A great conflict loomed on the national horizon in 1857 because of slavery issues. Yet, unlike other times when America faced dangers, people did not flock to churches. God no longer seemed relevant, especially to businessmen.
But then, without warning and almost overnight, an unexplained financial panic hit America. Banks closed. Railroads declared bankruptcy. Thousands of workers were laid off. Many families faced starvation.
In New York City, where 30,000 men were out of work, Jeremiah Lamphier felt God wanted him to begin a noon-time prayer meeting for businessmen. The forty-six year old businessman printed a pamphlet entitled, How Often Shall I Pray, handed them out to the local businessmen, and invited them to prayer meetings.
The first meeting was held on September 23, 1857. Lamphier prayed alone for the first half hour, but six men joined him for the second thirty minutes. On the following Wednesday, twenty men showed up for prayer. One week later, forty showed up. By October 14, 1857, more than one hundred attended the meetings.
It was soon decided that weekly assemblages were not enough. So, they met on a daily basis. Pastors who visited the gatherings opened their own churches for prayer times. Before long, young, old, rich, and poor crowded into prayer meetings.
Within six months, ten thousand businessmen attended over one hundred and fifty different prayer meetings in New York City on a daily basis. Across the nation, similar gatherings sprang up in Boston, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Richmond, Louisville, Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago, and countless other cities.
The prayer meetings were quite simple in structure. A leader started the hour by announcing a hymn. All stood and sang one or two verses. Then, the leader said a brief prayer, and the service was then turned over to the assembled members. Any person was free to speak or pray for no longer than five minutes. The leader rang a bell if any man overextended his time so that others could have a turn.
Prayer requests were made for family members and others. Many just asked prayer for themselves. Still others exhorted the men to pray more fervently and to live holy lives. Over the weeks, testimonies were given on answered prayers and all praised the Lord for them.
Promptly, at the end of one hour, the leader rose and ended the meeting with a closing prayer. The members filed quietly out of the buildings.
This move of the Holy Spirit is known as the Businessman’s Prayer Revival, the Prayer Revival of 1857, or the Third Great Awakening. Few have heard of it today because there were no famous preachers or great preaching involved with it. It was strictly filled with earnest prayer by nameless men.
It is estimated that 6.6% of America converted to Christianity in the wake of this revival. Dwight L. Moody, the noted evangelist, and Fanny Crosby, the blind hymn composer, were two of the more notable converts.
A powerful revival, right? Somewhere between 1.5 million and 2 million were saved.
But yet this great revival did not detour America from plunging itself into a bloody Civil War which began in April, 1861. Total casualties of the war: 1,030,000 with 620, 000 dead soldiers. Based on 1860 census: 8% of all white males between the ages of 13 and 43 died in the war.
Did the war stop the revival?
Actually, no. The revival continued in army camps, especially in the Confederate Army where it was estimated that 150,000 soldiers were converted. They fought during the day and held prayer meetings at night.
If you check other revivals, you will soon discover that revivals seldom settled a nation’s problems. It changed people and they were enthused about God once again, but the nation’s problems still had to be worked out in one way or another.
So, if revival is not the total answer for America, what is?
(Continued in Part 2)