Revive Our Hearts Podcast

1857 Prayer Revival, Day 1

Leslie Basham: At noon, Fulton Street in New York’s financial district is a busy place with businessmen and women hurrying to restaurants and meetings. Some street vendors set up at the corner of Fulton Street and Williams, offering a quick lunch. This is about three blocks away from the site Americans have come to call Ground Zero. Of course, that area gets a lot of attention.

But few of the people walking down Fulton near Williams Street realize the significance of this spot. Most of them don’t know what happened here in September 1857. A small group of businessmen gathered to pray at the North Dutch Reform Church on Fulton Street.

It was the beginning of a revival that would spread throughout the nation. This revival swelled church attendance. It changed people’s behaviors, and it inspired new missionary endeavors. But mostly, the revival inspired God’s people to pray.

This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth for Thursday, September 22.

We’ve been in a major study of the Lord’s prayer and we’ll pick that study back up next week. Today we’re interrupting that series, but still talking about prayer. Here’s Nancy.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: After months of anticipation, I’m so excited to see what God will do as tens of thousands of women, perhaps hundreds of thousands, gather together for the Cry Out! Prayer Event for Women tomorrow night. We’ll be crying out to the Lord together, asking Him to revive His people and transform a hurting nation and world. It's not too late for you to participate. You can get all the details for joining the free live simulcast tomorrow night by visiting ReviveOurHearts.com.

Now we chose that date—September 23—for a number of practical reasons. Once the plans were set, it occurred to me that that was a really special date in God's providence. It was on September 23, 1857 that the Lord began a revival that swept across the country. I'm referring to the great Prayer Revival of 1857 and 1858. It is sometimes called the Layman’s Revival. Unlike some other historical awakenings, there was no well-known preacher at the center of this revival.

Now to give you some context, the nation at this point was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. People were making money “hand over fist.” Most people really didn’t feel a great need for God or for prayer.

Against that backdrop, God raised up a layman who became burdened about the spiritual condition of people in New York City. I suspect this layman had little idea of how greatly God was going to use his life and his efforts in the great Prayer Revival.

Jonathan Brownson has served as the prayer minister for the Reformed Church in America. He tells us about the background of this layman.

Jonathan Brownson: Well, Jeremiah Lanphier was a businessman. He moved to New York City to start a garment business. He moved to a location that was in the center of Manhattan. He was converted in a church in Manhattan around noon—which has significance to the later part of the story.

After his conversion, he was asked by the consistory (or the leadership) of the North Dutch Church if he would serve as a lay missionary for them.

Nancy: The church decided to hire this lay missionary because they were losing members.

Jonathan Brownson: What was happening in the North Dutch Church is similar to what is happening in metropolitan areas today—businesses were moving into Manhattan and church members were moving out of the area.

Lyle Dorsett: We see a decline in church attendance as early as the 1850s.

Nancy: This is Lyle Dorsett, professor of Christian Formation and Ministry at Wheaton College.

Lyle Dorsett: The growth of churches—the growth (in numbers) of people going to churches had declined quite a bit. Our statistics aren’t completely reliable by any means from these eras, but we do know that.

Nancy: As the pace of life increased, people seemed less attuned to spiritual things and disagreements over immigration and slavery created a deep sense of tension.

Lyle Dorsett: In the 1850s the nation was growing rapidly. There was a rapid growth of urban and industrial areas. Cities were booming. Industries were growing. Rail lines were being planted all over the country. A lot of people were brought into the country to work.

There was always tension with these things. Any time you have new people coming to a country or you have vast growth, it just dislocates people socially, psychologically, and emotionally.

Nancy: In this environment, the new lay missionary got to work. This is how the church described Lanphier’s new role:

Man: The consistory, anxious that in the spiritual destitution of this part of the city suitable investigations and labors may be employed in order that the poor may have the gospel preached unto them, have obtained the services of a pious layman, Mr. J. C. Lanphier. He will devote his time and efforts to explore this lower part of the city.

Jonathan Brownson: Jeremiah’s main objective or goal—when they hired him in July of 1857—was to go out knocking on doors of the neighboring residences and invite people to Sunday school and to come to church and to fill the pews.

He began doing that in July of 1857 and worked on that for a couple of months. We don’t know all of what went on in his mind, but I imagine that he was quite exhausted after a lot of door knocking. He decided that he was going to start knocking on heaven’s door instead of on resistant, earthly doors.

Nancy: Believers were meeting together asking God to revive His people. This was essentially the same idea—only at noon.

Kevin Adams: That was the different thing about these prayer meetings—the fact that it was a mid-day prayer meeting.

Nancy: This is pastor and author, Kevin Adams.

Kevin Adams: Of course, there were prayer meetings held at all different times in the past. But a mid-day prayer meeting was quite odd.

Nancy: The prayer meetings, initiated by Lanphier, were to take place at the same time of day that he had been converted.

Kevin Adams: He felt very strongly—he wanted the people (mainly the men who were working the business area of New York) during their lunch time to come out and to pray—to intercede. He really felt a burden for this.

Jonathan Brownson: The idea was that people would take five minutes or ten minutes or however much time they could take during the noon hour. They would come over and share prayer requests or be able to be part of the prayer meeting for a short period of time and then go back to work.

Kevin Adams: He started by talking to some of his friends. He handed out some tracts and then invited people to come along for the first prayer meeting.

Jonathan Brownson: September 23, 1857 was the first prayer meeting that was held under Jeremiah Calvin Lanphier’s leadership.

Kevin Adams: He waited for half an hour and nobody turned up at all! You can imagine how he felt.

Jonathan Brownson: I would imagine he was pretty discouraged after a half an hour of being there alone.

Kevin Adams: But by the end of the hour, five people turn up and began to pray.

Jonathan Brownson: It didn’t take long for the meeting to multiply.

Kevin Adams: He said, “Next week let’s pray together again.” This time twenty people turn up. The week after that a few more people came.

Nancy: In God’s Providence, the explosion of this prayer meeting coincided with the country’s financial troubles. Here’s Lyle Dorsett.

Lyle Dorsett: There was a financial panic that began in the Philadelphia Banks on September 25 and 26, 1857. The panic spread all over the U.S. and up into Canada. By mid-October there was a run on a number of banks and certainly from October to the end of 1857 was known as the Financial Panic of 1857.

Man: New York Observer, October 15. "Thousands daily thrown out of work without a moment’s notice. Fortunes which had been founded with rare skill and industry and nurtured through every previous change of season crumbled or vanished like a dream."

Lyle Dorsett: A week later the Fulton Street prayer meetings in New York met every day rather than once or twice a week.

Jonathan Brownson: I’m convinced that people in the city now had time to pray because they had lost their jobs. They now were deeply aware of their need to pray because of what had been happening financially.

Kevin Adams: There are always two results to disasters: One is to turn against God, and the other is to turn to God.

It seemed that a number of people did turn to God.  

Jonathan Brownson: I think we see from the Lord Jesus Christ what’s going on here. Jesus says, “It is almost impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven.” Jesus has very little to say positively about riches. “It is more difficult for a rich man to enter heaven than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle” (Matt. 19:23–24, paraphrase).

Jesus doesn’t love rich men or women less than others, but what He’s saying here is that we lean on anything before we will lean on Him.  

Bob Bakke: If you were going to put a seed of revival anywhere, you would want to put it right in the heart of such calamity.

Nancy: This is Bob Bakke.

Bob Bakke: It’s easy to imagine why the prayer meeting exploded like it did because everyone, especially lower Manhattan, was threatened with financial ruin. It didn’t take long for all of New York to be filling up the churches with prayer.

Man: In the revival in New York about twenty-five large prayer meetings were held every day.

Nancy: Soon every auditorium in New York City was being used at noon every day for prayer.

Man: Not to mention the regular or extra meetings held.

Kevin Adams: As time goes on, there is an increase in attendance and more and more people come along.

Man: In fact, 1,000 persons assembled during business hours to spend an hour in prayer.

Nancy: In fact, those prayer meetings spilled over the noon hour and ultimately the churches of New York City were crowded with people praying from early in the morning until late at night—through all hours of the day!

Kevin Adams: That is about 2,000 people praying in different parts of New York every single day.

Man: An even greater meeting numbering nearly 3,000 . . . 

Nancy: According to one account, the famous newspaper editor, Horace Greeley, set out to see for himself how many people were actually praying at noon. He drove from one location to another—one meeting to another. He lost count after 10,000 people.

Kevin Adams: It’s a growing thing.

Jonathan Brownson: This is hymn number one of the Fulton Street Hymnbook, which was used by those who gathered at the corner of Fulton and William to pray. It goes like this:

In thy great name, O Lord, we come,
To worship at thy feet;
Oh pour thy Holy Spirit down
On all that now shall meet.

 Teach us to pray, and praise, and hear,
And understand thy Word;
To feel thy blissful presence near,
And trust our living Lord.

(C.M. Mear, 1850, Verses 1 and 3).

Nancy: The words of this song expressed the hearts of those that gathered together to pray. They weren’t just drawn together to get their financial troubles solved. They met because the Holy Spirit was compelling them to pray.

Jonathan Brownson: People were gathering. Businessman were gathering together to say that they wanted and needed the reviving of the Spirit of God in their lives and in their communities. The most important person at the meeting was not Jeremiah. It was the person and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Man: Please observe the following rules. Be prompt; commencing precisely at 12:00.

Nancy: The prayer meetings would start promptly at noon.

Jonathan Brownson: Promptly at noon. Jeremiah led them initially. As it grew, the leadership rotated and different business people led the meetings.

Man: The leader is not expected to exceed ten minutes in opening the meeting.

Jonathan Brownson: The leader would be given a Bill of Direction, which was like a bulletin, and it had a description of things that they were asking them to process or to work through.

Man: First, open the meeting by reading and singing three to five verses of a hymn. Second, prayer. Third . . . 

Kevin Adams: It wasn’t a big emotional scene that sometimes you see with revival.

Man: Read but one request at a time, requiring a prayer to follow. Such prayer is to have special reference to the saying.

Kevin Adams: There was a sign in the meeting house where they met at Fulton Street that said, “No one to pray over five minutes.” You were not to do that. You were only to pray for a certain amount of time and then stop because they wanted to give everybody an opportunity to pray.

Nancy: Another rule posted on the wall read, “No controversial points discussed.”

Kevin Adams: All sorts of denominations were involved together in praying.

Jonathan Brownson: This was an inter-denominational movement.

Kevin Adams: The first week involved at least three or four denominations and there were at least six people involved in that first meeting in September. It continued like that.

Man: If there is any suggestion or proposition by any person, say, “This is simply a prayer meeting,” and that they are out of order and call on some brother to pray.

Jonathan Brownson: So it was clear from the start that these were to be united prayer meetings.

Kevin Adams: They wanted to put aside many of the arguments. There had been some serious arguing in the church in the previous twenty or thirty years.

They knew that God was answering prayer. In the light of God answering prayer, they saw their differences as small and put them aside.

Jonathan Brownson: It was an interesting combination. There was a value placed on things being done decently and in order.

Man: Give out the closing hymn five minutes before 1:00.

Jonathan Brownson: But there was tremendous passion in the prayer requests themselves. It was a moving experience to read through some of the prayer requests that came in and to see the heart that was behind these petitions.

Woman: Dear brethren, for years I’ve been praying for the conversion of my husband and two brothers.

Jonathan Brownson: These prayer requests came from all over the world.

Woman: I pray for Christ’s sake that they may be brought to the knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus.

Nancy: As you’ve read a lot of these requests—hundreds or thousands of them, maybe—what is the theme of them?

Jonathan Brownson: There is a consistent theme that fits with Jeremiah’s own passion for these prayer meetings. Since he had found Christ—since he had accepted Christ at noon time—many of the prayer requests are prayers for those who don’t know Christ.

Man: A young man residing in this city who came a few years earlier from England, where his parents are now residing, he being the only member of his family being unconverted, is presented by a Christian friend who desires his immediate conversion.

Jonathan Brownson: Often times it will be, “Pray for a son. Pray for a daughter.”

Woman: She is a mother. Oh may she be turned to the knowledge of Christ and be able to bring up her children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

Kevin Adams: Not only were people praying for people, but non-Christians were coming to the prayer meetings and actually being converted in the prayer meetings. They began to seek God!

The more things grew, many who had prayed, came back and reported answers to prayer. As the meetings developed, you had people asking for prayer, people praying, and people coming back and saying what God had actually done.

Jonathan Brownson: It was prayers for individual conversions and prayers for revival of churches and communities. I think it is fascinating to think about the impact of those prayers on those communities and cities down through the ages.

Kevin Adams: It wasn’t just a prayer. A number of people celebrating the Prayer Revival would just be tempted to think, Right. The answer now is to have prayer meetings. Let’s throw preaching to one side. Let’s throw teaching to one side. Let’s put evangelism to one side, and let’s pray to God and let God do everything.

I can imagine a number of people responding like that. But the reality of the situation is that Lanphier himself, while he conducted these prayer meetings, was actively involved evangelistically.

He was actively giving out tracts, for instance—something that worked in the mid-19th century. He was actively encouraging people from his church and from the churches he worked with to witness to their friends and to bring their friends along to meetings. He encouraged all sorts of things. He encouraged people in their own churches.

What was happening, as the revival spread, was that the churches themselves got infused.

Nancy: The intensity of the prayer revival that began on Fulton Street, in the fall of 1857, waned after several months. However, there was a daily noon-time prayer meeting that continued in New York City for 103 years.

As we look at this prayer meeting and the revival that surrounded it, what is the take-away? Why should it matter to us today?

Jonathan Brownson: It’s really a question of whether we will pray out of desperation or devastation. Will it take some disaster, some financial collapse, to bring us to our knees? Or will we realize afresh that apart from the Spirit of God we are the dust of the earth? We are ground. This financial collapse in 1857 led to a deeper awareness of people’s dependence on God.

Nancy: I believe God is wanting to use the dramatic events of the last few months to cause us to realize how desperately we need the Lord. We've watched horrific acts of violence and terrorism unfold around the world and even close to home. Any faith we may have had in our government or political parties has long since disappeared. In this time of fear and uncertainty, I'm asking the Lord to use all of these events to draw people's hearts to Himself.

As we pray for revival, we need to realize that God in His kindness and Providence may bring about whatever it takes to make our nation desperate for Him—just as people were in 1857.

Jonathan Brownson: It may be a judgment that leads to repentance. We pray that God will have mercy. But that mercy may be shown in bringing us to a place of dependence. Again, that’s where the place of the Fulton Street’s initial prayer meeting—just three blocks east of Ground Zero—is so significant to me, because in a way, our prayers have to start at ground zero.

Leslie: That’s Jonathan Brownson, explaining why bad news can be used for good when it turns people’s hearts toward the Lord. We’ve seen too much sobering news for far too long—but that means we are in an opportunity to point people to genuine hope. Nancy, that’s exactly what we’ll be praying about at Cry Out!, the national prayer event for women.

Nancy: I’m so excited about all the groups who are preparing to connect over the Cry Out! simulcast tomorrow night. It’s not too late for you to join us if you haven’t made plans already. We will be asking the Lord to sweep across our nation, draw people to Him, and give the course of our society a 180 degree turn—away from evil and toward the Lord. To get all the details on joining us for the Cry Out! simulcast, visit ReviveOurHearts.com.

Please be praying with us that God would be honored, that His name would be hallowed, that His kingdom would come, and that His will would be done here on earth as it is in heaven, as we cry out together.

Leslie: How does revival spread? Here’s how it happened in 1857, starting with a prayer meeting in the nation’s largest city.

Kevin Adams: A lot of people would pray for New York, and as they traveled to different places, they took the idea with them.

Jonathan Brownson: There were people hearing about this all over the country.

Man: This was new.

Man 2: Northward to Boston and southward to Philadelphia.

Man: We’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Man 2: Westward to Cleveland and across the United States.

Leslie: Hear more about it tomorrow on Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

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