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Market Street Baptist Church in Amesbury.

Troubled times for America: We had never been more divided politically. Battles raged over conflicting visions of freedom and justice.

The country was on the brink of civil war. Business had been booming, but there were signs of impending economic collapse. Even more troubling, American Christians were in a spiritual malaise: discouraged and disillusioned.

Many were falling away from the faith and checking out of church. The light of the world seemed to be fading … .

This was America in the 1850s and it was at this time that something remarkable happened – quietly, without any fanfare – that would change the direction of our nation and the church for the next 100 years.

On July 1, 1857, a Dutch reformed church in lower Manhattan hired a layman, Jeremiah Lanphier, to start an active visitation program to get people back to church.

This did not go particularly well since there was little interest from the public, so Jeremiah changed course. He decided to rent a hall on Fulton Street and sent out over 20,000 flyers inviting people to join him for prayer during lunch hour.

On Sept. 23, 1857, he held his first prayer meeting … and six people showed up. Not much, but it was a start, and all those in attendance were pleased to meet again the following week. By the third week, there were 40 in attendance, and they requested to meet every day.

Then the Panic of 1857 hit New York City as the markets crashed and banks failed. More and more people felt their need for God – and within six months, over 10,000 people were gathering for prayer every day in New York City.

Soon after, this prayer movement spread with intensity all across America and around the world. The Metropolitan Theater in Chicago hosted thousands, as did the Masonic Temple in Louisville.

YMCAs held prayer meetings, and, in many places, tents were set up for the sole purpose of prayer. We had never seen anything like this before — even The New York Herald and New York Tribune gave extensive coverage to this revival.

No longer was anyone ignoring God. What is especially interesting is that it wasn’t any of the famous preachers, but, rather, it was ordinary Christians who were talking openly about Jesus Christ and the good news of salvation found through him.

It is estimated that more than 1 million people came to faith in Christ that year. Churches were revived with a new energy, and the Sunday school movement exploded as parents everywhere were determined to teach their children the faith.

Indeed, you can see evidence of this historical prayer revival all around us. Many of the largest church buildings in our area were built soon after this movement began in order to accommodate this dramatic growth.

Again, this did not emanate from any famous celebrity pastor or politician, but from a half dozen unnamed believers who gathered daily for just one hour of prayer.

So, is there a lesson for us today? Is there any hope for a discouraged and declining church in this 21st century?

Is there anything we can do to turn things around and reflect the light of the world once again? Not at all, no matter our most clever schemes and best efforts. That is for sure.

But, just perhaps … what if we stopped and gathered and asked God to move … using his wisdom and power? As another historical Jeremiah once said: “Ah, Lord God! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.” (Jeremiah 32:17)

The Rev. Michael John is pastor of Market Street Baptist Church in Amesbury.

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