Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Prayer Meeting That Shook America

The summer of 1857 had been frustrating for businessman and lay missionary Jeremiah C. Lanphier. Business itself had been good, but week after week he had knocked on doors in lower Manhattan, inviting people to worship services at the Dutch Reformed Church at Fulton and Williams Streets with little success. The church had fallen on hard times. Old families had moved away and the neighborhood had become a business district, populated by transient laborers and recent immigrants.

But the bigger problem was prosperity. The young nation was in its Golden Age. Railroads and steamship lines had expanded trade and facilitated the great westward movement. New cities were springing up and states were being added. The telegraph speeded communication, and gold was discovered in California!

The boom was on!

But the increase in gain brought a decrease in godliness. Church attendance was pitiful. The new materialism was also having political repercussions as the cloud of civil war hung over the land.

Lanphier knew that the only hope for the nation was a spiritual awakening. But how could he get the message of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ to a money-mad nation? Lanphier took his frustrations to the Lord in prayer.

Later, while making his rounds of visitation, the answer came to him. Businessmen might be interested in a noonday prayer meeting once a week. Excited, Lanphier passed out handbills and put up placards announcing the first noonday prayer meeting for Wednesday, September 23, 1857. Five businessmen and the pastor showed up. The meeting seemed in no way extraordinary. But unknown to Lanphier, God was about to do something that would bring the nation to its knees.

On September 25, the Bank of Philadelphia failed. Twenty men came to the next prayer meeting. The third week there were forty, and Lanphier decided to hold daily meetings in a larger room. On Wednesday, October 14, the nation was struck by the worst financial disaster in its history. Fortunes evaporated, banks closed, railroad companies went bankrupt, unemployment soared, and families faced hunger.

In a short time, the Fulton Street prayer meeting had taken over the whole church building, drawing crowds of more than 1,000 people. People from all walks of life attended: “leading capitalists, prominent lawyers and judges, eminent physicians, merchants, bankers, mechanics (and) tradesmen.” Shop keepers hung signs on their doors at noon: “Closed—Be back after prayer meeting.” Police and Fire stations provided space for meetings, as did Burton’s Theater and the New York City Music Hall.

Because of the large numbers at the meetings, rules were drawn up and posted:

Brethren are earnestly requested to adhere to the five minute rule: Prayers and exhortations not to exceed five minutes in order to give all an opportunity.

Prayer meetings spread throughout New York and Canada. A revival broke out in Hamilton, Ontario, and a New York newspaper reported that over 300 people were converted within a few days. By January, 1858, there were at least twenty daily meetings in New York City, drawing as many as 10,000 people in total. Newspaper reporters were sent to cover the meetings, and “The Progress of the Revival” became a regular headline.

Stories of human drama abounded. A man bent on killing his wife and himself wandered into the Fulton Street meeting and listened to a fervent exhortation urging repentance. Suddenly, the desperate man cried out, “Oh! What shall I do to be saved?” Then another man stood with tears streaming down his cheeks and asked the people to sing “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me.” By the end of the meeting, both men had put their trust in Christ.

Noted prize fighter Earl “Awful” Gardiner was converted at another meeting. He then visited Sing Sing Prison to give his testimony to some old friends there. As a result, Jerry McAuley, a notorious river pirate, was converted. McAuley later founded the Water Street Mission, one of the nation’s first rescue missions. The spiritual movement reached not only the lowest of society, but the highest. President James Buchanan began attending meetings in Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania, and showed great interest in the progress of the revival.

In a Midwestern church, twenty-five women began meeting once a week to pray for their unconverted husbands. Later, the pastor traveled to the Fulton Street meeting to testify that the last of the twenty-five husbands had repented, trusted Christ, and joined the church.

At a special meeting in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a prayer request was read to the group: “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.” A stout, burly man arose. “I am that man,” he confessed. “I have a pious, praying wife. This request is for me. I want you to pray for me.” As soon as he sat down, another man got up. “I am that man,” he said. “I have a praying wife. She prays for me, and now she has asked you to pray for me. I am sure that I am that man, and I want you to pray for me.” As many as five men stood up claiming to be that husband in need of prayer.

Prayer requests flooded in by telegraph and mail from all over North America and even Europe. No request was refused. Letters told of many specific answers to prayer. A Chicago newspaper summed up the results of the revival in that city:

So far as the effects of the present religious movement are concerned, they are apparent to all. They are to be seen in every walk of life, to be felt in every phase of society. The merchant, the farmer, the mechanic—all who have been within their influence—have been excited to better things, to a more orderly and honest way of life. All have been more or less influenced by this excitement.

It has been estimated that no fewer than 300,000 and perhaps as many as one million people were converted to Jesus Christ through the influence of the Fulton Street Prayer Meeting Revival. And the greatest impact was made in one year!

The repercussions, however, were felt for years after. While the revival did not stop the Civil War, neither did the Civil War stop the revival. The Confederate Army revival saw 150,000 conversions, and by the end of the war Confederate soldiers professing faith in Christ made up one third of the army. The effects of the revival were also felt across the Atlantic in the “awakening” which swept the British Isles.

The slow, frustrating labors of Jeremiah Calvin Lanphier had culminated in the most intense, fast spreading revival in our nation’s history. It was also the last great national revival in the United States. Could it happen again? Could our present economic distress be the avenue to spiritual renewal? Should we not be praying?


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