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Revival – 11 – The Third Great Awakening in America 1857-1858

Revival begins at a Canadian farm 1853

The first stirrings of revival in what became the Third Great Awakening in America began on a Canadian farm in the province of Ontario. Dr. Walter Palmer was a wealthy physician who had turned evangelist. Both Palmer and his wife Phoebe held evangelistic meetings mostly in the United States but occasionally traveled to Canada. In August 1853, the Palmers preached at a camp meeting on a farm in an eastern township near Nappanee where over five hundred people were converted. They returned to Nappanee in 1854 and saw another great harvest of souls in which hundreds were converted. They came again in 1855 to Barrie and once again saw hundreds converted.[1]

Hamilton was a bustling Ontario community of 23,000 in October 1857. The Palmers were merely passing through Hamilton on their way back to Albany, New York, from Georgetown, Ontario, where three thousand were in attendance. The Palmers had planned to stay only one night but were forced to stay longer with friends because of the loss of their luggage. Two ministers soon discovered the couple’s presence in Hamilton and invited them to tea at which they were encouraged to speak at the Thursday prayer meeting. The three downtown Methodist churches joined together for the prayer meeting at which sixty-five people gathered in the basement of one of the churches. Those gathered were challenged to pray for a revival, and thirty raised their hands in agreement not only to commit to “fervent, personal prayer” for revival but to bring their fellow townspeople with them to church. The first revival meeting was held the next day and twenty-one were converted. Saturday’s meeting yielded another twenty, and Sunday saw an additional seventy conversions. After ten days conversions totaled four hundred. Soon the revival spread to Ancaster. The revivals lasted well into November of 1857.[2]

On October 28th, The Christian Guardian was the first Canadian newspaper to report the unusual events that had been occurring in Hamilton. A week later a New York newspaper, The Christian Advocate, gave the following report on the revival taking place in Hamilton, Ontario.

The work is taking within its range…persons of all classes. Men from low degree and men of high estate for wealth and position, all men and maidens, and even little children are seen humbly kneeling together pleading for grace. The Mayor of the city with other persons of like position is not ashamed to be seen bowed at the altar of prayer beside their humble servants.[3]

Unfortunately, the Hamilton revival was to be almost exclusively a Methodist affair. Hesitant over the “Methodist enthusiasm,” the Baptists and the Presbyterians were generally unaffected and the Anglicans remained indifferent.[4]

Revival stirrings were also happening in the United States well before the Hamilton revival began. On October 1, 1856, the Holy Spirit began to be “especially manifest” at the Stanton Street Baptist Church in New York City. At least five or six persons each week “presented themselves as inquirers to the Christian faith.” Interest increased in December 1856 and January 1857 such that revival meetings began to be held nightly in February. Sixty persons were baptized in March and April. Following a summer lull, revival fervor increased again in the fall and winter months.[5]

The Revival of 1857-1858 (aka The Third Great Awakening)

The Third Great Awakening began in 1857-1858 and has been called by many names including the Businessman’s Revival, the Layman’s Revival, and the Union Prayer Meeting. But it is most widely known as the Revival of 1857-1858. Much like the central theme of the Protestant Reformation, this revival was about personal religious transformation from which society greatly benefited. As noted at the end of the last chapter, the Third Great Awakening was the sustaining moment that prepared the nation to endure the national conflagration of the Civil War and made possible its reunification and survival in the war’s aftermath.

On July 1, 1857, Jeremiah Lamphier became the City Missionary in downtown New York. Converted fifteen years earlier in the Broadway Tabernacle built by Charles Finney, Lamphier was a quiet businessman. He was described as personable, capable, intelligent, and very ardent in his faith. He had been appointed to his lay position by the North Church of the Dutch Reformed denomination which was losing membership in downtown New York because many members had moved away to better residential neighborhoods. As a layman City Missionary, his task was to visit the immediate neighborhoods and encourage church attendance.[6]

The spiritual lethargy of his fellow businessmen weighed heavily on Lamphier’s mind and heart. He believed a weekly noonday prayer meeting would allow various merchants, businessmen, mechanics, clerks, and strangers “an opportunity to stop and call upon God amid the perplexities incident to their respective avocations.” Accordingly, Lamphier distributed a handbill setting the weekly prayer meeting on Wednesdays from 12 to 1 o’clock at the North Dutch Church at the corner of Fulton and William Streets in what is today lower Manhattan. At that first meeting on the 23rd of September, Lamphier anxiously awaited but no one joined him until about 12:30 PM six persons in succession quietly arrived. Two weeks later on October 7th, there were forty in attendance and it was decided to hold prayer meetings on a daily rather than weekly basis. In the same week, Walter and Phoebe Palmer began preaching revival meetings in Hamilton that resulted in extraordinary numbers of converts, but reports of the Hamilton revival would not reach New York until November 5th.[7] But God had an additional means of arresting the attention of a wayward nation consumed with things other than religion.

Financial and commercial prosperity had been building at a dizzying pace for over a decade as the nation rapidly expanded with the addition of new states to the Union. New cities sprang up, and cheap land became available as the frontier was pushed farther and farther to the west. But in 1856 and 1857, there were disturbing signs of financial instability. By fall of 1857, various events coalesced to bring about the third great panic in American history. Much of the speculative wealth of the nation was swept away as banks failed and railroads went into bankruptcy. Factories were shut down, merchants went out of business, and thousands were thrown out of work including thirty thousand in New York City alone.[8] The panic was triggered when a bank holiday was declared on October 14th to prevent a run on the banks. By the time the banks were reopened on December 14th, recession had spread over the nation and to other parts of the world. As a result of the panic, the noon prayer meetings received a significant boost in attendance from those working in nearby Wall Street and others who were unemployed, some seeking salvation while others killed time.[9]

By the end of March 1858 every church and public hall was filled to capacity in downtown New York City as ten thousand business men were gathering daily for prayer. Soon revival was occurring in Brooklyn, Yonkers, and in New Jersey towns across the Hudson River. By February the national press began covering the story.[10] With mass unemployment during the winter of 1857-1858, one would have expected the crime rate to increase, but it actually dropped as the wealthy looked after the physical needs of many of their less fortunate brothers and sisters in Christ.[11] J. Edwin Orr described the impact of the revival on the United States.

The national press from coast to coast carried news of the great awakening in the metropolis, and citizens everywhere were challenged by the movement. The “showers of blessing” in New York had caused a flood which suddenly burst its bounds and swept over New England, engulfed the Ohio Valley cities and states, rolled over the newly settled West, lapped the edges of the mountains in the South, and covered the United States of America and Canada with divine favour.

The influence of the awakening was felt everywhere in the nation. It first moved the great cities, but it also spread through every town and village and country hamlet, swamping school and college. It affected all classes without respect to their condition. A divine influence seemed to pervade the land, and men’s hearts were strangely warmed by a Power that was outpoured in unusual ways. There was no fanaticism. There was remarkable unanimity of approval among religious and secular observers alike, with scarcely one critical voice heard anywhere.[12]

After careful research, revival historian Dr. J. Edwin Orr estimated that approximately one million people were converted in the nation during 1858-1859. In other words, conversions amounted to over three percent of the population which was less than thirty million at that time. This seems a reasonable estimate given that some historians have estimated that conversions were occurring at the rate of fifty thousand per week at the height of the revival.[13]

The two revivals originating almost simultaneously in the United States and Canada also had a worldwide impact including many men and women across Great Britain. This influence led to revivals in Wales (1858-1860), Ireland and Scotland (1859-1860), and England (1859-1860). In 1858, two hundred thousand converts were recorded in Sweden in the first year of a two-year revival. The India Awakening began in late 1859 with the greatest revivals occurring in the south of India.[14]

The long-term consequences in America of the Revival of 1857-1858

The Revival of 1857-1858 influenced many young men who would later spark many revivals among troops on both sides of the Civil War. Large and widespread revivals in both Union and Confederate armies occurred between 1862 and 1865. Conversions during the war were estimated to be between 100,000 and 200,000 among Union troops and as many as 150,000 in the Confederate Army.[15]

One may ask how this can be—brothers fighting and killing each other while both called on God for protection and to save their immortal souls. To answer, we must remember that slavery was an institutional cancer on the national body. Regardless of slavery’s origins and protectors, it was slavery that was being cut from the body, not the Southern soldier and citizen. God was just as concerned for the individual Southerner as he was for those in the North.

As previously mentioned, the efforts to abolish slavery in America began early in the nation’s history as a result of the moral suasion of Christian people who saw slavery as morally unacceptable within the biblical worldview. It was a matter of right and wrong and not a matter of “rights” or equality. However, breaking the chains of injustice sometimes requires the hammer of state in the cause of brotherhood and fraternity. The Civil War cost 600,000 lives, billions of dollars, and loss of unity as the nation was tragically divided with few thoughts of Christian brotherhood on either side of the chasm filled with distrust.

The war years and the years following the draconian Reconstruction Act of 1867 left the South lying prostrate and ravaged. Called the Tragic Era, Sherwood Eddy paints a picture of the dozen years of life in the South following the end of the Civil War.

Often with flagrant disregard of civil liberties, Southern officials, courts, customs, and organizations were removed or swept away, and a government by Northern Carpetbaggers and Negroes was substituted under military tribunals. A Northern army of occupation of twenty thousand was aided by an irritating force of colored militia…The state administrations under Northern carpetbaggers were extravagant, corrupt, and vulgar. The state treasuries were systematically looted…The majority of the legislature and most of the important officers were Negroes and many of the rest were rascally whites from the North, or unsavory characters from the South. Taxes were levied by the Negroes, of whom 80 percent were illiterate, and were paid by the disfranchised whites…the future of the Negro was sadly prejudiced by these disreputable adventures in self-government.[16]

The post-war product of the hammer of state that broke the chains of injustice was dis-unifying, absent Christian principles and brotherhood, and was anything but moral. Should Abraham Lincoln have avoided the assassin’s bullet, his post-war efforts at reconciliation of the divided nation could have forestalled much of the tragedy and anguish experienced during the Reconstruction period. Richard Weaver described the precipice upon which the nation teetered following Lincoln’s death at the end of the Civil War.

There was a critical period when, if things had been managed a little worse, the South might have turned into a Poland or an Ireland, which is to say a hopelessly alienated and embittered province, willing to carry on a struggle for decades or even centuries to achieve a final self-determination…As it was, things were done which produced only rancor and made it difficult for either side to believe in the good faith of the other. It is unfortunate but it is true that the Negro was forced to pay a large part of the bill for the follies of Reconstruction.[17]

Therefore, we must ask how it was possible for the nation to survive the cataclysmic events of the Civil War and the subsequent Tragic Era in the midst of moral degradation and dashed hopes for brotherhood and unity. Once again we must look for the answer in the actions of Christians who originally provided the motivation and drive to end slavery and who, following the Civil War, would provide the motivation for the restoration and unification of the nation.

Restoration and unity would not come easily, and it would be decades before signs of healing were evident. The Northern and Southern churches continued to have different interpretations of the war and its outcome. Northerners viewed theirs as a righteous victory and themselves as guardians of the ideals embodied in the Constitution which were based on the same principles as found in Christianity.[18] Following the war main-stream Northern churches tended toward rectifying other ills of society through a social gospel with a consequent loss of focus as it switched its emphasis from perfecting the inner man to social justice.[19]

In spite of loss of the war, Southern evangelicals comforted themselves with the thought that their goals were spiritual and not temporal which resulted in the rise of an other-worldly mood within Southern Christianity. Thus, Christianity allowed the Southern culture to focus on spiritual victory in the midst of earthly defeat. Religion in the South became the bulwark of Southern culture and “…never appeared stronger than it did at the end of the nineteenth century.” From this détente between Northern and Southern churches during the remainder of the century, old animosities began to wane as reconciliation became a common political, literary and religious theme in both the North and South. “Religion which once played a role in breaking the nation apart, now aided the reunification of the South with the North.”[20]

In spite of differing views of the war and the rampant corruption and immorality that plagued both the North and South for decades after the Civil war, many of the faithful Civil War veterans who embraced Christianity during the war-time revivals returned to their homes with their religious fervor intact, filled the pews, spurred post-war revivals (particularly in the South), and brought healing to the nation.[21] As a result, the unifying common ground of Christianity and faithfulness of individual Christians sheltered the flame of brotherhood amidst the winds of secularism and materialism of the Gilded Age in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Without this unifying Christian faith, the rebirth of national unity would have been still-born which could have easily and likely led to a permanent balkanization of much of the South. Because of the Revival of 1857 and 1858 and its legacy of Christian revivals among the soldiers during the Civil War, the Republic was saved.

The nature of the Revival of 1857-1858 in America

Historians have debated the impact of the Revival of 1857-1858 as it related to nineteenth century social reform efforts. Some historians such as Kathryn Teresa Long point to the revival prayer meeting practice of avoiding any discussion of controversial topics such as slavery and abolitionism as evidence of little direct social impact caused by the revival.[22]

From this perspective, the 1857-1858 revival marked a shift in the public role of revivals in American life. It signaled a rejection of the combination of religious conversion and community moral reform that had been a part of the New England Calvinist tradition since the colonial revivals. Instead, a more limited, pietistic image of revivals emerged, one focused on prayer and evangelism and in which community meant experiences of shared feeling among middle class people. This shift of urban revivalism in a more inward direction reflected the changing nature of community in a rapidly industrializing society and promised northern evangelicals spiritual harmony in the midst of an increasingly complex society.[23] [emphasis added]

But there was not a shift in the public role of revivals to a more inward direction. The reality was that the 1857-1858 Revival was about personal religious transformation but with which society greatly benefited. It must be remembered that the ordering of society and the addressing of its social ills must begin with the individual through an ordering of his soul in right relationship with God. This must certainly be the greatest impact of the Revival of 1857-1858 as the nation was soon to be immersed in its greatest struggle for survival. As noted at the close of the last chapter, it was the Revival of 1857-1858 that caused men and women, in both the North and South, to be spiritually prepared for the coming struggle in which the nation would exorcize the demon of slavery and recover its national unity.

After the Revival of 1757-1758, the real shift away from revivals as an instrument through which religious, moral, and social reformation of society was periodically accomplished was caused by the rise of increasingly liberal elements within the Protestant church. This was not a retreat to an inward spirituality but an abandonment of the irreplaceable renewing power of revival by much of the liberal Protestant establishment in America. During the last third of the nineteenth century, the Protestant churches came under assault by a rapid secularization of the culture and the emergence of powerful new humanistic forces that sought to replace Christianity as the measure of cultural norms and authority. All of these factors led to a dramatic loss of cultural power by the once dominant Protestant preeminence. This transition will be discussed in the next chapter.

Larry G. Johnson


[1] Gerald Procee, “Revivals in North America: The Hamilton, Ontario, Canada Revival of 1857, (accessed January 16, 2018).
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Mathew Backholer, Revival Fires and Awakenings-Thirty Six Visitations of the Holy Spirit, (ByFaith Media, 2009, 2012), p. 61.
[6] Edwin Orr, The Light of the Nations – Evangelical Renewal and Advance in the Nineteenth Century, (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1965), pp. 102-103.
[7] Ibid., p. 103.
[8] Ibid., p. 100.
[9] Kathryn Teresa Long, “Revival of 1857-1858,” Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals in America, Vol. 1, A- Z, ed. Michael McClymond, (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2007), p. 362.
[10] Orr, The Light of the Nations, p. 104.
[11] Backholer, Revival Fires and Awakenings, p. 62.
[12] Orr, The Light of the nations, pp. 107, 109.
[13] Backholer, Revival Fires and Awakenings, p. 63.
[14] Ibid., pp. 63-67.
[15] Darrell W. Stowell, “Civil War Revivals,” Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals in America, Vol. 1, A-Z, ed. Michael McClymond, (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2007), pp. 117-118
[16] Sherwood Eddy, The Kingdom of God and the American Dream, (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1941), pp. 177, 179-180.
[17] Richard M. Weaver, The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, Eds. George M. Curtis, III and James J. Thompson, Jr., (Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund, 1987), p. 216.
[18] Gardiner H. Shattuck, Jr., A Shield and Hiding Place – The Religious Life of the Civil War Armies, (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1987), pp. 129-130.
[19] Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, A Patriot’s History of the United States, (New York: Sentinel, 2004), p. 497.
[20] Shattuck, A Shield and hiding Place, pp. 12, 125, 127-128, 130-131, 135-136.
[21] Stowell, “Civil War Revivals,” Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals in America, pp. 120-121.
[22] Long, “Revival of 1857-1858,” Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals in America, p. 365.
[23] Ibid., pp. 365-366.

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