The Power of Prayer

In 1794 Baptists Isaac Backus and Stephen Gano, along with twenty-three other New England ministers, distributed a circular letter which called believers to pray for a general awakening:

“To the ministers and churches of every Christian denomination in the United States, to humble in their endeavors to carry into execution the humble attempt to promote explicit agreement and visible union of God’s people in extraordinary prayer for the revival of religion and the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on earth.
In execution of this plan, it is proposed that the ministers and churches of every Christian denomination should be invited to maintain public prayer and praise, accompanied with such instruction from God’s Word, as might be judged proper, on every first Tuesday, of the four quarters of the year, beginning with the first Tuesday of January, 1795, at two o’clock in the afternoon, if the plan of concert should then be ripe for a beginning, and so continuing from quarter to quarter, and from year to year, until the good Providence of God prospering our endeavors, we shall obtain the blessing for which we pray.”

The men who began this call for a concert of prayer had been influenced by the First Great Awakening. Decades earlier, during that former outpouring of the Spirit, John Erskine of Scotland had published a memorial to encourage prayer for an outpouring of God’s Spirit. Jonathan Edwards’ treatise A Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom (you can see words from this title in the call to prayer above) was based on Erskine’s memorial. Years later in 1784, Erskine sent Baptist leaders John Ryland and Andrew Fuller the treatise. Thus began what was soon a Concert of Prayer throughout England. Soon reports of revival also spread across the nation, and it was in this season that William Carey pushed for global missions. Following that Gano, Backus and others called for prayer in a very simple yet focused effort. What were the results?

By 1800 Backus rejoiced: “The revivals of religion in different parts of our land have been wonderful.” All the major denominations supported this call to prayer. Methodists observed the concert from 1796 to the close of the century. At about the same time Presbyterian pastor James McGready, who would be so important in the frontier camp meetings, wrote a prayer covenant enlisting believers to pray every Saturday evening, Sunday morning, and the entire third Saturday of each month for revival in Logan Country, Kentucky, and throughout the world. Historian J. Edwin Orr argued that the awakening became “great” following the movement of prayer.

Around this time young adults joined the movement mostly without awareness it was happening. Four young men at Hampden-Sydney college in Virginia had joined together for prayer. A movement of God on that campus soon began, coming a few years before the call to prayer noted above. Similar stirrings came to Yale College, and missions students will all recognize the name Samuel J. Mills, who with a few others met in a regular prayer group at Williams College. On a rainy August day in 1806, Mills proposed a mission to Asia, birthing foreign missions agencies in the New World.

Imagine this: a movement of God that started with prayer through the leadership of men of God hungry to see the gospel proclaimed to neighbors and the nations, combined with a series of movements among younger leaders at the same time. A Great Commission Resurgence of sorts came some two hundred years ago.

In my spiritual network known as the Southern Baptist Convention there is now a call for such a resurgence in our time. Ronnie Floyd, chairman of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force appointed by SBC President Johnny Hunt, has called for 5000 people to prayer for God to move through this process. To view the website, click here.

Allow me to make a few observations:

1. If God should honor this effort it will take more and involve more than Baptists. Notice above that while led by Baptists Gano and Backus, it involved those from many traditions who shared in their time a hunger for the gospel. Parochialism is the enemy of revival. We must be careful not to confuse a call for God to bless our preferences with a call for God to move in His sovereign power. We may run the risk of working against God if we spend more energy discouraging a spirit that seeks to learn from others who share a love for the gospel. Let our focus as we pray be on a work of God that brings a renewal to the Church, not only one tradition within God’s Church. I ask all those who love God’s Word, His gospel, and His world to join with us in this call to prayer.

2. It must involve young and old. Great awakenings historically have involved many younger people. Edwards said the First Great Awakening was essentially a youth movement! We need all ages, all generations, all ethnicities, to join in prayer. There are more youth in the U.S. than ever in our history, and we would be unwise and in fact ignorant of history if we did not consciously seek to involve youth in this call.

3. It takes time. In our ADD culture of instant everything, remember the call to prayer came in 1794, and reports of revival came in large number over five years later. Similarly, the earliest signs of revival in the First Great Awakening came around 1726, while the awakening became a much larger outbreak in the 1740s. I fear we do not have the perseverance to hang in there for years if we do not see God move immediately.

4. Note its simplicity. Prayer once a quarter, and let pastors be free to lead those times as God leads them. No multimedia, no three ring binders and expensive seminars, none of that. If God would move today He may more likely move to spread His work through Twitter and free podcasts than through overpriced conferences and a handful of “experts.”

5. Finally, notice the focus is on the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom. Too many who study and talk about revival fail to recognize that the preachers in the awakenings did not preach “Five Steps to Revival;” they preached the gospel! The renewal of a gospel-centeredness came with the experience of true revival. If we will see an awakening in our day, it will be because we witness a true Great Commission resurgence.

When the Valley Revival came to Northampton in 1734-35 as part of the First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards noted that one factor was his challenge to youth to join together weekly for prayer and spiritual encouragement. Perhaps it is time we followed his example and called for young and old, wise and novice, to do the thing that every follower of Christ has equal opportunity before God to do: pray.