The economic downturn that enriched millions

Posted: Friday, November 14, 2008

When in 1857 the S.S. Central America went down in a fierce Atlantic storm about two hundred miles east of Charleston, South Carolina, the costs of this sinking were immense. This luxury steamship, loaded with loaded people, made rich during the California gold rush, was headed home carrying three tons of gold; so in addition to the death toll (420 people), there was an enormous financial loss in this tragedy that brought down many banks and launched a national economic panic. Still, there is a bright side to this sad story.

Students of North American spiritual awakenings generally agree that the huge financial losses caused by the sinking of S.S. Central America and the resulting economic downturn were key factors in the beginning of a great revival.

The revival of 1857, which began in New York City, seems to have been birthed through the earnest prayers of Jeremiah Lanphier, a quiet businessman who accepted an appointment by his church to be a city missionary in Lower Manhattan. Lanphier's work was difficult and he often became discouraged but drew strength from prayer to go on.

Sensing the negative impact that the depressed economy was having on people, Lanphier concluded many of these troubled ones might be helped by joining him in prayer so he announced that a series of weekly noon hour prayer meetings would begin on September 23, 1857.

For the first half hour of the opening meeting, Lanphier prayed alone. Then, one by one, others came until there were six praying. The next week, twenty people came to pray and the third week brought forty.

When the spring of 1858 arrived, many other noon hour prayer meetings had been started and were taking place daily. Some of the largest churches in the city were now crowded to capacity at noon with praying people. The police and fire departments then opened their buildings for prayer and soon it was clear that this spiritual awakening was spreading from state to state. In a Boston meeting a man said, "I am from Omaha, Nebraska. On my journey here I found a continuous prayer meeting all the way."

There was another important development that contributed to this historic awakening. The week of the beginning of Lanphier's noon hour prayer meetings, a church in Hamilton, Ontario began a week of meetings featuring Walter and Phoebe Palmer, a physician and his talented wife who emphasized the importance of faith and prayer in the churches and homes.

In his book, "The fervent Prayer," J. Edwin Orr wrote: "From tiny springs of prayer in New York and preaching in Hamilton came a flood soon to envelop the world; adding these resulted in a million people coming to faith and joining the churches.

There were then two important ingredients in this great awakening: a New York church that decided to support a missionary in difficult financial times and a Canadian church that was willing to invest in an evangelistic outreach in spite of the temptation to draw back and hunker down until the economy improved.

What will your church do in view of these similar circumstances?

Roger Campbell is an author, broadcaster and columnist. He was a pastor for 22 years. He can be reached at

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