The Impact of Awakening: A Tribute to Roy Fish

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!!”

Should You Pray for Physical Healing?

If you had lived in the first century and followed Jesus of Nazareth around in His journeys for any length of time, you would have witnessed unusual encounters where Jesus healed the sick. Indeed, even skimming through the four gospel accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus, you encounter numerous miracles of healing(s) and exorcism. In fact, you’ll find such stories scattered throughout the pages of four gospels (Matthew 8:16-17; 9:18; Luke 4:40, 8:43-44). Jesus is often see laying His hands on the sick and they are made well (Luke 4:40). As you move away from the gospels and into the history of the early church in the book of Acts, you also encounter miracles where the apostles healed others (Acts 3:1-10; 5:12, 20:7-12). Few Scriptures speak of the power of the cross of Christ to heal as succinctly as the prophetic words of Isaiah: “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Certainly, the gospel of Jesus Christ promises more than the forgiveness of sins; the gospel can also bring physical healing as well (both now and in eternity).

Today, healing is often portrayed on television airwaves by religious charlatans where the “healer” often seeks greater fame and financial security from his or her powers. This is unfortunate to say the least as such individuals do much harm to the body of Christ. Despite the wild antics of some, praying for another person’s healing is biblical. James 5:13-18 directs Christians to call the leaders of the church to pray for them when they are physically sick. James tells us to look to the Old Testament prophet Elijah as someone who prayed with the expectation that God hears and responds to His people’s prayers (James 5:17-18).

We are motivated to pray for others because God is a generous and He loves to gift His children good gifts (Luke 11:11-13). We should pray for the spiritual, emotional, and physical healing of others with a sense of expectation (Mark 11:22-24). This sense of expectation is what Pastor Sam Storms calls “a mysterious surge of confidence” or what New Testament scholar D. A. Carson refers to as trusting God for something when it isn’t specifically promised in Scripture. Again, this is a heightened sense of expectation when praying in faith for others. Elijah prayed in just this way. Nowhere in Scripture does God promise to stop the rain. Nevertheless, the Spirit of God moved Elijah to pray in just this way. Elijah prayed with a sense of expectation, a man of tremendous faith. And God stopped the rain.

Why Are We Hesitant to Pray for Physical Healing?

For many responsible, Bible-loving Christians, there is a hesitancy to praying with this heightened sense of expectation. Too much of the time, we fail to pray with the faith that Elijah did (1 Kings 17:1). I must confess that I am often reluctant to do so.

Here are some of the mistaken but common objections to healing in our day:

  1. Supernatural healing stopped at the end of the first century (1 Corinthians 12:7-10). Yet, the early church father, Irenaeus (d. 202) speaks of miraculous healing sin his day. In addition, Justin Martyr in A. D. 165 writes of the gift of healing on display in his day.
  2. Healing must happen in a worship service. Many of us are turned off by the flamboyance of a few, sensational characters whose claims of the Spirit’s power on their lives far outweigh reality. When godly people use their spiritual gifts, it’s never done to bring attention to themselves. Supernatural healing calls attention to God’s glory and not the man or woman of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
  3. Christians must not use doctors because God heals. This is rare but some well-meaning Christians refuse medical care because of their belief in healing.
  4. You’re sick because you are sinning. While James 5:13-18, points to a correlation between our sins and our sickness, it would reckless to assume that each and every bout with sickness is a result of sin. This would presume that healthy people are sin free.
  5. Healing shouldn’t be verified by doctor. In some people’s minds, if you are supernaturally healed then you shouldn’t need ordinary confirmation.

Yet, none of these objections are sufficient to stop praying for another person’s physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. Again, God is gracious, loving, and merciful and He desires to bless His children (Luke 11:11-13).

Does God Heal Every Time We Pray?

While God commands us to pray when we are sick, He doesn’t guarantee our healing. While many people throughout history have received supernatural healing from God, many have earnestly prayed but remain physically ill. None other than the Apostle Paul says he had a “bodily ailment” that caused him to go to Galatia and preach the gospel to the people of this ancient area (Galatians 4:12-13). Surely if anyone would have received healing, it would have been Paul. On another occasion, the Bible shares a glowing report about a Christian named Epaphroditus, a man quite valuable to the work of the gospel. Yet, he was so sick that he was nearly died (Philippians 2:27). Still on other occasions, the Bible tells us to take medicine when we are sick (1 Timothy 5:23). So throughout the New Testament we see people who were sick and they did not receive supernatural healing from God. We should also anticipate some sick and dying people 

Sometimes God hears our prayers for healing but He has bigger purposes for our suffering than healing us immediately. This may cause us to question God’s mercy and love for His children temporarily but we must recognize that at times, God has bigger purposes for our suffering than we understand. Paul prayed three times for his “thorn in the flesh” to be removed. Instead of healing this great man of God, Paul heard God say, “No, I will not heal you, Paul” Instead, Paul heard, “’My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Life is harsh and hurtful. While none of us can comprehend the full tapestry God is building and planning throughout time, we must choose to trust Him. We know God hears us when we pray to Him. We are confident that God loves us because of His death on the cross (Romans 5:8). And we are confident that He treats us far better than we deserve (Ephesians 2:8-9).

To Another Level

I want to experience God on another level. I want to invite you to devote yourself to pray alongside me as we both grow together. In a spirit that pushes back when people think they can manipulate God, or in what is popularly known as “name it and claim it,” I nevertheless want to draw near to God’s throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). I want to call on our church family to pray with a renewed sense of faith for God to…

    • save our unchurched friends – let’s pray for lost people by name together (John 6:44);
    • bring awakening to our churches (Isaiah 64:1-4);
    • bring emotional and relational healing to families (Malachi 4:6);
    • place His healing hand on friends and loved ones for the greater purposes of showing His glory and power (Mark 2:1-12).

Will join me in praying?