The rise of Lay Leadership: America, 1857 Prayer Meeting Revival

The second great awakening finished in around 1825 or as late as 1832 according to other sources. That revival saw a general shift in the emphasis and definition of revival. Up to the time of the second great awakening, American proponents of revival were strict calvinists. This had specific effect on their view of revival and the method or measures of revival.

Revival for them was the outpouring of God's grace, an increased measure of the Holy Spirit at work in their ministries. Just as salvation was something that they could in no way cause, so too revival was an unmerited act of God that they could in no way produce.They could preach, pray, exhort but it was the moving of the Spirit as the instrument of God's grace that penetrated the indifference of the sinner. The sinner could then approach God but God was the one that brought salvation. The very decision of the sinner to approach God and seek salvation was the grace of God in Choosing the sinner. Thus the famous doctrine of the calvinists - double predestination. Some were predestined to damnation and some to salvation. God by his grace offered the ability to choose to some and not to others.

What did this mean then -

1) the role of the preacher was to facilitate this moving of God

2) the preacher could in no way cause revival to happen.

The heart of the new measures controversy was that the new methods were designed around the belief that if the correct things were done, then revival would follow. Secondly the key to salvation was not so much what God does but getting the sinner to go through a process - coming out to the anxious seat/room etc. Pretty much in the similar shallow way in which we sometimes lead people through the sinners prayer.

Generally reading this stuff it is important to realise that there was a lot of polemic on both sides and sad to say the new measures group largely won the polemic war. Reading revival history, we tend to get the new measures viewpoint.

Pratney quotes the figure of 1000 000 converts in the second great awakening. The total number of converts has been variously quoted as anything from 300 000 to 1000 000. The total population of the US in 1861 was just under 30,000,000. This is another demonstration of the difficulty of the new measures controversy. On the one hand the extreme new measures preachers used whatever methods needed to get people to the front and then recorded them as converts. On the other hand the old school tended to completely avoid quoting any figures not only because of their theological uncertainty about any person's individual salvation but because they wished to distance themselves from those making the wild claims about numbers saved.

Another problem about this period is that because of the distortion of the new method's theology by some viewpoints revival never ceased from the beginning of the second great awakening in 1798 or 1800 to the beginning of the revival of 1857. How do you distinguish the work of God from the emotionalist, distorted, figure bound ministries of some of the new measures men

It seems clear though that there were real problems and certainly no revival after around 1830.The whole revival issue was pretty battered at this stage. The established clergy divided between the two factions but generally acceptance of the new measures was so great that rumours of the failure of the old guard in their own endeavers were spread.

It was said of Nettleton that he ceased to have any success in his ministry after he opposed Finney. This was generally believed by one faction and laughed at by the other. For the historian another big obstacle is the fact that there was no good history of the revival for a long time afterwards. J. Edwin Orr comments that "in 125 years no definitive history of the 1857-58 awakening has been written' (Murray p 332)

We look back on the events across a great distance of time, to distorted view points, distorted events and distorted figures. A full generation after the second great awakening we find the prayer meeting revival. Finney himself a leader of the new measures in the second great awakening, had barely begun his ministry when the revival was already fading. Asahel Nettleton had died in 1844 - he along with most of the most experienced of the ministers in revival were gone.

Even in the pews, most people equated revival with the antics of the new measures. Almost no memory of the more wholesome version was left. Those still preaching revival of the kind that Nettleton had were very quiet and avoided being contentious in anyway. The field belonged to the new faction

The twenty years before 1857 saw general boom times for the US. People became millionaires through speculation and other doubtful practises. There was a lot of money available to high flyers. It was a time of rapid expansion in the railroad industry - the time of the robber railroad barons.

Gold was discovered in 1848 in California starting the gold rushes that hit Australia in the 1850's which incidentally allowed the Victorian government to continue to offer startup help to the church until the 1870s - the longest of any state.

J. Edwin Orr lists five general social conditions in the ten years before the revival:

(cf pratney p141)

1) Gain, Gambling and greed: It was a time of speculation on the stock exchange. Fortunes could be made simply by manipulating the stock market. Those with money could grow the money easily. There were also great opportunities in the expanding industry of the time. Of course the cost was to the poor that in a very real sense generated the wealth of the few off their efforts. There was also a corresponding increase in violent crime. The big solution to the social problems experienced by the poor was moving to the gold fields and making it rich, however the ones who did make it rich were the store owners.


2) Occult domination. The spiritual hunger and rationalism produced a fast acceptance of spiritism.


3) Immorality. A sixties style attitude of free love was accepted by many.


4) Commercial and political corruption. Business was carried out in a corrupt manner. The dollar was everything. Anything was used to turn a profit - bribes, graft, illegal work practises, broken laws. A basis of the economy was still slavery


5) A growing rationalism including atheism and agnosticism. Man would find and provide his own answers. Man was self sufficient.

It must also be noted that immigration to the land of opportunity was going on apace. As many as 1800 immigrants arrived in New York in one day. The city was rapidly growing reaching around 800, 000 by 1858. The immigrants were in no way conducive to a continued spiritual heritage. James Waddel Alexander wrote in one sermon:

The living cargos which are poured in on us day by day. from Ireland and the European continent... are increasingly making their influence felt on our manners, our morals and our religion... We are in the midst of a gradual and silent but tremendous revolutionary movement.' (Murray p 339)

The only solution offered was that of revival:

Who can tell how far the revolutionary atheism of France might have become the established religion of America, if it had not pleased God to make our country the theatre of mighty and extensive revivals? Perhaps I address some who love to recall these awakenings as the scenes in which they were made to know Christ. Such will join in testifying that the progress of convincing and converting grace did not wait for tedious preparative of philosophic reply and formal argument, but went forth to consume at once and forever the difficulties of the sceptic and the cavils of the deist, as the flame of a conflagration reduces combustible obstacles in its rapid and blazing career. All other means together will not do so much to rid our land of antichristian scoffing, as would one general communication of power from on high. (Murray p340)

In the years prior to 1858, Alexander records a steady increase in the interest in God of his congregation. He felt his way cautiously because of the mixed picture of revival in the minds of most of his congregation. In 1856 he opened his home to those "willing to be guided about seeking salvation "and shared with over 40" (Murray p 341)

The mid week lectures that he was running were proving more and more popular. Later in the year he wrote to Hall:

"had he been prepared to 'press measures' he had no doubt they would work: 'you or I could get up a stir in one week which would fill a column of tabulated statistics'" (Murray p 341)

Of course this was not the aim. The problem was to avoid the attitudes of the new measures men and see a real work of God:

I am dreading, beyond expression, the rise of a fanatical breeze among my church members, and shall humbly endeaver to suppress rather than arouse human passions... The way I am taking would be deemed a quenching of the Spirit by sundry of my brethren. But I distrust everything in revivalism which is not common to it with the stated, continued, persistent presentation of the gospel... New measure people undertake to use instruments, and often kill the child. In spiritual as in natural travail, I suppose there must be waiting. (Murray p 341)

It is important to realise the heritage or context of this revival. Because of the new measures controversy of the thirties, much of the orthodox church was very hesitant to step out. This has no doubt much to do with the flavour of revival that God brought in 1858. The revival was based around two things that were very different from all concept of revival on both sides of the fence.

Firstly the revival was based largely around lay leadership. The ordained ministry was in many cases supportive. A key source of support for example were the many tracts written by Alexander which became the life blood of the teaching in the revival. However the center of the revival was not the churches under the control of the ordained ministry, rather the prayer meetings under the control of the laity.

Secondly, if revival is to be equated with people being saved, the place where people were being saved was in the prayer meetings and not any other meetings. Prayer meetings had been used in revival before this however, previously they were a supportive structure and not the center.

October 1857 marked the judgement of God on New York. Rising inflation and in Murrays words 'money mania' of recent years had been followed by a general financial collapse. Ten thousand workers in the city stood idle. October 14 marked 'a crisis of panic that prostrated the whole monetary system of the country, virtually in one hour. 'Like a yawning earthquake' according to Heman Humphrey 'it shook down the palaces of the rich, no less than the humble dwelling of the poor, and swallowed up their substance. Men went to bed dreaming all night of their vast hoarded treasures, and woke up in the morning hopeless bankrupts' (Murray p342)

While the collapse occured in October, Jeremiah Lanphier began his prayer meeting on the 23rd of September. It should be noted that while the collapse was yet to happen, God had slowly been moving by his spirit preparing for revival. The prayer meetings were a response to this a general increase in awareness of God. The judgement itself, the collapse of the money system, added impetus to that process as people became aware of more than their immediate goals of making money

So Jeremiah Lanphier began the prayer meeting in the Consistory building of the North Reformed Protestant Dutch Church. In the first week after waiting well after the given hour, six men attended. The next week twenty attended, and the following forty. During October the meeting moved from weekly to daily. By the new year the meeting was forced to use two rooms simultaneously to hold the number of people coming. By February a third room was needed and other meetings were springing up all over the city.

The rapid progress of events were so marked that the Daily Tribune of 10/2/1858 commented: 'soon the striking of the five bells at 12 O'clock will generally be known as the Hour of Prayer. By mid March Burton's theatre, seating 3000 was pressed into service for a prayer meeting. By April scores of buildings - printer's shops, fire stations, and police stations were in use for prayer meetings.The movement had got so large that a weekly bulletin was used to give information on locations of the meetings.

Meanwhile in Hamilton, Ontario in November they also began to experience the first fruits of revival. (Evans p29) On the 1st of December a three day convention was called by the Presbyterians to consider 'the necessity for a general revival of religion in all the churches represented and others as well'. The general call was to repentance, sanctification and consecration.(Evans p30)

As I have said the prayer meetings themselves were the place in which people were finding God. Alexander wrote:

"From the mingled motives in which religious concern has its beginnings', numbers of worldly visitors entered the doors. Conversion after conversion was reported. Men who had felt the emptiness of earthly things, and smarted under losses, came hither for consolation' (Murray 343)

On march 1st he wrote:

The tidings of revival on every side certainly tend to set people a thinking about their souls; which is a point gained. I feel it overshadowing my own mind, and opening ways of address to the careless

and on April 2

Though I have aimed to keep down and regulate the excitement among us, and have no additional service but an exhortation on Monday to such as seek instruction on points connected with conversion, I percieve such a degree of inquiry as has never met me in my ministry. The number of declared inquirers is not more than twenty five, and most of these have dates a good way back; but the feelings of communicants and the indescribable tone of assemblies, are new to me. From the start I have held myself ready to adapt measures to emerging demands; I however feel glad I have pursued the repressive method; which by the way has lost me sundry good opinions even among my own flock. Study I cannot, being run down by persons many of whom I have never met, in search of counsel. The uptown prayer meetings are very sober and edifying. I am told the general tendency in all is to increased decorum. The openness of thousands to doctrine, reproof etc, is undeniable. Our lecture is crowded undendurably - many going away. The publisher of Spurgeon's sermons says he has sold a hundred thousand. All booksellers agree, that while general trade is down, they never sold so many religious books. You may rest assured there is a great awakening among us, of which not one word gets into the papers; and there are meetings of great size, as free from irreverence as any you ever saw. I have never seen sacramental occasions more tender and still than some meetings held daily in our part of the town. The best token I have seen of revival was our meeting of Presbytery. I never was at such a one. Brethren seemed flowing together in love and reported a great increase of attention in all their churches - and this within a few days. The inquirying condition among ourselves is strange, and all but universal; God grant it may be continued or exchanged for true grace in them all. (Murray 344)

Several things about the revival are highlighted in that quote:

1) Alexander comments on his response as an ordained minister - he used the repressive method. He in no way encouraged the revival as such in his ministry. He avoided measures ie the anxious seat/room and altar calls etc. This kind of response fairly left the field open for the lay people. Although the lay people themselves acted with great restraint and in no way encouraged, or emotionalised the working of God.

2) The happenings of the revival were in a way completely unexpected and surprising. This man had preached and prayed for revival for years, however there was a sense of awe and unreality about it all in the massive way that God was working.

3) There was a general increase in the spiritual atmosphere. All of a sudden there was this increase in attention in all the churches. All of a sudden Alexander was being baled up by strangers wanting answers.This is also demonstrated in the high volumes of religious books being sold. The people didn't have any money because the collapse of the economy yet they could still purchase religious books. There is also a change not only in the results of Alexander's general ministry but the church itself was living together in greater love

The lack of attention by the media was short lived. By Spring of 1858 both the religious and the secular press were covering the revival. Figures of 50,000 conversions in New York and 200,000 across the north east of America were being reported. In 1858, New York had a population of 800,000. At time of writing Canberra has a population of just over 300,000. Equivalent figures would add 19,000 converts to the churches.

There was also much discussion on how the revival had started. Lanphier is considered the beginner of the revival. His prayer meeting was now famous, however Alexander preferred a different approach to describing God's work. He spoke of remarkable increase and 'the statistics of conversion are sometimes unsafe; where there is so much room for mistake and exageration , it may be wisest to venture no figures' (Murray p344)

In the same way instead of seeing the consistory room as the birthplace of the revival, he comments that when Lanphier 'and a few like-minded servants of God' first met:

Revival had already begun. God had already poured out the Spirit of grace and of supplications. We doubt not there was a simultaneous effusion, on other groups and in other places. Prayers long treasured up were beginning to receive copious answer; prayers, of which we have thought, may have been offered by those venerable ministers of Holland, whose portraitures still adorn the walls of the Consistory-room. It has been questioned who first conceived the project of these meetings. The problem is unprofitable; human plans looked forward to no such results; let God have the glory! (Murray p345)

Another leading minister of the time commented in the same manner. Gardiner Spring said:

This is the thought which has an effect upon this meeting and has an effect upon the church of God... We want nothing but to behold the glory of God and to see him exalted by all, and everywhere, to be happy...Look back during the past year. Who has wrought what has been done? One of my brethren inquired, 'Where has been the motive power?' His object was wise and good in making the inquiry. But I must not inquire of laymen, nor of ministers. There was a motive power above; and we shall be lifeless as mere corpses, inanimate dead remains lying dead in the grave, until the spirit of God moves. I look back over the past year, around these congregations, and there is no question so appropriately presents itself to my thoughts. Oh look at it! We love to look at the works of man, and they are interesting when they exhibit human ingenuity, invention and perseverence. But this is the work of God - oh, this wondrous work of God, for which all other works were made. (Murray p345)

This from a sermon at an aniversary meeting of the beginning of the revival. However just one short year after beginning, the revival was already fading.

Short though it was, this revival had major consequences for both society and the church, not least was the flow on to the revivals in Great Britain. The happenings in America were closely watched. The American events in turn increased the eagerness to have a revival in Britain. God in his grace poured out his spirit in Great Britain the following year.

Pratney comments that the results flowered in an increased social conscience, care for the poor and flowing on to ministries that retain today an emphasis in this area - Salvation Army, Bristol homes, Barnardos etc.

This was the time of Lord Shaftesbury the famous social reformer. It should be noted however that the very work of these and others demonstrates the failure of the revival to completely change society. If society had been truly changed then who was Shaftesbury ranting at in parliament week by week?

However at the same time, the fruits of the revival performed their own levening effect in their society. One of the big changes was the change in emphasis from ordained ministry to that of lay ministry. Just as in the sixties where the person saved yesterday from witch craft was asked to speak rather than the person who had been a christian since a toddler, now the lay minister was given precedence over the ordained.

Moody when discussing whether to become ordained with an ordained friend got the answer: 'Don't. If you are ordained you will become one of us. Now you are preaching as a layman and that gives you an advantage' (Murray p360)

This concept of lay ministry apart from an office in the church had appeared in the previous century, however this was well balanced by a strong understanding of the role of the ordained ministry. One of the reasons for ordination was to ensure adequate preparation for ministry and the correct gifting.

With the rapid expansion of revival under largely lay leadership, the role of the laity was elevated out of all proportion. Anyone and their dog could undertake the role of preacher evangelist whether prepared or not - acountability was lost.

Over against this, ordination had failed to protect the church against the ravages of the new measures men. Jeremiah Lanphier was acting as the official missioner of the North Reformed Protestant Dutch Church even as he was organising the first prayer meeting. His role or position in the church was official even while he was a layman. It must also be understood that the very real role of lay ministry was largely misunderstood by the churches of the time.

Chambers still has a point though:

Fervent exhortation and conversational appeals are of inestimable value in supplementing and carrying out the instruction of the pulpit but they cannot take its place... The usefulness of the union prayer meeting presupposes previous indoctrination of men by the ministry. Take away that groundwork for its excercises, and although feeling may be excited even to a violent pitch, it will be the rapid blaze of stubble leaving the field 'burnt over' and hopeless, whereas the excitement which is based upon truth, will last as long as the material upon which it rests. (Murray p361)

-Murray notes that both Spurgeon and Alexander shared a similar view. The expressed viewpoint demonstrates the state of siege that the old school ministers felt themselves under. Over the next fifteen years the drift continued away from doctrine, away from the traditional calvinist positions to a new school position based on experience and free will.

When the old school and new school churches reunited in 1871, John Hall commented that 'Old Calvinism was the form of doctrine most effective in producing revivals and saving men'. (Murray p362) The accepted view, though, included a calvinism that was almost armenian in matters of election and free will and leaned well toward the new measures. The prayer meeting revival can be interpreted, as indeed Murray does, as the last gasp of true Calvinism in the face of rising Revivalism. Carried on not by the ordained ministry but by the laypeople that they trained.

Discussion Questions:

1) What is the true role of ordained and lay ministry?

2) Do these distinctions have any reality in your church?

3) What is the most surprising thing about the prayer meeting revival?

4) The revival came from an unexpected place, what are our blind spots?

5) What were the challenges to both the ordained ministers and the lay leaders of the revival?



This essay was developed as a lecture and so the references are not as good as they should be. As far as I am aware the material was based on the following books:

"Revival: Principles to change the world" by Winkie Pratney (Whitaker House1983)

"Revival and Revivalism" by Iain H. Murray (The Banner of Truth Trust 1994)

"Revival comes to Wales" by Eifion Evans (Evangelical Press of Wales))