Not many people realize that despite the awakening that preceded the American Revolution and its successful outcome, twenty years later, in the early 1800s, there came a time of moral bankruptcy. Drunkenness (like drug use today) became an 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 church throughout America? The Methodists were losing more members than they were gaining. The Baptists said that they had their coldest season. The Presbyterians in general assembly deplored the nation's ungodliness. In a typical Congregation church, the Rev. Samuel Shepherd of Lennox, Massachusetts, had not taken one young person into fellowship in sixteen years. 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 due to confirming 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 discovered not one believer in the whole of the student body. They took a survey at Princeton, a much more evangelical place: they found 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 put on anti-Christian plays at Dartmouth. They burned down the prayer room in Nassau Hall at Princeton. They forced the resignation of the president of Harvard, 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 1790s that they met in secret, like a communist cell, and they 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 that began 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, New York City. In response to his advertisement, only six people out of the population of a million showed up. However, the following week, there were fourteen and then twenty-three, at which point they decided to meet every day for prayer. They were filling the Dutch Reformed Church, then the Methodist Church on John Street, then Trinity Episcopal Church on Broadway at Wall Street by late winter. 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 round 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, e.g., 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 Baptists, 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 Baptists do that, they 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 taught them Bible verses and Bible games; then, he took them to the Plymouth Congregational Church. The young man's name was Dwight Lyman Moody, which was the beginning of his ministry that lasted forty years. For instance, Trinity Episcopal Church in Chicago had 121 members in 1857, whereas in 1860, it was 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.
Then, that same revival jumped the Atlantic, appearing in Ulster, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, then England, parts of Europe, South Africa, and South India—anywhere there was an evangelical cause, sending mission pioneers to many countries. The effects were felt for forty years for beginning in a prayer movement; it was sustained for a generation by a movement of prayer. [J. Edwin Orr. Personal Notes.]
These writings on revival are from a series on the Holy Spirit’s working through His people. It is found on the All Studies page. Scroll down until you come to On Fire with the Holy Spirit. Click on Holy Spirit Revival.
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