My great regret is that I allowed this book to sit on my bookshelf only partially read for over three years. In this book, Roy Fish, long time Professor of Evangelism at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, recounts the prayer revival of 1858 and, in particular, its effect on Baptists. Having now read what is certainly a thorough account of the revival of 1858, I wonder that it is not spoken of more often.
It seems that a humble layman named Jeremiah Calvin Lanphier became burdened for the people of New York and began a noon prayer meeting at the North Reformed Dutch Church in Lower Manhattan in September 1857. What happened next can only be seen as an unbelievable and unforeseen movement of God among the people of our nation. This little prayer meeting was soon bursting at the seams with thousands of people stopping in the middle of the day to call out to the Lord. What is more, prayer meetings of a similar nature began to meet, oftentimes with no knowlege of the what was happening at the North Dutch Reformed Church, all over the nation. A full-fledged revival ensued, with conversions numbering around one million people in a two year period.
There are a number of truly astonishing facts surrounding this revival. First of all, unlike earlier awakenings in our nation’s history, the 1858 revival was not “sermon led.” It was “prayer led.” People were coming to know Jesus and experiencing life-changing conversions through prayer meetings. Furthermore, as Dr. Fish aptly points out, this revival does not have any one famous preacher or pastor at its heart. One searches in vain for an Edwards or Whitfield here, though this revival certainly produced a few giants: Dwight L. Moody, to name one. Far from having an individual personality to look to, the 1858 revival was largely lay inspired. This fact had the fortunate outcome of taking the revial outside of denominational lines. People of all denominations and walks of life stopped to pray and call upon the Lord.
For those of us who yearn for a movement of God’s spirit in our midst again, WHEN HEAVEN TOUCHED EARTH will be a true source of inspiration. The stories of secular businesses closing down to participate in the noon prayer meetings, of secular newspapers having almost nothing negative to say about the revival, and of individual cases of dramatic conversions among hardened sinners will certainly stir the heart of any and all that seek the power of God.
The book is at times a tedious read. It was originally Dr. Fish’s PhD. dissertation and it occasionally reads like one. Dr. Fish’s overwhelming record of statistics, for instance, while fascinating, do not lend themselves to smooth reading. Nevertheless, these are minor qualms. The story itself is so remarkable that any dificiencies in the book itself are soon eclipsed by the soul-stirring accounts of an undeniable movement of God in our land.
In a church age in which revival machinery and manipulative attempts at conjuring awakening seem to be rendering the desired goal impossible as much as anything else, this tale of a laypeople or grass-roots led movement towards God is sorely needed. It gives one hope to realize that American society of 1858 was as hardened and as cynical as our own, yet the power of prayer prevailed. One not only hopes, but believes that this can happen again.