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Greatness From Small Beginnings

In the midst of unlikely surroundings, in the day of small beginnings, revival is birthed. Have we forgotten? Nothing is impossible for someone who believes.

Jeremiah Lanphier was a man beset by adversity. He lived during what’s become known as The Panic of 1857, a time when the stock market crashed and the USA was heading toward civil war. Jeremiah himself was virtually unknown, without influence or platform, yet his passion for prayer was unshaken.

At the time, the United States was in tremendous spiritual, political, and economic decline. Many people were disillusioned with spiritual matters because of preachers who had repeatedly predicted the end of the world in the 1840s. Agitation over slavery was breeding political unrest, and civil war seemed very near. By 1857, large financial panic hit. Banks had failed, railroads went bankrupt, factories closed, unemployment increased.

In lower Manhattan, a Dutch Reformed church was steadily losing members, largely because of population changes owing to immigration. Looking for help, they hired Jeremiah Lanphier, who was a layman, to try to reverse the trend with an active visitation program. Despite his visitation ministry, church members were not gathering and the small church continued to decline.

Unlikely surroundings. Small beginnings.

In a risky step of faith, Jeremiah rented the hall on Fulton street and began advertising prayer meetings. By the third week of Jeremiah’s advertising, his prayer meeting had only forty participants, yet the people asked to hold daily meetings. Something had started with this small group of believers.

Then, on October 10, the stock market crashed. Suddenly people began flocking by the thousands to these prayer meetings. Within just six months, 10,000 people were gathering daily for prayer in New York City alone. You see, obscurity is the seedbed for revival. In studying moves of God, we find a pattern of Him operating in an opposite manner to worldly expectations. We must remember that God works through the dynamics of Heaven, rather than through the mechanics of men.

Along with New York, many other places were being swept into the revival. Chicago’s Metropolitan Theater was being filled for prayer with 2,000 people daily, another group of 2,000 people were assembling for daily prayer in Cleveland. In St. Louis, churches were filled up for months at a time as people met and cried out to God.

What started as the Panic of 1857 became the Great Awakening of 1857.

In February, 1858, Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald gave extensive coverage to the prayer revival. Not to be outdone, the New York Tribune devoted an entire issue in April, 1858 to news of the revival. News of the revival traveled west by telegraph. This was the first revival in which the media played an important role.


In this revival, it was the lay people, not the ministers or church leaders, who led the momentum. It was prayer, rather than preaching, as the main focus. The meetings themselves were informal — any person could come up to pray, or speak, or lead the others in a song, or give a testimony (they held a five-minute limit for each speaker). The movement spread like wildfire and had outstanding fruit accompanying it.

Some of the fruit was the fact that all of the school classes became interested in salvation, thousands of backsliders returned to the Lord, conversions greatly increased, and they saw Christians desiring greater discipleship and a deeper instruction in truth.

Many families established daily devotions, and entire communities underwent a noticeable change in morals. Preaching, which in many places had become intellectual and lifeless, now concentrated on the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the power of the cross.

As James Buchanan of Scotland summarized, it was a time when “new spiritual life was imparted to the dead, and new spiritual health imparted to the living.”

Jeremiah Lanphier’s obscurity, lack of training, and lack of financial resources didn’t stop him. He was so enamored with Jesus that he prayed his way through obstacles, making the most of his season of life. Zechariah 4:10 tells us, “Who dares despise the day of small things, since the seven eyes of the LORD that range throughout the earth will rejoice when they see the chosen capstone in the hand of Zerubbabel?”. The phrase “small things” is particularly relevant to our journey with the Lord. God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. In this manner, we see a theme of great revivals and revivalists being raised up from obscurity.


  • As you read this story and others like it, allow the Lord to infuse hope and fresh expectancy within you for another powerful visitation in the midst of unlikely surroundings and small beginnings!
  • Where, in your own life, do you see scarcity? Perhaps that is a seedbed for an increased love for prayer. Perhaps you are in a day of small beginnings like Jeremiah. With human resources alone, it may be impossible, but with God, all things are possible.

— Brian Starley

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