The Third Great Awakening was different from the previous two awakenings in America in that it did not have its origins in the pulpit. Instead, a layman with a burden to serve the Lord and to pray was used of God to start a revival that crossed denominational and social boundaries.
In any discussion about the Third Great Awakening, a distinction must be made between true revival and manmade revivalism. In 1857–58, prior to the awakening, efforts were made to continue the revival spirit left over from the Second Great Awakening. As with any move of God, those involved want it to continue as long as possible. Such efforts after the Second Great Awakening resulted in an empty revivalism. Perhaps the greatest promoter of revivalism was Charles Finney. His “new measures,” as they came to be called, became more and more popular in churches throughout the United States.
Rather than relying on the Holy Spirit to stir up emotions in the hearts of listeners, preachers increasingly used manmade means to promote emotional responses to the preached word. Revivalism was popular, but since it was manmade, it withered. The true revival from the Second Great Awakening withered with it.
The Third Great Awakening began in New York City. James Alexander, the son of Archibald Alexander, was the pastor of Nineteenth Street Presbyterian Church. Alexander opposed the methods that Finney had popularized during the early decades of the 1800s. He faithfully preached the necessity of faith in the power of the Holy Spirit. In one letter, Alexander wrote, “The Gospel is not attractive enough for people now-a-days. Ministers must bait their trap with something else.” James Alexander was convinced that revivalism was not to be confused with real, Holy Spirit-sent revival.
Jeremiah Calvin Lanphier, a lay businessman and a member of Nineteenth Street Presbyterian Church, sat under the faithful preaching of James Alexander for about nine years. In July of 1857 Lanphier transferred his church membership to the North Reformed Dutch Church on Fulton Street when he was hired by that church to be a lay missionary to the city of New York. Among the various outreach ministries that Lanphier conducted was a noon-time prayer meeting. God used that simple prayer meeting to start a revival that would spread down the Eastern seaboard, across the United States, and eventually to many countries around the world.
At the first prayer meeting on September 23, 1857, only six people showed up. The next week the attendance grew to twenty, and by the third week forty people were meeting for prayer. Eventually prayer meetings were held in other locations across the city. By March of 1858, the 3,000-seat Barton’s Theatre was crowded with people praying. Similar prayer meetings were held in churches, printer’s shops, fire stations, and even police stations. Organizing the prayer meetings became such a task that a weekly bulletin was published to inform people where the prayer meetings would be located throughout the city.
The concept of a noon-day prayer meeting was not new in 1857. What was different about these prayer meetings was that they were marked with the conversion of many souls. James Alexander noted that many unconverted people attended these prayer meetings. In a large part, these were folks who had come to feel the emptiness of earthly things. Since God is sovereign, He must receive the credit for leading these lost souls to the prayer meetings.
It can be no coincidence that on September 25, just two days after Lanphier began his prayer meetings, the Bank of Pennsylvania collapsed, and a few weeks later on October 10 the New York stock market crashed. The financial shockwave sent many businessmen to their knees, not only in New York but in cities all across the nation. God was the one using means to bring people to Himself. As these troubled souls sought consolation at the noon-time prayer meetings, the Holy Spirit was at work regenerating dead hearts and convicting men of sin.
It is evident that the prayer meeting revival was indeed the real thing and not mere revivalism. Even the secular press took notice that what was happening was not a fanatical movement marked by hysteria. The prayer meetings were largely silent except for the one person at a time praying aloud. Without human manipulation, the Holy Spirit was moving in hearts.
All across the nation, the results of the prayer meeting revivals were overwhelming. City crime dropped dramatically. A report from Atlanta, Georgia, said the prayer meeting revivals were so influential that the Atlanta police department had to let half of its force go because there simply was not enough crime for them to deal with. Across the nation bars and brothels shut down. Bar owners poured beer and liquor out in the street and shut down their establishments. One estimate puts the number of conversions at one million, but because the Third Great Awakening happened largely outside of the church, it is difficult to know exactly how many souls were swept into the kingdom.
In the years following, the revival influenced many social issues from women’s suffrage to prohibition. Many had already been calling for the abolition of slavery, but the Third Great Awakening strengthened the movement. The revival that spread through the Confederate Army under the leadership of Robert E. Lee is well documented and can be traced to the remnants of the Third Great Awakening. The ministries of men like Dwight L. Moody and Ira Sankey sprang from this revival. Space is too limited here to discuss the effects of the Third Great Awakening in Britain and abroad, but as the Holy Spirit began to move in America, He began to move in many other parts of the world as well.
Our nation is desperately in need of another revival. Unfortunately, history has repeated itself and the “new measures” popularized by Charles Finny have become commonplace in the modern church. What we need is a gracious move of the Holy Spirit to convince men and women that the simple means that God has already ordained are sufficient. Oh that the Lord would raise up another Jeremiah Lanphier with a burden to call upon God to work!
Rev. Derrick Bowman is the associate minister of Grace FPC in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.