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PRAYER AND 19TH CENTURY REVIVAL


Dr. A. T. Pierson once said, "There has never been a spiritual awakening in any country or locality that did not begin in united prayer." Let me recount what God has done through concerted, united, sustained prayer.


[J. Edwin Orr. Personal Notes.] Not many people realize that in spite of the awakening that preceded the American Revolution and its successful outcome 20 years later there came a time of MORAL BANKRUPTCY. Drunkenness (like drug use today) became epidemic. Out of a population of five million, 300,000 were confirmed drunkards of which fifteen thousand died each year. Profanity was of the most shocking kind. For the first time in the history of the American settlement, women were afraid to go out at night for fear of assault. Bank robberies were daily occurrences.


What about the churches? The Methodists were losing more members than they were gaining. The Baptists said that they had their most wintry season. The Presbyterians in general assembly deplored the nation’s ungodliness. In a typical Congregation church, the Rev. Samuel Shepherd of Lennox, Massachusetts in sixteen years had not taken one young person into fellowship. The Lutherans were so languishing that they discussed uniting with Episcopalians who were even worse off. The Protestant Episcopal Bishop of New York, Bishop Samuel Provost, quit functioning: he had confirmed no one for so long that he decided he was out of work, so he took up other employment. The Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall, wrote to the Bishop of Virginia, James Madison, that the Church "was too far gone ever to be redeemed." Voltaire alleged, and Tom Paine echoed, "Christianity will be forgotten in thirty years."


Look at the liberal arts colleges at that time. A poll taken at Harvard had discovered not one believer in the whole of the student body. They took a poll at Princeton, a much more evangelical place: they discovered only two believers in the student body, and only five that did not belong to the filthy speech movement of that day. Students rioted. They held a mock communion at Williams College; and they put on anti-Christian plays at Dartmouth. They burned down the prayer room in Nassau Hall at Princeton [Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978)]. They forced the resignation of the president of Harvard. They took a Bible out of a local Presbyterian church in New Jersey, and burned it in a public bonfire. Christians were so few on campus in the 1790’s that they met in secret, like a communist cell, and kept their minutes in code so that no one would know.


In case this is thought to be the hysteria of the moment, Kenneth Scott Latourette, the great church historian, wrote: "It seemed as if Christianity was about to be ushered out of the affairs of men." The churches had their backs to the wall, seeming as if they were about to be wiped out. How did the situation change? It came through a concert of prayer.


Finally in September 1857, a praying Christian businessman named Jeremiah Lanphier started a prayer meeting in the upper room of the Dutch Reformed Church Consistory Building, in Manhattan. In response to his advertisement, only six people out of the population of a million showed up. But, the following week, there were fourteen, and then twenty-three, when it was decided to meet everyday for prayer. By late winter, they were filling the Dutch Reformed Church, then the Methodist Church on John Street, then Trinity Episcopal Church on Broadway at Wall Street. In February and March of 1858, every church and public hall in downtown New York was filled. Horace Greeley, the famous editor, sent a reporter with horse and buggy racing around the prayer meetings to see how many men were praying: in one hour, he could get to only twelve meetings, but he counted 6100 men attending. Then a landslide of prayer began, which overflowed to the churches in the evenings. People began to be converted, ten thousand a week in New York City alone. The movement spread throughout New England, the church bells bringing people to prayer at eight in the morning, twelve noon, six in the evening. The revival raced up the Hudson and down the Mohawk, where the Baptist, for example, had so many people to baptize that they went down to the river, cut a big hole in the ice, and baptized them in the cold water: when Baptist do that they really are on fire.


When the revival reached Chicago, a young shoe salesman went to the superintendent of the Plymouth Congregational Church, and asked if he might teach Sunday School. The superintendent said, "I am sorry, young fellow. I have sixteen teachers too many, but I will put you on the waiting list."


The young man insisted: "I want to do something just now."


"Well, start a class."


"How do I start a class?"


"Get some boys off the street, but don’t bring them here. Take them out into the country and after a month you will have control of them, so bring them in. They will be your class."


He took them to a beach on Lake Michigan and he taught them Bible verses and Bible games; then he took them to the Plymouth Congregational Church. The name of the young man was Dwight Lyman Moody, and that was the beginning of his ministry that lasted forty years.


For instance, Trinity Episcopal Church in Chicago had 121 members in 1857; in 1860, 1400. That was typical of the churches. More than a million people were converted to God in one year out of a population of thirty million (10 million today). Then that same revival jumped the Atlantic, appeared in Ulster, Scotland and Wales, then England, parts of Europe, South Africa and South India, anywhere there was an evangelical cause. It sent mission pioneers to many countries. Effects were felt for forty years. Having begun in a movement of prayer, it was sustained for a generation by a movement of prayer. [J. Edwin Orr. Personal Notes.]


There may be no greater expression of love than when someone says, "I’m praying for you." Next time someone invites you to pray with them, do it.


(From a sermon by Dennis Davidson, Commitment, Confession, and Challenge, 5/16/2011)

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