A great conflict loomed on the national horizon in 1857 because of the unresolved slavery issue. Yet, unlike other times when America faced dangers, people did not flock to churches. God no longer seemed relevant to the nation, especially for businessmen who enjoyed great prosperity during this time period.
An unexplained financial panic then hit America. Banks closed. Railroads declared bankruptcy. Thousands of workers were laid off. Desperate families faced starvation.
But in the midst of financial despair, Jeremiah Lanphier, a middle-aged businessman, felt God wanted him to start a noontime weekly prayer meeting for businessmen in New York City. He printed a pamphlet, How Often Shall I Pray, and handed them out to local businessmen, inviting them to prayer meetings at the Old Dutch North Church.
The first meeting was held on September 23, 1857. Lanphier 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. Forty showed up the week following. By October 14, 1857, more than one hundred attended the meetings.
They soon decided that weekly assemblages were not enough. So, they met on a daily basis. Pastors whose spirits were inflamed by these gatherings opened their own churches for prayer times. Before long, meetings were overflowing with young, old, rich, and poor. Within six months, ten thousand businessmen attended over one hundred and fifty different prayer meetings in New York City on a daily basis.
The Spirit of Prayer then spread the fire across the nation tosuch cities as 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 would start the hour by announcing a hymn. All would stand and sing one or two verses. Then, the leader would say a brief prayer, and the service was turned over to the assembled members. Any person was free to speak or pray for no longer than five minutes. A bell rang if the man overextended his time so that another could take a turn.
Prayer requests were made for family members or others not present. Many stood asking prayer for themselves. 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 was known as the Businessman’s Prayer Revival, Laymen’s Prayer Revival, or the Prayer Revival of 1857. Powerful preaching was not involved like most of the other awakenings in America, but rather, it was filled with earnest, forceful prayer. Dwight L. Moody, the noted evangelist, and Fanny Crosby, the blind hymn composer, were numbered among the Revival’s converts. George Duffield wrote the hymn, Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus, to encourage businessmen.
The revival did not diminish with the beginning of the Civil War. Instead, it broke out in both armies, but in particular, the Confederate forces. It began for the Southerners in the hospitals among the wounded and was spread into the camps when they returned to their units. Prayer meetings were organized and hundreds joined the gatherings on the frontlines.
The great evangelist, Charles Finney, summed up the prayer revival: “The general impression seems to be that we have had instruction until we are hardened; it is time to pray.”
It was estimated that over 150,000 soldiers in the Southern armies were converted and overall, nearly 6.6 per cent of the entire United States became Christians in this prayer revival.
For those who think a Holy Spirit revival would stop a civil war from happening here in America today, the Businessman’s Prayer Revival of 1857 doesn’t offer us much hope. The Civil War broke out four years later, killing over 620,000 people dead – more than all of America’s other wars combined.
(Continued in Part 5…but if you want to read all of the parts to date, you can go here.)