The 2 Characteristics of Revival
Praying for Revival
In 1858 God poured out his Spirit in an extraordinary measure, first in New York, then throughout the United States. This revival was the occasion of the strengthening of churches and the conversion of many thousands of souls. It affected people of all ages, races, socioeconomic conditions, and church denominations. It was so widely felt that even the secular newspapers of the time published regular reports of it. And it began at a prayer meeting attended by seven people. In his firsthand account of the spiritual events of that year, the minister Samuel Prime wrote: “This revival is to be remembered through all coming ages as simply an answer to prayer.”1
For many of us, I think revival is one of those fuzzy-around-the-edges blessings that we are quick to pray for and slow to understand. Sure, we pray for revival. Revival sounds great. But what exactly is it? J. I. Packer provides a helpful definition. Summarizing Jonathan Edwards’s significant work on the subject, Packer writes: “Revival is an extraordinary work of God the Holy Ghost reinvigorating and propagating Christian piety in a community.”2
Exploring the Bible’s teaching on the importance of corporate prayer, Praying Together lays a theological foundation and offers practical advice related to praying alongside other believers—in our families, churches, and communities.
He Establishes Jerusalem
Let’s consider the two primary characteristics of revival (“reinvigorating” and “propagating” Christian piety) with the specific incentives that the Bible gives us to pray for each of them. In the first place, revival is God reinvigorating his people, the church. The freshly revived church will have right affections—rejecting sin, eagerly attending the preaching of the Word, and being constant in prayer—and she will abound in good works to those in her midst and also outside.3 This is something God promises to do, and it is something he commands us to pray for:
On your walls, O Jerusalem,
I have set watchmen;
all the day and all the night
they shall never be silent.
You who put the Lord in remembrance,
take no rest,
and give him no rest
until he establishes Jerusalem
and makes it a praise in the earth. (Isa. 62:6–7)
In Isaiah 62 God tells us he is going to make his church, here called Jerusalem,4 righteous (Isa. 62:1), beautiful (Isa. 62:3), and an object of divine rejoicing (Isa. 62:5). She will be nourished without threat from her enemies (Isa. 62:8–9), will be firmly established, and will be “a praise in the earth” (Isa. 62:7).
On the strength of his promise, God commands all “who put the Lord in remembrance” (Isa. 62:6) to pray for this. Everyone who loves Christ’s church must ask him for her establishment.5 Moreover, we are to pray not just once or twice but without ceasing. We are to take no rest for ourselves. And, in an invitation to divinely sanctioned audacity, God tells us not to give him any rest either. We are to be like the persistent widow who returned again and again with her request (Luke 18:1–8). We are to be like the prophetess Anna who never left the place of prayer and fasting (Luke 2:37). We are to imitate Paul who prayed for the church at all hours (1 Thess. 3:10). And we are to pray in opposition to the relentless Enemy of the church who accuses her night and day (Rev. 12:10). By divine command, we must pray for the reinvigorating of God’s people—morning and evening, today and tomorrow, this year and next year, and in all the years until Christ’s return.
One day, when we are beyond time, when Christ returns and we enter into eternity with him, when the new Jerusalem comes down (Rev. 21:2) and is fully and finally established, we will join the cherubim and seraphim and the company of the saints whose praises never cease night and day (Rev. 4:8–11; 7:15). We who gave God no rest on earth, asking for his blessing, will give him no rest in eternity, thanking him for his answer.
We who gave God no rest on earth, asking for his blessing, will give him no rest in eternity, thanking him for his answer.
Earlier I described the New York revival that started at a prayer meeting begun by a man named Jeremiah Lamphier. Lamphier wrote in his diary: “One day, as I was walking along the streets, the idea was suggested to my mind that an hour of prayer, from twelve to one o’clock would be beneficial to business men, who usually in great numbers take that hour for rest and refreshment.”6 That first prayer meeting, held on September 23, 1857, soon expanded to one hundred fifty noontime meetings throughout the city where, instead of taking a rest, the businessmen of New York gave themselves and their God no rest.7
And what an answer they received! Beginning in New York and then throughout the United States, the Lord poured out his Spirit on his people. Samuel Prime reported:
The changes which came over the church were most welcome. . . . It was a blessed spectacle presented to the world, a church alive, a church active, a church of prayer. It was a sublime spectacle, when this was seen as the moral position, not of one church, but of a majority of churches; not in one place, but in every place, when all the land seemed to be moved by one common impulse.8
Brothers and sisters, let us pray together at all times (Eph. 6:18)—on coffee breaks and lunch breaks, in early mornings and late nights and every snatched moment in between—giving God no rest until he establishes his people.
He Sends Out Laborers
The second characteristic of revival is “propagating Christian piety.” In revival, the Spirit’s work extends beyond the bounds of the church, regenerating hearts in large numbers. Most of us have never personally witnessed the conversion of masses of people— whether the three thousand on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41) or the three hundred thousand during the Great Awakening of 1740–1742 or the fifty thousand every week during the 1858 revival9—but we have strong biblical incentive to pray for it. One of our best encouragements comes from Jesus’s words to his disciples: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2).
Our prayer for the gospel’s success in the hearts of sinners is made urgent by Jesus’s use of contrast. On the one hand, we have the promised, glorious, abundant harvest of souls. On the other, we have a meager trickle of laborers heading out to the field. This is not good, says Jesus. I have a vast number, ready to pluck to myself. Don’t be satisfied with a single preacher here or there when the world needs a great company. Ask the Father to send more. (It’s interesting to note that in this incident Jesus is sending out seventy-two men. By the standards of most of our churches, the commissioning of seventy-two missionaries at one time would be amazing. But Jesus here calls them “few” and says to pray earnestly for more!)
When we pray together for the conversion of many, we pray alongside Jesus, whom the Father bids, “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession” (Ps. 2:8). We know that the prayers of Christ—and our prayers in harmony with him—will be answered. In heaven we will personally witness the Father’s answer in the “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9). We have every reason to ask God for more—more workers, more redeemed souls in more places, and, ultimately, more glory to the Lamb.
In 1806 a college student named Samuel Mills began to pray for the cause of foreign missions. Up until this time, the missionary organizations that existed in the United States were solely dedicated to domestic missions, both in the Western frontier and among Native American tribes.10 But at Williams College, Mills prayed that the Lord would raise up and send out men to carry the gospel to other nations. Eventually, he assembled a small group of spiritually minded friends: “He led them out into a meadow, at a distance from the College . . . where by the side of a large stack of hay, he devoted the day to prayer and fasting, and familiar conversation on this new and interesting theme [foreign missions].”11 Some accounts say there was a sudden thunderstorm as they were praying, which caused the men to take refuge under the haystack.12 After that day, they continued to gather weekly for what became known as the Haystack Prayer Meeting. In answer to the prayers from among the haystacks, God was pleased to establish the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the American Bible Society, and the United Foreign Missionary Society and, through those organizations, to send out many laborers into his ripened harvest field.13
Brothers and sisters, let us pray together wherever we can—in back rooms and backyards, in empty classrooms and in deserted stairwells, at picnic tables and pews and subway platforms— asking the Lord to gather a great harvest to himself.
- Samuel Prime, The Power of Prayer: The New York Revival of 1858 (1859; repr. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1991), 3.
- J. I. Packer, “Jonathan Edwards and the Theology of Revival,” in Puritan Papers: vol. 2, 1960–1962, ed. J. I. Packer (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001), 33.
- Ibid., 37.
- John L. Mackay, Isaiah, vol. 2: Chapters 40–66, EP Study Commentary (Carlisle, PA: EP Books, 2009), 535.
- Ibid., 536.
- Jeremiah Lamphier, quoted in Prime, Power of Prayer, 7–8; emphasis original.
- Ibid., 24. There were also daily noontime prayer meetings in Boston, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, New Orleans, Vicksburg, Memphis, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Chicago.
- Ibid., 28–29.
- Erroll Hulse, Give Him No Rest: A Call to Prayer for Revival (Webster, NY: Evangelical Press, 2006), 8, 25.
- Gardiner Spring, Memoirs of the Rev. Samuel J. Mills, Late Missionary to the South Western Section of the United States, and Agent of the American Colonization Society, Deputed to Explore the Coast of Africa (New York: New York Evangelical Missionary Society, 1820), 21.
- Ibid., 29.
- Ruth A. Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983), 122.
- Heman Humphrey, Revival Sketches and Manual in Two Parts (New York: American Tract Society, 1859), 116.
This article is adapted from Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer in Our Homes, Communities, and Churches by Megan Hill.
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