The 1857 national revival USA
by John Thornbury
The Old Dutch North Church at Fulton and Williams streets in New York City had a decision to make. The church had fallen on hard times. Many families had moved out of the metropolis to safer and more pleasant communities. The neighbourhood was being taken over by a floating population seeking jobs in the businesses which surrounded the church.
Immigrant labourers flooded the area – with everything in mind except going to an Evangelical church to hear the gospel. Most of the community churches had got out and everyone expected the Old Dutch church to follow suit.
Last ditch effort
As a last ditch measure the leaders of the church decided to hire a lay missionary to conduct a visitation programme. The man they chose was Jeremiah C. Lanphier, a merchant who had no experience whatever in church visitation. Forty-nine years old at the time, he decided to give up his trade and hit the streets, trying to stir up interest in the church.
The situation was daunting but Jeremiah persisted faithfully. A few families came to the meetings but he usually returned weary and discouraged. Day after day he sat and pondered the question; Was it worth it all? Repeated calls and many miles of walking had yielded little result.
Suddenly it occurred to him that some businessmen might be interested in attending a noon prayer meeting, because the economic situation in the United States was deteriorating and many businesses were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Rumours floated that some banks might close.
He set a date for businessmen to meet at noon for prayer on the third floor of the old church. The first meeting was 23 September 1857. Outside was a placard which read, ‘Prayer Meeting from 12 to 1 o’clock – stop 5, 10, or 20 minutes, or the whole hour as your time admits’. The tall, middle-aged evangelist duly climbed the creaky stairs to the third floor of the old church building in the heart of New York, sat down and waited.
National crisis and revival
By 12.15 not a soul had come. Another ten minutes and still he sat alone. But then at 12.30 he heard steps on the stairs. A man came in to pray, and then another, and still another until eventually six were there to call on God. This encouraged Lanphier to schedule another meeting the following Wednesday at the same time.
Twenty showed up at the second meeting, and at the third there were forty. He was encouraged. Since the prayer meeting seemed to be satisfying a real need he decided to hold it every day.
Then on the very day of the third prayer meeting, 14 October 1857, the nation was hit by the worst financial panic in its history. Businesses and banks collapsed. Men by the thousands lost their jobs and wandered the streets. Families went hungry. It was a grim time when the need for God’s help was apparent to all.
This simple prayer meeting, started in desperation by a lay evangelist, was the beginning of what has been called ‘the last national revival in the United States’. Before it was over, an estimated one million people had been swept into the kingdom of God.
The revival spread first to the great cities of the East such as Philadelphia and Boston, and eventually to the whole nation. The ranks of Evangelical churches were swelled with converts.
The awakening specially affected the Methodist and Baptist churches. In the North alone over 135,000 joined the Methodist Church, and the Baptists added 92,000 to their ranks. Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Episcopal churches were also greatly enlarged.
Compelled to travel
The revival was furthered by the secular press. It caused such excitement that newspaper reporters attended the meetings and carried stories across the nation of what was happening.
For the first time, modern means of communication carried revival news. Prayer meetings exchanged messages by telegraph. One man was handed a handbill advertising the prayer meeting at Fulton Street while standing on the banks of the Mississippi – 1000 miles away! He felt compelled to travel to New York and see for himself what was happening.
The revival fire spread throughout the United States, and eventually even to Great Britain. But although helped by newspaper reports and telegraph, the revival was propagated mostly through changed lives, spreading across the land like ripples on a pond.
The meetings featured nothing sensational or excessively emotional. Eye-witnesses reported that participants at the prayer meetings simply met, sang a hymn, read Scripture and prayed.
‘One time a man wandered into the Fulton Street meeting who intended to murder a woman and then commit suicide. He listened as someone was delivering a fervent exhortation and urging the duty of repentance. Suddenly the would-be murderer startled everyone by crying out, “Oh, what shall I do to be saved?”
‘Just then another man arose, and with tears streaming down his cheeks asked the meeting to sing the hymn Rock of ages, cleft for me. At the conclusion of the service both men were converted’ (America’s great revivals, Bethany Fellowship, p.57).
Prayer meetings like those at Fulton Street multiplied across the country, but the New York church remained the prototype and headquarters of the revival. The meetings always featured prayers for the lost – people came deeply anxious over the eternal destiny of their friends and loved ones. Eternity seemed near. An eyewitness account, published in 1858, has come down to us (America’s great revivals, pp. 59-61).
‘Each person finds a hymnbook in his seat; all sing with heart and voice. The leader offers a prayer – short, pointed, to the purpose … [and] reads a brief portion of Scripture. Ten minutes are now gone.
‘Meanwhile, requests in sealed envelopes have been going up to the desk for prayer. A deep solemn silence settles down upon our meeting. It is holy ground. The leader stands with slips of paper in his hand.
‘He says, “This meeting is now open for prayer. Brethren from a distance are specially invited to take part. All will observe the rules” [author’s note: the meetings were so crowded that people were encouraged to stay only 5 or 10 minutes and then leave, so that others could come in].
‘The chairman reads, “A son in North Carolina desires the fervent, effectual prayers of the righteous of this congregation for the immediate conversion of his mother in Connecticut”.
‘In an instant a father rises: “I wish to ask the prayers of this meeting for two sons and a daughter”. And he sits down and bursts into tears, and lays his head down on the railing of the seat before him, and sobs like a broken-hearted child.
‘Two prayers in succession followed these requests – very fervent, very earnest. And others who rose to pray at the same time, sat down again when they found themselves preceded by the voices already engaged in prayer. Then arose from all hearts that beautiful hymn, sung with touching pathos, so appropriate too, just in this state of this meeting with all cases full before us:
There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.
‘Then followed prayer … for all who have been prayed for, for all sinners present, for the perishing thousands in this city, for the spread of revivals all over the land and world’.
Effects in Britain
It is an interesting fact that during the great revival eras in the USA, Great Britain was also blessed with similar visitations. When the 1740 awakening was in progress the Wesleyan revival in England had already begun. When the revival of 1800 was stirring the West and saving the nation, spiritual awakening under the Haldanes was in progress in Scotland.
And now when the revival of 1857 was turning thousands to God in America, a great time of divine grace was falling on Great Britain. The work continued through the year 1859, as C.H. Spurgeon notes in the introduction to his sermons of that year.
‘The times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord’, he writes joyfully, ‘have at last dawned upon our land’.
In his book Great revivals and the Great Republic (1904), Wayne Candler writes,
‘It is estimated that in Wales, with a population of only a little more than a million, there were 30,000 to 35,000 conversions, and it is known that the Welsh Calvinistic church added 25,000 to the roll of its membership.
‘In Belfast, Ireland, the inhabitants of which numbered 130,000 souls, there were 10,000 converts’. Similar events were taking place in England. Candler says, ‘Great meetings were held in Exeter Hall and Surrey Gardens to reach the unchurched masses.
The Saturday Review, profanely deriding the work, nevertheless testified to its extent, declaring, “Undoubtedly the thing is catching”.’ (pp. 218-219).
The downfall of Mammon
Henry C. Fish in his Handbook of revivals describes some of the practical results of the 1857 awakening – in such glowing terms as would surely whet the appetite of any lover of God seeking a divine visitation in our own day.
‘Such a time as the present was never known since the days of the Apostles for revivals. The prostration of business, the downfall of Mammon – the sinfulness and vanity of earthly treasures as the supreme good – have come home to the hearts and consciences of the millions in our land with a power that seems irresistible.
‘Revivals cover our very land, sweeping all before them as on the day of Pentecost, exciting the earnest and simultaneous cry from thousands, “What shall we do to be saved?” They have taken hold of the community at large … they are the engrossing theme of conversation in all circles of society.
‘Ministers seem baptised with the Holy Ghost and preach with a new power and earnestness, bringing the truth home to the conscience and life as rarely before. Meetings are held for prayer, for exhortation and for conversion, with the deepest interest and the most astonishing results’ (Candler, pp. 220-21).
It remains only to point out some of the distinguishing features of this great revival that began in New York in 1857. It is almost universally agreed that three characteristics gave it a special flavour.
First, it was a revival of prayer. Never before in the history of America had so many Christians been so burdened for the salvation of souls, and never before had they united their hearts so fervently for God to bless their land. In the words of Isaiah 66:8, ‘As soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children’.
Second, it was a revival that crossed denominational lines. As the showers of divine blessing fell, Evangelicals laid aside their theological differences and united in their effort to extend the kingdom of God. Of the six persons present at the first Fulton Street meeting, one was Baptist, one Congregationalist, one Dutch Reformed, and one Presbyterian.
Third, it was a revival which featured the work of laymen in the church. There was no Whitefield, Wesley or Edwards leading the work. It began an era of lay participation in the general work of the church, the Sunday school and the YMCA.
This should not surprise us. In New Testament times God used not only Peter, Paul and John, but deacons like Stephen and Phillip were also filled with the Spirit and went out to share the word with great success.
Since the revival of 1857 the English speaking world has wrestled with mighty economic, political and military upheavals. Missionary work has flourished and concerted evangelistic efforts have taken place.
But, in America at least, no visitation of the Spirit so miraculous, so powerful and so influential has since transpired. Can it, will it, happen again?
America’s great revivals, Bethany Fellowship, Inc., Minneapolis (no date).
Great revivals and the Great Republic, by Warren A. Candler, Publishing House of the M.E. Church, 1904.