“Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?”
This earnest prayer, uttered by Jeremiah Lanphier out of his passion for the salvation of the residents of New York City in 1857, led to what historians call the Layman’s Prayer Revival or the Revival of 1858-59. On September 23 of that year he knelt in prayer alone, shortly after the noon hour.
Lanphier’s intercession ascended from the upper lecture room of the Old North Dutch Reformed Church, his heart broken for the purposeless, despondent masses of New York. A single man, he was wed to his ministry of personal evangelism, street preaching, and door to door witnessing. His burden for the throngs of people forced him to his knees. Could he have ever imagined what would soon come about? That within a matter of months, over 50,000 people would gather daily for prayer in the city he loved?
New York City then as now sat in dire need of spiritual life. The old North Dutch Reformed Church in downtown employed Jeremiah as a lay missionary to influence their area for the gospel. Converted in the year 1842, Lanphier was a forty-year old businessman filled with enthusiasm.
Lanphier began his assignment on July 1, 1857. He put together a folder describing the church which he gave to everyone he met. He passed out Bibles and tracts. While he found some success, he was overwhelmed at the enormity of the task. His prayer, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” led him to a novel approach.
Jeremiah had found prayer to be a great source of comfort. He noticed how the businessmen were “hurrying along their way, often with care worn faces, and anxious, restless gaze.” He presented the idea of a prayer meeting for businessmen to the church board. Their response was less than enthusiastic, but they agreed to allow Lanphier to proceed. Determining that the noon hour was the most feasible time for a prayer meeting, he printed and distributed a handbill publicizing the meeting. He promoted the meeting with great zeal.
HANDBILL LANPHIER GAVE OUT:
HOW OFTEN SHALL I PRAY?
As often as the language of prayer is on my heart; as often as I see my need of help; as often as I feel the power of temptation; as often as I am made sensible of my spiritual declension or feel the aggression of a worldly spirit. In prayer we leave the business of time for that of eternity and intercourse with men for intercourse with God.
A day-prayer meeting is held every Wednesday from 12 to 1 o’clock in the Consistory building in the rear of the North Dutch Church, corner of Fulton and Williams streets. This meeting is intended to give merchants, mechanics, clerks, strangers and businessmen generally an opportunity to stop and call on God amid the perplexities incident to their respective avocations. It will continue for one hour; but it is also designed for those who find it inconvenient to remain more than 5 or 10 minutes, as well as for those who can spare a whole hour. Necessary interruption will be slight, because anticipated. Those in haste often expedite their business engagements by halting to lift their voices to the throne of grace in humble, grateful prayer.
Pretty simple, right? But God has a way of honoring the simplicity of His children when coupled with faith. Lanphier’s own description of the birth of the noonday meetings beginning on September 23, 1857 is moving:
Going my rounds in the performance of my duty one day, as I was walking along the streets, the idea was suggested to my mind that an hour of prayer, from twelve to one o’clock, would be beneficial to businessmen, who usually in great numbers take that hour for rest and refreshment. The idea was to have singing, prayer, exhortation, relation of religious experience, as the case might be; that none should be required to stay the whole hour; that all should come and go as their engagements should allow or require, or their inclinations dictate. Arrangements were made, and at twelve o’clock noon, on the 23rd day of September, 1857, the door of the third story lecture-room was thrown open.
At first, Lanphier prayed alone. Then, one joined him, and by the end of the hour there were six. Prayer meetings had been held before, but this was different. Former meetings tended toward formalism and routine. These were free and spontaneous.
The following Wednesday there were twenty in attendance, and on the third thirty to forty. Those present determined to meet daily rather than weekly. On October 14 over one hundred came. At this point many in attendance were not Christ followers, many of whom were under great conviction of sin. By the end of the second month three large rooms were filled. Almost simultaneously prayer meetings began across the city. Many churches sponsored such meetings without knowledge of other activity similar to their own. Within six months fifty thousand were meeting daily in New York, while thousands more prayed in other cities. On March 17, 1858, Burton’s Theater near the North Dutch Church opened for noon prayer. The theater was filled by 11:30 A.M. Henry Ward Beecher spoke to three thousand gathered there on the third day. Evening preaching services soon companioned the daily prayer meetings. Lanphier and the church set up seven rules for the meetings: 1) Open with a brief hymn; 2) Opening prayer; 3) Read a passage of Scripture; 4) A time for requests, exhortations, and prayers; 5) Prayer would follow each request or at most two requests, while individuals were limited to five minutes of prayer/comments; 6) no controversial subjects were to be mentioned; 7) At five minutes before 1:00 a hymn was sung so the meeting could end at 1:00 promptly.
Amazing answers to prayer were recorded across the nation. One man spoke of his burden for an unconverted son. This son, who had travelled across the world, was converted soon after the request was made at Fulton Street. One young man came to the meeting seeking salvation. He was converted after hearing a request by a mother for her son. “It struck me that that was from my mother,” the youth reported. “After meeting I got sight of that request. And sure enough, it was from my mother, in her own handwriting.”
The prayer movement spread nationally. One of the most moving accounts out of the Prayer Revival came in the town of Kalamazoo, Michigan. At a prayer meeting there a man in attendance related the following account:
At our very first meeting someone put in such a request as this: “A praying wife requests the prayers of this meeting for her unconverted husband, that he may be converted and made a humble disciple of the Lord Jesus.” All at once a stout burly man arose and said, “I am that man, I have a pious praying wife, and this request must be for me. I want you to pray for me.” As soon as he sat down, in the midst of sobs and tears, another man arose and said, “I am that man, I have a praying wife. She prays for me. And now she asked you to pray for me. I am sure I am that man, and I want you to pray for me.”
Five other men made similar statements. The power of God fell upon that meeting. In a brief period almost five hundred conversions came to the town.
The Prayer Revival made perhaps its most notable impact on an individual in Chicago. As early as January 1857 revival fires burned in parts of the Windy City. The YMCA held prayer meetings like those in New York. A 20 year-old named Dwight Lyman Moody attended the meetings. During the Prayer Revival Moody’s heart was stirred. Biographer John Pollock said: “The revival of early 1857 tossed Moody out of his complacent view of religion as primarily an aid to fortune.” He wrote to his mother about his attendance at the prayer meetings: “I go every night to meeting — Oh, how I do enjoy it! It seems as if God were here Himself.”
For what do you pray today that would take God Himself to answer? What do you seek Him for in the name of the gospel? I have been praying much in recent days about these things, and it has led to a total rearrangement of my schedule and a refocusing of ministry. And God is beginning to honor this with lives being changed by the beautiful gospel. I want to spend my life trusting Him, not seeking comfort.
Let us pray for a movement today, shall we?
NOTE: the above is excerpted from my book co-authored with Malcolm McDow entitled Firefall.