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The Life and Ministry of Reuben Torrey

by Ed Reese (1928-2015)

Born: January 28, 1856—Hoboken, New Jersey
Died: October 26, 1928—Asheville, North Carolina
Life Span: 72 years, 8 months, 28 days

R. A. TorreyExcellence in two areas of ministry has been achieved by a few; it has been a rare genius who has been so gifted in three areas, but to excel in four capacities would seem near impossible...but it has been done two or three times in history. Reuben Archer Torrey is a classic example, for he was renown as an educator, a pastor, a world evangelist and an author.

Besides his obvious gifts in all these areas, he was also a man of prayer, a student of the Bible, and an outstanding personal soul-winner. It is said that he daily read the Bible in four languages, having a good working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. Some students of church history feel he did more to promote personal evangelism than any other one man since the days of the apostles. His prayer life has seldom been equaled in the annals of Christendom.

One wonders if there has ever lived a man who did so many things well for Christ. One of his favorite phrases was, "I love to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

Torrey was the son of a New York City corporation lawyer and banker. His parents, Reuben and Elizabeth, were refined and cultured Christians, with mother spending much time in prayer for her son. The family moved to Brooklyn when he was three and, when he was ten, they moved again to a country home on 200 acres amid the uplands of New York State. The fortune of the father was lost, so that Torrey's eventual inheritance was only a matchbox and a pair of sleeve buttons. The Lord's Day was respected, but somewhat lax restrictions the rest of the week produced a worldly teenager. Once, in the attic, he read a book that explained about being a Christian, but he felt God might make him a preacher rather than a lawyer, so he determined not to follow through.

At age fifteen he was at Yale University and passed through a period of scholastic skepticism. His quick mind learned easily. He was an expert dancer and his conscience was not oversensitive about campus good times. "What more could I want?" he thought. "I've got all I need to make me happy." Social and worldly delights like race tracks, cards, the theater all crowded out any pursuit of Christian objectives.

One night at Yale, he dreamed his mother came to him as an angel asking him to preach. His melancholy increased. He had a sudden impulse to commit suicide. He hurried to the washstand and fumbled for his razor or any other sharp instrument that would serve this purpose, but could not find a suitable weapon. His mother, miles away, was pulled from her bed by an invisible power to pray for her son whose faith had been shaken. Young Reuben, about to commit suicide one way or another, was gripped by a desire to pray. Snapping back to reality, he knelt at his bedside and asked the Lord to come into his heart. He said, "Oh, God, deliver me from this burden—I'll even preach!" He returned to his bed with a soothing peace settling over his mind and his future plans were settled. This was in the spring of 1875, when Torrey was 18 years old. In Yale chapel he made a public profession of faith and, following graduation in 1875, he entered the Yale Divinity School.

Winning people to Christ became an obsession with him, and soon he was renown as a great personal soul-winner. After his conversion, the first time he saw the young lady he had been taking to dances, he witnessed to her. He says of the incident: "I commenced to reason with her out of the Scriptures. It took two hours, but she accepted Christ."

Both of his parents died in the summer of 1877.

While in Seminary, Torrey first heard a man whom the students called a strange, uneducated evangelist. It was D. L. Moody at New Haven, Connecticut, in 1878. After Moody spoke, Torrey and others said, "Tell us how to win people to Jesus Christ." Moody said, "Go at it! That's the best way to learn!" So Torrey plunged into personal work starting right there at the meetings. His method was to put the Bible in the hands of the inquirer and have him read a selected passage. Torrey would then ask questions about the words and phrases of the passage until the seeker understood it. His approach to individuals was sometimes brusque and always direct and pointed. There was no attempt to try to win people to himself first as a means of winning them to Christ. It was always directly to Jesus Christ in his witnessing. Torrey also heard Moody say in another sermon, "Faith can do anything!" and faith became the keynote of his life. Reading the works of Finney those days also helped mold his life.

Torrey got his B.D. in 1878, with his D.D. coming later in 1889. He was ordained a Congregational minister in 1878 and pastored the Congregational Church in Garretsville, Ohio, a community of 1,000, from 1878 to 1882. It was during this time he married Clara Smith on October 22, 1879. His wife was a constant inspiration to him. They had five children, beginning with Edith (Nov. 8, 1880), Blanche, Reuben, Elizabeth, and ending with Margaret (Feb. 16, 1893).

Not satisfied with the training he received in the States, he studied at the German universities of Leipzig and Erlangen in 1882-83. As a brilliant student, he made great progress in school. Early in his studies he was a pronounced higher critic, but before he had completed them, he was convinced of the falsity of his views and swung gradually back to old conservative doctrines, reversing the usual trend because of Europe's emphasis on higher criticism. In fact, Torrey became a most bitter foe of liberalism the rest of his days. He was hopelessly orthodox.

Upon returning to the States, he received two calls. One was to pastor a wealthy church in Brooklyn and the other to pastor a weak and poor church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He chose the latter. He organized the church with about a dozen members and it became known as the Open Door Church. He stayed from 1883 to 1886, then moved on to the People's Church from 1887-89. Along with these pastoral responsibilities, he accepted the superintendency of the Congregational City Mission Society, 1886-89. It was in Minneapolis that his motto became "pray through" as a result of reading Mueller's "Life of Trust."

He received no stated salary and was supported by freewill offerings. He said later:

"A number of years ago (1888), I came to the place where it seemed my duty to give up my salary and work for God among the poor...From that day on, every mouthful came directly from my Heavenly Father, not a meal on our tables...not a coat that went on my back...not a dress on my wife's back, nor the clothing on the backs of the four children, that was not an answer to prayer. We got everything from God. I was never more serene in my life."

Mr. Torrey also made it a habit to hold special prayer meetings asking God to pour out His Spirit in mighty revival power around the world. Little did he suspect how instrumental his own life would be in bringing this to pass.

One day D. L. Moody was talking with a friend, E. M. Williams, and lamented that he wished he knew of a man to head his new school. Williams gave a glowing account of Torrey's ministries. Moody called for him, and at the age of 33, Torrey became the first Superintendent of the Chicago Evangelization Society (later Moody Bible Institute), guiding it from its inception September 26, 1889, until 1908. He was the chief executive officer and the success of the Institute can probably be attributed to Torrey's contribution more than any other individual. He laid the groundwork for the curriculum and the practical Christian work program. Torrey's leadership at the school, plus his part in the 1893 World's Fair evangelism outreach, brought him to the attention of the Christian world. Torrey was automatically considered the "Elisha" to carry on Moody's work upon his death in 1899. When Moody collapsed in Kansas City in November, 1899, just prior to his death, it was Torrey who carried on the crusade.

At school, the students were constantly amazed at his ability. His teaching and prevailing prayer became renown. As he lectured in the classroom, he poured out the brilliance of his Yale and German training, which had been endued with faith and emboldened by the Holy Spirit. He was sound in doctrine and an exceptional Bible teacher. His successor, James Gray, said of him, "Few men were better equipped than he to expound the Holy Scriptures before a popular audience or in a classroom." And how he could pray! One student reported how he went to Torrey's office with a particular need, and after the session kneeling in prayer together was over, a pool of tear remained when Torrey arose. His booklet "How to Pray" is a classic.

Torrey also took upon himself the pastorship of the Chicago Avenue Church (now Moody Memorial Church) from 1894 to 1905, where again he wielded a tremendous amount of influence in the Christian world. The 2,200-seat auditorium soon began to be filled. Torrey later said he didn't believe a day went by without someone being saved as a result of the church. The success was the prayer meetings, for all over the city there were little groups who would stay up late on Saturday night, or get up early on Sunday morning to pray for their pastor. This, plus the fact that his membership was always trained in soul-winning, produced a church that lived in a constant revival atmosphere. Every year he spent several months in Northfield, Massachusetts, teaching and preaching in the various conferences there.

In 1898, a weekly prayer meeting began at the Bible Institute each Saturday night from 9 to 10 p.m. The attendance grew until it numbered an average of 300 people. Its purpose was to pray for worldwide revival. For the next three years the prayer meetings continued, followed by Torrey and three or four associates having a second prayer meeting until about 2 a.m. One night Torrey had a strange burden to pray that God would send him around the world with the Gospel. Within a week two strangers from the United Churches of Melbourne, Australia approached him following a Sunday service saying they felt Torrey was the man God wanted to come to their country for evangelistic services. Torrey was stunned and challenged by the proposal. It seemed the years of praying were about to bear fruit.

Getting a leave of absence from his Chicago responsibilities, he quickly began to ponder that God might use him as the human instrument to bring worldwide revival—his burden for many years. He was to see some 102,000 come to Christ in the next few years in the most globe-girdling enterprise ever undertaken by an evangelist.

He wired a former student, Charles M. Alexander, to meet him in Australia. Torrey went to Japan and China on the way, where he preached with great power and saw hundreds of converts made during his brief visit there.

It was April, 1902, that Torrey and Alexander met in Melbourne, Australia and began their work there. This movement was known as the Simultaneous Mission and it lasted a month. For the first two weeks, meetings were held in fifty different centers by fifty different ministers and evangelists. The "Glory Song" ("O That Will Be Glory") seemed to set the nation on fire. During the last two weeks the meetings were held in the Exhibition Building seating 8,000 people. Up to 15,000 were trying to get in nightly. W. E. Geil, another American evangelist, assisted in the meetings. Some 8,600 converts were recorded and the news of the awakening stirred all Christendom. Calls came from other key cities of Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand, where they ministered for the next six months. In Sydney, Torrey spoke to thousands in the massive city hall with hundreds converted. In Bendigo, Alexander met and led Robert Harkness, a brilliant young musical genius, to Christ, and he became his pianist, soon joining the team for the rest of their tour. In one Australian city, a largely built man thundered at Torrey, "I am not a Christian, but I am moral, upright, honorable and blameless—and I'd like to know what you have against me!" Torrey looked him straight in the eyes and replied, "I charge you, sir, with high treason against Heaven's King!"

Up to 2,000 prayer bands were conducted in various sections of the country praying continually for revival.

Two campaigns were held in Tasmania in Launceston and Hobart. The heavyweight boxing champ of Tasmania confessed Christ as Saviour the same night a member of Parliament did. Thirty days in New Zealand climaxed their tour. Revival fires broke out with a total of 20,000 decisions for Christ in the land "down under."

Calls now came from England and they headed that way, stopping in India for six weeks en route. Campaigns were held in Madura, Madras, Calcutta, Bombay, and Benares. Hundreds were saved. A convention of 400 missionaries listened to Torrey for four days receiving much blessing to bring back to their people.

They were welcomed in London in a great meeting in Exeter Hall by the leading clerics of England. They spent three weeks in Mildmay Conference Hall in North London stirring up church members to fresh zeal in soul-winning and witnessing, resulting in large numbers of conversions. They went on to Edinburgh, Scotland, for a four-week campaign held in Synod Hall. In the weeks to follow, they also ministered in France and Germany.

The team made a brief trip to America during July and August, 1903, where a welcome home crowd of some 10,000 endeavored to gain admission to the Auditorium of the Bible Institute.

In September, 1903, they were back in England, and beginning the Liverpool crusade. In four weeks they saw about 5,000 converts. The crowds became so large that two meetings per night had to be held, one for women, and the second for men. At Dublin, Ireland, at the Metropolitan Hall, some 3,000 accepted Christ.

By 1904, some 30,000 persons around the world had committed themselves to pray for the team and worldwide revival. In January, 1904, the Birmingham campaign began. It was probably the most successful campaign held anywhere on their tour. Meetings were held in Bingley Hall, seating 8,000 with space for 2,000 standees. The thirty-day crusade had some 7,000 conversions! Here Alexander met his future wife, Helen Cadbury, whom he married in July.

In September, 1904, the team was in Bolton, Wales (3,600 saved), then on to Cardiff to a 7,000-seat auditorium which filled nightly (3,750 saved). Evan Roberts led that nation to God the next year and surely the sparks of revival were lit at those meetings.

From Cardiff, the evangelists went back to Liverpool to conduct a nine-week campaign. The Tournament Hall, seating 12,500, was reserved. At times it proved inadequate and it is estimated some 35,000 were turned away on the last day of the meetings. Some 7,000 were saved and an old resident said it surpassed the Moody-Sankey revival many years previously. The choir numbered 3,658 alone which was the largest evangelistic chorus ever organized up to that time. Two banquets were held, averaging 2,200 each for the poor people of Liverpool, averaging about 225 decisions for Christ at each.

From February to June 1905, the famous London Crusade was held. Total expenses amounted to $85,000 with nearly 15,000 professed conversions. Meetings were held at the Royal Albert Hall for the first two months; an iron and glass building seating 5,500 in South London for the next two months; and another great iron building seating over 5,000 in the heart of London on the Strand for the last month. A 1,000-voice choir helped nightly. The crusade began at the 11,000-seat Royal Albert Hall on February 4 with a welcome by many of the cities dignitaries. The first evangelistic service was held the following night with 10,000 unable to secure admission. Some 250 were saved. A well known concert hall singer and entertainer by the name of Quentin Ashlyn was saved soon after. It seemed as though all of London was singing revival hymns. The "Glory Song" captured the city. It was sung at every service. "Tell Mother I'll Be There" was also greatly used. Some 6,500 were saved at the Royal Albert Hall with special meetings for men and children also packing out the hall. Meetings held in South London produced 5,000 converts and then in the final month another 2,500 were saved. A closing service at the Royal Albert Hall announced the totals--202 meetings, 1,114,650 attended (average 5,500 per service) with over 17,000 converts!

Wherever they had gone—to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen or Dundee in Scotland; to Dublin and Belfast in Ireland (4,000 saved); to Manchester (4,000 saved) and the other above mentioned crusades in England and Wales—the halls were unable to hold the crowds. Not since the days of Moody and Sankey had Great Britain been so stirred. A total of 70,000 came to the Lord during these three years of ministry there.

Returning to the United States in December, 1905, with more revival preaching on his mind, he made his leave of absence permanent at the two hallowed institutions that had stood by awaiting his return. James M. Gray became the chief executive officer at Moody Bible Institute and A. C. Dixon became pastor of Moody Church. From 1906 to 1911, a heavy series of crusades in America occupied his time. Oswald J. Smith was converted in the 1906 Toronto, Ontario, crusade. Atlanta, Ottawa, Ontario San Francisco, Omaha, Cleveland, Nashville, Buffalo, Montreal, Quebec, Detroit, Los Angeles and Chicago all had good revival sessions with him. Perhaps his most successful revival stateside was in Philadelphia in the spring of 1906. Newspaper headlines blared out, "Hell is absolutely certain, Dr. Torrey warns his hearers!" These meetings lasted 62 days in three different armories at a cost of $38,365. John Wanamaker and John Converse, successful Christian businessmen, were among the chief supporters. Some 7,000 converts were claimed, although decision cards totaled only 3,615. Charles Alexander left Torrey in 1907-08 and joined up with J. Wilbur Chapman.

Torrey helped establish the Montrose (Pennsylvania) Bible Conference in 1908. Later he would be buried there on Conference Hill.

In 1911 he went back to England, Scotland and Ireland for more meetings.

Now a call came from the west coast of the United States to give Los Angeles similar institutions to those he led in Chicago. From 1912 to 1924 he served as dean of the Los Angeles Bible Institute (now called BIOLA). He also helped to organize and served as the first pastor of the Church of the Open Door (1915-1924). There he preached to great throngs and God blessed both his pastoring and teaching. Thousands were trained at the school including Charles E. Fuller, famed radio preacher of the next generation.

In 1919 he visited Japan and China with the Gospel and in 1921 he toured China and Korea in evangelistic endeavors.

From 1924 to 1928 he devoted his time to holding Bible conferences, giving special lectures at the Moody Bible Institute among other places. He made his home in Biltmore, North Carolina. He passed on quietly at Asheville, North Carolina.

Will Houghton, preaching his funeral, said:

...But those who knew Dr. Torrey more intimately knew him as a man of regular and uninterrupted prayer. He knew what it meant to pray without ceasing. With hours set systematically apart for prayer, he gave himself diligently to this ministry.

Reuben A. Torrey wrote some forty books and his practical writings on the Holy Spirit, prayer, salvation, soul-winning, and evangelism are still favorites of many Christians. His "Gist of the Lesson" continued for more than thirty years. This was a series of helps on the International Sunday School lessons. Many of his works have been translated into foreign languages.

His first book was "How to Bring Men to Christ" (1893). His last, "Lectures on the First Epistle of John," published in 1929 after his death. His "How to Promote and Conduct a Successful Revival" (1901) is considered one of the best books on personal and mass evangelism ever written.

From one of 49 booklets by Ed Reese in the Christian Hall of Fame series. Reese Publications, 7801 Ember Crest Trail, Knoxville, TN 37938.

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