Workplace prayer and mission in the 19th Century…

In 1857 a Dutch missionary called Jeremiah Lanphier was employed by Fulton Street Church to minister to the unchurched in the city of New York, USA.  After spending a time going from door to door of people’s homes delivering tracts and inviting people to church meetings, and running boys clubs and Sunday School classes, he felt discouraged as he felt that for many nothing seemed to be changing…

Jeremiah looked around him and watched the people who worked in the city as they went about their work, and he became distressed by their weariness and sense of indifference to life.

 He conceived the idea of starting a lunchtime prayer meeting for businessmen, to provide some mid-day spiritual refreshment.  

He put together a simple invitation which he left in shops, hotels and factories as well as to the homes he had visited, where he invited anyone who wanted to come together to pray for 5 minutes or upto an hour, whatever people could manage:

A day of Prayer-Meeting is held every Wednesday from 12 to 1 o’clock in the Consistory building in the rear of the North Dutch Church, corner of Fulton and William Streets. This meeting is intended to give merchants, mechanics, clerks, strangers and businessmen generally an opportunity to stop and call on God amid the perplexities incident to their respective avocations.

It will continue for one hour; but it is also designed for those who find it inconvenient to remain more than 5 or 10 minutes, as well as for those who can spare a whole hour. Necessary interruption will be slight, because anticipated.

Those in haste often expediate their business engagements by halting to lift their voices to the throne of grace in humble, grateful prayer. Mr. Lanphier set the very first meeting for noon September 23rd 1857 in the lecture room on the third floor of the Consistory Building of the North Reformed Protestant Dutch Church.”

On the first Wednesday 6 men had joined Jeremiah.  

Week 2 became twenty,

and by Week 3 it had become forty, and the meeting moved to daily.  

The structure of the gathering was led like a business meeting, it was simple and was easily reproduced when the prayer meetings spread to multiple locations across the city:

  1. The meeting started promptly
  2. Scripture was read out loud
  3. There was some sung worship
  4. The meeting was then opened up and everyone present were invited to say prayers of thanksgiving or intercession. (Anyone who attempted to start giving a talk or a long prayer (more than 5 minutes!), or debate theological issues etc was simply interrupted and reminded it was just a prayer meeting
  5. The meeting lasted maximum one hour long.

The meetings and fervency in prayer grew, the Holy Spirit moved powerfully amongst the meetings, people from all classes and denominations began to gather together, and people started giving their lives to the Lord.  Soon other churches were hosting meetings and gatherings across the city in department stores, police departments, music halls and theatres.  

Within 6 months the prayer meetings were having such an impact that businesses began shutting down over an extended lunch.  It has been estimated that at it’s height there were 50,000 conversions a week throughout the city.  Even the secular press recognised this extra-ordinary move of the Holy Spirit, and has become known as the beginning of the Third Great Awakening in the history of USA revivals.  

Within 2 years, the churches involved had seen an extra 1 million new believers.  You can read more about it here

Whilst of course revivals are unique moves of the Holy Spirit, there are some distinctive features about this move of the Holy Spirit which I wonder could be insightful for missional communities seeking to see God move amongst our workplaces.

Firstly, it started with one guy looking around him and asking himself: how can I connect all these people with the reality of God’s presence, without requiring them to come to one of our church meetings?  He then set about establishing a rhythm of gathered prayer and the communal reading of scripture at a time and a place for which the people it was designed to be available to could easily take some time out of their busy to day to come along.

  • What would a lunchtime gathering centred around prayer look like in your workplace, town or city centre?
  • Where and when could you meet and how could people know they were invited?
  • How could you keep the structure simple, the space open to the leading of the Holy Spirit and the centrality of God’s Word being read speaking into peoples lives?

(Image taken from revival-library.org)

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