Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? (Psalm 85:6)
The fourth characteristic accompanying revival down through history has been the confession of sin with the accompanying knowledge and certainty of forgiveness. The confession of sin is before God, but it is also before the church. In revival, there is an embodiment of the truth of James 5; “confess your sin one to another that you might be healed.” This is why we see recorded in the documents of most revivals the deep conviction of sin and the need to repent, but also the experience of joy and freedom which accompanies such repentance. Edwards describes the awakening in Northampton as such: “… the town seemed to be full of the presence of God. It never was so full of love nor so full of joy and yet so full of distress as it was then.”
The fifth characteristic of most revivals has been that they cannot be controlled. There is usually a sudden beginning and then a sudden ending. Martin Lloyd Jones writes: “While it is perfectly true to say that we can quench the Spirit and be a hindrance, it is never true to say that if we observe all the rules and the conditions that we can produce revival. No, God keeps it in his own hands, the beginning, during the course, and the end. In everything we are dependent upon the Holy Spirit and his power.”
This hallmarks for us an understanding that revival is a sovereign act of God. We may plan an evangelistic outreach or a service of worship, but we cannot plan a revival. It is an independent act of God accomplishing his sovereign purposes on behalf of his eternal plan for human history. This being said, we do not mean to minimize the importance of prayer in relationship to revival. If God’s sovereign will is the primary cause of revival, then prayer can be seen as a “second cause.” In other words, God chooses to accomplish his sovereign will for this world through the prayers of his people; just as God’s sovereign work of regeneration and conversion is accomplished through the “second cause” of evangelism. (For an excellent discussion of this, see J.I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.)
There is no better example of this relationship between prayer and revival than what we have already referred to as the Prayer Revival of 1857-8. Jeremiah Lanphier, a former businessman, started a noon-time prayer meeting at the Old Dutch Church in Lower NYC on September 23, 1857. For three months he had been knocking on the doors of boarding houses, shops, and offices inviting people to come and pray. On that day, he prayed alone at first and then others trickled in. The next week six people came; the next week twenty and the next week forty came. Then on October 14, the worst financial panic in history struck and banks around the city closed. People lost their jobs and children went hungry. No one could have anticipated this, but suddenly the Fulton Street prayer meeting exploded with crowds exceeding 3,000 and demanding more meeting sites around the city. Within six months, 10,000 people gathered weekly all around NYC.
This Prayer Revival spread to Philadelphia, Boston, New Haven, Albany, Washington, DC, and even Chicago. There was no hype or hysteria—just prayer. Finney said, “There is such a general confidence in the prevalence of prayer that the people very extensively seemed to prefer meeting for prayer to meeting for preaching. The general impression seemed to be, ‘We have had instruction until we are hardened; it is time for us to pray.’”
When the Prayer Revival was at its height, it was estimated that 50,000 people a week were converted with overall estimates ranging from 300,000 to one million. It is also estimated that the people who joined churches in 1858 amounted to almost 10% of the country’s total church membership. All of this is utterly amazing in and of itself, but this revival also had an impact in igniting awakenings that swept the British Isles in 1858-60.
More next week…
Lord, teach us how to pray aright
With reverence and with fear;
Though weak and sinful in your sight,
We may, we must draw near. (James Montgomery, 1823)