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Fulton Street Revival Sesquicentennial

Celebrating an Awakening Born of Prayer

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The United States of America in the mid-1800s catapulted along a collision course with catastrophe. A nation flush with the prosperity of the Gold Rush era amassed fortunes, spent lavishly, and built railroads and businesses with reckless abandon. Jaded by the prosperity, society in general lost interest in God and religion. Politically, slavery was emerging as a hot issue, breeding growing unrest. Civil war seemed imminent, and soon the nation teetered on political, financial, and spiritual collapse. Onto this stage of events walked a lone figure most would have considered unlikely to be remembered 150 years later—a tall, unassuming, middle-aged tradesman named Jeremiah Lanphier. Yet the humble, godly obedience of this man led to one of the greatest spiritual turning points in our nation’s history.

Lanphier was a member of the declining Old Dutch Reformed Church in lower Manhattan, New York City. Due to economic hardships, many families had moved out of the neighborhood, leaving behind a population of poor immigrants and laborers. In hopes of keeping a witness in that part of the city, Lanphier was appointed by church trustees to do door-to-door visitation. But after three months of knocking on doors, not much had changed. Prospects for the church looked bleak.

Things looked bleak for the nation as well; and with such matters weighing heavy on his heart, not knowing what else to do, on September 23, 1857, Lanphier climbed the stairs to a room in a the rear of the Fulton Street church to begin a prayer meeting. It was to start at 12:00 noon as announced in handfuls of flyers he had passed out earlier in the neighborhood. At 12:30 he was still the only one there; then he heard footsteps coming up the stairs. Eventually, six men came, and, after a few minutes of prayer, the meeting was dismissed—not a particularly dramatic start.

Prayer meetings the next two Wednesdays, however, sizably increased to 20 then 40 men, necessitating a larger room. Then in early October the unthinkable happened as the nation was rocked by a stock market crash. Banks closed, factories shut down, and multiplied thousands of people suddenly were unemployed. The nation was now ripe for ruin—or revival.

People flocked to the prayer meetings. Within three months attendance at prayer meetings grew to 50,000 in New York City alone. Through the new technology of telegraph, word quickly spread to other cities and soon thousands were meeting for prayer in Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis and in many other cities from coast to coast. Newspapers everywhere carried stories of the prayer meetings. Thus began the Third Great Awakening, and the first awakening that would spread from America to many nations of the world, launching a fervent missionary outreach.

Dubbed “The Layman’s Revival” by some, this prayer revival was uniquely lay driven; and as a rule, people were more interested in praying than in preaching. And pray they did. So intense and widespread was this prayer revival that churches everywhere were packed, many businesses shut down for noon prayer each day, state legislators sought God, and numerous prayer meetings went around the clock. Tens of thousands of people came to Christ as a result of these meetings. Crime was greatly reduced in many communities. Marriages and families were restored. The level of morality in many communities was raised to much higher levels than before.

Denominational and organizational lines were blurred by the passion for prayer. Title and position were insignificant. Prayer united people of all faiths, backgrounds, and walks of life. Common concerns of seeing family and friends won to Christ, of receiving healing, and of taking the gospel to other lands, were preeminent.

The United States once again faces desperate times. Issues of blatant immorality, challenges to biblical faith and practice, political and economic upheaval, all point to the need for a powerful move of God in this day. Can a prayer movement on the magnitude of the Fulton Street Revival happen again? God’s Word still declares, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). May we pray fervently to this end.