Prayer and Action: How You Can Take Leadership and Make a Difference

By Tom Gilson Published on February 2, 2019

The campuses were a moral and spiritual mess. Check out this disturbing survey data:

A poll taken at Harvard had discovered not one believer in the whole student body. … At Princeton … they discovered only two believers in the student body, and only five that did not belong to the filthy speech movement of that day. Students rioted. They held a mock communion at Williams College, and they put on antiChristian plays at Dartmouth.

Sound familiar? Those surveys were taken just shortly after the American Revolution. Surprised? There’s more. Also in those days,

Drunkenness became epidemic. …Profanity was of the most shocking kind. For the first time in the history of the American settlement, women were afraid to go out at night for fear of assault. Bank robberies were a daily occurrence.

Maybe you thought the good old days were always really good; not so. But as Michael Brown also said recently, history tells us there’s room for hope, even in today’s desperate times.

You’ll find the above quotes in an important article, “Prayer and Revival,” by the late church historian J. Edwin Orr. Orr paints a picture of post-Revolution America that looks every bit as hopeless, spiritually and morally speaking, as today. Chief Justice John Marshall even wrote to James Madison, then bishop of Virginia, that the Church “was too far gone ever to be redeemed.”

Out of Hopelessness, Revival

Soon after, though, came America’s Second Great Awakening — a return to Christ that swept the nation and lasted more than forty years. Orr tells us it produced “the whole modern missionary movement. … the abolition of slavery, popular education, Bible Societies, Sunday Schools, and many social benefits.”

What changed things so? Prayer, says Orr. Insistent, consistent, persistent prayer, by the people of God in the churches of god. He traces it back to a simple pamphlet, a call to prayer sent out of Scotland, which launched a small prayer movement in America.

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The movement surged in 1794 when a pastor named Isaac Backus sent out a call to prayer. “Churches knew their backs were against the wall,” writes Orr. All the churches adopted the plan until America … was interlaced with a network of prayer meetings. … It was not long before revival came.”

Late in the Second Great Awakening, Charles Grandison Finney emerged as a strong evangelist — and an activist as well, arguing that “both men and women had an obligation to be involved in social reform.” PBS informs us that Oberlin College, under Finney’s leadership as president, “became the first college to admit both women and blacks; it also became an important stop on the Underground Railroad.”

Backsliding Again — and Revival Again

Revival fires cooled during the Civil War, though. Even after the darkest days of the War had passed, large portions of the country suffered spiritual and moral decay. Allen Carlson quotes an 1866 report issued by the New York City YMCA: “The traffic in [obscene books and materials] is most extensive. They are to be obtained at very many newspaper stands.” Materials totaling millions of pages were available in the New York City area alone. Almost as easy to obtain as it is today, perhaps?

The New York Times editorialized that Congress … had “powerfully sustained the cause of morality.”

But that changed, too, in just a few short years, says Carlson. In 1873 Congress passed a law prohibiting pornography and pro-abortion messages being sent through the U.S. mail. The New York Times editorialized that Congress now “could be forgiven its recent financial scandals,” since it had “powerfully sustained the cause of morality. … Those wretches who are debauching the youth of the country and murdering women and unborn babes, will soon be in the strong grip of government.”

Again, what happened? J. Edwin Orr traces the change to September 1857. A businessman named Jeremiah Lanphier invited a few people to pray with him at his church in Manhattan. Men and women responded — not just there but across the city and beyond. By March of 1858, says Orr, “every church and public hall in downtown New York was filled.” The revival reached Chicago, then “jumped the Atlantic” to reach as far as India and South Africa.

Prayer, Action and Leadership

Prayer made the difference — but so did godly activism. Carlson’s Touchstone article features Anthony Comstock, once famous as a moral crusader — or infamous, to those who hated the reforms he led. (We are not the first generation of American believers to suffer hostility.)

Comstock began by recruiting 25 soldiers to an oath never to “swear, drink, nor chew tobacco.” Soon after the War, while volunteering at the New York City YMCA, he wrote a letter decrying the city’s immorality to the Y’s president, Morris K. Jesup. Jesup commissioned to lead a “Committee for the Suppression of Vice.”

Prayer made the difference — but so did godly activism.

Not surprisingly, the committee gained a reputation for fanaticism. Nevertheless, it had the support of J. Pierpont Morgan, Alfred S. Barnes (partner of Noble), and Louis C. Tiffany. After the group was spun off from the YMCA, Samuel Colgate (of the soap and household goods company) became its first president, and remained in that position until his death in 1898.

So which was it? Prayer or action? The question means nothing. This is no either-or situation. It leaves out a third crucial factor, anyway — leadership. Local leadership, even, for these movements of revival, started with individuals taking responsibility within their own spheres of influence.

Make a Difference by Leading in Prayer and Action

Finney didn’t start out as a college president. Backus had no position national influence. Lanphier was a businessman with hardly any background in church leadership. Comstock was a recently discharged soldier.

There is hope. Both the Bible and history tell us so.

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But how? People ask me what we can do to reclaim our country from its descent into moral insanity. My question in return is, “What can you do?” It’s going to take some godly effort and some thought on your part.

Prayer certainly comes first. Gather others to pray with you. Make it a habit.

Take action, too, within your sphere of influence. Don’t be ashamed to start small, like Comstock did with his 25 men and their rather modest oath of decency. Pick out a mission to fulfill, something within reach. Choose it according to what will make a real difference, what stirs your heart, and what you can find others to do together with you.

Think creatively. Is there a way to influence the arts in your hometown, for example? My wife sang and acted in a local theater presentation a couple years ago. There were two or three Christians in the cast, one Unitarian-Universalist, and two self-described “gaytheists” — and the believer clearly had a positive influence for Christ on the others.

The New York Times once praised Congress for supporting true morality, against both pornography and abortion. I pray the day will come when they’ll do it again. Don’t laugh! —but no, it’s okay, you can allow yourself a quick guffaw. I admit to doing the same at first. If it depended on either Congress or the Times, it would indeed be laughable. When God acts, though, nothing is impossible. He’s a specialist in miracles — real ones. Jesus’ own resurrection looked impossible, too. Let’s call on Him to act for His name, His glory, and His people again now.


Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream, and the author of A Christian Mind: Thoughts on Life and Truth in Jesus Christ. Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.

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