What Can We Learn from Charles Spurgeon and the New York Revival of 1858?
Something remarkable was happening in America in the spring of 1858. On September 23, 1857, Jeremiah C. Lanphier began holding weekly noontime prayer meetings at the North Reformed Dutch Church in New York. The first meeting had six in attendance. By the next week, the number grew to twenty. Then to forty. Lanphier soon changed the weekly gathering to a daily prayer meeting, and attendance continued to grow steadily, including both men and women. These meetings were marked by loud singing, short addresses, heartfelt sharing, and extemporaneous prayer.
By the following spring, the daily prayer meeting was so well attended that all three floors of the building were occupied. New prayer meetings sprouted up in other places throughout the city. As visitors to New York experienced this revival, they took that influence back to their hometowns, and these prayer meetings spread to other major cities, from Philadelphia to Kalamazoo. Newspapers throughout the English-speaking world reported on the stories of conversions and revival in America.
As Charles Spurgeon read these reports, he was encouraged. He compared this revival to the First Great Awakening that took place a hundred years ago under George Whitefield. “So marvelous—I had almost said, so miraculous—has been the sudden and instantaneous spread of religion throughout the great empire, that it is scarcely possible for us to believe the half of it, even though it should be told us.”
But Spurgeon was not naïve when it came to revivals. He was often quite public in his criticisms against the revivalists of his day. In fact, he had such a reputation against revivalism that people were surprised to hear him speaking positively about the New York City revival. So, on March 28, 1858, Spurgeon preached his sermon, “The Great Revival.” The sermon reflects on the phenomenon of revival, and it presents Spurgeon’s convictions about the work of God.
What did Spurgeon want his people to understand about God’s work in revival?
GOD ALONE BRINGS ABOUT REVIVAL
First and foremost, the sermon shows that Spurgeon wanted his people to know that true revival comes from God alone. His sermon text was Isaiah 52:10. In this verse, the prophet describes God “as laying aside for awhile the garments of his dignity, and making bare his arm, that he may do his work in earnest, and accomplish his purpose for the establishment of his church.” This is what happens during a revival.
Spurgeon observed that throughout church history, revival often came at unexpected times when God’s people were declining and languishing spiritually. In Spurgeon’s words: “He finds a people hard and careless.” But it is in these low times that God raises up preachers and stirs his people to pray so that the church is awakened. What explains this phenomenon? “The only real cause is his Spirit working in the minds of men.”
This is why Spurgeon believed that there was no such thing as a revivalist. “Whenever I see a man who is called a revivalist, I always set him down for a cipher.” Though some newspapers referred to Spurgeon as a revivalist, given the large crowds he attracted and his itinerant preaching, he always rejected the title. He insisted on simply being referred to as a pastor.
If God pleases to make use of a man for the promoting of a revival, well and good; but for any man to assume the title and office of a revivalist, and go about the country, believing that wherever he goes he is the vessel of mercy appointed to convey a revival of religion, is, I think, an assumption far too arrogant for any man who has the slightest degree of modesty.
Behind Spurgeon’s rejection of revivalists was his foundational conviction that God alone brings revival. This belief in God’s sovereign grace and man’s absolute dependence shaped Spurgeon’s entire philosophy of ministry. No matter how many sermons he preached, books he wrote, or institutions he founded, Spurgeon knew that he could never presume on the grace of God. All was in vain unless the Lord acted to save. The Christian’s hope for any spiritual awakening must be in God’s sovereign grace alone.
GOD USES PREACHING AND PRAYER TO BRING REVIVAL
While God is “the only actual cause” of revival, says the “Great Revival” sermon, God is pleased to use “instrumental causes” in his work. The main instrumental cause of revival “must be the bold, faithful, fearless preaching of the truth as it is in Jesus.” Spurgeon observed how every generation experiences spiritual decline as gospel doctrines are modified, covered up, and dressed up in attractive errors so that, in the end, it is “in no way whatever related to the truth.” But it’s precisely in these moments that God raises up bold preachers who bring out the truth again. Whether Martin Luther, the Puritans, George Whitefield, or countless others, God has been pleased throughout church history to use faithful preachers of his Word to bring about revivals in the church.
But preaching isn’t enough. The “earnest prayers of the church” must accompany the preaching of the Word. The most tireless ministries are in vain “unless the church waters the seed sown, with her abundant tears.” This is what Spurgeon saw happening in America. “Every revival has been commenced and attended by a large amount of prayer. In the city of New York at the present moment, I believe there is not one single hour of the day, wherein Christians are not gathered together for prayer.”
This was the lesson of the New York revival. While most other revivals in church history have been associated with a particular preacher, the New York revival displayed that God also works powerfully through congregational prayer. To be sure, preaching was still an essential part of these prayer meetings. But at the heart of the New York revival wasn’t anyone’s preaching, but countless Christians’ constant prayers.
A REVIVAL’S RESULTS ARE ONLY TRULY SEEN IN THE LOCAL CHURCH
Revivalists believed that the Spirit’s work showed up in sensational signs: shrieking, convulsions, falling, dancing, and more. Spurgeon believed such signs were the work of Satan, not of God. He warned his people:
Now, if you see any of these strange things arising, look out. There is that old Apollyon busy, trying to mar the work. Put such vagaries down as soon as you can, for where the Spirit works, he never works against his own precepts and his precept is, “Let all things be done decently and in order.”
Revivalists also justified their meetings by reporting great numbers. Through innovative methods—like arranging for “decoy ducks” in the congregation to make public professions— revivalists could generate decisions for Christ. And they didn’t hesitate to publish those results. Spurgeon continues: “It was only last week I saw a record of a certain place, in our own country, giving an account, that on such a day, under the preaching of the Rev. Mr. So-and-so, seventeen persons were thoroughly sanctified, twenty-eight were convinced of sin, and twenty-nine received the blessing of justification. . . . All that I call farce!”
Why were such reports a farce? Because no revivalist could see into the heart. To count the number of people who were being sanctified, convicted of sin, or justified based on a mere profession was ridiculous. For Spurgeon, only one number mattered: those who joined the church. “We may easily say that so many were added to the church on a certain occasion, but to take a separate census of the convinced, the justified, and the sanctified, is absurd.”
Only the church provided the accountability that made a profession of faith meaningful. A revival was like a miraculous spring pouring water out on the ground for all to drink. But apart from the church, that water would evaporate as soon as the spring closed. Through the church, however, that water could be caught in a container and maintained well beyond the life of the spring. Therefore, amid revival, Spurgeon urged pastors not to neglect the discipline of church membership:
I must say, once more, that if God should send us a great revival of religion, it will be our duty not to relax the bonds of discipline. Some churches, when they increase very largely, are apt to take people into their number by wholesale, without due and proper examination. We ought to be just as strict in the paroxysms of a revival as in the cooler times of a gradual increase, and if the Lord sends his Spirit like a hurricane, it is ours to deal with skill with the sails lest the hurricane should wreck us by driving us upon some fell rock that may do us serious injury. Take care, ye that are officers in the church, when ye see the people stirred up, that ye exercise still a holy caution, lest the church become lowered in its standard of piety by the admission of persons not truly saved.
THE CHURCH IN EVERY GENERATION NEEDS REVIVAL
Many of Spurgeon’s contemporaries thought the crying need of the church was better technology, dynamic preachers, bigger buildings, better finances, beautiful worship, efficient societies, or countless other church-growth ideas. But Spurgeon cut through that confusion and pinpointed the one need of every church in every generation: revival. The fundamental need of the church is for God to awaken preachers to the glories of the gospel, awaken Christians to holiness and prayer, convict sinners and bring them to saving faith in Christ, and raise up workers for the harvest.
Though Spurgeon had already experienced a revival under his ministry, he never got over longing for revival, and he urged his people to pray for an even greater blessing.
Men, brethren and fathers, the Lord God hath sent us a blessing. One blessing is the earnest of many. Drops precede the April showers. The mercies which he has already bestowed upon us are but the forerunners and the preludes of something greater and better yet to come. He has given us the former; let us seek of him the latter rain, that his grace may be multiplied among us, and his glory may be increased.
Do you long for a revival in your church? In “The Great Revival,” Spurgeon paints a picture of what a revival could look like. Can you imagine such a thing happening in your church? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Brothers and sisters, pray that God, in his mercy, would bring about such a revival.
Yet don’t just listen to me talk about Spurgeon. Listen to Spurgeon himself:
When there comes a revival, the minister all of a sudden finds that the usual forms and conventionalities of the pulpit are not exactly suitable to the times. He breaks through one hedge; then he finds himself in an awkward position, and he has to break through another. He finds himself perhaps on a Sunday morning, though a Doctor of Divinity, actually telling an anecdote—lowering the dignity of the pulpit by actually using a simile or metaphor—sometimes perhaps accidentally making his people smile, and what is also a great sin in these solid theologians, now and then dropping a tear. He does not exactly know how it is, but the people catch up to his words. “I must have something good for them,” he says. He just burns that old lot of sermons; or he puts them under the bed, and gets some new ones, or gets none at all, but just gets his text, and begins to cry, “Men and brethren, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved.”
The old deacons say, “What is the matter with our minister?” The old ladies, who have heard him for many years and slept in the front of the gallery so regularly, begin to rouse, and say, “I wonder what has happened to him; how can it be? Why, he preaches like a man on fire. The tear runs over at his eye; his soul is full of love for souls.” They cannot make it out; they have often said he was dull and dreary and drowsy. How is it all this is changed? Why, it is the revival. . . .
Well, then, directly after that the revival begins to touch the people at large. The congregation was once numbered by the empty seats, rather than by the full ones. But all of a sudden—the minister does not understand it—he finds the people coming to hear him. He never was popular, never hoped to be. All at once he wakes up and finds himself famous, so far as a large congregation can make him so. There are the people, and how they listen! They are all awake, all in earnest; they lean their heads forward, they put their hands to their ears. His voice is feeble, they try to help him; they are doing anything so that they may hear the Word of Life.
And then the members of the church open their eyes and see the chapel full, and they say, “How has this come about? We ought to pray.” A prayer-meeting is summoned. There had been five or six in the vestry: now there are five or six hundred, and they turn into the chapel. And oh! how they pray! That old stager, who used to pray for twenty minutes, finds it now convenient to confine himself to five; and that good old man, who always used to repeat the same form of prayer when he stood up, and talked about the horse that rushed into the battles and the oil from vessel to vessel, and all that, leaves all these things at home, and just prays, “O Lord, save sinners, for Jesus Christ’s sake.” And there are sobs and groans heard at the prayer meetings. It is evident that not one, but all, are praying; the whole mass seems moved to supplication. How is this again? Why, it is just the effect of the revival, for when the revival truly comes, the minister and the congregation and the church will receive good by it.
But it does not end here. The members of the church grow more solemn, more serious. Family duties are better attended to; the home circle is brought under better culture. Those who could not spare time for family prayer, find they can do so now, those who had no opportunity for teaching their children, now dare not go a day without doing it; for they hear that there are children converted in the Sunday school. There are twice as many in the Sunday school now as there used to be, and, what is wonderful, the little children meet together to pray, their little hearts are touched, and many of them show signs of a work of grace begun, and fathers and mothers think they must try what they can do for their families: if God is blessing little children, why should he not bless theirs?
And then, when you see the members of the church going up to the house of God, you mark with what a steady and sober air they go. Perhaps they talk on the way, but they talk of Jesus, and if they whisper together at the gates of the sanctuary, it is no longer idle gossip; it is no remark about, “How do you like the preacher? What did you think of him? Did you notice So-and-so?” Oh, no! “I pray the Lord that he might bless the word of his servant, that he might send an unction from on high, that the dying flame may be kindled, and that where there is life, it may be promoted and strengthened, and receive fresh vigor.” This is their whole conversation.
And then comes the great result. There is an inquirers’ meeting held: the good brother who presides over it is astonished, he never saw so many coming in his life before. “Why,” says he, “there is a hundred, at least, come to confess what the Lord has done for their souls! Here are fifty come all at once to say that under such a sermon they were brought to the knowledge of the truth. Who hath begotten me these? How hath it come about? How can it be? Is not the Lord a great God that hath wrought such a work as this?” And then the converts who are thus brought into the church, if the revival continues, are very earnest ones. You never saw such a people. The outsiders call them fanatics. It is a blessed fanaticism. Others say, they are nothing but enthusiasts. It is a heavenly enthusiasm.
Everything that is done is done with such spirit. If they sing, it is like the crashing thunder; if they pray, it is like the swift, sharp dash of lightning, lighting up the darkness of the cold-hearted, and making them for a moment feel that there is something in prayer. When the minister preaches, he preaches like a Boanerges, and when the church is gathered together, it is with a hearty good will. When they give, they give with enlarged liberality; when they visit the sick, they do it with gentleness, meekness, and love. Everything is done with a single eye to God’s glory; not of men, but by the power of God. Oh! that we might see such a revival as this!
But, blessed be God, it does not end here. The revival of the church then touches the rest of society. Men, who do not come forward and profess religion, are more punctual in attending the means of grace. Men that used to swear, give it up; they find it is not suitable for the times. Men that profaned the Sabbath, and that despised God, find it will not do; they give it all up. Times get changed; morality prevails; the lower ranks are affected. They buy a sermon where they used to buy some penny tract of nonsense.
The higher orders are also touched; they too are brought to hear the Word. Her ladyship, in her carriage, who never would have thought of going to so mean a place as a conventicle, does not now care where she goes so long as she is blessed. She wants to hear the truth, and a drayman pulls his horses up by the side of her ladyship’s pair of grays, and they both go in and bend together before the throne of sovereign grace. All classes are affected. Even the senate feels it; the statesman himself is surprised at it, and wonders what all these things mean. Even the monarch on the throne feels she has become the monarch of a people better than she knew before, and that God is doing something in her realms past all her thought—that a great King is swaying a better scepter and exerting a better influence than even her excellent example.
Nor does it even end there. Heaven is filled. One by one the converts die, and it even gets fuller, the harps of heaven are louder, the songs of angels are inspired with new melody, for they rejoice to see the sons of men prostrate before the throne. The universe is made glad: it is God’s own summer; it is the universal spring. The time of the singing of birds is come; the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. Oh! that God might send us such a revival of religion as this!
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 For more on the New York Prayer Meeting Revival of 1858, see Talbot W. Chambers, The New York City Noon Prayer Meeting: A Simple Prayer Gathering that Changed the World. (Shippensburg, PA: Arsenal Press, 2019), Samuel Prime, The Power of Prayer: The New York Revival of 1858. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1998).
 All quotes come from Spurgeon’s sermon, “The Great Revival,” C. H. Spurgeon, The New Park Street Pulpit: Containing Sermons Preached and Revised by the Rev. C. H. Spurgeon, Minister of the Chapel. Vol. 4. (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1975-1991), 161-168.
 For more on Spurgeon’s practice of church membership, see: https://www.9marks.org/article/5-ways-spurgeons-metropolitan-tabernacle-cultivated-meaningful-membership/ and https://www.9marks.org/article/a-hedging-and-fencing-how-charles-spurgeon-promoted-meaningful-membership/