Prayer brings revival

Edwin Orr
01 April, 2010 6 min read

Prayer brings revival

Dr A. T. Pierson once said, ‘There has never been a spiritual awakening in any country or locality that did not begin in united prayer’.

Not many people realise that in the wake of the American Revolution (1776-1781) there was a moral slump. Drunkenness became epidemic. Out of a population of five million, 300,000 were confirmed drunkards. Profanity was of the most shocking kind. For the first time in the history of the American settlement, women were afraid to go out at night for fear of assault. Bank robberies were a daily occurrence.

What about the churches? The Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall, wrote to the Bishop of Virginia that the church ‘was too far gone ever to be redeemed’.Take the liberal arts colleges. A poll taken at Harvard discovered not one believer in the whole student body.

They took a poll at Princeton, a much more evangelical place, where they discovered only two believers in the student body, and only five that did not belong to the filthy speech movement of that day.

Concert of prayer

Students held a mock communion at Williams College. They put on anti-Christian plays at Dartmouth and burned down Nassau Hall at Princeton. They took a Bible out of a local Presbyterian church in New Jersey and burnt it in a public bonfire. Christians were so few on campus in the 1790s that they met in secret and kept their minutes in code so that no one would know.

How did the situation change? It came through a concert of prayer. There was a Scottish Presbyterian minister in Edinburgh named John Erskine, who published a Memorial pleading with the people of Scotland and elsewhere to unite in prayer for the revival of religion.

He sent one copy of this little book to Jonathan Edwards in New England. The great theologian was so moved that he published A humble attempt to promote explicit agreement and visible union of all God’s people in extraordinary prayer for the revival of religion and the advancement of Christ’s kingdom on earth…

This movement of prayer continued in Britain through William Carey, Andrew Fuller, John Sutcliffe and other leaders. So … after John Wesley died, another great awakening swept Great Britain.

In New England, there was a man of prayer named Isaac Backus, a Baptist pastor, who in 1794 when conditions were at their worst addressed an urgent plea for prayer for revival to all United States pastors.

All the churches adopted the plan until America, like Britain, was interlaced with a network of prayer meetings setting aside the first Monday of each month to pray. It was not long before revival came.


When the revival reached the frontier in Kentucky, it encountered a really wild and irreligious people. Peter Cartwright, a Methodist evangelist, wrote that when his father settled in Logan County it was known as Rogue’s Harbour. The decent people in Kentucky formed regiments of vigilantes to fight for law and order, then fought a pitched battle with outlaws and lost.

There was a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian minister named James McGready whose chief claim to fame was that he was ugly. McGready settled in Logan County as pastor of three little churches.

He wrote in his diary that winter 1799 was spent for the most part ‘weeping and mourning with the people of God’. But he also got his people to pray for him at sunset Saturday evening and sunrise Sunday morning. Then in summer 1800 the great Kentucky revival came, and 11,000 people to the communion service.

Following this awakening, conditions again deteriorated. The United States was seriously divided over the issue of slavery. Then in September 1857, Jeremiah Lanphier started a businessmen’s prayer meeting in the upper room of the Dutch Reformed Church consistory building in Manhattan. In response to his advertisement, only six people out of a population of a million showed up.

But the following week there were 14, and then 23 when it was decided to meet every day for prayer. By late winter they were filling the Dutch Reformed Church, then the Methodist Church on John Street, then Trinity Episcopal Church on Broadway at Wall Street.

In February and March 1858, every church and public hall in downtown New York was filled. Then a landslide of prayer began, which overflowed to the churches in the evenings. People began to be converted, 10,000 a week in New York City alone. The movement spread throughout New England, church bells bringing people to prayer at eight in the morning, twelve noon and six in the evening.

The revival raced up the Hudson and down the Mohawk. Trinity Episcopal Church in Chicago had 121 members in 1857, 1400 in 1860. Out of a population of 30 million, more than one million people were converted to God in one year.

That same revival jumped the Atlantic, appeared in Ulster, Scotland and Wales, then England, parts of Europe, South Africa and South India – anywhere there was an evangelical cause. That movement lasted for a generation, but at the turn of the century there was need of awakening again.


Special prayer meetings were held at Moody Bible Institute, the Keswick Conventions, and places as far apart as Melbourne, Wonsan in Korea, and the Nilgiri Hills of India.

In 1905 in the United States, Kenneth Scott Latourette reported that at Yale 25 per cent of the student body were enrolled in prayer meetings and Bible study. Church ministers in Atlantic City reported that of a population of 50,000 there were only 50 adults left unconverted.

In Portland, Oregon, 240 major stores closed from 11 to 2 each day to enable people to attend prayer meetings, signing an agreement that no one would cheat and stay open. The pastor of First Baptist Church of Paducah in Kentucky, an old man called Dr J. J. Cheek, took in 1,000 members in two months and died of overwork.

The Welsh Revival, which started in 1904, began as a movement of prayer. Seth Joshua, the Presbyterian evangelist, came to Newcastle Emlyn College where a former coal miner Evan Roberts, aged 26, was studying for the ministry.

At nearby Blaenannerch Seth Joshua prayed publicly, ‘O God, bend us’. Roberts went forward and prayed with great agony, ‘O God, bend me’. Evan Roberts went back home to Loughor. He preached all week, and was asked to stay another week. Suddenly the dull ecclesiastical columns in the Welsh papers changed: ‘Great crowds of people drawn to Loughor’.

The main road between Llanelli and Swansea on which the church was situated was packed with people trying to get into the church. Shopkeepers closed early to find a place in the big church. Now the news was out.

A reporter was sent down and he described vividly what he saw – a strange meeting which closed at 4.25 in the morning, and even then people did not seem willing to go home. On Sunday every church was filled.

Tidal wave

The movement went like a tidal wave over Wales; in five months 100,000 converted. Five years later, Dr J. V. Morgan wrote a book to debunk the revival, his main criticism being that of 100,000 joining the churches in five months of excitement, after five years only 75,000 still stood in the membership of those churches!

The social impact was astounding. For example, judges were presented with white gloves, not a case to try – no robberies, burglaries, rapes, murders, embezzlements; nothing. In one place the sergeant of police was sent for and asked, ‘What do you do with your time?’

He replied, ‘Before the revival, we had two main jobs, to prevent crime and to control crowds, as at football games. Since the revival started there is practically no crime. So we just go with the crowds’.

A councillor asked, ‘What does that mean?’

The sergeant replied, ‘You know where the crowds are. They are packing out the churches’.

‘But how does that affect the police?’

‘We have seventeen police in our station, but we have three quartets; and if any church wants a quartet to sing, they simply call the police station’.

As the revival swept Wales, drunkenness was cut in half. There was a wave of bankruptcies, but nearly all taverns. There was even a slowdown in the mines, for so many Welsh coal miners were converted and stopped using bad language that the horses dragging coal trucks in the mines could not understand what was being said to them.

That revival also affected sexual moral standards. I discovered that in Radnorshire and Merionethshire the illegitimate birth rate had dropped 44 per cent within a year of the beginning of the revival.

The revival swept Britain, Scandinavia, Germany, North America, Australasia, Africa, Brazil, Mexico and Chile. As always, it began through a movement of prayer.

Dr J. Edwin Orr (1912-1987)

See for full, unedited article. In 1949 Dr Orr published The second evangelical awakening in Britain (Marshall, Morgan and Scott).

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