September 23, 1857 Beginning of Layman’s Prayer Revival on Fulton Street, Wall Street area.
After the speaker read “you shall not be afraid for the terror at night” from Psalm 91 at the Fulton Street lunchtime prayer meeting, a man shared how deeply he was moved by the peaceful and confident woman, and her son, who led a prayer meeting on the burning ship “Austria” before it sank on September 13, 1858. The man had learned of the story from an acquaintance who had come to faith at that very prayer gathering before jumping into the water to swim to safety.
The audience knew well about this tragic inferno that resulted in the loss of 449 people. This sinking had the same widespread resonance among New Yorkers then that the sinking of the Titanic had in 1912.
A visitor next to the man who was speaking leaped up, speechless.
At last, he gained back his voice, “That woman was my wife, and I, a stranger to everyone here, have come in to seek consolation.”
At such prayer meetings, a great worldwide spiritual movement was ignited. It started on September 23, 1857, on Fulton Street, Manhattan with seven participants, six of whom came after the prayer meeting was half over. It was an unpromising beginning at an inauspicious time.
1857 didn’t start very well, and maybe that is why the fires of spiritual comfort eventually burned so warm.
The winter in New York City that year sent an uncommon chilliness through the city. George B. Hodgsden, secretary for the Knickerbocker Fire Insurance Company, recorded that the coldest month ever in the city was January 1857. Neighbors warned each other that dishes froze as fast as they were washed, even next to a fire.
Adding to the chill was the fear percolating through the economy. Local bankers were filled with anxiety about possible failures. This uneasiness would turn into panic by the Fall.
The city and state governments were like frozen icebergs locked up in a collision. There was hardly any good feeling between the two. It got so bad that for a while in the summer there were two competing police forces in the city, one organized by the state and the other by the municipal government. Criminals were having a high time skating on the gridlock. The Dead Rabbits gang fought it out with the Bowery Boys who were “lending a hand” to one of the police forces.
Political attitudes were divided by ethnic antagonisms and cold-hearted racism against African Americans. The issue of slavery was being fought out all over the United States.
And the hearts of many seemed to be growing colder to the teachings of Jesus Christ’s urban apostles. A series of articles in the Christian Advocate and Journal revealed a slip in the number of new members for some Protestant denominations.
The city was also on the move. Residences were moving uptown or to Brooklyn and Queens while businesses clustered downtown. Home life and work life were becoming more divided. Downtown life now marched to the rhythms of business. Its streets swelled fullest with humanity at lunchtime.
The area around downtown was marked by boarding houses and hotels holding businessmen and workers who were singles or had small families. The home residences were mostly converted or torn down for commercial enterprises. Those that were not eliminated were more often located at the far edge of the business district and were becoming slums for a rising tide of new immigrants. The movement of residences and immigration meant there was a need for new churches uptown. Several of the downtown churches moved, which sometimes caused a great deal of internal friction.
The mayor declared that the problems seemed unsolvable.
But rather than retreating in the face of seeming insurmountable disruptions by social, economic, and spiritual trends, the evangelicals brought brimming confidence that was largely rooted in the powerful effects of collective prayer. They innovated new forms of spirituality, activism based on the words of Jesus, and seized new opportunities brought by contemporary developments.
A Methodist example was Phoebe Palmer. She was exemplary among evangelicals for creating new connections. She was outside the mainstream of church leaders, both as a lay person and as a woman.
From her home on 54 Rivington Street on the Lower East Side, which was thronging with new immigrants, Palmer called for a new, energetic role for ordinary Christians in her four columns on “A Laity for the Times,” starting February 12 in the Christian Advocate and Journal. The time was right for revivals powered by lay leaders.
The North Dutch Reformed Church decided not to move uptown but to hire a layman from the business world to reach the business-orientated residents. The concentration of businesses required new forms of outreach to the workplace. The congregation was also hopeful about connecting with the new immigrants.
Clothier Jeremiah Lanphier put aside his merchandise and, on behalf of North Dutch Reformed Church, started reaching out to the residents of the hotels and rooming houses and those living in the poorer districts along the West and East Side waterfronts. He went door to door as a sort of spiritual merchant supplying kindness, prayer, and evangelistic messages. It was very hard work and often discouraging. He would go back to his home base church on Fulton Avenue and Williams Street to pray for refreshment.
Prayer made the evangelicals alert and heart-connected to the flow of strangers in the city. They gained the courage to cross social boundaries enforced by gangs to venture into the dark alleys of the slums to find their flocks. They would cross the color line, provoking fierce opposition. Many businessmen shared with each other that getting life right was more important than getting ahead. Prayer emboldened their politics during the dark days before the Civil War. By the end of the decade, the number of evangelical Christians was over five times what it was at the close of the American Revolution.
Lanphier kept returning to the Old Testament verse found in Second Chronicles 7:14, “If my people who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and heal their land.” The passage fit Lanphier’s temperament. A journalist described Lanphier as “tall, with a pleasant face, an affectionate manner, and indomitable energy and perseverance; a good singer; gifted in prayer and exhortation, a welcome guest to any house, shrewd and endowed with much tact, and common sense.” This was a man who could humble himself, bring people to prayer with him, and hear from God about the ways he could heal a stricken city and country. He was courageous to overcome obstacles.
Walking back at noontime in 1857, he noticed that the streets were becoming thicker with businessmen, clerks, carters, porters, and day laborers on their lunch break. He could hear the talk about their stresses, the worries that the economic tide was going out. An unexpected surge of wheat arrived from Europe after the Crimean War was concluded. It undermined the mid-West farm economy and threw the farmers into a panic because they and their railroad transporters couldn’t cover their loans. Their troubles then ricocheted into New York City.
On August 24th, the collapse of the New York branch of the Ohio Life Insurance & Trust Company due to the failures of Midwestern wheat farmers and rail freighters caused an uptick of stress on Wall Street. The hum of conversations started to come with a low rumble of ominous anticipation.
Lanphier sensed the pressures during his lunchtime walks. He wondered that if he could get so much relief during his lunchtime prayer, maybe the street kibitzers, watchers, and worriers could also.
His church leaders were not too optimistic about his idea of a lunchtime prayer meeting but gave permission to use the meeting space on the third floor of the church office building.
The young evangelist handed out flyers, “How often shall I pray?”
The notice was not just an advertisement but full of encouragement and common sense about the benefits and practices of a prayerful life. Just below the headline question, Lanphier wrote:
“As often as the language of prayer is in my heart; as often as I see my need of help; as often as I feel the power of temptation…, in prayer we leave the business of time for that of eternity, and intercourse with man for intercourse with God.”
The prayer meeting was unusual for the time because it was targeted toward business people on their lunch break. It deemphasized the role of the pastor, with no sermon, and encouraged lay-led prayers and songs. It was nondenominational and debates over theology were not allowed to dominate the luncheon. At some point, he asked Phoebe Brown if she would write a hymn for the occasions of the prayer meetings. She provided “Jesus, this mid-day hour of prayer. Soon.”
On September 23rd, Lanphier hung a notice outside the gates on Ann Street, went upstairs, and started praying.
Starting at 12 noon, he waited to see if anyone would come. Perhaps, he was already fiddling with his small hourglass that later attenders reported that he used to enforce a “5-minute rule” against too long-winded prayers. Lanphier was as a precise cutter of time as he was of cloth.
For thirty minutes, no one came. Lanphier was praying when he heard steps on the staircase which signaled the first person to join him, then shortly five more people arrived. They stayed, prayed, and sang. The experience must have been rewarding because word started to spread.
On the following Wednesday, September 30th, there were 20 people, then at the third meeting, on October 7th, there were upwards of 40 present. At this point, the prayer meeting started to meet daily, and the numbers exponentially grew, causing a shift to bigger prayer spaces. It was a spiritual tide of the city picking up speed and power. The prayer meeting of October 9th felt like an entrance into “the very gates of Heaven,” wrote Lanphier in his journal.
Then, on October 13th, the once mighty, immovable banks started to crumble, leading to the Panic of 1857. Over 100,000 out of 800,000 New Yorkers lost their jobs. Crowds of unemployed, slightly employed, and soon-to-be unemployed milled in the streets with disbelief and fear. By December, the city had 985 business bankruptcies, followed by a recession in the winter and spring of 1858. Church donations decreased, so speculators went into a frenzy to buy up the property of indebted downtown churches. The New York Times erected its new headquarters on the rubble of Brick Presbyterian Church.
Nevertheless, evangelicals were not passive to the danger; some aggressively searched for cheaper uptown property and systematically built new churches with an eye to the maps of new neighborhoods. St. Paul’s Methodist Episcopal Church opened a large new sanctuary in 1857 on the corner of Fourth Avenue and 22nd Street. The mega-church Broadway Tabernacle moved up to 34th Street and Sixth Avenue. Pastor Joseph Thompson framed the decision as a practical response to losing members to already established uptown churches and guidance from God’s wisdom who ordained a mobile tabernacle for the wandering Jews in the Old Testament times (Genesis12:7-8).
The John Street Methodist Church, however, was rent by a civil war over its proposed move, so ended up selling its building to the Local Preachers Association (Methodist) while making plans for a new church building on 24th Street. The Catholics started building a new St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1858.
Thousands started meeting at mid-day prayer meetings around the city. Some came because they didn’t have anything else to do and then were converted and spread their news. All denominations got involved and Jewish immigrants started coming too. African American Christians in the city were quick to catch the spirit. Prayer meetings sprang up at Spring Street Hall and Sullivan Street Congregational Church which were in the neighborhood that was called “Little Africa.” Women, too, took the opportunity to assert their spiritual practices. Caroline Roberts began a notable daily women’s union prayer meeting at the Church of the Puritans, New York City. On February 15, the New York City YMCA began a noon prayer meeting at Ninth Street Dutch Reformed Church to reach the young migrants who had come into the city to seek their fortunes and found misfortune. On February 21st, the Methodists launched a team called “Flying artillery of Heaven” to start daily prayer meetings at Methodist churches around the city.
The New York City press got interested as the movement became so large–filled with potential readers. The New York Herald, the biggest daily in the city, walloped the competition on February 27 with full front page coverage headlined “Great Revival of Religion in New York.” Beaten to the story, Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune came back by setting itself up starting on March 1 as the paper to cover the revival events nationwide.
Not all of the prayer leaders felt that social reforms should be left at the gates to the prayer rooms. In March 1858, George Barrell Cheever, an evangelical minister and abolitionist, called attention to “The Two Revivals” in his article for the Independent newspaper. The pastor sounded an alarm for more prayer against “avarice, cruelty, injustice, and [enslaved] inhumanity.” During this period, a civil war erupted over slavery in Kansas and one of the worst rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Dred Scott decision, gave owners the right to reclaim escaped slaves and asserted that African Americans could never be citizens.
As the news of the Fulton Street meetings spread across the nation, cities like Philadelphia quickly gathered thousands of people for prayer. According to one scholarly census of 1856-1859, churches of the major Protestant Christian denominations in the United States added 474,000 new members as a result of the revival. This does not count the added members to independent churches and smaller denominations. Nor does it count the revived faith of nominal church members. Others have counted between 500,000 and million new members.
Ships also started having daily prayer meetings for sailors and passengers who wanted to avail themselves of calm in the storms. The overseas connections of the evangelicals were strong, and the word spread through those networks. The song master Brown’s son was a missionary in China and would be the first American missionary to enter Japan and have success in Yokohama. The impact of the spiritual movement in Korea was nothing short of astonishing.
The source of it all was the original Fulton Street prayer meeting. At the meeting that prayed over the victims of the ship “Austria’s” sinking, a man recounted his experience of being spiritually reborn at the ship prayer meeting.
According to the editor of the New York Observer, Samuel I. Prime, who drew upon the reports of several people at the meeting, someone asked the man what was he thinking as he desperately swam in the water. He paused and said that he oddly felt joy and thankfulness as he watched the ship sink. The reason was that as he looked back he saw “the noble woman, with her son’s hand in hers, to whom I owe all my hopes for salvation; for she it was that got up the prayer-meeting.” As the flames engulfed them, he recounted, she and her son embraced each other with a look of peace that passes any understanding.
The 1857 Layman’s Prayer Revival became one of the largest social movements in the 19th Century.
Jesus, this mid-day hour of prayer
Jesus, this mid-day hour of prayer
We consecrate to thee;
Forgetful of each earthly care,
We would thy glory see.
We come thy presence to implore;
Oh, teach us how to pray!
Impart to us thy Spirit’s power–
Thy saving grace display.
Baptize with energy divine
The contrite soul afresh;
Oh, bow the stubborn will to thine,
And give the heart of flesh.
Unite our heart, unite our tongues,
In lofty praise to thee;
Accept the tribute of our songs,
Thou Holy One in Three.
From the 1863 Fulton Street Hymn Book, for the use of union prayer meetings, Sabbath schools and families.
Images without credits come from Talbot Wilson Chambers. 1858. The noon prayer meeting of the North Dutch Church, Fulton Street, New York: its origin, character and progress, with some of its results. New York: Board of Publication of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church.
Be sure to check out The Springfield Museums from which we obtained the image of the Currier and Ives print.
Guidebooks for going deeper:
Frank Grenville Beardsley. 1943. Religious progress through religious revivals. New York: American Tract Society.
Chambers, Talbot Wilson. 1871. Hours of prayer in the noon prayer meeting Fulton Street, New York. New York: Board of Publication, Reformed Church of America.
Chambers, Talbot Williams. 1858/2009. The New York City Noon Prayer Meeting. Austin, Texas: Campus Renewal Ministries.
William C. Conant. 1858. Narratives of remarkable conversions and revival incidents, including a review of revivals. New York: Derby and Jackson.
John Corrigan. 2002. Business of the heart: Religion and emotion in the Nineteenth Century.Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Frank Grenville. 1943. Religious progress through religious revivals. New York: American Tract Society.
Kathryn Teresa Long. 1988. The Revival of 1857-58: Interpreting an American religious awakening. New York: Oxford University Press.
J. Edwin Orr. 1985. The event of the Century. The 1857-1858 Awakening. Edited by Richard Owen Roberts. Wheaton, Ill.: International Awakening Press.
Samuel Irenaeus Prime. 1859. The Power of prayer. The New York pulpit in the revival of 1858. New York: Scribner.
Kyle B. Roberts. 2016. Evangelical Gotham. religion and the making of New York City, 1783-1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Timothy L. Smith. 1978. Revivalism and social reform. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
You have Successfully Subscribed!