Jeremy Lanphier had hoped more would come that day. But at least there were six. So, on September 23, 1857, at lunchtime, he did not moan about the small number who turned out in response to his advertisement. Instead, he knelt down with the others in the rented hall on Fulton Street, New York.
America was in need of prayer. The country was in spiritual, political, and economic decline. Many people were disillusioned with spiritual things because of preachers who had repeatedly predicted the end of the world in the 1840s. Agitation over slavery was breeding political unrest, and civil war seemed near. Financial panic had just gripped the nation. Banks failed, railroads went bankrupt, factories closed, and unemployment experienced a sharp increase. The Bank of Philadelphia had failed.
In lower Manhattan, a Dutch Reformed church had been steadily losing members, largely because of population changes. They hired Jeremy Lanphier, a layman, to reverse the trend, with an aggressive visitation program. Despite his many visits, church members remained listless. So he rented the hall on Fulton Street and advertised prayer meetings. He himself enjoyed close fellowship with the Lord and thought others might want revival also. Conditions in the United States got worse; maybe that was a good thing. Sometimes trouble turns people back to God. By the third week of Jeremy’s prayer gatherings, the crowd had grown from six to forty. That day, they asked for daily meetings.
On October 10, 1857, the stock market crashed. Suddenly people were flocking to the prayer meetings. Within six months 10,000 were gathering for daily prayer in New York City. Soon, other cities experienced a renewed interest in prayer, as well. The Metropolitan Theater in Chicago was filled every day with 2,000 saints seeking a movement of God. In Louisville, several thousand came to the Masonic Temple for prayer each morning, while 2,000 assembled for daily prayer in Cleveland. In St. Louis, churches were filled for months at a time. In many places tents were set up for prayer. The newly formed YMCA also played an important role in holding prayer meetings and spreading the revival throughout the land.
In February of 1858, Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald gave extensive coverage to the prayer revival. Not to be outdone, the New York Tribune devoted an entire issue in April, 1858 to news of the revival. Word soon traveled west by telegraph. This was the first revival the media helped to spread.
Lay people, not church leaders, led the charge. Prayer, rather than preaching, was the main focus. The meetings themselves were informal – anyone was allowed, even encouraged to pray aloud. As people began sharing their testimonies of changed lives, a five minute time limit was put in place so everyone could share their story. Despite loose organization and no national framework, the prayer meetings continued to spread, and millions of lives were changed.
So the tiny prayer meeting led by layman Jeremy Lanphier on September 23, 1857 led to the Third Great Awakening. This was the first revival that began in America and spread to the world, touching Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, Europe, South Africa, India, Australia, and the Pacific Islands.
The greatest request the disciples ever brought to the Master was, “Teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). Their need was not to know how to pray, but to pray. Jesus said, “When you pray . . .” (Matthew 6:5). Note, he said when, not if. God expects us to pray.
God wants to bring revival to America. The key is not what we pray, but that we pray. The key is not big numbers, but big prayers. If we want to see a mighty movement of God, a good place to start – the only place to start – is with the words of Jesus’ earliest followers.
“Lord, teach us to pray.”