By 1820 it seemed that the Second Awakening was waning; yet within a few years it had sprung to life under the ministry of Charles Finney. His enormous success inspired a large number of “professional evangelists” to come to the fore from the ranks of every major denomination. By 1840 the concept of large campaigns led by preachers who were not pastors of specific churches was generally accepted. From 1840 until the 1870s numerous preachers entered the ranks of traveling evangelists.

Despite all this, the religious life of America was in decline from 1840 to 1857. Many causes were responsible. Agitation over the issue of slavery in both the North and South had reached fever pitch, and hatreds boiled. Great numbers were disillusioned over spiritual things because of the extremes of the Millerites, a radical group that had widely proclaimed that Christ would return to earth between 21 March 1843 and 21 March 1844. When this did not happen, William Miller, the leader, reset the date at 22 October 1844, and again those who had trusted his prediction were disappointed and infuriated. So widespread was the clamor that even the general churches who had nothing to do with the Millerite delusion were mocked. In October 1857 a financial panic occurred, with banks failing, railroads going into bankruptcy, and financial chaos arising everywhere. A civil war seemed unvoidable to many because of the slavery question. America tottered on the brink of disaster.

Canadian Harvests

Meanwhile, in Canada an awakening was starting. From June through October 1857, Dr. Walter Palmer and his wife Phoebe conducted camp meetings in Ontario and Quebec with crowds of 5,000 and more. They then went to Hamilton, Ontario, where they had to wait for a train connection to New York City. Hearing that they were in town, Samuel Rice, a Wesleyan minister, invited them to speak at the McNab Street Wesleyan Methodist Church. The meeting was so well received that the Palmers were invited to speak again the next evening, and 21 people were converted. Due to the response, the Palmers stayed for several weeks, during which time 600 people professed faith in Christ. The Third Awakening had begun.

Phoebe Palmer was usually the main speaker at meetings, while her physician husband assisted her. The revival was declared by both Canadian and American newspapers to be a model of orderliness. That winter the Palmers traveled to Oswego, Binghamton, and Union, New York, for meetings that drew interdenominational support. In August 1858 they journeyed to Canada’s Maritime Provinces. In St. John there were 400 conversions, and in Halifax, 170 professed faith. Next they went to Prince Edward Island, where 700 conversions were recorded under their preaching.

As the historian Timothy Smith showed in his book Revivalism and Social Reform, there was an earnest expectation of awakening, and much prayer in many places for it in 1857. ln cities large and small there were interdemominational prayer meetings. One prayer meeting, held daily at 4 p.m. in Bethel, Connecticut, was attended by “farmers, mechanics, and storekeepers,” and claimed 400 conversions. Many smaller towns had similar daily or weekly prayer sessions.

Closed on Account of Prayer

So there was nothing unique about the weekly prayer meeting that Jeremiah Lanphier began on 23 September 1857 on Fulton Street in New York City. Lanphier was a 48-year-old businessman who began work as an urban missionary for the North Dutch Reformed Church in July 1857. Two days after Lanphier’s prayer meeting began, the Bank of Pennsylvania failed in Philadelphia, sending shock waves through America’s financial community. In a few days’ time, enough people were attending Lanphier’s meeting that it began to meet daily.

On October 10 the New York stock market crashed, putting many stockbrokers and clerks out of work, and shutting down businesses everywhere. Many people went into bankruptcy; the panic shattered the previous complacency. Soon the crowds attending the Fulton Street laymen’s gathering overflowed into the nearby John Street Methodist Church. Charles Finney had declared that before this New York “seemed to be on such a wave of prosperity as to be the death of revival effort.” This attitude changed dramatically. The financial panic, it seems, was the catalyst that triggered the awakening. Within six months 10,000 people were gathering daily for prayer in numerous places throughout New York.

In a short time the New York Times reported that the nationally known pastor, Dr. Henry Ward Beecher, was leading 3,000 people in devotions at Burton’s Theater. Once while he was reading Scripture, Beecher was interrupted by singing from an overflow prayer meeting crowd in an adjoining barroom! He then led the group in thanksgiving that such a thing could happen.

Other major cities also developed prayer meetings. The form of worship was always the same: any person might pray, give a testimony or an exhortation, or lead in singing as he or she “felt led.” Although pastors such as Beecher often attended and lent their enthusiastic support, laypeople provided the leadership.

Little planning was done for the meetings, the chief rules were that a meeting should begin and end punctually, and that no one should speak or pray for very long. In Chicago, the Metropolitan Theater was filled every day with 2,000 people. In Louisville, Kentucky, several thousand crowded each morning into the Masonic Temple, and overflow meetings were held around the city. In Cleveland, the attendance was about 2,000 each day, and in St. Louis all the churches were filled for months on end.

Front-Page News

What impressed observers, and the press, was that there was no fanaticism, hysteria, or objectionable behavior, only a moving impulse to pray. Finney commented, “The general impression seemed to be, ‘We have had instruction until we are hardened; it is now time for us to pray.’ ” Little preaching was done. As the people gathered they were largely silent; there was a great overarching attitude of glorifying God.

One account tells of a European cargo ship that sailed into New York harbor during the awakening and was boarded by the harbor pilot, who was a Christian. As he guided the ship into port, he told the captain and crew what was going on in the city, and a great hush fell over them all, which seemed to him the power of the Spirit. By the time they reached the dock, most of the crew had committed their lives to Christ.

In February 1858 James Gordon Bennett began to give extensive space to the awakening in his paper, the New York Herald. Not to be outdone, Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, gave still greater coverage to the meetings, until in April 1858 he devoted an entire edition of the Tribune to a special revival issue.

Other papers quickly followed suit in reporting the great numbers of people all throughout the nation attending the prayer gatherings and professing faith in Christ.