It was exactly 12 noon on September 23, 1857. A tall, middle-aged former businessman climbed creaking stairs to the third story of an old church building in the heart of lower New York City. He entered an empty room, pulled out his pocket watch and sat down to wait. The placard outside read: “Prayer Meeting from 12 to 1 o’clock—Stop 5, 10, or 20 minutes, or the whole hour, as your time admits.” It looked like no one had the time. As the minutes ticked by, the solitary waiter wondered if it were all a mistake.

For some three months he had been visiting boarding houses, shops, and offices, inviting people to the eighty-eight-year-old Old Dutch North Church at Fulton and Williams streets. The church had fallen on slim days. Old families had moved away. The business neighbourhood was teeming with a floating population of immigrants and labourers. Other churches had gotten out. Many thought that Old Dutch should throw in the towel. But the trustees determined on a last-ditch stand. They decided to hire a lay missionary to conduct a visitation programme. The man they picked was Jeremiah C. Lanphier, a merchant who had no experience whatsoever in church visitation work.

The going was slow. A few families came. But often Lanphier returned to his room in the church consistory weary and discouraged. At such time he “spread out his sorrows before the Lord.” And he never failed to draw new strength from his time of prayer. While going his rounds of visitation, the idea occurred to him that businessmen might like to get away for a short period of prayer once a week while offices were closed at noon. With permission of church officials Lanphier passed out handbills and put up the placard. When the day of the first meeting came, he was the only one on hand for it.

He waited ten minutes, then ten more. The minute hand of his watch pointed to 12:30 when at last he heard a step on the stairs. One man came in, then another and another until there were six. After a few minutes of prayer the meeting was dismissed with the decision that another meeting would be held the following Wednesday. That small meeting was in no way extraordinary. There was no great outpouring of the Spirit of God. Lanphier had no way of knowing that it was the beginning of a great national revival which would sweep an estimated one million persons into the kingdom of God.

Twenty men came to his second noon-hour meeting. The following Wednesday, forty. Lanphier decided to make the meeting a daily event in a larger room. That very week—on Wednesday, October 14— the nation was staggered by the worst financial panic in its history. Banks closed, men were out of work, families went hungry. The crash no doubt had something to do with the astonishing growth of Lanphier’s noon meeting (by now called “the Fulton Street prayer meeting”). In a short time the Fulton Street meeting had taken over the whole building with crowds of more than 3,000. Lawyers and physicians, merchants and clerks, bankers and brokers, manufacturers and mechanics, porters and messenger boys —all came.

Rules were drawn up. Signs were posted. One read: “Brethren are earnestly requested to adhere to the 5-minute rule.” Another: “Prayers and Exhortations Not to exceed 5 minutes, in order to give all an opportunity.” It seemed that the Fulton Street meeting had touched a nerve.

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