The Layman Prayer Revival of 1857-1858

Author’s note: this was written as the culminating “Capstone” Project for my Bachelor of Science Degree in History at Liberty University in 2016. While the goal of the paper was historical in nature, it has obvious modern day application to Christians around the world.

 

The United States of American is unique in its spiritual life among Western nations today. Americans are increasingly “spiritual,” much more so than their European brothers and sisters. The kind of rhetoric that proceeds from the mouths of, particular conservative, Americans are things like “America was founded as a Christian nation,” and “The founding fathers were strong Christians.” Whether this rhetoric is correct or not is not of concern: what is applicable is considerable about statements like these are that they demonstrate that America is preoccupied with religion, and Christianity in particular. But why is this?

Scholars will point to two very altering events that present a case for the depth of American Christianity: the First Great Awakening and the Second Great Awakening. In the former, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield produced fervor in American’s in the 18th century, contributing to the massive rise of Christianity in the life of ordinary citizens. Edwards’ own “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” was a type of sermon that the people had never heard before and with it came mass baptisms, church attendance, and church membership. This continued in the 19th century with the Second Great Awakening. In this movement, Charles Finney and other prominent members utilized revival-like language that exploded in the American frontier. Methodists in particular reached out to the sparsely inhabited West to evangelize. Similar massive baptisms and church attendance followed this revival.

Many are not aware that what could be considered a third “Great Awakening” occurred from 1857-1858 that contributed to the pervasive American Christianity more than either the First or Second Great Awakening. It was called the Layman Prayer Revival, and it is arguably the last massive revival the United States has experienced. It became a national preoccupation that felt its influence spread from it’s genesis in New York to Chicago. Perhaps most importantly, while the First Great Awakening had Jonathan Edwards and the Second Charles Finney, the Layman Prayer Revival had the imperceptible Jeremiah Lanphier. Lanphier’s name probably does not show up in textbooks, and further, his legacy is largely forgotten by audiences in America today.

In light of this, the writer will attempt to suggest that while the Layman Prayer Revival has become an afterthought in the minds of Americans today, it should not be diminished. In fact, it should be celebrated as the after effects of the revival were greater than the First Great Awakening and the Second Great Awakening. As Kathyrn Long said, “The Revival of 1856-1857, perhaps the closest thing to a truly national revival in American history, represented the culmination during the antebellum period of this impulse to integration.”[1] The writer will present this argument in three parts: first, a brief history of the revival; second, how the revival was conducted; and third, the outcomes of the revival. The evidence will demonstrate that the Layman Prayer Revival had a lasting impact on Christianity in America.

The early 19th century was a time of both recovery and turmoil in economy and in politics. The slavery issue continued to rage as abolitionists took to the side of abolishing slavery while (mostly) southern states rested their entire economy on slavery. In business, banking had become a big attraction for investments and a bubble was forming that would soon burst. One commentator said about the origins of the revival, “The movement was given impetus by the financial panic of October 1857, as well as by the ongoing tension over slavery and from extensive coverage in the secular press.”[2] The day of reckoning was coming. And it did indeed come: “On October 10 the New York stock market crashed, putting many stockbrokers and clerks out of work, and shutting down businesses everywhere. Many people went into bankruptcy; the panic shattered the previous complacency.”[3]

This is the foundation of the Layman Prayer Revival: turmoil. When the economy began to falter, people inevitably began seeking toward a religious explanation. The financial crisis coupled with the political maelstrom occurring in America at this time probably was a viable catalyst for the revival. Nevertheless, it was all tied to one faithful man who was looking for a way to serve his community. Little did he know that his efforts would become a national preoccupation.

The revival had its inauspicious roots in a man name Jeremiah Lanphier. He was employed at the North Dutch Church on Fulton Street in New York. His position was to be a missionary. He was to reach out to the community with the Gospel and to love those in his area. A tract that announced his arrival was published read:

The Consistory, anxious that in the spiritual destitution of this part of the city, suitable investigations and labours [sic] may be employed, in order that the ‘poor may have the   Gospel preached unto the,’ have obtained the services of a pious layman, Mr. J.C. Lanphier. He will devote his time and efforts to explore this lower part of the city, and, with all kindness and fidelity, to attract those whom he visits to the house of God, and to place parents and children under auspices favorable to their temporal and spiritual welfare.”[4]

 

Mr. Lanphier began his ministry by understanding the importance of prayer in the Christian life. After serving in the streets of New York for some time, he felt as if he was not able to reach people in a meaningful way. Because of this, he developed an idea that blossomed into a daily prayer meeting that would be held every day from 12 to 1 o’clock at the church. He circulated a placard that was hung on hotels, boarding houses, shops, factories, counting rooms, and private dwellings.[5] The first meeting took place on the 23rd of September 1857. At noon, the time of the meeting, not a single person showed up. It wasn’t until a half hour later that the first person appeared. Five more entered and after the service, they dispersed. The next day, six increased to twenty. Each day that went by, the number began to swell. People were willing to forgo their precious lunch hour to sit in a church to pray.

The pray meetings began to become very popular for two reasons: the economic adversity and the press. In the former, even the New York Daily Tribune admitted that religion was a natural consequence to the plight being experienced around America. One column notes, “The preacher then went on to show that this revival grew out of the sense of dependence which the late financial revulsion had brought home to the understandings of most men; the total stagnation of trade had made the merchant and the mechanic alike sensible of their helplessness and had turned them from their idols of gold and silver to look to the living God.”[6]This is a reasonable conclusion. Whenever people are affected with hardship, their natural tendency is to seek a supernatural answer to their plight. Questions of why and the realization that what is in this life is fleeting makes people question what is beyond.

But not all were convinced of this conclusion. The press had their own theory about the roots of the revival. For example, the New York Herald proclaimed:

Our theory, as above elaborated, is that the luxury and laziness and laxity of the churches – the tendency of the clergy to theorize and philosophize upon purely technical points of belief was the cause of the backsliding members of the churches; and that finding no refuge out of the ark, they have now attempted to infuse some of the divine unction into it… The only way to bring about such a reform is to return to the plain common sense platform of the early Christians, founded upon the teachings of the New Testament – the best moral code ever written.[7]

 

This explanation is probably a little more unbiased. According to the New York Herald, the churches of the time were overtly complicated. A “commoner” could not enter into the ivory tower of the church as a bystander and gain much more than the content of the sermon. By operating a prayer meeting, the language became simpler; the “sermon” (if you could call it that) was a brief message of positivity lacking the complex language of religion. It was a meeting for people who had never attended church before. And the appeal went farther. Instead of alienating members, they could communicate their concerns, get prayer, and leave without the sometimes-nasty attachments churches bring. It also fueled a sense of belonging. People prayed for them and cared about them. Having a pastor deal with the everyday issues that normally would be swept under the rug at a Sunday gathering was a powerful incentive.

The second reason why the meetings became so popular was due to the somewhat vicious war that occurred in the press. When news was released that a grand revival was taking place in New York, the New York Herald and the New York Daily Tribune started a battle in covering the hot story of the day. By this time, thousands were attending the meetings and knowledge about them were continuing to skyrocket. The press fueled this desire to experience the unknown.

The New York Herald began the war in February of 1858. They produced a column entitled “Religious Revolution.” It stated:

 

In this city we are told that the daily prayer meetings down town are thronged every day with merchants, bankers, politicians, financiers – men of all classes and conditions. These repentant sinners make oral confession that they have done those things which they ought not to have done, and have left undone those things which they ought to have done; they pray, likewise that they may have strength to resist the devil and all his works hereafter.”[8]

 

The Herald then began producing updates weekly, sometimes more, on the status of the revival. In a column entitled “The Religious Revivals,” the Herald noted that the “Prayer meeting in Fulton street having become too crowded, it was resolved to open John street church every day, between 12 and 1 o’clock.”[9] It produced not only commentary on the significance of the revival, but also advertised new locations and times throughout the city.

Not to be outdone, the New York Tribune also took time to advertise and add their own spin to the revival. In columns entitled, “Progress of the Revival,” the Tribune provided a vast array of services to their readers including where the meetings were taking place, adding commentary on the status and origins, and also producing texts of selected sermons. In one such column, the New York Tribune writes, “The day prayer-meetings, which were so largely attended a month ago, have [grown] to an average aggregate attendance of about two thousand. The number of these meetings is fully kept up, and the decrease of attendance is principally among those who went from curiosity.”[10]

There is little doubt that this coverage was critical to the success of the revival. When a movement begins in an ordinary meeting without a centralized figure, more often times than not it retreats into obscurity. The series of factors that were produced at this time were unique enough to prove this common sense conclusion irrelevant. The newspapers fueled the mania that an unassuming missionary had begun. But what did these meetings consist of? What were the regulations and what took place over the course of the hour?

As the meetings became more and more popular, strict rules were enacted to keep the schedule on time. Placards were placed about that gave directions. One said, “Brethren are earnestly requested to adhere to the 5 minute rule”; another “Prayers and exhortations not to exceed 5 minutes in order to give all an opportunity; not more than 2 consecutive prayers or exhortations. No controverted points discussed.”[11] Participants were expected to be prompt, as the meetings would start at twelve o’clock sharp. A schedule was placed in the form of a handout that designated the day’s agenda:

1st. Open the meeting by reading and signing from three to five verses of a hymn. 2d. Prayer. 3d Read a portion of the Scripture. 4th Say the meeting is now open for prayers and exhortations, observing particularly the rules overhead, inviting brethren from abroad to take part in the services. 5th Read but one or two requests at a time – REQUIRING a            prayer to follow – such prayer to have special reference to the same. 6th In case of any suggestion or proposition by any person, say this is simply a Prayer meeting, and that they are out of order, and call on some brother to pray. 7th Give out the closing hymn five minutes before one o’clock. Request the Benediction from a Clergy-man, if one be present.[12]

 

A significant account of a prayer meeting is given from a first hand witness, reading:

We take our seat in the middle room, ten minutes before 12 o’clock, M. A few ladies are   seated in one corner, and a few business-men are scattered here and there through the      room. Five minutes to 12 the room begins to fill up rapidly. Two minutes to 12, the leader passes in, and takes his seat in the desk or pulpit. At 12, M., punctual to the moment, at            the first stroke of the clock the leader rises and commences the meeting by reading two or three verses of the hymn… Each person finds a hymn-book in his seat; all sing with heart and voice. The leader offers a prayer, short pointed, to the purpose. Then reads a brief   portion of Scripture. Ten minutes are now gone. Meantime, requires in sealed envelopes   have been going up to the desk for prayer. Every nook and corner is filled- the doorways and stairways- and the upper room is now filled, and we hear the    voice of singing… He   says: “This meeting is now open for prayer. Brethren from a distance are specially invited to take part. All will observe the rules… A few remarks follow- very brief. The chairman rises with slips of paper in his hands and reads [the prayers]… It is now a quarter to one o’clock… Then came the closing hymn, the benediction , and the parting for twenty-four hours.[13]

 

The meetings, therefore, were efficient in utilizing the time that they had. It is important to consider that the majority of the meetings occurred during the lunch hour. If a meeting ran long, there would be no one left in the pews to continue on. A commotion of businessmen and merchants would have scrambled from their seats to get back to work on time. In this way, it was necessary to keep things orderly and on a tight schedule.

The effect of the revival was enormous by the standards of the day. One commentator suggests, “Within two years, approximately one million converts were added to the churches of America.[14] Of benefit to history is the meticulous counting of church historians of the time. Kathryn Long attempted to synthesize the numerical significance of the revival. Some of the numbers are staggering: the Baptists grew by16 percent; Methodists grew by 8 percent from 1856-1858; Presbyterians grew by 11 percent; Methodists grew by 29 percent from 1856-59; the estimated number of people baptized from 1856-58 was roughly 2,800,000; there was approximately a 400,000 net membership increase from 1856-59.[15] These numbers represent a movement in American history that is possible unrivaled before and since.

The focus of this work thus far has been centralized to New York City. But this was simply the genesis of the movement and it moved far from its origins. The city of Chicago reported prayer meetings occurring sometime after Jeremiah Lanphier begun the six-member prayer meeting at Fulton Street. It even passed from beyond the borders of the United States. One commentator said, “Soon interdenominational prayer meetings started up in most of the major cities of the North, with more than two thousand people jamming Chicago’s daily prayer meeting at the Metropolitan Theater. The revival then spread to rural areas, including the South, to Europe, especially England, and even to Australia.”[16] It truly became global phenomena.

The conclusions drawn from such a momentous yet unforgotten event is complicated. However, an argument could be made that the outcome of the Layman Prayer Revival had a greater impact on the religious activity of Americans than either the First Great Awakening or the Second Great Awakening.

First, the numerical advantages of the Layman Prayer Revival clearly demonstrate the significance of the movement. Jonathan Edwards describes the conversions happening in Northampton during the First Great Awakening, saying: “I am far from pretending to be able to determine how many have lately been the subjects of such mercy; but if I may be allowed to declare any thing that appears to me probable in a thing of this nature, I hope that more than three hundred souls were savingly [sic] brought home to Christ in this town, in the space of half a year, (how many more I don’t guess,) and about the same number of males and females…”[17] What this demonstrates is the geographical limitations of the revival. At the time of the First (and to a lesser degree the Second) Great Awakening, America was not as populated as it would be almost 100 years later. The fact that the Layman Prayer Revival happened when it did and impacted people in the scope that it did became largely a factor of the more populous states. The revival, as stated, also had the benefit of the press. No such mass publication was yet available in rural areas that Edwards primarily worked in.

Second, the Layman Prayer Revival would go on to have a significant impact on the spiritual lives of Americans for many generations. Part of the stigma during the prayer revivals was the lack of any concrete doctrinal positions. As stated, there was to be no discussions of any matter that would seem divisive. The New York Herald noticed this, saying:

How we all got to these shady groves, cool wells and pleasant palms seems to be a matter of doubt – certainly, the clergy had nothing to do with it. They found a movement organized and placed themselves at its head. The movement extends to all the evangelical denominations – Baptists, Methodists, Unitarians, Presbyterians, and so forth. They are all orthodox in so much as this – they agree in certain practical truths of Christianity, but dispute in relation to dogmas and points of church discipline, which are really of no vital consequence. [18]

What is of importance in this analysis is the language, which refers to dogma as “no vital consequence.” Yet, these issues are important to Christians; they constitute the very centerpiece of their religious beliefs. When viewed in the context of the 1960’s where the liberal movement thwarted the idea of orthodoxy, dogma surely would play an important role. But even further still, what Americans clung to was the idea of spirituality that was devoid of doctrine. This would have far reaching implications that continue even in the present.

In these ways, and many more, the Layman Prayer Revival constituted a massive influence to Christianity in America in the 19th, 20th, and 21st century. Its effects are still reverberating long after the revivals of the First and Second Great Awakening have diminished. In this way, the Layman Prayer Revival then was the most momentous, but largely forgotten, revival in the history of America.

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Chambers, Talbot. The Noon Prayer Meeting of the North Dutch Church, Fulton Street New York. New York: Board of Publication of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, 1858. Accessed August 26, 2016. https://archive.org/details/ldpd_6221448_000.

Edwards, Jonathan. Thoughts On the Revival of Religion in New England, 1740; to Which Is Prefixed, a Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in Northampton, Mass., 1735. New York: American Tract Society, n.d. Accessed August 26, 2016. https://archive.org/details/thoughtsonreviva00edwa.

“Progress of the Revival,” New York Daily Tribune, April 24, 1858, under “page 6,” accessed August 6, 2016, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030213/1858-04-24/ed-1/seq-6.pdf.

“Religious Revolution,” New York Herald, February 21, 1858, under “page 4,” accessed August 6, 2016,http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030313/1858-02-21/ed-1/seq-4.pdf.

“Religious Revivals.” New York Herald March 2 1858, under “page 4,” accessed August 6, 2016,http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030313/1858-02-21/ed-1/seq-4.pdf.

“Religious Revival.” New York Daily Tribune, March 15 1858 under “page 4,” accessed August 6, 2016,http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030313/1858-02-21/ed-1/seq-4.pdf.

Secondary Sources

Eckman, James P. Exploring Church History. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002.

Christian History Magazine-Issue 23: Spiritual Awakenings in North America. Worcester, PA: Christian History Institute, 1989.

Long, Kathryn. 1998. The Revival of 1857-58 : Interpreting an American Religious Awakening. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed August 26, 2016).

Reid, Daniel G., Robert Dean Linder, Bruce L. Shelley, and Harry S. Stout. Dictionary of Christianity in America. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990.

Rusten, Sharon with E. Michael. The Complete Book of When & Where in the Bible and throughout History. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2005.

[1] Karthryn Long, The Revival of 1857-58: Interpreting an American Religious Awakening (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 144-51, Ebook Collection (EBSCOhost).

[2] Daniel G. Reid et al., Dictionary of Christianity in America (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990).

[3] “The Time for Prayer—The Third Great Awakening,” Christian History Magazine-Issue 23: Spiritual Awakenings in North America (Worcester, PA: Christian History Institute, 1989).

[4] Talbot Chambers, The Noon Prayer Meeting of the North Dutch Church, Fulton Street New York (New York: Board of Publication of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, 1858), 35, accessed August 26, 2016,https://archive.org/details/ldpd_6221448_000.

[5] Ibid, 41

[6] “The Religious Revival.” New York Daily Tribune, March 15 1858 under “page 4,” accessed August 6, 2016,http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030313/1858-02-21/ed-1/seq-4.pdf.

[7] Religious Revolution,” New York Herald, February 21, 1858, under “page 4,” accessed August 6, 2016,http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030313/1858-02-21/ed-1/seq-4.pdf.

[8] “Religious Revolution,” New York Herald, February 21, 1858, under “page 4,” accessed August 6, 2016,http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030313/1858-02-21/ed-1/seq-4.pdf.

[9] “Religious Revivals.” New York Herald March 2 1858, under “page 4,” accessed August 6, 2016,http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030313/1858-02-21/ed-1/seq-4.pdf.

[10] “Progress of the Revival.” New York Daily Tribune, April 24, 1858, under “page 6,” accessed August 6, 2016,

[11] Talbot Chambers, The Noon Prayer Meeting of the North Dutch Church, Fulton Street New York (New York: Board of Publication of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, 1858), 47, accessed August 26, 2016,https://archive.org/details/ldpd_6221448_000.

[12] Ibid, 48.

[13] Ibid, 66-68.

[14] Sharon Rusten with E. Michael, The Complete Book of When & Where in the Bible and throughout History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2005), 372.

[15] Karthryn Long, The Revival of 1857-58: Interpreting an American Religious Awakening (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 144-51, Ebook Collection (EBSCOhost).

[16] James P. Eckman, Exploring Church History (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002), 88.

[17] Jonathan Edwards, Thoughts On the Revival of Religion in New England, 1740; to Which Is Prefixed, a Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in Northampton, Mass., 1735 (New York: American Tract Society, n.d.), 24-25, accessed August 26, 2016, https://archive.org/details/thoughtsonreviva00edwa.

 

[18] Religious Revolution,” New York Herald, February 21, 1858, under “page 4,” accessed August 6, 2016,http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030313/1858-02-21/ed-1/seq-4.pdf.

 

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