A lone figure stood at the corner of a busy intersection in the heart of New York City. His heart weighed heavy,broken for the purposeless, despondent masses of New York, what could a single lay missionary do? He had been diligent in his efforts of personal evangelism, street preaching, and door-to-door witnessing. His burden for the throngs of people had forced him to his knees. Could he have ever imagined what would soon come about? Within a matter of months, more than fifty thousand people would gather daily for prayer!
Jeremiah Lanphier (b. 1809) was that lone man. He prayed “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” out of his passion for the salvation of the residents of New York City. On September 23, 1857, 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.
Any outpouring of the Spirit has its origin in the heart of God Himself. But, while conceived in the Father’s love for His people, it is birthed in the burden of believers who experience an overwhelming sense of urgency in prayer. As the familiar saying of Matthew Henry goes: When God desires to do a fresh work, He sets His people to praying. A faithful few given to desperate, concerted prayer can provide the spark for a mighty revival. This is seen no more clearly than in the Layman’s Prayer Revival of 1857-59.
The old downtown North Dutch Reformed Church employed Lanphier to influence their area for the gospel. He had been converted in the year 1842 at a tabernacle constructed by Charles Finney. Lanphier was a forty-year-old single businessman filled with enthusiasm. Like most leaders of this revival, Lanphier served as a layman. It is more difficult to identify key preachers as major leaders in the pattern of Wesley, Whitefield, Edwards, Finney, or others previously.
Lanphier began his assignment on July 1, 1857. He put together a folder describing the church and commending his lay missionary work. He gave the folder 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 for guidance led him to a novel approach.
Lanphier had found prayer to be a great source of comfort. He had noticed how the businessmen were “hurrying along their way, often with care worn faces, and anxious, restless gaze.” He presented to the church board the idea of a prayer meeting for businessmen. 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.
The handbill stated the following:
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.
Lanphier’s own description of the birth of the noonday meetings beginning on September 23, 1857:
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. The following Wednesday there were twenty, 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 unsaved persons, 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 sprang up 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 accompanied 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.
Such rules illustrate the fact that while revival is a spontaneous movement marked by a departure of normal services, offering guidance need not hinder the work of the Spirit.
Both religious and secular publications reported on the phenomenon. The New York Herald reported meeting places, denominational affiliation, and the number of those attending. The first day men met at Burton’s Theater, it filled beyond capacity thirty minutes before noon, while hundreds more stood in the streets. Typically the meetings featured hymn singing, Bible reading, and brief exhortations, but the bulk of time was spent in intercession. Prominent among the requests were burdens for lost friends or relatives. In fact, in stark contradiction to the typical prayer meeting in our day, requests were almost exclusively about spiritual needs. Prayers for physical needs seemed insignificant in light of the stark spiritual needs of the day.
Amazing answers to prayer were recorded across the nation. One man spoke of his burden for an unconverted son. This son, who had traveled 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 overall spirit of the meetings was one of deep love for Christ. Many unchurched residents were amazed at the love among believers, the prayer, and the answers to prayer. People came from as far as St. Louis to be a part of the movement of prayer. The meetings were multi-denominational and cut across economic lines. In fact, the first meeting of six men represented no less than four denominations. Thus they were called “union” prayer meetings because of unity despite the differing backgrounds of the participants.
The strong emphasis of the meetings was the conversion of the lost. Lanphier’s personal journal noted times when evangelistic tracts were distributed at the meetings. Churches experienced revival and evangelistic harvests growing out of the prayer meetings: 75 converted in a Brooklyn church revival meeting, 115 professions of faith in a few days at a Catskill church, 3,000 converted in two months in Newark. Other churches had begun morning prayer meetings at about the same time. Churches in New York and Brooklyn commenced praying without knowing what others were doing.
Churches in Philadelphia had begun praying in September of 1857 for revival. Several churches from various denominations exchanged pulpits in the Thanksgiving season to encourage prayer for revival. News of the prayer meetings in New York led to a meeting in Jaynes Hall that recorded meetings of 6,000 men meeting at noon for prayer. Requests for prayer came by the thousands. At one of these meetings, George Duffield wrote the song “Stand up for Jesus.”
Today growing numbers are beginning to stand up on their knees in prayer. Have we finally gotten to the place that we realize we cannot curb the growing tide of evil, or change our communities, in our own might or ingenuity? Perhaps we can join Lanphier in the simple, earnest prayer, “Lord, what would you have us to do?”
NOTE: This article was adapted from the book Firefall by Malcolm McDow and Alvin L. Reid, which will be released in an updated manner in late spring.