R. A. Torrey was an influential American evangelist and Christian writer who lived from 1856 to 1928. He served as the superintendent of Moody Bible Institute and pastored several influential churches during his lifetime. Torrey was known for his staunch defense of the fundamentals of the Christian faith and his passionate preaching calling people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
Some key facts about R. A. Torrey’s life and ministry include:
- He was born on January 28, 1856 in Hoboken, New Jersey.
- He studied at Yale University and graduated in 1875. During his time at Yale he rejected the Christian faith but later converted in 1876 during revival meetings in New York City.
- After his conversion, Torrey enrolled at Yale Divinity School and graduated in 1878. He was ordained as a Congregationalist minister.
- His first pastorate was at the Congregational Church in Garrettsville, Ohio from 1878 to 1882.
- He married Clara Smith in 1879 and together they had five children.
- In 1882 he accepted a call to pastor the Central Congregational Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota where he served until 1884.
- He then pastored the Unity Congregational Church in Chicago from 1884 to 1886.
- In 1889, Torrey succeeded Dwight L. Moody as superintendent of the Chicago Evangelization Society, later known as the Moody Bible Institute. He served as superintendent until 1908 when he resigned after some disagreements over institutional policies.
- During his time at Moody Bible Institute, Torrey helped establish the school’s core curriculum and doctrinal positions. He also recruited many influential speakers and teachers including James M. Gray, A.C. Dixon, Henry Drummond, and G. Campbell Morgan.
- From 1896 to 1902, Torrey served as pastor of the Moody Church in Chicago which grew into a megachurch under his leadership.
- Beginning in 1902, Torrey devoted himself fulltime to itinerant evangelism and Bible teaching ministries. He preached across the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia, and India.
- In 1911-1912, Torrey conducted evangelistic campaigns in Great Britain, Australia, China, Japan, India, and Egypt which drew large crowds.
- He was one of the founding members and served two terms as president of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University) from 1912 to 1928.
- Torrey was a proponent of the fundamentals of Christianity. He edited The Fundamentals, a defining series of essays published between 1910-1915 affirming biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection of Christ, and the historical reality of miracles.
- He authored over 40 books, many of which were commentaries and studies focused on prayer, the Holy Spirit, salvation, and evangelism. His most famous book was How to Pray published in 1900.
- Torrey died on October 26, 1928 shortly after returning from an exhausting world tour.
Early Life and Education
Reuben Archer Torrey was born on January 28, 1856 in Hoboken, New Jersey to Reuben and Elizabeth Torrey. His parents were Congregationalists and his father was a successful businessman who made his wealth through real estate. Even as a young boy, Torrey seemed destined for religious leadership as he loved to preach impromptu sermons to his friends using a small pulpit his father had constructed for him. However, as a teenager Torrey began to drift from his Christian upbringing, questioning the doctrines he had been raised with.
In 1875, Torrey enrolled at Yale University. His time at Yale only further confirmed his skepticism toward Christianity. The intellectual climate at Yale in the 1870s was dominated by Enlightenment rationalism and Darwinian theories of evolution. Torrey embraced agnosticism, rejecting the supernatural elements of the Bible. He later wrote that during this period he “did not believe the Bible to be the Word of God or Jesus Christ to be the Son of God, or anything supernatural.”
This agnosticism continued for his first two years at Yale until his junior year when he was confronted by a fellow student about his spiritual condition. Torrey admitted he had many doubts about God and the Bible. This conversation led Torrey to reexamine the evidence for Christianity. As he later wrote, “I made up my mind to be thoroughly honest and fair, and to examine impartially the basis of Christianity.” This process of investigation eventually led him back to a firm faith in Jesus Christ. Reflecting on this period, Torrey said, “My attention was called to the fact that if the Bible were true, I was lost forever…I picked up my Bible and I read it through…I came to the conclusion that the Bible is true.”
In the summer of 1876, Torrey attended some revival meetings held by evangelists Dwight L. Moody and Ira Sankey. There he fully embraced the gospel message and committed his life to serving Christ. He described his conversion experience this way: “Then and there I made an unconditional surrender to the Lord Jesus Christ and I decided to follow Him wherever He may lead me.”
After his conversion, Torrey transferred to Yale Divinity School to receive ministerial training. He completed his degree in 1878 and was ordained as a minister in the Congregational Church.
Torrey’s first pastoral role came in 1878 when he accepted a call to pastor the small Congregational church in Garrettsville, Ohio. He spent four years serving this small rural community. It was here he met and married Clara Smith in 1879. Torrey and Clara had five children together over the course of their marriage.
In 1882, Torrey moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota to become the pastor of the Central Congregational Church. His two years of ministry there were marked by numerical growth as the church increased from 99 to over 700 members by the time he left in 1884. He then spent two years pastoring the Unity Congregational Church in Chicago.
During these early pastorates, Torrey developed a unique preaching style influenced by his Yale Divinity School mentors. He rejected highly academic approaches to preaching that lacked gospel urgency and call for repentance. Instead he preached in direct, earnest manner calling on his listeners to repent and believe in Jesus for salvation. He later explained his preaching philosophy this way: “When I took charge of a church, I determined to preach just as simply and earnestly…as if never a person in the congregation had heard the Gospel before. No matter how small or how large the congregation…I always preach the Gospel straight and earnestly.”
Torrey also gave attention early in his ministry to developing a rigorous daily devotional life. Every morning he would wake up before sunrise to pray and read the Bible, a discipline he maintained his entire ministry. Torrey’s leadership skills, powerful preaching, and personal piety quickly marked him as an up and coming figure within American evangelicalism.
Ministry at Moody Bible Institute
The most significant period in Torrey’s ministry began in 1889 when he succeeded his friend and mentor Dwight L. Moody as superintendent of the Chicago Evangelization Society, later known as the Moody Bible Institute. Torrey’s task was daunting as he replaced one of the most famous evangelists of the era. But Torrey proved more than capable, helping to firmly establish Moody Bible Institute during its early years.
During his time at the school from 1889 to 1908, Torrey helped develop the curriculum, supervised faculty, mentored students, hosted conferences, recruited gifted teachers, and campaigned for financial support of the school. He focused the training on preparing students for practical evangelistic work, especially overseas missions activity. Torrey later remarked that his goal had been “to make the Institute a place for training soul winners and soul winners only.” This emphasis on evangelism above all else became a hallmark of Moody Bible Institute during Torrey’s tenure.
Among the influential teachers Torrey recruited to Moody were James M. Gray who became president after Torrey’s departure, A.C. Dixon, Henry Drummond, and G. Campbell Morgan. These additions ensured the school would continue teaching conservative theology and training skillful evangelists in the years ahead. Speaking of Torrey’s leadership at Moody, one observer noted, “More than any other man he has succeeded in making this institution what it is today.”
In addition to his administrative duties, Torrey continued to serve as pastor of Chicago’s Moody Church from 1896 to 1902. The church prospered and grew into one of America’s first megachurches under his preaching. Record numbers joined the church due in part to Torrey’s evangelistic zeal and simple gospel sermons.
But eventually doctrinal controversy and growing institutional friction at Moody forced Torrey to resign in 1908. He disagreed with moves to lessen the centrality of evangelism at the school. So despite his immense contributions over 20 years, Torrey left Moody Bible Institute and turned his full attention to itinerant evangelism, authorship, and teaching ministry.
Beginning in 1902, Torrey committed much of his time to traveling across America and around the world as an itinerant evangelist. He had a unique gifting for combining solid biblical exposition with passionate calls for repentance, faith and full surrender to Christ. Torrey’s preaching was described as direct, forceful, and emotional yet rooted in the authority of Scripture. He refused any techniques or annual funds raising tricks to draw crowds. He simply relied on the compelling message of the gospel.
From 1902 to 1911, Torrey conducted evangelistic campaigns across the United States and Canada. Large arenas were filled nightly with thousands coming to hear him preach. His messages were noted for both their doctrinal depth and evangelistic zeal. One pastor who invited him said Torrey “preached the most clear, sane, inspiring, [and] heart-moving gospel sermons I have ever listened to.”
The years 1911 to 1912 mark the height of Torrey’s global evangelism. He circled the world holding campaigns in Great Britain, Australia, China, Japan, The Philippines, India, Egypt, and Palestine. Thousands flocked to his meetings including many non-Christians drawn by curiosity. He was well received by secular journalists who praised his preaching skill and sincerity. One Australian paper said, “He speaks with the force and conviction of a man absolutely swayed by the power called conviction. No one could hear him and not be conscious of that.”
Torrey’s approach on these global tours was to preach the gospel, challenge unbelievers with the claims of Christ, and call nominal Christians to revival. His messages emphasized biblical themes like the holiness of God, the sacrifice of Christ, the lostness of mankind, and the need for repentance. He refused any gimmicks or extravagant techniques. His ministry was characterized by boldness, urgency, and reliance on prayer. As one observer said, “Here is a man who almost literally prays down the power of God upon his audience.”
The results of Torrey’s demanding travel schedule took a physical toll. But by his own estimate, his itinerant campaigns across four continents resulted in tens of thousands of professions of faith. Countless more rededicated their lives to Christ under Torrey’s preaching. He became one of the most famous global evangelists of his era.
Author and Bible Teacher
Despite his packed travel schedule, Torrey was a prolific author publishing over 40 books and countless articles, booklets, and Bible lesson plans. His books covered a range of topics related to the Christian life including prayer, Bible study, salvation, the Holy Spirit, divine healing, prophecy, and apologetics.
Most of Torrey’s books were born out of sermons, lectures, or lessons given at his evangelistic meetings and conferences over the years. After delivering messages on a topic like prayer or the Holy Spirit, he would later expand the material into book form to benefit more readers. Many of his books remained continuously in print for decades due to their enduring usefulness.
His most famous book was How to Pray, first published in 1900. Other significant titles included How to Bring Men to Christ (1893), What the Bible Teaches (1898), The Baptism with the Holy Spirit (1895), The Fundamental Doctrines of the Christian Faith (1918), and Difficulties in the Bible (1907).
Torrey had a gift for expressing profound theological truths in clear language easily grasped by common people. He anchored his writing in scriptural exposition, generously quoting verses to establish his points. One reviewer said of his book How to Study the Bible, “Here everything is so simple that it does not require a sage to understand, but only an inquiring mind and an attentive ear.” The enduring appeal of Torrey’s books lies in their sound doctrine, sharp focus on essentials, and skill in making the Bible understandable.
In addition to books, Torrey edited the famous twelve volume apologetic work The Fundamentals published between 1910-1915. These essays written by leading conservative scholars reaffirmed the traditional doctrines of biblical inspiration, the virgin birth of Christ, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, and the historical reality of miracles in the face of growing theological liberalism.
The books were funded by oil magnates Lyman and Milton Stewart and sent free of charge to thousands of pastors, missionaries, and church leaders. The Fundamentals gave definition to the emerging fundamentalist movement within American evangelicalism. Torrey contributed several articles to The Fundamentals defending the inerrancy of the Bible and the deity of Jesus Christ.
Later Ministry: Bible Conferences and Biola
In his final two decades of ministry from 1911 to 1928, Torrey continued writing books, publishing articles, preaching at large conferences, and teaching occasional short terms at Bible institutes. Though he slowed his travel pace, he still occasionally undertook international evangelistic campaigns when health permitted.
He was in great demand as a speaker at the Bible conferences popular in the early 1900s. Thousands gathered to hear Torrey preach at summer conferences in Winona Lake, Lake Geneva, Montrose, and other locations. His scholarly credentials combined with evangelistic fervor made him one of the most respected conference speakers of the era.
Torrey also left his mark through co-founding The Bible Institute of Los Angeles, now known as Biola University. He twice served as president of the school from 1912 to 1915 and from 1918 to 1928. Along with pioneering radio evangelist T.C. Horton, Torrey helped establish Biola as a leading Bible institute on the West Coast. It became known for its evangelistic focus and doctrinal conservatism.
Even in his final years, Torrey continued undertaking international campaigns whenever health permitted. Shortly after returning from an exhausting world tour in 1928 at age 72, Torrey suffered a stroke. He died a few months later on October 26, 1928.
R.A. Torrey was one of the most influential evangelists and Christian writers during the early decades of the 20th century. His fiery preaching, bestselling books, leadership at Moody Bible Institute, and defense of biblical doctrine all helped firmly establish conservative evangelical theology within American Christianity. More than anything, he called multitudes to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.