“Pray without ceasing” – 1 Thessalonians 5:17
Jeremiah Lanphier was born in upstate New York in 1809 and moved to the city of New York as a young man where he engaged in the mercantile industry. In 1845 he was converted as he heard the preaching of the gospel at the Broadway Tabernacle, a church built for Charles Finney. In 1851 he joined the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church and heard the mighty preaching of James Waddell Alexander, who earlier had been a leading theologian at Princeton Seminary.
The North Dutch Reformed Church on Fulton Street (near where the World Trade Center once stood) had fallen on hard times. Immigrants from southern Europe were moving into the community and most of the well-to-do Dutch members of the church had moved elsewhere, leaving a dwindling congregation. In a desperate effort to stem the tide of membership loss, the church on July 1, 1857 hired the layman Jeremiah Lanphier to see what he could do in the way of community visitation and evangelism. He had no training whatsoever, but he had a heart for the Lord and he was a man of prayer.
Lanphier poured himself into his work, daily visiting people from door to door, offering them gospel tracts, seeking to engage them in gospel conversation. He established a Sunday School programme for children, as well as mid-week Bible Clubs, and many came, but their parents did not. They were poor people, only recently arrived in America, who knew little or no English, and they did not feel comfortable sitting with well-to-do, well dressed people. After exhausting and discouraging days, Lanphier would come back to his office at the church and pray, asking, ‘Lord, what is it that you wish for me to do?’ He noticed that nearby businessmen took off an hour at noon each day for lunch and he began to think that perhaps they would like a place to pray during their lunch break. No doubt these businessmen felt the stress of the business world, but there was also an added stress – the economy was in the midst of a severe recession. Thousands of men had lost their jobs and were merely walking around town, aimless, with nothing to do.
So Lanphier printed flyers, inviting people to a weekly prayer meeting, on Wednesdays, from noon to 1 p.m. On one side of the flyer he asked the question, ‘When is the right time to pray?’ He gave several answers, like, ‘When you are discouraged and downcast.’ On the other side of the flyer he gave the details of the prayer meeting. So, on Wednesday, September 23, 1857 Jeremiah Lanphier waited at the North Dutch Reformed Church in the Elders’ meeting room, for men to join him in prayer.
No one came at first. Then at 12:30 five men finally joined him and they prayed until 1 p.m. They all agreed that the prayer time was beneficial so they planned to meet the next Wednesday as well. The prayer meetings followed a simple order. At precisely noon, a bell would sound and the leader would lead in a verse or two of a hymn, read a portion of Scripture, and lead in a short prayer. This took ten minutes. From there the floor was opened to anyone who wished to pray. They could pray no longer than five minutes. If anyone went past five minutes a bell would sound and the person knew to end his prayer. The meetings were led by layman, and the participants were almost exclusively men. They were told to stay away from secondary theological issues like eschatology and baptism, and they were not to bring up controversial political issues like slavery.1
By the third week, October 7, over twenty men gathered for prayer. The next week, however, over one hundred men gathered at noon to pray. October 14 was the day the Stock Market lost thirty percent of its value. It opened at 9 a.m. and by noon there was a major panic on Wall Street. This, no doubt, led to the major increase in participation at the prayer meeting that day. The number of men continued to increase weekly. Then it was decided that they should gather every business day at noon. Now so many were attending that three rooms at the North Dutch Reformed Church were needed. Seven hundred men were gathering daily for prayer.
As a result of their times of prayer, men were becoming zealous for evangelistic outreach. They poured out of the church into the streets and began sharing Christ with anyone who would listen. They also began going door to door in their communities and sharing Christ. No doubt they had gained the divine swagger! They were praying for their lost friends at the prayer meeting and these men were being saved. The new converts would come to the meetings and bear testimony of what God was doing. Now so many people were praying that numerous churches in Manhattan opened their doors for prayer. The Pilgrim Congregational Church in Brooklyn, the church of Henry Ward Beecher, also opened their doors for noon day prayer.
Men began gathering at the various churches around 11:30 a.m. and by 11:50 a hush would fall on the meeting. Complete silence. The bell rang precisely at noon and the meeting began. So many men were gathering for prayer that meetings were also held at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Businesses in Manhattan began shutting down from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. because no-one was buying anything and because many of the merchants also wanted to be at the prayer meetings. At the time New York City had a population of 800,000 and at the height of the Fulton Street Revival 10,000 people per week were being converted.
The revival prayer movement spread to Philadelphia and Boston where thousands gathered daily to pray. The revival jumped the Atlantic Ocean and bore remarkable fruit in the Glens of Antrim in Northern Ireland, as well as many other places in Scotland, Wales, and England. It spread to the south, particularly to Charleston where the Zion Presbyterian Church, under the ministry of John Girardeau, witnessed a mighty revival resulting in the conversion of over 1000 people in just eight weeks’ time. By 1863 the revival was running through General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The effects of the Fulton Street Revival were felt in far away cities. Trinity Episcopal Church, Chicago, for example, grew from 100 members to over 1100 members during the time of the revival. A significant impact on society was also made. Gardner Spring of the Brick Presbyterian Church, along with the other pastors of New York City, was able to move the City Council to shut down gambling establishments and saloons on the Lord’s Day.
And the human catalyst for the revival was a layman with no formal theological training. He was a man who simply said, ‘Lord, what is it that you wish for me to do?’
What are the takeaways from this story? First, prayer is the catalyst to move God into action. Second, it must be prayer born out of desperation. Lanphier was desperate. He had tried everything else to no avail. The men were desperate because the economy was in shambles. Third, when men are revived they begin to speak of Jesus. They cannot help but speak of him. Jesus and his cross, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the power of Almighty God coming down upon them is irresistible. They cannot stop speaking what they have seen and heard. And fourth, the culture is radically affected by revival. People put away licentiousness, perversion, dishonesty, greed, and all manner of sin. They wish to live holy lives and those who wish to continue in their sin are silenced and must go underground with it.
There is no other hope for this country. We must have revival or we will perish. Perhaps you may be the catalyst for another Fulton Street Revival. Are you willing? Are you desperate? Will you pray?
– Al Baker