What starts in New York City spreads around the country, for good or ill. Some 2,000 people gathered in Manhattan late last month to commemorate the good that had begun 150 years before.
On Sept. 23, 1857, Jeremiah Lanphier climbed the stairs to the third floor of a church on Fulton Street in lower Manhattan. He entered a deserted lecture room and at noon began to pray. Half an hour later, one man joined him. By 1:00, six men were praying. Soon thousands of men and women across the city were praying each day in a movement that became known as the Fulton Street Revival of 1857-1858.
In 1857, 30,000 unemployed men roamed the streets of New York. The economy was hurtling into financial panic: A New York life insurance company had just collapsed and British investors were withdrawing funds from U.S. banks. Positions on slavery were hardening and a city fueled by slave-raised commodities feared the prospect of civil war.
Lanphier, a businessman with (according to a contemporary) "indomitable energy and perseverance," saw the anxious looks of the businessmen around him. He produced a flier that asked fellow New Yorkers to "stop and call upon God" for a few minutes each week at the church on Fulton Street. First meeting: six men. Second meeting: 10. Then 40. Then 100.
At the revival's peak, 50,000 New Yorkers were praying daily across the city. Businesses closed during the noon hour to accommodate prayer. Stores, fire departments, music halls, and theaters became venues for prayer.
The meetings spread across the state and then the nation. The revival claimed 1 million converts and its influence rippled into the 20th century. Dwight L. Moody attended meetings in Chicago and then recruited 17 street urchins for his first Sunday school class. Seminary student Horace Underwood became a missionary to Korea, a country that now contains 30 million Christians. Christians started missions to the poor that are still going.
Today, financial district skyscrapers have swallowed the Manhattan that Lanphier walked. An apartment building that advertises "Smart, Sexy, Available" residences stands where the Fulton Street church once welcomed the weary. But the commemoration last month included prayer for another revival and the unveiling of a Lanphier statue.
Speakers discussed prayer, church planting, social justice, and Christian influence in the workplace, but often came back to New York's influence in the country. Tim Keller, pastor of New York City's Redeemer Presbyterian Church, spoke of "a slow-moving beginning to revival" in the city. He spoke of revival components: Nominal church members who have never understood the gospel become converted, "sleepy Christians get awakened to a new sense of God," the church moves from tribal infighting to reaching out, and nonbelievers come to church.
He also looked at what happens once revivals get going: Unless Christians have gentleness and humility, an "intemperate fringe" arises, and revival "goes to their head like wine." Leaders of the secular culture attack the fringe, and conservative churches, feeling threatened, oppose revival-but the gospel still goes forward and leads to "major changes . . . a wholesomeness pervades society for many, many years."
Keller noted that the apostle Paul focused his ministry on cities-"cities were so crucial to that first great renewal"-and praised the Fulton Street return of cities to center stage. He noted, though, that businessmen avoided any mention of politics or slavery in their prayers, because their livelihood was dependent on slavery: They missed an opportunity because they were shaped by their culture's values.
Keller said he loves New York: "This city is so hip, it's so arrogant. . . . Oh Lord, save me from the hubris and the arrogance of this city. . . . I want to be a New Yorker but I want to be a different New Yorker. I want to be a Christian New Yorker. . . . It's not easy to be of New York yet against New York."