Could it happen again? Why not? Man and nature have not changed. Nor has the need to reach out in humble search of spiritual revival. Whether 160 years ago or today, God hasn’t changed either. ♦
The placard outside the building read: “Prayer Meeting from 12 to 1 o’clock – Stop 5, 10 or 20 minutes, or the whole hour, as your time admits.” It looked like no one had the time. As the minutes ticked by, the solitary [man] wondered if it were all a mistake.1
After twenty minutes passed, he was still alone. Finally at 12:30 he heard the door open from the street and the sound of footsteps coming up the stairway. One man entered the room and without saying a word knelt down next to Jeremiah Lanphier, the prayer meeting organizer. Then another man came, followed by another until by one o’clock there were 6.
The following week there were 20. Then the meetings were held daily, and the number gathered increased to 40. By the fourth week attendance averaged over 100 with many people coming under spiritual conviction and inquiring how they might be saved.2
An Awakening in New York City
It was the fall of 1857, exactly 160 years ago this month. While there were wealthy bankers in the downtown commercial district of New York City thriving in the midst of economic and political uncertainty, at the same time poverty was rampant in the vast slum neighborhoods filled with immigrants and laborers.
The start of the disastrous American Civil War was just over 3 years away.
Jeremiah Lanphier was born in Albany and had arrived in New York city to enter the business world. At the age of 33 however he had a spiritual encounter with God and unexpectedly discovered that Jesus Christ was real and redirected the focus and output of his life. While a quiet, normal businessman, Lanphier gave his life to Jesus and devoted his time to lay evangelist work.
At the age of 49 he was hired full-time by the North Dutch (Reformed) Church on Fulton Street for $1,000 a year salary to reach the immigrants living around an aging downtown church. The progress was slow. He began praying, Lord, what do you want me to do?
The answer he received was that God wanted people to pray. The idea occurred to him that local downtown businessmen might like to get away for a short period of prayer once a week while offices were closed at noon. With permission of church officials Lanphier passed out flyers and put up the placard. The first meeting would be on September 23rd. When the day of the first meeting came, he was the only one on hand for it.
How Often Shall I Pray?
The flyer he handed out on the streets had a heading that asked the mere question: How Often Shall I Pray? Beyond the logistics, here is the rest of the text on the flyer:
How Often Shall I Pray? As often as the language of prayer is in my heart; as often as I see my need of help; as often as I feel the power of temptation; as often as I am made sensible of any spiritual declension or feel the aggression of a worldly spirit. In prayer we leave the business of time for that of eternity, and intercourse with men for intercourse with God….
This meeting is intended to give merchants, mechanics, clerks, strangers, and business men generally an opportunity to stop and call upon God amid the perplexities incident to their respective avocations. It will continue for one hour; but it is also designed for those who may find it inconvenient to remain more than five or ten minutes, as well as for those who can spare the whole hour. (Jeremiah Lanphier, 1857)
I love the simplicity of the question and the profound answer he presents. He speaks of language, heart, need of help, power of temptation, spiritual declension(!), and aggression of a worldly spirit. Who, if human, cannot relate? He then positions prayer as an otherworldly dimension of time as well as an engagement or intercourse with God, not with men.
How would you have responded to such a call to action?
In mid-October 1857 a financial panic seized the city, collapsing the economy into a brief but steep recession. Banks closed, men were out of work, families went hungry. The worst financial crash in the nation’s history had no doubt something to do with the astonishing growth of Lanphier’s noon meeting (by now called “the Fulton Street prayer meeting”). In a short time the Fulton Street meeting had taken over the whole building with crowds of more than 3,000. It is noted that men of all walks of life attended: lawyers and physicians, merchants and clerks, bankers and brokers, manufacturers and mechanics, porters and messenger boys.
Soon many other churches were opening their doors at noon and before work in the morning. Even police stations and firehouses opened their doors to meet the need of places to pray. Within six months, 10,000 businessmen were gathering for prayer daily.
Although this Christian spiritual revival was most spectacular in New York City, businessmen’s prayer meetings sprang up in many cities around the country. Within the next 2 years approximately 1 million new Christians were added to the churches of America.
What would you do if you announced a prayer meeting and no one came?
“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’”- Matthew 25:21
1 “Revival Born in a Prayer Meeting,” article in 2004 issue of Knowing and Doing, C.S. Lewis Institute, originally published in CHRISTIAN LIFE Magazine
2 “The Fulton Street Prayer Meeting, September 23, One Year Book of Christian History, by E. Michael and Sharon Ruston, Tyndale, 2003, p. 534-535