My friend and professor, Roy Fish, taught on the subject of spiritual awakenings. It was my favorite course while studying at Southwestern Seminary. In addition to instilling within me a love for spiritual awakening, he served as my academic advisor to my work in the First Great Awakening. Roy Fish birthed a love for revival and awakening within me that continues to this day.
Fish would begin his course by telling students that spiritual awakenings have punctuated our nation’s spiritual history. “They come and go like the tide of the ocean,” he would offer. These periodic times of awakening were evidenced and defined by four aspects:
1) a God consciousness;
2) an increase in people’s conviction of sin;
3) an increase in people’s conscious awareness of God’s mercy;
4) and a sense of unworthiness.
Fish was an expert in the field of spiritual awakenings as he wrote his doctoral thesis on The Awakening of 1857-1858. The revival was also called the Businessmen’s Revival, or as historian J. Edwin Orr called it, The Event of the Century. Prior to the event itself, the stock market crashed on October 10, 1857 followed by a run on the banks in Chicago, New York, and Boston that began three days later. Up until this time, the nation had been prosperous and felt little need to call on God. But all that quickly changed after the crash. New York City alone was said to have some 30,000 idle men as factories were shut down and numbers of people were without work. In short time, the influence of the Prayer Revival was felt in every town, village, as well as the big cities of the day. Every protestant denomination was effected by the event and it would eventually spread from coast to coast. Most of the revival’s accounts center around the story of one man, Jeremiah Calvin Lanphier, an unassuming man who was brought on as a city missionary by the North Church of New York City on July 1, 1857.
As we ramp up our efforts for prayer at North Richland Hills Baptist Church this month, I want you to be inspired by what God did more than 150 years ago. Here is a glimpse of the awakening from the notes of Roy Fish.
The Union Prayer Meetings
These prayer meetings were begun by Jeremiah Lanphier. Prayer meetings rather than preaching services became the means to spreading this revival. The prayer meetings on Fulton Street were not the only prayer meetings, but they were the most significant as they began at the North Dutch Reformed Church on Fulton Street. New York City had been in deep decline and the old North Dutch Reformed Church had employed Jeremiah Lanphier to influence the city for the gospel. He had been converted in 1842 at the tabernacle constructed by Charles Finney. Jeremiah Lanphier was a 40-year-old single business man filled with enthusiasm. He was a laymen, which was characteristic of this revival.
Jeremiah Lanphier began his assignment on July 1, 1857. He put together a folder describing the church and commending his lay missionary work. He gave the folder to everyone he met. He passed out Bibles and tracts. While he found some success, he was overwhelmed at the enormity of the task. He prayed, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” This led him to a novel approach. Jeremiah Lanphier had found prayer to be a great source of comfort. He had noticed the businessman were “hurrying along their way, often with care worn faces, anxious, restless gaze.” So he presented to the church board the idea of a prayer meeting for businessmen. Though their response was less than enthusiastic, they nevertheless agreed.
Jeremiah Lanphier determined the noon hour to be the most feasible and promoted the meeting with great zeal by using handbills. The noonday prayer meetings began on Sept 23, 1857.
At first Jeremiah Lanphier prayed alone. Then, one joined him, and by the end of the hour there were six. Prayer meetings had been held before, but this was different. Former meetings tended toward formalism and routine. These meetings were free and spontaneous. The following Wednesday there were twenty, and on the third Wednesday, between thirty and forty showed up to pray. Those present determined to meet daily rather than weekly. On October 14, over one hundred people came. At this point, many in attendance were unsaved persons and many of them were under great conviction of sin. By the end of the second month, three large rooms were filled. Almost simultaneously, prayer meetings were begun across the city. Many churches sponsored such meetings without knowledge of other activities similar to their own. Within six months 50,000 were meeting daily in NYC, while thousands more prayed in other cities.
On March 17, 1858, Burton’s Theater, located near the North Dutch Church, opened for noon prayer. The theater was filled by 11:30 AM. Henry Ward Beecher soon spoke to 3,000 gathered there on the third day. Evening preaching services soon accompanied the daily prayer meetings.
Jeremiah Lanphier and the church set up seven rules for the meetings: (1) open with a brief hymn; (2) opening prayer; (3) read a passage of Scripture; (4) a time for requests, exhortations, and prayers; (5) prayer would follow each request or at most two requests, while individuals were limited to five minutes of prayer/comments; (6) no controversial subjects were to be mentioned; (7) at five minutes before 1:00 a hymn was sung so the meeting could end at 1:00 promptly.
Prominent among the prayer requests were burdens for lost friends and relatives. They were called “union” prayer meetings due to the unity despite the differing backgrounds of the participants. The revival became so popular that secular papers such as the New York Herald published “Revival Extras” to report revival accounts from across the nation. The revival spread to Boston where years later Charles Finney described the revival in Boston as “too general to keep any account at all of the number of converts, or to allow of any estimate being made that would approximate the truth.”
Across Massachusetts some 150 churches reported revival. Nearby Connecticut was also hit with a wave of unusual prayer meetings. Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire were impacted as well. The revival soon went to the Midwest where prominent cities such as Cincinnati, Cleveland, Louisville, Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis were caught up in the movement as well. In only two months in Ohio, two hundred towns recorded 12,000 conversions.
Few stories capture the spirit of the movement as a popular story that emerged in Kalamazoo, MI:
During the first meeting someone put in this prayer request: “A praying wife requests the prayers of this meeting for her unconverted husband, that he may be converted and made a humble disciple of the Lord Jesus.” All at once a stout burly man arose and said, “I am that man, I have pious praying wife, and this request must be for me. I want you to pray for me.” As soon as he sat down, in the midst of sobs and tears, another man arose and said, “I am that man, I have a praying wife. She prays for me. And now she asked you to pray for me. I am sure I am that man, and I want you to pray for me.”
Five other men made similar statements. In a brief period, almost 500 conversions came to this town. The revival went on to hit Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. There were reports of revival that came from ships entering U. S. ports. One historian said it seemed there was “a definite zone of heavenly influence” across the eastern seaboard. The Oberlin Evangelist proclaimed that the greatest benefit of the revival came on college campuses. Colleges that experienced revival were Oberlin, Dartmouth, Amherst, Middlebury and Williams. Yale recorded the most powerful movement of awakening since 1821 where almost half of the 447 students professed conversion. Out of 272 students at Princeton, 102 students were converted and additional fifty entered the ministry.
Fish concluded, “Our God has not changed!!”