The ninth in a series on revival
The Prayer Meeting Revival
By Ken Horn
A 46-year-old businessman prays alone in an old Dutch
Reformed church in New York City. It is Sept. 23, 1857, and Jeremiah Lanphier is
concerned that no one else is there. He had felt impressed to begin a weekly
midday prayer meeting. Now, 30 minutes in and still alone, he wonders if he’s
made a mistake. By the end of the hour, a handful of men have come and gone.
This prayer meeting began like so many others — with
little apparent interest. But Lanphier felt God had told him to do it, so he
Prayer is at the heart of every genuine move of God. When
the word revival is spoken — if it is genuine revival — the word
prayer will always be associated with it. But there was a move of God —
some called it another “Great Awakening” — so bathed in prayer from start
to finish, and where prayer took such a central role, that it will forever be
known as the Prayer Meeting Revival. It began with Jeremiah Lanphier’s solitary
In 1857 society was in turmoil. Religion was in decline and
the debate over slavery was turning ugly. Revivalist Charles Finney said that
New York “seemed to be on such a wave of prosperity as to be the death of
revival effort.” But history tells us that in the midst of spiritual decay and
nominal Christianity, God raises up people to pray — and the fires of
revival first begin to glow in the warmth of humble rooms of prayer.
Days after Lanphier began his prayer meeting, the New York
stock market crashed and panic erupted. Clearly stimulated by the panic, the
prayer meeting’s numbers grew. On the fourth week there were 100 in attendance
— and one of the most remarkable moves of God in this nation’s history
was well on its way.
Instead of the usual evangelistic services (though there
were some of these), this revival was marked explicitly by prayer meetings.
There was little preaching. There was no consciously organized or coordinated
effort. Great preachers of the day — Henry Ward Beecher, for example
— approved of the movement but found themselves simple participants or
observers, rather than leaders. Pastors delighted in watching their church
members take the lead in prayer. Finney said, “The general impression seemed to
be, ‘We have had instruction until we are hardened; it is now time for us to
Prayer meetings exploded. Lanphier’s original meeting
overflowed three rooms, and it was necessary for other churches to be opened.
These, too, quickly filled, and soon a large theater was too small to
accommodate the crowds. Churches started evening prayer meetings.
In short order, there were 150 interdenominational prayer
meetings in Brooklyn and Manhattan alone. The fire of prayer leaped to
Philadelphia where large buildings — many of them public buildings
— could not accommodate the crowds. So prayer meetings began outdoors.
Before the movement was four months old, the prayer meeting
fervor had spread across the nation. In the Chicago Metropolitan Theater, as
many as 2,000 gathered daily. Cleveland, St. Louis, and Louisville,
Ky., were among the cities that counted daily attendance in the thousands.
The meetings were informal, had little planning, and started
and ended promptly. Though the spirit was free, the rules were necessarily
rigid. Anyone could pray, testify or exhort as they “felt led,” but none would
be allowed to dominate. Typically the meetings had a five-minute limit on
individuals who prayed out. Unlike earlier revivals, these meetings were
usually orderly and quiet.
And then people began getting saved — right in the
prayer meetings. A prayer meeting in Michigan saw 500 conversions; one in
Connecticut claimed 400. Everywhere prayer meetings became de facto evangelistic
services as thousands were converted.
Zone of holy influence
What has been called the “zone of holy influence” or the
“invisible cloud of God’s presence” has been clearly documented during times of
revival in the United States, and especially in the Prayer Meeting Revival.
New York Harbor became an unlikely center of revival as crew
members and passengers on a number of ships were saved before going ashore.
When the battleship North Carolina was anchored in New York
Harbor, four Christians on board met for a prayer meeting. They were mocked and
ridiculed as they prayed, but soon the mocking and jeering turned to cries for
mercy as the Holy Spirit began convicting the crew.
For several days the Holy Spirit moved. Ministers were sent
for, and many former mockers were converted. A number of ships entered this
zone of holy influence — and saw lives changed.
From 100 to 150 miles offshore it seems that the Holy Spirit
moved as ships approached New York, and many passengers and crew members were
converted. Some ships had ministers sent to them before they docked. Many
people arrived in New York Harbor as Christians who had embarked on their
voyages as unbelievers.
Simplicity and unity
Believers were united. Since the meetings were led by church
members rather than clergy (it is also called the Layman’s Revival), there was
less analysis of differences between the denominations. God used this
simplicity to blend the body of Christ into a united front, standing together
in corporate prayer and evangelism, lowering walls and minimizing differences,
while holding to the important basics of the gospel. In this, many
well-educated and experienced ministers learned from the people of their
New York newspapers gave extensive coverage to the revival.
Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune devoted an entire issue to it. The Washington
National Intelligencer said, “The Revivals, or Great Awakening, continue to be
the leading topic of the day … from Texas, in the South, to the extreme of our
Western boundaries and our Eastern limits; their influence is felt by every
denomination” (March 20, 1858).
It was reported that not one unconverted person could be
found in some of the towns of New England. Indeed, during one two-month period,
weekly conversions averaged 50,000. Papers nationwide noted a radical, positive
change in the moral climate.
At the end, in 1859, 2 million Americans — 1 in every
15 — had been won to Christ.
It is unfortunate that the Prayer Meeting Revival has been
largely forgotten by history. This remarkable movement is deserving of the
attention of believers — especially those who long for revival. The
message is clear. A great move of God requires no superstar revivalist. God
uses simple prayer.
The name Jeremiah Lanphier is not well known today —
and the names of many God has used in similar fashion are not known at all.
Perhaps God would use you in such a way. The means to start a revival have been
placed in your hands — even if, like Jeremiah Lanphier, you must begin by
KEN HORN is editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.
This series began in the Jan. 11, 2009, issue.
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