Many Christians in the U.S.A. are deeply concerned about the troubling spiritual and social conditions of our country. All the best efforts of political leaders, social service organizations and churches seem powerless to stop our nation’s relentless moral decline and all the horrific consequences that decline produces. But we can gain helpful perspectives from America’s Prayer Meeting Revival (also called the Businessmen’s Revival) of 1857-1858.
In the 1840s and 1850s the United States experienced thirty-five-percent population growth. Much of that explosive growth was due to immigration and led to work shortages and race riots. America’s unresolved slavery issue was splitting the country and some Christian denominations right down the middle. The stock market crashed on October 10, 1857. Bank runs and failures occurred in New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago.
Jeremiah Lanphier, the neighborhood missionary to poor immigrants for the North Dutch Church in New York City, became burdened about such concerning conditions in that city and the country. On September 23, 1857, he launched a weekly noon-hour prayer meeting for businessmen in a third-floor classroom of the North Dutch Church. No one showed up for the first half hour; six men straggled in to pray the second half hour. Twenty people came to pray the next week, and more than thirty attended the weekly prayer meetings the following month.
Religious papers began to publicize the Fulton Street Prayer Meeting late in October. By early November it had become a daily prayer gathering with some 200 people from a wide variety of denominations attending each day. Other prayer meetings sprang up across New York City, and by the following April 10,000 people were gathering daily for prayer in NYC. These developments proved to be so significant that even the secular press started publishing regular updates of the blossoming prayer movement and its spiritual and social benefits.
Similar prayer meetings and genuine spiritual revival quickly spread through cities, towns and villages all across the United States. Countless people participated in thousands of daily prayer meetings throughout the country. The revival continued to be marked by highly orderly prayer meetings, remarkable trans-denominational unity, innumerable conversions, definite easing of interracial tensions and a significant drop in crime rates.
One of the primary focuses at the prayer meetings was praying for the conversion of specific relatives and friends. Christians put legs to their evangelistic prayers by conversing with their unsaved acquaintances about their need for the Lord, by sharing Gospel literature with them and by inviting them to church or to visit with a Christian minister. Many non-Christians attended the prayer meetings to request intercession for their own spiritual needs and were thus led to saving faith in Christ. Conservative estimates are that nearly one million individuals (in a nation then numbering thirty million) were converted to Christ in less than two years. That would be the equivalent of almost eleven million U.S. residents being converted in the same length of time today!
The convicting work of God’s Spirit became so strong during the Prayer Meeting Revival that there were several instances of pressing conviction falling upon ships’ crews and passengers before they even reached American shores. Pastors were sometimes called out to sea to minister to those aboard the ships who were overwhelmed with distressing conviction.
As many as ninety college revivals took place across America between 1857 and 1859, including at a number of prominent universities. In 1859 God’s almighty reviving work leaped across the Atlantic and swept through Ireland where 100,000 people were converted. That same year the revival spread to Wales and the following year to South Africa.
God graciously brought the Prayer Meeting Revival to the U.S.A. just before the country was plunged into a cataclysmic Civil War (1861-1865). Many revitalized believers and new converts from the recent revival played a vital role in the rarely-reported ongoing spiritual developments that took place during that war. Some historians estimate that upwards of two million soldiers confessed faith in Christ during revivals in Union and Confederate military camps.
We modern Christians need to realize that we cannot depend on government, social service organizations or business-as-usual church ministries to arrest and correct the crying spiritual and social needs of our country and the world. Instead, we need to fervently seek a nationwide, even international, spiritual revival from the Lord. We also need to recommit ourselves, with God’s help, to more actively carry out Christ’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:8), even as we await His society-transforming revival blessings.
For fuller sketches of the Prayer Meeting Revival, see: chapter 4 of Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge, A God-Sized Vision, Revival Stories that Stretch and Stir (Zondervan, 2010); chapters 16-17 in Wesley Duewel, Revival Fire (Zondervan, 1995).
Copyright 2015 by Vance E. Christie