The date is September 23, 1857. The place is an assembly room on the third floor of the North Dutch Church in Manhattan. Fifteen minutes before noon, a few ladies are seated in one corner. A few men are scattered here and there, talking. At 11:50 businessmen begin to pour quietly into the room. At 11:55 the appointed layleader for the day comes in and takes his seat at a desk. By 11:58 the room is packed to capacity. Many are standing in the hall, unable to get in.
At 12:00 noon the chairman promptly rises and gives out a beautiful hymn. One stanza is sung. Then he leads in a very short prayer asking for the Holy Spirit, for the quickening of Christians, for the conversion of sinners there present, and for the spread of the revival. Then he reads from the seventeenth chapter of John and gives a word of comment while he stands with slips of paper in his hand. He reads four or five of these requests, then calls on someone immediately to pray. The prayer lasts four minutes and fervently addresses the specific requests.
A gentleman in the back rises and begs the prayers of all present for himself and for his sister. Prayer immediately follows. Then all sing one verse of another great hymn. A gentleman in black rises and speaks briefly of the importance of praying “for all that are in authority.” He solicits intercession specifically for President Buchanan, who had attended similar daily prayer meetings at Bedford Springs. The layleader calls upon another man to pray for the President – for his salvation if not a believer, for wisdom from above to guide and assist him in his great responsibilities. There is a remarkable propriety and sincerity in the prayer that touches a chord in every heart.
The above is an eyewitness account of a typical service in the early days of the last great nationwide awakening in America. It has been variously referred to as the “Great Prayer Revival of 1857-58,” the “Fulton Street Revival,” the “Great Manhattan Prayer Revival,” and the “Laymen’s Prayer Revival.” The spark for the noonday prayer meetings that spread like wildfire from Fulton Street across the country came from a city missionary named Jeremiah Lanphier. For some eight or nine years Lanphier had sat under the ministry of James W. Alexander, the eldest son of Princeton Seminary’s first professor, and the pastor of the Nineteenth Street Presbyterian Church. Alexander was a Spirit-filled preacher who faithfully sought to lay the burden of prayer for revival before his people.
The need for another awakening was great. By 1845, the “aftershocks” of the Second Great Awakening had subsided. A low, lax state of religious feeling prevailed. Outward religion was still practiced, but the earlier power and vitality was gone. New immigrants were pouring into New York City at the rate of 1800 per day. Many of them were bringing with them the revolutionary atheism of Europe and were ignorant of America’s spiritual history. The famous evangelist, Charles Finney, was still alive, but the sensation he had created in the 1820s and 1830s was a distant memory.
The nation was in the throes of the Panic of 1857. By mid-year banks and businesses failed in a rapid “domino effect.” Five thousand businesses closed their doors within a year. Railroads went bankrupt. Ten thousand factory workers in New York City alone were suddenly idled. On October 14, the whole monetary system of the country was virtually shut down. Men went to bed dreaming of their vast hoarded treasures and woke up in the morning hopelessly bankrupt. Former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant had to pawn his gold watch to buy Christmas presents for his family. Bank presidents and prominent businessmen committed suicide. However, God used this emptiness in men smarting under their losses to cause them to seek consolation in the prayer meetings. There was a growing consensus among Christians that the present financial calamity was evidence that God “had a controversy with His people” and was trying to get their attention. Many responded with a call to fasting, humiliation, and prayer for God’s mercy.
Within six months ten thousand people were gathering daily for prayer in New York City alone. This impetus for prayer exploded. Theaters, Masonic temples, concert halls, fire stations, and newly formed YMCA halls were packed with supplicants in Philadelphia, Chicago, Louisville, Boston, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Memphis, Charleston, New Orleans, and many other cities. By June, 1858, there were an estimated fifty thousand conversions in New York City. Lanphier’s pastor, J.W. Alexander, could not find time to study because he was “run down” by persons whom he had never met under solemn concern for their souls. Hundreds of unsaved people came to the prayer meetings, where they were welcomed, prayed for, and encouraged to turn to Christ. Some notorious hardened criminals were thus converted.
All the classic characteristics of a true, Heaven-sent awakening were present – hunger for the Word of God, for prayer and serious Christian literature (there was a great surge in demand for the young Spurgeon’s printed sermons), an awed awareness of the presence of God, a profound seriousness, joyful praise and readiness to witness, a rekindling of family worship, and the wholesale reformation of public morals. Businessmen began to pay off honest debts, and houses of ill repute and taverns by the hundreds closed down. The revival transcended denominational lines and soon spilled over across the Atlantic as ships coming into British ports told of the revival.
The Prayer Revival of 1857-58 became the first to start in America and have a worldwide impact. Ireland soon began to experience a prayer revival as well, and the Ulster Awakening of 1859 was sparked. When Andrew Bonar heard of the work in Ireland, he increased his prayer for his beloved Scotland. Within two months he found himself in the midst of revival in Scotland and wrote in his diary: “This has been a remarkable week: every day I have heard of some soul saved among us…”
There was no class of people or region of the country left untouched. The battleship North Carolina was anchored in New York harbor as a naval receiving ship with more than one thousand sailors on board. Four Christians agreed to meet together for prayer and knelt on the lower deck. Ungodly men on the top deck saw them kneeling and began running down the stairs, mocking and jeering. The convicting power of the Holy Spirit was so great, however, that by the time they reached the bottom deck, they fell on their knees and began crying for mercy. Night after night the sailors prayed, and hundreds were converted on the ship.
In Charleston, the predominantly black Zion Church, pastored by John L. Girardeau, began holding special prayer meetings in 1858. Soon the crowds exceeded the regular congregation estimated at between fifteen hundred and two thousand. For a time Girardeau refused to comply with the request to commence special preaching services, urging his people to rather “wait for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.” At length he received the distinct conviction that their prayers were answered, and for eight weeks he preached to dense and deeply moved congregations. Girardeau later wrote, “The work grew steadily until it was arrested by the war.” He always believed that this great ingathering of souls was the merciful work of God prior to the outbreak of the terrible War Between the States that would “sweep so many of them into eternity.”
Conservative estimates place the number of conversions during the great Prayer Revival at nearly one million. This represents ten percent of the population of the United States at the time. Another million were added to the churches. The revival continued after war broke out and was encouraged by Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in the Confederate Armies. They pled for chaplains and lay missionaries to go out among the troops. An estimated 150,000 soldiers were converted – 21% of the southern troops.
The unique feature of this revival was that it arose “amid the ordinary means of grace.” There was an utter distrust of mere human agencies and a helpless dependence upon a sovereign God. This union of Christian laymen in prayer seemed to have a disarming effect on all opposition. Bishop McIlvaine, Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, in his annual address before the Diocesan Convention of Ohio, said in 1858, “I rejoice in the decided conviction that it [the revival] is the Lord’s doing, unaccountable by any natural causes, entirely above and beyond what any human device or power could produce; an outpouring of the Spirit of God upon God’s people, quickening them to greater earnestness in His service; and upon the unconverted, to make them new creatures in Christ Jesus.”

By Pastor Bob Vrandenburgh