It Couldn’t Happen Here – But It Did
A Surprising Account – Revival in New York City
It was a changing, turbulent, growing city of 800,000 – its rapidly shifting population included thousands of new immigrants, many of them able to obtain only the most menial employment. Violent crime, often of an especially brutal sort, was a regular feature of the newspapers’ front pages. A sudden, severe recession threatened to cripple the city’s economy.
The city was beset with multiple problems, and its people knew it. As a newspaper commentator editorialized in the Herald of December 20, 1857, the city bore “three curses at once – drunkenness, infidelity and spurious Christianity. Alas for the hopeless, squalid misery of New York!”
The steady rise in crime had encouraged the wealthier families in the once residential downtown area – now the financial district – to move uptown, to be replaced by a new wave of immigrants. Columbia University also moved, from its Park Place home to 49th Street, 50th Street being about the limit of civilization then. Lower Manhattan became a neighborhood so violent that even firemen were divided into warring factions, whose continuing battles resulted in dozens of deaths.
New York City was not alone in its troubles. Kansas had begun to bleed with the slave vs. free state issue, the new Mormon sect was battling the U.S. Cavalry in what is now Utah, and the nation moved closer by degrees to the unthinkable: a violent and protracted civil war.
When the Banks Fell
Several businessmen had just leased Burton’s old theater on Chambers Street, and on Saturday the house was packed in every corner from the pit to the roof – for a prayer meeting.
The first seven years of the 1850’s brought booming prosperity to the American economy, but in 1857, the boom collapsed in a nationwide financial crisis. Banks failed on every hand, and business slumped badly.
Just before the crisis, an inner-city missionary, Jeremiah Lanphier, proposed an hour of prayer from noon to one, intending to reach the businessmen. On September 23rd, at 12:30 PM, he and six others began the meetings in an upper room of his church, on the corner of Fulton and William Streets. The next week, twenty came, drawn by signs and placards which read: “This meeting is intended to give merchants, mechanics, clerks, strangers and businessmen generally an opportunity to stop and call upon God amid the daily perplexities incident to their respective avocations.”
Forty attended the third meeting, and thereafter the Fulton Street prayer meeting met on a daily basis. The emptiness of relying on commercial success for satisfaction was underscored as the Great Panic of 1857 spread, leaving banks prostrated, farmers unable to make ends meet, and nearly forty thousand New York workingmen fresh out of work as winter approached.
The day following the run on the banks, a hundred people came to the noon gathering, “…many of them,” Lanphier recorded in his diary, “not professors of religion, but under conviction of sin and seeking an interest in Christ.”
Tribune Reports Revival
On March 1, 1858, in an extensive account of the by-then widespread revival, the New York Tribune said of the Fulton Street prayer meeting,
“…a mid-day prayer meeting, held in the center of the business circles of the city, and sustained by the most prominent businessmen, is a novelty…In fact, if the idea of such a meeting had been proposed six months ago,…attended to such an extent as to require three rooms for divided and overflowing audience, it would have been regarded as hardly less than preposterous.”
As the economic crisis hit its worst, a unique era of Christian awakening began, touching in the several years following literally hundreds of thousands in the United States and Europe.
In New York City, within a few weeks some 150 groups began to meet daily for prayer, counting only those in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Some idea of the character of the revival may be gleaned from the following excerpts from the New York Tribune of 1858:
March 13. “Several believing young men in a large mercantile house in this city have long felt and do feel an ardent desire for the conversion of their employer, now absorbed in money making.” [A request for prayer]
“At the point of death he decided he could continue with the spirits no longer. Instead he called in some Christians….”
March 20. “Perhaps the most interesting and enthusiastic meeting held in this city since the commencement of the revival, was held in Burton’s old theater in Chambers Street on Saturday…the house was packed in every corner from the pit to the roof. By noon the entrance to the hall were so densely thronged that…no amount of elbowing could force an entrance so far as to be able to get a sight of the stage. People clung to every projection along the walls; they piled themselves up on seats, and crowded the whole stage beneath and above and behind the curtain. The street in front was lined with carriages.
“The audience was composed principally of businessmen, there were about two hundred ladies and not less than fifty clergymen.” [Burton’s was a commercial theater newly leased for the exclusive use of daily prayer meetings.]
March 22. A New York distiller “became uneasy as to the condition of his soul. He went to his minister and asked him what he must do to be at peace with God. ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ,’ was the reply. ‘I cannot, I am a distiller,’ was the response. ‘Well, then,’ said the minister, ‘you must give up your salvation or your distillery.’ He went home, slept, and in the morning informed his partner that he must give up his distillery and save his soul. This man was now living a different life, believing in God, and trusting in him to supply his wants.”
March 24. “A young Jew stated that he had found the truth as it is in Jesus. He desired the prayers of the meeting for all his brethren of the family of Abraham, and for himself, as he was about to commence a missionary tour in the cause of Christ.”
A turning point in the increase of the revival-without-preaching was the conversion of Orville “Awful” Gardner, whose story is featured below on the right.
Glory! God Blessed Me
In March, 1858, Orville “Awful” Gardner, a boxer and notorious roughneck, surprised New York with a reformation of his life so sudden and dramatic that reports of his conversion were published by leading newspapers in both New York and Boston.
“A noted pugilist, a profligate man whose name was familiar to the city in the annals of violence and wrong,” Gardner was on bail pending a charge of assault and battery in Hoboken when he was converted. This is his testimony:
“I felt it my duty to tell you what God has done for me. I hope you will hear all I have to say. There are many here who have known me for ten years – have known me when I was fearfully wicked. Now I am on the Lord’s side. I want it thoroughly understood that now I am on the Lord’s side.
“I was on a visit to my brother in the country, about twenty eight miles away, at a town called Portchester. When I went there I had as much idea of getting religion as many of you have now – that is none at all. But I hope when you get home you cannot rest nor sleep till you get religion. I went to church in that town for accommodation, that’s all, to the folks. The Savior was there. The Lord’s Spirit was powerfully displayed, and went from heart to heart all through the church. It worked upon me three or four nights. The pastor of the church came to me and asked me if I would not like to get religion and serve God. I answered, ‘No I didn’t care about it just then,’ and told him a lie, for I did. I felt as though I wanted religion.
“I got dreadfully uneasy, and made up my mind I had better leave that part of the country; it was getting too warm for me. I told my brother I was going to New York in the morning. He said, ‘Wait another day,’ and I made up my mind I would stay and attend another night.
[He attended meetings at the church on Friday and Saturday, but felt no relief.]..”I got up and threw my sins down by the altar. I tried as hard as a man ever did, and I got no religion.
“Sunday night I attended with a like result. That night I could not sleep, my sins looked so bad; they came up on every hand and looked at me; all the sins of my life crowded upon me, many I should never have thought of, had not the devil brought them before me. I could not sleep; I wiggled and waggled around the bed all night; the Lord was striving with me.
“Monday morning I got up and prayed; I did the best I could; I asked the Lord to take away the weight that bore me down so. There was a friend came to me that day and said he was going over to White Plains, and I could go with him. Knowing I would be in good company, I concluded to go, thinking he might do me some good. There was little said on the way, but he told me to keep looking for the Savior; that I was trying to get religion and let everybody know it; the Lord was willing to bless me at any time or anywhere.
“I was riding along, singing a hymn, and in an instant I felt as though I was blessed. I am sure I gave up my soul and body. The first thing I knew, God spoke peace to my soul. It came like a shot – it came like lightning, when I was not anticipating it, and the first thing I said, “Glory! God blessed me.” My friend said he knew it; he felt the shock too. We rode against a stone fence two or three times, and came near tumbling on the ground. The change was surprising; the trees looked as if they had been blessed; everything appeared to have been blessed, even the horse and wagon. I felt strong. I could almost fly. Glory to God, this religion is good! The Lord has blessed me ever since. My faith in him grows stronger every day. I would face all the people that God ever put on the earth, and tell them all I am bound for heaven. My heart says, see the scorner: I say, I will go pray for him. Everything is pleasing. I love those I used to hate.
“Now, that shows pretty good for religion – don’t it, brothers? [Yes, yes.] Men that I used to seek to injure I love now; I pray for them. I don’t hate a soul that God ever put breath in….I would not swap this religion for all New York city. I would rather have religion and live on bread and water till God calls me. I have tasted the world’s pleasures, but religion is the only thing that will make a man happy here, and the only thing that will make him happy hereafter. There are a great many here that know me, and it is, no doubt, a mystery to them that God should accept such a creature.
“Now is the time to step to the altar. Don’t say to God, let me accomplish this or that, and then I will seek you. When you receive the religion of Jesus Christ you are the richest person on the earth. Come at once. Clear the way, here! Seats all around; allow yourselves to be led to Christ.”
Omaha, Chicago, Andover…
By one traveler’s account, “from Omaha City, Nebraska, to Washington, there was a line of prayer meetings along the whole length of the road; so that wherever a Christian traveler stopped to spend the evening, he could find a crowded prayer-meeting across the entire breadth of our vast Republic.” Beginning in New York City and subsequently reaching all the states in the North, about half in the South, and several countries in Western Europe, a conviction of sin before God had touched men of every position and background.
It has been estimated that about 500,000 persons were converted in the United States in the revival. In Chicago, the Board of Trade, America’s largest commodity marketplace, shut down at lunchtime each day for prayer. In Albany, a prayer-meeting for members of the New York Legislature was set up in the chambers of the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court. Of the individual incidents and conversions reported in the press, the story of the Illinois spiritist is a good example:
A “spiritualist” or spiritist leader in Farmington, Illinois, whose whole life was taken up with communicating with the spirit world, and who had no use for Jesus Christ, was taken seriously ill. At the point of death he decided he could continue with the spirits no longer. Instead, he called in some Christians to his bedside to pray for him. They did, he was healed, and became a follower of Jesus.
In the colleges, revivals were reported at Union College, Yale, Amherst and Brown, among others.
At a private secondary school, Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, the report was: “The work is…altogether unexampled. About thirty-five of the students are already rejoicing in hope, and the work still goes powerfully onward.”
The work that caused such widespread rejoicing at Andover and elsewhere was a quiet and unobtrusive work compared with more recent occurrences in this country, on and off campus.
Like an unexpected, freshening breeze, God’s Holy Spirit moved thousands of men and women all across the United States to pray and seek the Lord. Prayer from people who knew that they needed God ascended everywhere; the Lord’s answer was evident in the thorough transformation of lives through repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ.
God undertook powerfully to meet the needs of a nation in growing turmoil, edging toward the precipice of civil war. He began in New York City, where seven persons were met together, willing to pray and believe him.
Hidden Power – Available
There is hidden power in a prayer-meeting – the power of a promise. The Bible promises that if two or three believers agree on a request that is in accord with God’s own purposes, he will grant it. The minimum today is still two or three; the same God still answers prayer.
Whether you are a New Yorker or are new to the city, its moral condition is probably well-known to you. Violence, pollution, pornography, and corruption are current public issues. This is a city where two locks on an apartment door are minimum and mutual suspicion between strangers is only natural and appropriate. But, however dismal New York’s present condition and immediate prospects are, this is where God moved over a century ago to spark a powerful Christian revival for the whole country.
We believe he is again moving to lead men to repentance and true liberty in New York City, and in Columbia University in the City of New York. Are you willing to let the coming revival begin with you?
© 1973 The Beacon