does qualify me to say something on Founder’s Day. At least someone thinks so. Today I am going to be sharing with you some of D.L. Moody’s story and how his influence still can be found in NMH today, despite many changes.
Founder's Day is often the only place where students get to hear about D.L. Moody. It is important that you, as members of the school family, have some sense of our founder, even though he lived in very different times. I will just give a brief outline of his life. It will be review for some of you, new for others. If you get the chance to learn more about his life and work, you should.
Dwight Lyman Moody was born on Feb. 5, 1837, in Northfield, Massachusetts. His father died when Moody was four years old and his mother struggled to care for her nine children. At 10 years old, after only four or five years of school, he went to work on neighboring farms to make money to support his family. At 17, he left home for Boston to find work in the big city. In Boston, he eventually found work in his uncle’s shoe store and became a Christian. At 19 he went to Chicago, where he established himself as a very successful salesman and businessman. After several years in which he became more and more involved with the YMCA and church activities, Moody gave up business to focus completely on religious work. Moody was a deeply religious man, but not in a formal way. His education was minimal, but with his wife’s help he gradually improved at writing and speaking. His efforts eventually took him from the battlefields of the Civil War to Great Britain and around this country. Everywhere he went he faced challenges, but eventually had great success. Originally dismissed because of his lack of education and polish, he would draw tens of thousands to his revival meetings.
In his later years he spent a lot of his time around the schools, but he continued to be an inspiration to many near and far. To call him a 19th-century evangelist is too meager a description. From humble beginnings in tiny Northfield, Massachusetts, he became one of the most influential people of his time. The man who founded Northfield in 1879 and Mount Hermon in 1881 was immensely popular, and he was able to call on many influential friends for financial assistance. While he refused to Benefit personally from most of the money he raised, he made sure that funds went to his two schools and to the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.
Moody’s two schools were definitely founded as Christian schools where young women and men received religious as well as academic and skills-based education, and this emphasis has certainly changed with only the religious studies requirement to echo what once was an integral part of school life. In my days as a student, we still had required Sunday and weekday chapel services and took full-credit, required courses in Bible I, Bible II, Bible III, and Bible IV. This was much less religious instruction than the original students had received. Of course that was 50 years ago, and life at the school has continued to change even more. It is doubtful that Moody would be comfortable with our present day embrace of many spiritual traditions and optional worship.
So what would Moody recognize in the NMH of today? Let me give you three threads that are still part of the NMH fabric.
First Thread: The Work Program
Moody used Wellesley College as a model for Northfield, and this included adopting a work program. Every student, not matter their background, was expected to do work to assist in the running of the school. Early students dragged rocks and boulders to create the nice lawns you see around us, got up early in the morning to milk cows, made the food, and cleaned the buildings, and even brought the stones up the hill that built this chapel. Not only was student labor a way to keep the costs of education down, but Moody believed that there was a great deal to be learned from manual labor, and that when everyone pitched in there was a deeper sense of shared community.
In my days as a student, the girls at Northfield referred to this domestic work as “dummy,” while we boys at Mount Hermon called it “workjob.” My workjob my freshman year was to empty, clean, and refill all the sugar bowls that were placed on the tables for breakfast. I did this all year. In sophomore year, I graduated to the more glamorous job of cleaning the salt and pepper shakers. As a junior, I waited on the waiters who waited on the single faculty, bringing them their food and cleaning up after them. Faculty members with families were not allowed to eat breakfast or dinner in the dining hall. As a senior, I was a resident leader, a position that was called “floor officer” at Mount Hermon and “cop” at Northfield. I am still trying to get the school to pay me for this experience because I did the same things a duty faculty member does nowadays: supervising study hall, checking students in, inspecting rooms, and even putting them to bed at lights out.
As I traveled to other schools for sports, it became clear that workjob was unique at Mount Hermon. At Exeter and other schools only the scholarship students worked — if students did any work at all. I was very proud that at my school everyone was expected to contribute to the school community. Every student was treated the same and asked to be part of the experience here. When students ask me, “Why do I have to do workjob when my family is paying all this tuition?” my answer is that they have just indicated by their question why it is necessary for them to work.
Moody would be very comfortable with our work program, although he would think all of you are getting off easy with your jobs.
Second Thread: Music
Moody loved music and always went out of his way to hear music. His partnership with gospel singer and composer Ira Sankey led to lots of hymn singing at his revival meetings. Moody and Sankey published a very successful hymnbook and the profits eventually went directly to the schools and paid for the erection of several buildings. It is said that many of the campus buildings were “sung up.”
There is a nice story about Moody and Sankey and some friends taking the ferry across the Connecticut River from Northfield to Mount Hermon. (There was no bridge.) This ferry was a rope ferry where the ferryman pulled the ferry across on a rope. As they crossed, they started singing to pass the time, and after a while the passengers realized the crossing was taking a longer time than usual. They discovered that a grinning Moody was pulling on the rope against the ferryman, prolonging the passage so that he and the ferryman could hear more music.
At Northfield in my day, every girl belonged to a choir, while at Mount Hermon, we had both Glee Club and choirs. In my senior year I could not stand being left out of all the fun and I worked up the nerve to try out for the choir. Despite a terrible audition I was allowed to join, and it was one of the best things I did. Vespers and Sacred Concert are more awesome when you are directly participating. And of course we sang every week in chapel services. When you experience Sacred Concert in May, remember that this school tradition was started by Moody as a tribute to his mother, and think of him. While Moody’s taste in music was focused on hymns and the like, I am pretty certain he would enjoy the expertise of the choirs, orchestra, bands, and groups we have today. The musical tradition is certainly something we still have from Moody’s day.
Third Thread: Scholarship, Diversity and Service. I consider these three things to be connected.
The schools were founded to provide opportunities to students so that they could prepare for a life of service. And some of these students, like Moody, came from very poor educational and economic backgrounds. In 1900, the tuition was set at $100 per year (which was half of the cost to educate each student), and many students had their tuition paid in whole or part by school funds. In the early days of this school, students who could pay the full tuition were not accepted. It is one reason NMH is less well off financially than other schools who have been around as long as we have. The school’s resources went to assisting students and therefore were not invested to grow.
Moody would recognize that NMH is still offering scholarship assistance to worthy applicants, still providing educational opportunity, and even today, your tuition is just a fraction of the total cost of your education. In that sense, every student in this room is on financial aid. I could never have attended Mount Hermon without aid, and I will always donate to the school in the hope that others will have the same chance I had. Just last Friday I spoke with an NMH trustee who feels the same way and is passionate about finding ways to extend the NMH opportunity to more people.
From the beginning, Moody’s schools were characterized by a diverse student body, and that was unique for private schools. Today, the NMH student body is even more ethnically and economically diverse, and our rich mix of people on campus is potentially an even better place to learn and live. Everyone of you benefits from the experience of learning and living with others from all sorts of places and backgrounds. Your horizons are broadened and you are less likely to be wary of people who are different from you. You are better equipped to navigate the kind of world you will inherit. I have learned so much about what it means to be a human being from my classmates and students over the years, and I know that there are so many ways to be excellent. I can name-drop famous NMH People (Did you know I had a date with Natalie Cole?), but I also have gotten to know many less well-known but very important people who are making an impact on the lives of others in so many different ways. I am extremely proud of our NMH graduates, like A’Dorian Murray-Thomas and poet Anna Meek, who visited us in the last few days.
The school is constantly trying to develop programs which will make all of us better citizens of an increasingly diverse and complicated world. This is a strength that Moody would recognize today. And while we no longer specifically prepare students for a life of Christian service, I submit that Moody would consider students who “act with humanity and purpose” to be worthy graduates.
So I remind you all, in Moody’s name, not only to take full advantage of the opportunities you have to learn from others, but also to search out ways you can contribute to a better world for everyone around you.
Moody’s schools were different from other private schools when they were founded. They addressed a need to educate students who were otherwise overlooked. And as the schools have changed since the 1800s, they have done so because students and the world they need to be prepared for have changed. The changes were not only in the amount of religious instruction or in the economic diversity of the student body, but also in the areas of school life and the nature of the curriculum. Think about this: most independent schools when I was a student were single-sex schools; NMH was ahead of things even then. In my senior year, if we were lucky, boys from Mount Hermon and girls from Northfield could get to see each other four days a week for an hour or two of closely chaperoned time, unless you were in the coed classes in Advanced Biology or Chinese, in which you saw the other half of the human race more regularly. When Mr. Weis graduated 10 years later his entire four years as a student were spent at a coeducational, two-campus school.
It wasn’t too long ago that the school decided we could teach our students better with our present CMAP system, where courses are taught in semesters. And of course we fairly recently moved to a single campus. I can tell you quite confidently that NMH is a better and stronger place because of all these changes.
In a similar way, the school’s commitment to diversity and social justice comes from a need to prepare students for the society in which they will live and work. Do you see that immersing yourself in these issues, questioning, learning from others, is absolutely crucial if you are going to be an educated and influential person in the multicultural world you will inherit?
If the school has changed so much since I graduated in 1968, how will the school have changed when you seniors return for your 50th reunion in 2068? I bet that NMH still will be a school that functions so that its students will be prepared to make a difference, to act with humanity and purpose in whatever culture they find around themselves. Your school is not stuck in the past and embraces necessary change, and this needs to be celebrated.
In closing, remember to be proud of your school and its founder, D.L. Moody. You can see his influence in our work program, in the music we make and enjoy, in the school’s commitment to scholarship and service, and in our willingness to adapt to be the best place to grow and learn so you can have happy and productive lives. NMH is not the same as the schools Moody founded, but the Spirit of Moody, as well as all of us who live and work here, still expect you as NMH graduates to make the world around you better in both small and large ways.
Let’s all get back to learning how to make it happen!
Jay Ward is NMH registrar and science teacher.
Photo by Glenn Minshall