Prayer Meetings and Revival in the Church
Joel R. Beeke
“We shall never see much change for the better in our churches in general till the prayer meeting occupies a higher place in the esteem of Christians,” wrote Charles Haddon Spurgeon in his famous address, “Only a Prayer Meeting.”1
By “the prayer meeting” Spurgeon meant a formal meeting of members of a Christian congregation at stated times for the purpose of engaging in united prayer. Such meetings are the focus of this chapter. I choose to use “corporate prayer” below to refer to these meetings in distinction from formal worship services.
Prayer meetings in America have fallen on hard times. Less than ten percent of members now meet for prayer in churches that once had vibrant, Spirit-led meetings. In many churches, prayer meetings have become cold and boring. Other churches have never developed the tradition of meeting regularly for corporate prayer.
Lewis Thompson rightly wrote, “If it is true that the active piety of a church rises no higher than it manifests itself in the prayer-meeting, so that here, as on a barometer, all changes in spiritual life are faithfully recorded, then certainly too much attention cannot be given by both pastor and people to the conducting of the prayer-meeting.”2
It is time to reassess the importance of prayer meetings, for the church that does not earnestly pray together cannot hope to experience revival and renewal. Have we forgotten that the Reformation era churches often held daily morning and evening services for preaching and prayer? Is it surprising that the Reformed faith has experienced more revival in Korea than anywhere else in the world in the last half-century when Christians there gather 365 mornings a year for prayer (at 5 a.m. in the summer and 6 a.m. in the winter)? Let us take a closer look at the history of prayer meetings in conjunction with revival.
Prayer meetings were influential in times of revival. The 1620s revival in Ireland was spurred on by prayer meetings.3 So were awakenings in the 1740s. Two generations prior, Josiah Woodward had published An Account of the Rise and Progress of the Religious Societies in the City of London, which described forty distinct prayer groups in London.4 As the awakenings spread, prayer meetings multiplied. Thomas Houston writes in his The Fellowship Prayer Meeting, “The awakenings which took place in various parts of England, under the ministry of Wesley and Whitefield, led to the establishment of social prayer-meetings; and, at this period, when within the pale of the National Establishment, and without it, all was under the torpor of spiritual death, this organization was a powerful means of exciting earnest minds to pursue after eternal concerns.”5
Prayer meetings were also influential in eighteenth-century revivals in Scotland. Prior to the awakening in 1742, numerous prayer societies had sprung up. One society was established in Kilsyth in 1721; it flourished for some years, then died out in the 1730s, but was resurrected in 1742 just before revival broke out. During the meetings, there were public prayers, psalm-singing, Scripture reading, and discussion based on questions from Thomas Vincent’s study of the Shorter Catechism.6
During the Great Awakening in Scotland, prayer meetings often began with children, then spread to adults. For example, a schoolteacher in the parish of Baldernock allowed four students to meet on their own for prayer and psalm singing. According to The Parish of Baldernock, “In the course of two weeks, ten or twelve more [children] were awakened and under deep convictions. Some of these were not more than eight or nine years of age, and others twelve or thirteen. And so much were they engrossed with the one thing needful as to meet thrice a day-in the morning, at mid-day, and at night.” Adults then began holding prayer meetings two or more times a week. There were many conversions at both the adult and the children’s meetings.
The fervor soon spread to other parishes. The Parish of Kirkintillock reports: “In the month of April, 1742, about sixteen children in the town were observed to meet together in a barn for prayer. Mr. Burnside [their pastor] heard of it, had frequent meetings with them, and they continued to improve. And this being reported, many more were impressed. Soon after, about a hundred and twenty [children] were under a more than ordinary concern, and praying societies, as usual, were formed.”
Johnston’s reaction to that awakening was to affirm and support the prayers of children. “Why not encourage children’s prayer-meetings? Why may not God still perfect praises to the glory of his grace, out of the mouth of babes?” he asked.7
Jonathan Edwards also encouraged children’s prayer. In answering objections some critics had raised to children’s prayer meetings, he wrote, “God, in this work, has shown a remarkable regard to little children; never was there such a glorious work amongst persons in their childhood, as has been of late in New England. He has been pleased, in a wonderful manner, to perfect praise out of the mouths of babes and sucklings; and many of them have more of that knowledge and wisdom that please him, and render their religious worship acceptable, than many of the great and learned men of the world. I have seen many happy effects of children’s religious meetings; and God has seemed often remarkably to own them in their meetings, and really descended from heaven to be amongst them. I have known several probable instances of children being converted at such meetings.”8
In 1747, Edwards published An Humble Attempt to promote an explicit agreement and visible union of God’s people through the world, in extraordinary prayer, for the revival of religion and the advancement of Christ’s kingdom on earth. Usually referred to thereafter as An Humble Attempt, this book was reprinted by Christian Focus in 2003 as A Call to United, Extraordinary Prayer. Edwards said he was motivated to write on “a concert of prayer” for two reasons: first, he realized that the revivals of the mid-1730s and the early 1740s would not recur until God’s people engaged in earnest prayer for revival. Second, he wanted to provide additional theological support for a document written by some Scottish pastors simply entitled Memorial.
David Bryant tells us the story of Memorial: “Rising out of scores of prayer societies already functioning in Scotland around 1740, especially among young people, by 1744 a committee of ministers determined it was time to do more. They decided to try a two-year ‘experiment,’ uniting all prayer groups and praying Christians in their nation into a common prayer strategy. They called for focused revival prayer on every Saturday evening and Sunday morning, as well as on the first Tuesday of each quarter. By 1746 they were so gratified by the impact of their experiment that they composed a call to prayer to the church worldwide, especially in the colonies (Memorial). However, this time the ‘concert of prayer’ was to be for seven years.”9
Citing Zechariah 8:20-22, Edwards said that God’s rich promises encourage us to expect great success from corporate prayer. He said: “That which God abundantly makes the subject of his promises, God’s people should abundantly make the subject of their prayers.” He concluded that when believers persevere in united, concerted prayer, God will grant a fresh revival, which “shall be propagated, till the awakening reaches those that are in the highest stations, and till whole nations be awakened.”10
Edwards’s book had a limited influence during his lifetime. Republished late in the eighteenth century in England, it influenced William Carey (1761-1834) and his prayer group. It also affected John Sutclif (1752-1814), a well-known Baptist pastor in Olney, who led weekly prayer meetings for revival in the Baptist churches of the Northamptonshire Association, to which his church belonged. Those prayer meetings spread throughout the British Isles, particularly impacting eighteenth century revivals in Wales. Heman Humphrey writes in his Revival Sketches, “One of the most important revivals of religion, when the effects are considered, is that which occurred in the ‘Principality of Wales’ under Howell Harris and Daniel Rowlands; and this was carried forward and fostered by means of private societies for prayer and religious conference.”11 In the end, tens of thousands were converted throughout Britain from the 1790s to the 1840s.12
Edwards’s treatise became a major manifesto for the Second Great Awakening around the beginning of the nineteenth century. It also fueled other awakenings in the late 1850s. Samuel Prime’s The Power of Prayer, published by Banner of Truth Trust, explains how corporate prayer ushered in the famous 1857-1859 revival (sometimes called the Third Great Awakening) along the eastern coast of the United States, then spread west, resulting in the conversion of hundreds of thousands of people.
Beginning in the fall of 1857, six men gathered at noon every day for corporate prayer in the consistory room of a Reformed church in New York City. Prayer was the Spirit’s means to germinate the seeds of revival. By early 1858 more than twenty prayer groups were meeting at noon in New York City. In Chicago, more than 2,000 people gathered daily for prayer at the Metropolitan Theatre. The movement spread to nearly all the major cities of America, then made its way to the British Isles and around the world. Prayer meetings sprang up everywhere: in churches, on college campuses, in hospitals, among sailors, on mission fields, and at orphanages and colleges. To mention only one example, at Hampden-Sydney College, one student found another student reading Joseph Alleine’s Alarm to the Unconverted, and told him that there were two other students who were also in favor of such literature. The four students held a prayer meeting, while fellow students harassed them. When the president heard that the four young men were accused of holding a prayer meeting, he said with tears, “God has come near to us,” and joined them himself at their next meeting. A remarkable revival swept through the college and into the surrounding area. Soon, more than half the college was attending prayer meetings.13 Scholars estimate that two million or more were converted in the revivals of the late 1850s, while hundreds of thousands of professed Christians were deeply affected.
In the 1860s, Charles Spurgeon organized prayer meetings at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. People met at 7 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. every day. More than 3,000 came to the meeting on Monday evenings. One evening a visitor asked Spurgeon what accounted for the success of these meetings. Spurgeon walked his visitor to the sanctuary, opened the door, and let him watch the participants. Nothing more needed to be said.
The great revivals of the twentieth century were likewise inspired by prayer. The Welsh revival of 1904-05, the revival in Riga, Latvia, in 1934, and more recent revivals in Romania and Korea were all born and nurtured in prayer.14 Today, most evangelical churches hold weekly prayer meetings, but there seems to be so much lukewarmness in prayer. We desperately need churches to unite in the kind of prayer that the Spirit may use to produce world-wide revival.
Praying together is often the means God uses to initiate or increase revival and renewal in the church. Let us treasure prayer meetings. Let us engage in them with all our heart, remembering that revivals usually begin with prayer meetings. As one divine put it, “The Holy Spirit loves to answer petitions that are appended with many signatures.”
Let us keep praying. Let us pray without ceasing. God is able to do “exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). Who can tell what He will do?
The author: Dr. Joel R. Beeke is President and Professor of Systematic Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and Pastor of Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the editor of Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth and author of many books including, Meet the Puritans and Striving Against Satan.
1. Charles Spurgeon, Only a Prayer Meeting (Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2000), p. 9.
2. Lewis O. Thompson, The Prayer-Meeting and Its Improvement (Chicago: W. G. Holmes, 1878), p. 16.
3. J. B. Johnston, The Prayer-Meeting, and Its History, as Identified with the Life and Power of Godliness, and the Revival of Religion (Pittsburgh: United Presbyterian Board, 1870), pp. 110, 145; cf. Thomas Houston, The Fellowship Prayer-Meeting, pp. 80-84.
4. Cf. F. W. B. Bullock, Voluntary Religious Societies, 1520-1799 (London, 1963).
5. Cited in Johnston, The Prayer-Meeting, and Its History, p. 154.
6. Arthur Fawcett, The Cambuslang Revival (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1971), pp. 71-72.
7. Johnston, The Prayer-Meeting, and Its History, pp. 165-66.
8. Cited by Johston, p. 173.
9. Jonathan Edwards, A Call to United, Extraordinary Prayer (Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2003), pp. 16-17.
10. Edwards, p. 18.
11. Heman Humphrey, Revival Sketches and Manual (New York: American Tract Society, 1859), p. 55ff.
12. Erroll Hulse, Give Him No Rest: A Call to Prayer for Revival (Durham: Evangelical Press, 1991), pp. 78-79.
13. Johnston, The Prayer-Meeting, and Its History, pp. 185-87.
14. Hulse, Give Him No Rest, pp. 103-107.
(c) 2012 PrayerShop Publishing. Used by permission. Taken from Giving Ourselves to Prayer: An Acts 6:4 Primer for Ministry (PrayerShop 2008)