AMERICA’S THIRD GREAT AWAKENING

America’s Third Great Awakening was very different than her First and Second Great Awakenings. It was, in fact, a move of God that was unique to anything the Lord had ever done in America. Past revivals were led by big name ministers like George Whitefield and Charles G. Finney. This move of God was unique in that it didn’t involve well-known ministers traveling across the country holding big meetings. In fact, the Third Great Awakening was collectively one big prayer meeting where people came together to seek the Lord. Thousands upon thousands of people were converted during this time. It began in 1857, right before the Civil War, which started April 12, 1861. Like the other Great Awakenings, the details of this great move of God are astonishing! If you’re curious to learn more, keep reading.

AMERICA’S THIRD GREAT AWAKENING

By Karen Thompson
Second in a Four-Part Series

While studying America’s Great Awakenings, I have noticed certain patterns. One of those patterns has to do with how these great moves of God begin. For instance, America’s First Great Awakening is credited to have begun at Jonathan Edwards’ Congregational church in Northampton, Massachusetts. People came from far and wide to attend the meetings at Edwards’ church, and as they did, they would take the revival back home to their own communities. But what is not widely known is that the move of God was already at work simultaneously in other communities who were not even aware of what was happening in Northampton. The same thing happened during the Second Great Awakening. Though it is credited to have begun in 1801 during the Cane Ridge Camp Meetings in Kentucky, other areas of the country were experiencing revival at the very same time. God’s pattern is that when He pours out His Spirit, it’s never limited to just one single place. He pours it out in multiple places simultaneously.

This same pattern of revival can be found in America’s Third Great Awakening. While America’s Third Great Awakening is credited to have begun in downtown New York on Fulton Street in 1857, what is not commonly known is that the power of God was already mightily at work in a few other parts of the nation. One of those other places was Charleston, South Carolina. In the summer of 1857, a powerful eight-week revival took place at the Presbyterian Church on Anson Street.

The 1857 Anson Street Revival in Charleston, South Carolina

The 1857 Anson Street Revival started at the Presbyterian Church, with Dr. John L. Girardeau as its minister. It was a church for black slaves. Prior to the Civil War, slaves in the south had their own churches which were usually pastored by white preachers. Girardeau’s church had 48 black members and 12 white members.

In the summer of 1857, Dr. Girardeau and his congregants began to meet together for the purpose of “petitioning God to send a spiritual awakening.” They were so dedicated to seeking God for an outpouring of His Spirit that they had suspended all preaching services until they heard from God. Their meetings became strictly prayer meetings. 

One evening while Girardeau and his congregants were in prayer, something extraordinary happened. While praying, Dr. Girardeau said he experienced something that felt like a surge of electricity. It entered the top of his head and went through his entire body. He looked up and saw that those praying with him were trembling and in tears. They too experienced the Holy Spirit in the same manner as he did. When that happened, he said to them the Holy Spirit had come and that “we will begin preaching tomorrow evening.” He dismissed the prayer meeting. But no one went home. Instead of going home, they began to pray fervently for the salvation of their family and loved ones. When he dismissed the congregation for a second time, it was midnight. For the next eight weeks, they had service every night where Dr. Girardeau preached the Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ to crowds as high as 1,500 to 2,000 people.

During this eight-week revival, thousands from every background came to the meetings and were saved. As a result, the overall spiritual atmosphere over the entire city of Charleston had changed. Every church in the city grew in attendance. One report said a church in Beaufort, South Carolina had gained over 400 new members in just three days as a result of the meetings. Dr. Girardeau’s church quickly outgrew its building and had to move to something much larger.

Unfortunately, not everything was good. Trouble came to Dr. Girardeau’s church as a result of the revival. But that’s to be expected. There has never been a move of God where it didn’t draw criticism and even outright violence. The same was true for this revival as well. The influence of the revival had changed the makeup of the city, and for that, many began to criticize the leaders of the revival. They were even threatened with physical violence. One complaint had to do with the teaching and training of hymns they sang at the meetings. The criticism? They were so good that certain critics believed that Dr. Girardeau had to have been teaching the slaves in his church to read. At that time in the south, that was against the law.

The 1857 Fulton Street Revival in New York

In the same year, the Fulton Street Revival took place at the end of summer. In New York, a Christian man named Jeremiah Lanphier was asked to take the position of “city missionary” at North Dutch Reformed Church located on Fulton Street (Manhattan). Lanphier was hired because the church had been losing members steadily due to a shift in population, changes created by immigration. The area was on an economic slide due to the local businessmen moving their families out of the old downtown area and into newer parts of the city. Lanphier was hired to stop the membership shrinkage. His first effort was to have an active visitation program. Alas, his visits had no impact whatsoever.

The church was dying, and he didn’t have the solution to bring it back to life. Only God could change it. So he decided to start a weekly prayer meeting. To advertise the prayer meeting, he created handbills and tacked them up all over the area and handed them out to everyone he met.

The front side of the handbill said, “How Often Shall I Pray? 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; as often as I am made sensible of any spiritual declension, or feel the aggression of a worldly, earthly spirit . . . In prayer, we leave the business of time for that of eternity and intercourse with God.”

The back side of the handbill said, “A day Prayer-Meeting is held every Wednesday from 12 to 1 o’clock in the Consistory building of the North Dutch Church, corner of Fulton and William Streets. This meeting is intended to give merchants, mechanics, clerks, strangers and businessmen generally an opportunity to stop and call on God amid the perplexities incident to their respective avocations. It will continue for one hour; but it is designed for those who find it inconvenient to remain more than 5 or 10 minutes, as well as for those who can spare a whole hour. Necessary interruption will be slight, because anticipated. Those in haste often expedite their business engagements by halting to lift their voices to the throne of grace in humble, grateful prayer.”

Lanphier’s Prayer Meeting

Lanphier held the first weekly prayer meeting at noon on September 23, 1857. When noon time came, he was the only one there. Nonetheless, he began to pray. Then at 12:30, people began to trickle in until there were six in attendance. The next Wednesday, the original six from the week before showed up again, plus 14 others. Jeremiah was encouraged. The third week, he was well pleased when 40 people came to the meeting. The group was so enthusiastic that all the attendees decided to begin meeting daily for prayer.

The meetings were simple, so simple that a lay person could conduct them. There was no need for a minister because there was absolutely no preaching or ministry. The meetings were strictly about prayer. All attendees were allotted just five minutes to pray to ensure all could have a chance to pray. They could pray whatever they wanted to pray about, but most of the prayers offered were for the salvation of family and loved ones.

The daily prayer meeting grew so large that Lanphier moved the meeting to the larger John Street Methodist Church. Still, more and more people continued to come, resulting in having to move the prayer meeting to Burton’s theater. News spread about the success of this burgeoning prayer meeting and churches and organizations all over the New York area started their own noon time prayer meetings. In fact, prayer meetings were held all over… in police stations, fire stations, and all different businesses. Everywhere!

Secular Newspapers Were Key

It quickly became a phenomenon and the news of it spread like fire. Christian newspapers had been reporting on it all along, but then the secular press began reporting on the prayer revival. Interestingly enough, the secular newspapers all across the nation were the key that caused the prayer meetings to spread nationwide. The New York Herald wrote about the prayer revival extensively. The New York Tribune devoted an entire issue about it in April, 1858. The news of the prayer revival was sent to the west by the newly invented telegraph. Below is what the New York Times wrote about the prayer revival in its March 20, 1858, edition.

“The great wave of religious excitement which is now sweeping over this nation, is one of the most remarkable movements since the reformation…. Travelers relate that in cars and steamboats, in banks and markets, everywhere through the interior, this matter is an absorbing topic. Churches are crowded; bank-directors’ rooms become oratories; school-houses are turned into chapels; converts are numbered by the scores of thousands. In this City, we have beheld a sight which not the most enthusiastic fanatic for church-observances could ever have hoped to look upon; we have seen in a business-quarter of the City, in the busiest hours, assemblies of merchants, clerks and working-men, to the number of 5,000, gathered day after day for a simple and solemn worship. Similar assemblies we find in other portions of the City; a theatre is turned into a chapel; churches of all sects are open and crowded by day and night…. It is most impressive to think that over this great land tens and fifties of thousands of men and women are putting themselves at this time in a simple, serious way, the greatest question that can ever come before the human mind ‘What shall we do to be saved from sin?’”

The prayer meetings spread across the nation… from coast to coast. Churches of every denomination began to hold their own noon prayer meetings. In one of the prayer meetings held in Boston, a man rose up to say that he was from Omaha, Nebraska. He said, “On my journey east, I have found a continuous prayer meeting all the way. It’s about two thousand miles from Omaha to Boston, and here was a prayer meeting about two thousand miles in extent.” Indeed, it had become a nationwide phenomenon. The Metropolitan Theater in Chicago was filled every day with 2,000 praying people. The Masonic Temple in Louisville had thousands of people assemble in the mornings for prayer. And in Cleveland, 2,000 people assembled each day for prayer. At the time, the newly formed Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) played an important role in the spread of the revival throughout the nation.

The Results

The results of this prayer revival were astonishing. All classes of people were involved… every race, both men and women, young and old. Participants included college students and judges, businessmen and housewives. Even unsaved people attended the meetings and left converted! The Prayer Revival began in the big cities, but it quickly spread to all the small towns and rural communities. Some schools closed at noon so all the students could pray and seek God. One report said that by April, 10,000 businessmen were gathering daily for prayer in New York alone. By May of 1858, every week an estimated 50,000 people became converts! This continued to happen throughout the nation for the next two years. By 1860, there were one million converts as a direct result of the coast to coast prayer meetings. That is out of a population of 30 million.

The revival spread to other nations—to England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, South Africa, India, and other places. It was estimated that there were over one million converts in Europe. Together with the converts in the United States, the revival resulted in over two million converts in just two years!

The prayer meeting revival had a significant effect on the communities throughout the nation. Crime rates dropped, and racial tensions were eased. The police department in Atlanta, Georgia let go of half its police force because there simply wasn’t enough crime being committed in the city. It was the same with bars and brothels. They had no customers, so they had no choice but to shut down.

A Boston newspaper reported that every single one of the citizens in several New England small towns were converted. Church membership grew exponentially in the south. And like the Awakenings in the past, there was great inter-denominational cooperation and unity in the meetings.

It was reported that the presence of God seemed to hang like a cloud over communities. The convicting power of God was widespread, so much so that there were instances when the crews of ships along with its passengers felt the power of God come upon them. Before the ship even reached the shores, people on the ship would feel the presence of God. They would drop to their knees right wherever they were and begin to cry out to God. The ship’s captain called for pastors to come minister to those on the ship who were experiencing an overwhelming conviction for their sins.

At the time, major universities and colleges across the nation had become hostile toward religion. The anti-Christian hostility on college campuses was so intense that Christian students met in secret to avoid persecution. But during the 1857 revival, the power of God fell upon many institutions of learning. One report stated that 90 different colleges and several prominent universities experienced powerful revivals between 1857 and 1859.

The Prayer Revival and the Civil War

The Third Great Awakening broke out right before the Civil War which started on April 12, 1861. At this time, the nation was teetering between two opposite states of existence. On the one hand, the nation was experiencing a revival, with thousands upon thousands of people coming to God. On the other hand, the issue of slavery had reached a boiling point between the north and south.

One of the most astonishing aspects of the Third Great Awakening is that it continued throughout the Civil War! With the troops! When I learned that the prayer revival continued during the Civil War, I was flabbergasted! The Union troops were experiencing revival, and the Confederate troops were experiencing revival. Stop and think about that for a moment. While the north and south armies were at war with each other, both armies were experiencing revival in their midst. How could that even be possible? Yet, it happened, and the result is that during the war, an estimated two million soldiers gave their lives to Jesus!  

Some say the Prayer Revival prepared the nation as it headed into Civil War. Though the nation was rocked by devastation and loss, in the end, it did not split in half but stayed together. And, thank God, slavery came to an end.  

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