It was exactly noon on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 1857, at the Old North Dutch Reformed Church on Fulton Street in lower Manhattan. For three months Jeremiah Lanphier had gone into every business, shop and boardinghouse inviting people to pray on that particular Wednesday. But as he entered the church at noon on Sept. 23, no one was there.
Most of the churches in the heart of New York City had moved to the suburbs when their affluent members had left the city. In fact, the North Dutch Church had relocated out of the inner city too but decided to leave a mission work in their old building in lower Manhattan. This section of NYC teemed with businesses, immigrants and laborers, and Lanphier (a businessman himself) was tasked with reaching them for Christ.
It was 12:10, and still no one had come to pray.
The California gold rush of 1848 had turned men from God to riches. But by 1857 economic times were hard; businesses were closing; 30,000 men sat idle in NYC. Slavery was ripping the country apart—the threat of war was looming. There was desperation in the air.
Lanphier had decided upon a prayer meeting because nothing else he tried was bringing people into the church. He was discouraged, but prayer was his solace. If it encouraged his heart to fellowship with God, maybe others would feel similarly.
Lanphier said, “In prayer we leave the business of time for that of eternity.”
It was 12:20, and still no one had come.
Jeremiah Lanphier, with no theological training but a deep commitment to the will of God, sat down in the empty church building and began praying.
Finally, at 12:30 five men walked in to pray.
There was no fanaticism, no hysteria. From a human perspective, nothing extraordinary was happening, and certainly there was no idea that this would begin one of the greatest revival movements in American history. It was just six men quietly, earnestly seeking their God on behalf of their city.
The next Wednesday, 14 people attended the prayer meeting.
Within six months there were anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 men and women out of a population of 800,000 praying at 20 different prayer meetings daily around NYC.
For a period of time, it is estimated that 10,000 people were being converted in NYC each week.
The prayer meeting united people across socio-economic lines at a time when little was uniting Americans. It was a group acknowledging their dependence on God and simply communing with Him.
The format was simple: individuals prayed aloud for unsaved family members or coworkers by name. Hymns were sung; testimonies were given. But prayer was the main focus.
Because NYC was a business hub—as it still is today—merchants and businessmen came from all over the country to do business in the great city and were swept away by the tide of revival they found there.
A visiting merchant from Albany was selecting goods when the noon hour came. He requested that the wholesaler work through the noon hour so he could return to Albany by the evening riverboat, but the response from the wholesaler was: “No! I can’t do that. I have something to attend that is of more importance than the selling of goods. I must attend the noon-day prayer meeting. It will close at 1 o’clock, and I will then fill out your order.” They both attended the meeting, and the visiting merchant was converted. When he returned to Albany, he immediately started a noon-day prayer meeting in that city.
Prayer meetings spread up the East Coast to New Haven, Connecticut; Boston; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; New Jersey; and Washington, D.C. They also spread to the newly developing West—Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Detroit, Minneapolis and Omaha. And as far away as Ireland.
Headlines in newspapers across the country carried the news of revival:
- “Ice on the Mohawk River Broken for Baptisms” (Schenectady, N.Y.)
- “Firemen’s Meeting Attracts 2,000” (Newark, N.J.)
- “Revival Sweeps Yale” (New Haven, Conn.)
The New York Times, in an editorial dated March 20, 1858, stated the following about the revival:
“The great wave of religious excitement which is now sweeping over this nation, is one of the most remarkable movements since the Reformation. … It is most impressive to think that over this great land tens and fifties of thousands of men and women are asking themselves at this time in a simple, serious way, the greatest question that can ever come before the human mind: ‘What shall we do to be saved from sin?’”
Within 18 months of the first prayer meeting in the Old North Dutch Reformed Church, it is estimated that 1 million souls across the United States had come to Christ.
So why is this story relevant to us today? What’s the lesson?
The Lord used one dedicated man who believed his God was capable of more than he could ask or think to usher millions into the kingdom of heaven.
Jeremiah Lanphier was not a man of exceptional talent. He looks very much like the unsung, maybe under-appreciated church workers in every church. But he believed in a big God.
How long would you or I have waited in that empty church? How big do we believe our God to be?