June 29, 2023
What’s Old Is New Again
Decline in church membership due to population shifts. Great financial loss. A war between Russia and its neighbors involving Allied countries. Anxiety and confusion resulting in a crisis.
Is it 1857 or 2023? What’s old is new again!
The North Dutch Reformed Church in lower Manhattan had been losing members due to white Protestants moving out of the area and immigrants and businesses moving in. In an effort to gain membership, outreach began to the new people in the neighborhood without much success. So, another effort was made to gain membership by focusing on the business people who worked in the area but commuted home each night.
The church began a weekly noon prayer meeting for these business people with the emphasis being on prayer and not on denominational influences, preaching, or contentious issues. The agenda began with an opening hymn and prayer, followed by prayer requests and prayer responses, and ending with a benediction. The first meeting occurred on September 23, 1857, and had six participants. The next week’s meeting had twenty participants, and the third week’s meeting had between thirty and forty.
It wasn’t long before over 100 people came to pray at daily meetings. Because the North Dutch Reformed Church on Fulton Street started running out of space for people, John Street Methodist Church started their own daily prayer meetings. Within six months, more facilities began daily prayer meetings, accommodating 6,100 people throughout New York City. Other large cities took notice and soon daily prayer meetings were created in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Louisville, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Nashville, Mobile, New Orleans, and Charleston.
These daily prayer meetings led to increased participation in religion, and church attendance rose dramatically. In The Revival of 1857-58: Interpreting an American Religious Awakening, author
Kathryn Teresa Long calculates that from 1856 to 1859, 474,000 new members joined the major protestant denominations, including 250,365 Methodists, 122,984 Regular Baptists, 52,971 Presbyterians (both Old School and New School), 20,071 Episcopalians, and 27,840 Congregationalists.
One of the Fulton Street participants said: “Prayer never was so great a blessing to me as it was at this time! I should certainly either break down or turn rascal, except for it... If I could not get some half hours every day to pray myself into a right state of mind, I should certainly either be overburdened and disheartened, or do such things as no Christian ought.” William C. Conant, Narratives of Remarkable Conversions and Revival Incidents, Including a Review of Revivals (New York: Derby and Jackson, 1858), pg. 357
It is believed that these prayer meetings were successful due to many factors. A nondenominational emphasis was important, as was punctuality. With business people having only an hour for lunch, it was important to begin and end on time. These meetings were designed to be convenient for the participants, not for the churches or clergy, and population demographics were used to create the program, not ignored or railed against.
As the South Georgia Conference hits midsummer of a year where Bishop Graves has called us to prayer, how could a daily, communal time of prayer benefit us personally and denominationally? Could it ease the anxiety and confusion many of us feel during this time? Could daily, communal prayer remind us of God’s almighty power and our need for each other? With all that people have learned in the last 166 years, I believe daily communal prayer is something we’ve forgotten but need to remember.
Anne Packard serves as Conference Historian and director of the Arthur J. Moore Methodist Museum on St. Simons Island. Contact her at email@example.com.