In 1895 Mr. Moody heard, to his amazement, that no less than three-quarters of a million men and women in this country belonged to the distinctively criminal class – that is, the number passing continuously in and out of jails and prisons. He could scarcely believe it until he had made an investigation. With him, to realize the need was to devise methods to meet it. He began to inspect the jails and prisons in every state that he visited, and found that the county jails in many places were entirely neglected. Only here and there were Christian people found who took any interest in these jails. Libraries and reading matter were found in the penitentiaries, but a great many jails that he visited – among others one containing 300 prisoners – were destitute of all good reading.
When he asked the prisoners if there was anything he could do for them, they said that if they had something to read it would help to kill the time. In answer to his inquiry if they would read sermons or religious books, they replied that they would, and he sent some into that prison. There were among them those who could not read, and they insisted that those who could should read aloud to them. They read Spurgeon’s and other sermons that he sent, and before long Mr. Moody began to hear of conversions. Then he sent Testaments, and became so interested that he began to write to the sheriffs of all the different counties (there is a jail in nearly every one of the 2,700 counties in this country). Of all the letters written, only one brought a disrespectful reply. During the last four years of his ministry he scarcely ever left a town without making a special plea for the prisoners, with very gratifying results. “It must not be supposed,” he said, “that all prisoners are hardened criminals. Many a young man has committed a crime in a moment of anger, or under the influence of liquor. The records show that nearly half the prisoners are under 25 years of age. At this time of life a young man is not supposed to have become settled in character. If he can be reached by the gospel message before he begins to sink lower and lower, there is every hope of his salvation for this life and the life to come.”
Mr. Moody’s sympathies went out especially to the prisoners who are kept waiting months for trial, with nothing to do. In some states, after they reach the penitentiary, the men are denied by law all work that competes with outside labor. The prisoners fear idleness more than anything else, and facts prove that they often prefer suicide to life under such conditions. With his knowledge of human nature, he believed that this was just the time to reach a man, and to make him think, when cut off from old associations, and away from whiskey and gambling. “That is what you want to get a man to do,” he said. “What brought home the prodigal? He began thinking. These prisoners begin to realize what wretched lives they have been living, and this is the opportune moment to strike them. They are glad of a book or paper to occupy their minds, and Christian influences may be brought to bear on them by this channel and their whole destiny changed for good. What we propose is that Christians should be more active in carrying the gospel to them while they are behind bars. If it were not for atheism and infidelity, there would be no need of prisons. It is sin that is at the root of the matter; and the only sure cure is regeneration, a new heart, and a new life in Christ Jesus.”
Today, by God’s grace, we believe the same thing Dwight Moody believed and have been able to send thousands of books to prisons, many of which are authored by Dwight Moody. The truth still sets people free and we hope to be able to continue in this endeavor to reach prisoners for Christ for years to come.