Without prayer, revival will not come. But, what does this kind of prayer look like? In 1976, an Oxford-educated church historian named J. Edwin Orr gave a talk entitled “The Role of Prayer in Spiritual Awakening” at the National Prayer Congress in Dallas. A videotape of his presentation was made and it is still available today. Here are some excerpts from it:
Dr. A. T. Pierson once said, “There has never been a spiritual awakening in any country or locality that did not begin in united prayer.” Let me recount what God has done through concerted, united, sustained prayer.
Not many people realize that in the wake of the American Revolution there was a moral slump…. Crime, drunkenness, profanity rose to alarming levels. Churches stopped growing and began to shrink. Christians were so few on the campuses of Ivy League colleges in the 1790s that they met in secret, like a communist cell, and kept their minutes in code so that no one would know….The Chief of Justice of the United States, John Marshall, wrote to the Bishop of Virginia, James Madison, that the Church “was too far gone ever to be redeemed.” Voltaire averred, and Tom Paine echoed, “Christianity will be forgotten in thirty years.” How did the situation change? It came through a concert of prayer….
In New England, there was a man of prayer named Isaac Backus, a Baptist pastor who in 1794, when conditions were at their worst, addressed an urgent plea for prayer for revival to pastors of every Christian denomination in the United States.
Churches knew that their backs were to the wall, so 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 Congregational and Baptist Associations, the Reformed and the Moravians all adopted the plan, until America…was interlaced with a network of prayer meetings, which set aside the first Monday of each month to pray.
It was not too long before the revival came. It broke out first of all in Connecticut, and then spread to Massachusetts and all the seaboard states – in every case entirely without extravagance or outcry. In the summer of 1800, when it reached Kentucky, which was a lawless territory at the time, it burst into wildfire. Great camp meetings were held, and pastors of every denominational affiliation assisted when as many as 11,000 people came to one communion service.
Out of that second great awakening … came the whole modern missionary movement and its societies. Out of it came the abolition of slavery, popular education, Bible societies, Sunday schools and many social benefits….
However, by the mid-1800s, conditions had deteriorated again. In September 1857, a man of prayer, Jeremiah Lanphier, started a prayer meeting in the upper room of the Dutch Reformed Church consistory building in Manhattan. In response to his advertisement, only six people out of the population of a million showed up. But, the following week, there were fourteen, and then twenty-three, when it was decided to meet every day for prayer. By late winter, they were filling the Dutch Reformed Church, then the Methodist Church on John Street, then Trinity Episcopal Church on Broadway at Wall Street. In February and March of 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 around the prayer meetings to see how many men were praying: in one hour, he could get to only twelve meetings, but he counted 6100 men attending.
Then a landslide of prayer began, which overflowed to the churches in the evenings. 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 raced up the Hudson and down the Mohawk, where the Baptists, for example, had so many people to baptize that 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 really are on fire… Out of this revival came a young shoe salesman whose name became a household word, D.L. Moody. More than a million people were converted to God in one year out of a population of thirty million.
Then that same revival jumped the Atlantic and appeared in Ulster, Scotland, Wales, and then on to England, parts of Europe, South Africa and South India – anywhere there was an evangelical cause. It sent mission pioneers to many countries. Effects were felt for forty years. Having begun 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 twentieth century, there was need of awakening again. A general movement of prayer began, with special prayer meetings at Moody Bible Institute; at the Kenswick Convention in England; and places as far apart as Melbourne, Australia; Wonsan in Korea; and in the Nilgiri Hills of India. All around the world believers were praying that there might be another great awakening in the twentieth century….
Among the most notable results of this prayer is the well-known Welsh Revival of 1904… The movement went like a tidal wave over Wales. In five months there were a hundred thousand people converted throughout the country….It was the social impact that was astounding. For example, judges were presented with white gloves, not a case to try: no robberies, no burglaries, no rapes, no murders and no embezzlements, nothing… As the revival swept Wales, drunkenness was cut in half. There was a wave of bankruptcies, but they were nearly all for taverns. There was even a slowdown in the mines. You say, “How could a religious revival cause a strike?” It did not cause a strike, just a slowdown, for so many Welsh coal miners were converted and stopped using bad language that the horses that dragged the trucks in the mines could not understand what was being said to them, hence transportation slowed down for a while until they learned the language of Canaan. (When I first heard that story, I thought that it was a tall tale, but I can document it.)
That revival also affected sexual moral standards, I had discovered through the figures given by British government experts that, in Radnorshire and Merionethshire, the actual illegitimate birth rate had dropped 44% within a year of the beginning of the revival. That revival swept Britain. It so moved all of Norway that the Norwegian Parliament passed special legislation to permit laymen to conduct Communion because the clergy could not keep up with the number of the converts desiring to partake. It swept Sweden, Finland and Denmark, Germany, Canada from coast to coast, all of the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, East Africa, Central Africa, West Africa, touching also Brazil, Mexico, and Chile….
As always, it began through a movement of prayer, with prayer meetings all over the United States as well as the other countries; and soon there came the great time of the harvest. So, what is the lesson we can learn? It is a very simple one, as direct as the promises of God in Scripture:
If my people, who are called by My name, shall humble themselves and pray, and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. (2 Chron. 7:14 [rsv])
What is involved in this? As God requires us to pray, we must not forget what was said by Jonathan Edwards: “…to promote explicit agreement and visible union of God’s people in extraordinary prayer.” What do we mean by extraordinary prayer? We share in ordinary prayer in regular worship services, before eating and the like. But, when people are found getting up at six in the morning to pray, or having a half night of prayer until midnight, or giving up their lunchtime to pray at a noonday prayer meeting, that is extraordinary prayer. But, it must be united and concerted.
[Excerpted from a transcription of “The Role of Prayer in Spiritual Awakening,” a talk given at the National Prayer Congress in Dallas, Texas in October of 1976 by J. Edwin Orr. Used by permission of Campus Crusade for Christ/Randolf Productions, Inc. and the J. Edwin Orr Foundation.]
Dr. Orr just touched on a few highlights from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Again and again we see the powerful effect of prayer in bringing about true revival. It takes a lot of prayer to bring true revival. It takes an army of intercessors praying over time. Those who pray for revival do not need to be in the same room at the same time, although sometimes they are. They don’t even need to speak the same language, because they might come from different countries. But they do need to be united in purpose: “Lord, send your Spirit…. Revive us again!… Rend the heavens and come down!”