“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” -2 Chronicles 7:14
There have been many observers that have made the comparison that our country has never been more divided since the Civil War. The split politically in 1856 was deep over slavery. There was a miniature Civil War in Kansas between abolitionists and pro-slavery southerners. By the end of the year over 200 people had been killed in “Bleeding Kansas”. Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts was attacked in the Senate by a Southern House member nearly killed and never fully recovered. The Whig Party had no direction after the election of 1856 and the Republican anti-slavery party came into prominence and the Democrats who were dominated by the South and were the pro-slavery party… In March of 1857 the Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott decision which effectively threw out any compromises and allowed slavery to spread everywhere in the country. Then came the financial panic in 1857 that overwhelmed the country. Reporting at the time observed that bank failures “caused a rapid and unprecedented decline in the stocks and securities”. Much of the speculative wealth of the nation was swept away as banks failed and railroads went into bankruptcy. Factories were shut down, merchants went out of business, and thousands were thrown out of work, including 30,000 in New York alone.
These are just the highlights of the division in1857 prior to the outbreak of war. The Dred Scott decision was the catalyst that doomed us to a civil war. Does anything sound familiar? We were a country divided politically, geographically and culturally.
In the past revivals or “awakenings” had brought us together. Dr. Eddie Hyatt has written extensively about these “Great Awakenings” that are three in number. He said for a revival to be called a Great Awakening it should have three characteristics:
- “It is an obvious sovereign work of God in that it has arisen apart from any identifiable human plan, strategy or design.
- It is non-sectarian and touches people of all sects and denominations. No one group, or church, can “own” the revival.
- It is not localized or regional but has an obvious national impact on the nation and its culture”.
The first began about 1730 and united the colonies under the preaching of George Whitfield, John Wesley and others. But when the Revolution began only about a third of the population were patriots and an equal number were Tories or loyal to the King. The remainder of the population didn’t take a stand many historians believe there would not have been a revolution or the government we have without this awakening.
The second Great Awakening took place about in the early nineteenth century west of Appalachian Mountains in what was then the lawless west. Circuit riders came into that area and the lower Ohio River valley and conducted many camp meetings and the revival quickly spread to other regions and Canada. The history of this revival is amazing. Even today this area including Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia are still known as the “Bible Belt”.
Now we go back to 1857 and the final, “Great Awakening” in America. It starts with Jeremiah Lamphier, who is a forty-six year old businessman and layman who had become a home missionary with the Dutch Reformed Church. For three months Jeremiah had gone down town to every business, shop and boardinghouse inviting people to church because most people had moved to the suburbs and this was an unchurched area. He was having little success but on that particular Wednesday, September 23, 1857 he invited everyone to come to a prayer meeting over the noon hour. It was 12:10 and still no one had come. Finally at 12:30 five men walked in to pray. There was no fanaticism, no hysteria. From a human perspective, nothing extraordinary was happening. Just six men quietly, earnestly seeking God on behalf of their city. Next Wednesday, 14 people attended the prayer meeting. Within six month there were anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 men and women out of a population of 80,000 praying at 20 different prayer meetings daily around NYC.
The format of the prayer meeting was simple. At noon, promptly, the leader of the meeting would open with one or two verses of a well-known hymn, an opening prayer and then read any prayer requests. After just a few requests anyone was then free to pray, share a prayer request or give a testimony. No sermons and a five minute limit on speaking. The emphasis of the meeting was on the conversion of the lost and most of the prayers were directed to that end. The meeting was dismissed promptly at 1:00 with a concluding prayer by the leader. Prayer meetings spread up the East Coast to New Haven, Boston, Philadelphia, New Jersey. Going west they spread to Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis and Omaha and throughout the South. They were responsible for revivals in Ireland, Wales and other countries. It is estimated that as many as two million were brought to a saving knowledge of Christ.
Why is this story relevant to us today? What’s the lesson? Jeremiah Lamphier was not a man of exceptional talent. But he believed in a big God! This revival extended to the North and South but it didn’t stop the Civil War or the deaths of 600,000 Americans in the worst fighting of our history.
What was the purpose of this move of God? The effects of this terrible conflict could have been a permanent division of our country or at the very least one part of our country that was in a permanent state of despair. But we did recover from this conflict and although it was not an easy process, we emerged as one united nation stronger and more resolved to equality than ever before. It prepared a future nation with the same ideals fulfilled.
Dr. Hyatt (eddiehyatt.com) summarizes this so well when he said, “America is now facing another great crisis, perhaps even more daunting than the Civil War. This is because the moral and religious pillars of support that were in place at that time have been removed.” This column is not a call to “vote the rascals out” or find a political solution to our problems because they are deeper than that. Dr. Erwin Lutzer in his book When a Nation Forgets God states that, “God is humbling us. The political solutions that we thought would rescue our nation from its moral and spiritual problems is deeper than we thought, thus the solution itself must be deeper still. In sum, we must realize that only God can save us from those trends that have already evoked His judgement.”
We often read that verse from 2 Chronicles and think that God is some kind of celestial servant or and that we can automatically turn our country around. Salvation is not a “group effort” but begins with each of us changing and repenting. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Americans continue to leave the faith behind. According to Pew Research, the percentage of American Christians has fallen about 12% over the last ten years, from 75% in 2011 to around 63% today. The number who pray every day is even lower, at 45%. The demographic rising in its place are the so-called “nones,” those who identify religiously as “nothing in particular.” This group grew to about 20% of the US population in 2021, up from 16% in 2017. The surprising thing here isn’t that Americans are leaving organized religion behind. That’s been happening at about the same rate for a while now. However, it is newsworthy that this trend continued unabated in the face of a global pandemic. Historically, catastrophic events that bring uncertainty, stress, or political chaos tend to draw people to reconsider faith. in record numbers. On a purely pragmatic level, this is bad news. Study after study suggests that church attendance corresponds with lower rates of substance abuse, divorce, incarceration, and depression, not to mention higher levels of meaning and satisfaction, volunteering, longevity, and civic engagement. Given that we are in one of the loneliest eras in recent memory, why aren’t Americans back in church? Can each of us be a Jeremiah Lampier praying and sharing our faith?
The revival had begun with a simple layman who did not claim any special gift or calling and the revival continued apart from the guidance of the ordained clergy. Much like the early church which knew of no formal distinction between “laity” and a professional “clergy”. One interesting footnote to this story is that the World Trade Center, before it was attacked, was built directly on the site of that church where this prayer revival began. Maybe we should add a reminder of the Prayer Revival there — our “Ebenezer”.