DR. J EDWIN ORR – THE ROLE OF PRAYER IN SPIRITUAL AWAKENING
National Prayer Congress in Dallas, TX, October 26-29, 1976.
Not many people realize that in the wake of the American Revolution, there was a moral slump. Drunkenness was epidemic. Out of a population of five million, three hundred thousand were confirmed drunkards. They were burying fifteen thousand of them each year. Profanity was of the most shocking kind.
For the first time in the history of the American settlement, women were afraid to go out at night for fear of assault. Bank robberies were a daily occurrence. The largest denomination at that time was the Methodists, and they were losing more members than they were gaining. The second largest was the Baptists. They said that "they had their most wintry season." The Presbyterians met in general assembly to deplore the ungodliness of the country. The Congregationalists were strongest in New England. Take a typical church—the Rev. Samuel Shepherd of Lennox, Massachusetts said, "In sixteen years they had not taken one young person into fellowship."
The Lutherans were so languishing that they discussed uniting with Episcopalians, who were even worse off. The Protestant Episcopal Bishop of New York, Bishop Samuel Provost, quit functioning. He had confirmed no one for so long that he decided he was out of work, so he took up other employment.
The Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall, wrote to the Bishop of Virginia, Bishop Madison, that "the Church is too far gone ever to be redeemed." Voltaire said, “Christianity will be forgotten in thirty years time.” And Thomas Paine preached this cheerfully all over America.
In case you think it was the hysteria of the moment, Kenneth Scott Latourette, the great church historian said, “It seemed as if Christianity were about to be ushered out of the affairs of men.” The churches had their backs to the wall—it seemed as if they were about to be wiped out. How did God change that situation? It came through the concert of prayer.
I must go back a little: There was a Scottish Presbyterian minister in Edinburgh called John Erskine. He wrote a memorial. He called it, "Pleading with the People of Scotland and Elsewhere to Unite in Prayer for a Revival of Religion."
He sent a copy of his little book to Jonathan Edwards in New England. That great theologian was so moved, he wrote a response, which got longer than a letter, and finally he published it as a book. If my memory serves me right, the title of the book was as follows: “A Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of All God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom.”
Now this moment began in England through William Carey, Andrew Fuller, John Sutcliffe and others. They started what the British call the Union of Prayer. The year after John Wesley died, the Second Great Awakening began and swept Great Britain. There isn't time to give you the details of that. But, in New England, there was a man of prayer named Isaac Backus, a Baptist pastor. In 1794, when conditions were at their worst, he sent out a plea for prayer.
Take the colleges at that time.
Isaac Backus addressed his pleas for prayer to ministers of every Christian denomination in the United States. The churches knew that their backs were to the wall. The Presbyterians of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania adopted it for all their churches. Bishop Francis Asbury adopted it for all the Methodists. The Baptist Associations and the Congregationalists, the Reformed, and the Moravians all adopted it until America, like Britain was interlaced with a network of prayer meetings, which set aside the first Monday of each month to pray.
It was not long before revival came. It broke out first of all in Connecticut, then it spread to Massachusetts, entirely without extravagance or outcry. Every report mentions this.
However, there were some differences. When the movement reached the frontier in Kentucky, those people were really wild and irreligious. Congress had discovered that in Kentucky there had not been more than one court of justice held in five years. Peter Cartwright, Methodist evangelist, wrote that when his father had settled in Logan County, it was known as Rogue's Harbor.
If someone committed a murder in Massachusetts or a robbery in Rhode Island, all they need to do was to get across the Alleghenies. The decent people in Kentucky formed regiments of vigilantes to fight for law and order, then fought a pitched battle with outlaws and lost.
There was a Scottish-Irish Presbyterian minister called James McGready whose chief claim to fame was that he was so ugly that he attracted attention. Nowadays, you have to be good looking to get attention. But McGready was so ugly that people stopped in the street and said, "What does he do." They said, "He's a preacher." Then they reacted and said, "A man with a face like that must have something to say." McGready settled in Logan County, pastor of three little churches. He wrote in his diary that "the winter of 1799 for the most part was weeping and mourning with the people of God." It was like Sodom and Gomorrah.
McGready was such a man of prayer that not only did he promote the concert of prayer every first Monday of the month, but he got his people to pray for him at sunset on Saturday evening and sunrise Sunday morning. In the summer of 1800 came the great Kentucky Revival. Eleven thousand people came to a communion service. McGready hollered loud and long, "Anyone come and help me." So Baptists and Methodists came, and the great Camp Meeting Revivals began and swept Kentucky and Tennessee, and then burst over North Carolina and South Carolina, and swept the frontier.
That was the turning point. Out of that Second Great Awakening—after the death of Wesley—came:
Now conditions deteriorated in the middle of the 19th Century. Why? Sounds familiar: the county was seriously divided over the issue of slavery, just like the Vietnam War. Second, people were making money hand over fist. When they do, they turn their backs upon God.
A man of prayer, Jeremiah Lanphier, started a businessmen's prayer meeting in the upper room of the North Dutch Reformed Church Consistory Building in Manhattan. Only six people out of a population of a million showed up. But the following week there were fourteen, and then twenty-three when they decided to meet everyday for prayer.
Then they filled the Dutch Reformed Church, then the Methodist Church on John Street, then Trinity Episcopal Church on Broadway at Wall Street. In February and 1858, every church and public hall in downtown New York was filled.
Horace Greeley, the famous editor, sent a reporter with horse and buggy racing round the prayer meetings to see how many men were praying. In one hour he could get to only twelve meetings, but he counted 6,100 men. And then the landslide of prayer began.
People began to be converted, ten thousand a week in New York City alone. The movement spread throughout New England, the church bells bringing people to prayer at eight in the morning, twelve noon, and six in the evening. The revival went up the Hudson and down the Mohawk. For example, the Baptists had so many people to baptize they couldn’t get them into their churches. They went down to the river, cut a big hole in the ice, and baptized them in the cold water. When Baptists do that, they are really on fire!
More than a million people converted to God out of a population of thirty million in one year. And that revival jumped Atlantic, broke out in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, South Africa, and South India. Anywhere there was an evangelical cause, its effect was felt for forty years. It began in a movement of prayer, it was sustained by a movement of prayer.
That movement lasted for a generation, but at the turn of the 20th century, there was need of revival again. There were special prayer meetings at Moody Bible Institute, at Keswick Conventions in England, in Melbourne, in the Nilgiri Hills of India, in Wonsan of Korea. All around the world people were praying that there might be another great awakening in the twentieth century.
As far as churches were concerned, the ministers of Atlantic City reported that of a population of fifty thousand there were only fifty adults left unconverted. Take Portland in Oregon: two hundred and forty department stores closed from 11 to 2 each day for prayer, signing an agreement so that no one would cheat and stay open. That is what was happening in the United States in 1905. But how did it begin?
Most people have heard of the Welsh Revival which started in 1904. It began as a movement of prayer.
Seth Joshua, the Presbyterian evangelist, came to Newcastle Emlyn College where Evan Roberts was studying for the ministry. Evan Roberts was twenty-six. He had been a coal miner. The students were so moved that they asked if they could go to Joshua's next campaign. So they cancelled classes to go to Blaenanerch where Seth Joshua prayed, “O God, bend us.” Evan Roberts went forward, and he prayed with great agony, “O God, bend me.”
He couldn't concentrate on his studies. He went to Principal Phillips, the principal of his college and said, "I hear a voice that tells me I must go home and speak to our young people in my own home church. Mr. Phillips, is that the voice of the devil or the voice of the Spirit?” Principal Phillips answered wisely, “The devil never gives orders like that. You can have a week off.”
So he went back home to Loughor and announced to the pastor, “I've come to preach.” The pastor was not at all convinced, but asked, “How about speaking at the prayer meeting on Monday?” He did not even let him speak to the prayer meeting, but said to the praying people, “Our young brother, Evan Roberts, feels he has a message for you if you care to wait.” Seventeen people waited.
Evan Roberts said to them, “I have a message for you from God. You must confess any known sin to God and put any wrong done to man right. Second, you must put away any doubtful habit promptly. Third, you must obey the Spirit promptly. Finally, you must confess your faith in Christ publicly."
By ten o'clock all seventeen had responded. The pastor was so pleased that he asked, “How about your speaking at the mission service tomorrow night? Midweek service Wednesday night?” He preached all week, and they asked him to stay another week. Then the break came.
The main road between Llanelli and Swansea on which the church was situated was packed from wall to wall with people trying to get into the church. People were closing shops early to find a place in the church.
Now the news was out. They sent a reporter, and he described what he saw. He said it "was a strange meeting which closed at 4:25 in the morning, and then people did not seem to be willing to go home." Then a very British summary, he said, “I felt that this was no ordinary gathering.” The news was out the next day, every grocery store in that industrial valley was packed out, people buying groceries who had come to the meetings. On Sunday, every church filled. It went like a tidal wave over Wales.
I could tell you so much about it. There were a hundred thousand people converted in that movement.Five years later, Dr J. V. Morgan wrote a book to debunk the revival, his main criticism was, "of a hundred thousand joining the churches in five months of excitement of the revival, after five years only eighty thousand still stood." Only eighty thousand.
But the social impact was astounding. For example,
In fact, they sent for the sergeant of the police and asked, “What do you do with your time?”
He said, “Before the revival, we had two main jobs, one was to prevent crime and the other to control crowds, as at football games. Since the revival started there is practically no crime. So we just go with the crowds.”
A councilor asked, “What does that mean?”
He replied, “You know where the crowds are. They are packing out the churches.”
“But how does that affect the police?”
He said, “We have three quartets, and if any church wants a quartet to sing, they simply call the police station.”
You say, how can a revival cause a strike? It didn't cause a strike, just a slowdown. So many Welsh coal miners were converted and stopped using bad language that the horses that dragged the coal trucks in the mines could not understand what was being said to them. Transportation slowed for awhile, until they learned the language. When I first heard that story, I thought it was a tall tale, but I can document it even from Westminster Abbey.
I had discovered through the figures given by British government experts that in Radnorshire and Merionethshire the illegitimate birth rate dropped 44% within a year of the beginning of the revival. So great was the impact of that movement.
That revival swept Great Britain. It broke out in Norway. It so moved in Norway that Norwegian Parliament passed special legislation to permit laymen to conduct Holy Communion because the clergy couldn't keep up with the number of converts who wanted to take Holy Communion. It swept Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Canada from coast to coast, all of the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, East Africa, Central Africa, West Africa, North Africa, Brazil, Mexico, Chile.
So what's the lesson we can learn? It's a very simple one. It's that familiar text. “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 will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).
What's involved in this? God expects us to pray.
But we must not forget what Jonathan Edwards said, when he said to promote explicit agreement and visible union of all God's people in extraordinary prayer. What do you mean by extraordinary prayer?
When you find people getting up at six o’clock in the morning to pray, or having a half-night prayer till midnight, that’s extraordinary prayer. When they give up their lunchtime and go and pray at a noonday prayer meeting, that’s extraordinary prayer. But it must be united and concerted.
It doesn't mean that a Baptist becomes any less of a Baptist, or an Episcopalian less loyal to the thirty-nine articles, or a Presbyterian turns his back to the Westminster Confession. Not at all. But they recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, and they're prepared to pray together in concerted prayer that God may hear an answer. We haven’t reached that stage yet.
Now some people say, then that means it's up to us. No, you can't say that either. Matthew Henry said, “When God intends great mercy for his people, He first of all set them a-praying.” Even God is sovereign in this matter. But we must respond. He has chosen never to work without our cooperation. So whether your interpretation of revival is Calvinistic or Armenian, it's a very simple thing: You must pray and God will work. May God help us so to pray,