This article discusses the value and role of prayer meetings through church history during persecutions, suffering, and revivals.

Source: The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, 2004. 4 pages.

The History of Prayer Meetings

Prayer meetings have been a key part of evangelical Christianity throughout church history. They haven’t always been conducted in the same way, nor have they been called by the same name. Some prayer meetings have led to the formation of formal prayer societies or worldwide concerts of prayer. Throughout the years, prayer meetings have been particularly influential in times of persecution and suffering and in times of revival.

Times of Persecution and Suffering🔗

During persecution, the church has often been reduced to meeting in private homes. That’s also where they frequently gathered for prayer meetings. This was true of the ancient church in the catacombs as well as later groups such as the Waldenses, Lollards, Hussites, and Huguenots.1During Reformation times, soldiers often held prayer meetings.

Johnston comments, “These prayer-meetings among the soldiers of the armies of the Dutch Republic, as far back as the times of William the Silent, Prince of Orange, have much to do with the full tide of civil and religious liberty enjoyed by us to-day. Trace back American liberty — all that is noble and Christian in it — along whatever line of history we may, to English Puritans, to Holland or Scotch Presbyterians, we will find its cradle is the prayer-meeting.”2

During the persecution by the Stuarts in Scotland, small groups met in prayer to help believers sustain faith and courage. They continued to meet during the persecution that lasted until the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. Then believers held regular prayer meetings on weekdays in their homes. During that time, groups were often organized according to gender, men and women meeting separately. Pastors also often met by themselves. Some pastors led prayer sessions with the children of their congregations. Arthur Fawcett says there is abundant evidence that children’s prayer meetings were often “run by the children themselves.”3Children in these groups learned to publicly pray aloud without embarrassment. Later, many of these children became ministers or ruling elders in Christian churches.

Some prayer groups became formalized by the Covenanters as “praying societies.” These societies served the needs of the Covenanters when they had a paucity of ministers to organize their bonds as churches. Later, praying societies were put into more systematic form with strict membership requirements in many places in Scotland. In 1714, for example, Ebenezer Erskine and sixteen other men signed a list of rules for the praying society of Portmoak in Fife, Scot­land. Membership required coming to prayer meetings at least twice a month. Three to six members of the society prayed at each meeting. One question of “practical divinity” was addressed each week, and members voted on what question would be discussed the upcom­ing week. If someone missed more than one meeting in a row, he had to explain why. If he had several unex­cused absences, he was asked to leave the society.4

Prayer meetings were very popular in the seventeenth century in the Netherlands, especially among religious refugees. Fawcett tells of a group of exiled ministers that met weekly for prayer. At one of the gatherings, the Puritan John Howe, known for his great intercessory gifts, prayed with such fervor that he broke into a great sweat. His wife crept up behind him, took off his wig, dried his sweat with her handkerchief, then reset his wig, all while he continued praying. About that same time, James Hog, later of Carnock, writes that when he studied at one of the Dutch universities, he met with many who formed religious societies and “poured out their hearts unto the Lord in prayer with one accord.”5

Times of Revival🔗

Prayer meetings were influential in times of revival. The 1620s revival in Ireland was spurred on by prayer meetings.6So were awakenings in the 1740s. Two gen­erations prior to that, Josiah Woodward had published An Account of the Rise and Progress of the Religious Societies in the City of London, which described forty distinct prayer groups in London.7As the awakenings spread, prayer meetings multiplied. Thomas Houston writes in his The Fellowship Prayer Meeting, “The awakenings which took place in various parts of England, under the ministry of Wesley and Whitefield, led to the establishment of social prayer-meetings; and, at this period, when within the pale of the National Estab­lishment, and without it, all was under the torpor of spiritual death, this organization was a powerful means of exciting earnest minds to pursue after eter­nal concerns.”8

Prayer meetings were also influential in revivals in Scotland. Prior to the awakening in 1742, numerous prayer societies had sprung up. One was in Kilsyth. Its society for prayer was first established in 1721, flour­ished for some years, then died out in the 1730s, but was resurrected in 1742 just before revival broke out. During the meetings, there were public prayers, psalm-singing, Scripture reading, and discussion based on questions from Thomas Vincent’s book on the Shorter Catechism.9

During the Great Awakening in Scotland, prayer meetings often began with children, then spread to adults. For example, a schoolteacher in the parish of Baldernock allowed four students to meet on their own for prayer and psalm-singing. According to The Parish of Baldernock, “In the course of two weeks, ten or twelve more (children) were awakened and under deep con­victions. Some of these were not more than eight or nine years of age, and others twelve or thirteen. And so much were they engrossed with the one thing needful as to meet thrice a day in the morning, at midday, and at night.” Adults then began holding prayer meetings two or more times a week. There were many conver­sions at both the adult and the children’s meetings.

The fervor spread to other parishes. The Parish of Kirkintillock reports: “In the month of April, 1742, about sixteen children in the town were observed to meet together in a barn for prayer. Mr. Burnside (their pastor) heard of it, had frequent meetings with them, and they continued to improve. And this being reported, many more were impressed. Soon after, about a hundred and twenty (children) were under a more than ordinary concern, and praying societies, as usual, were formed.”

Johnston’s reaction to that awakening was to affirm and support the prayers of children. “Why not encourage children’s prayer-meetings? Why may not God still perfect praises to the glory of his grace, out of the mouth of babes?” he asked.10

Jonathan Edwards supported that view. In answer­ing objections some had to children’s prayer meetings, he wrote,

“God, in this work, has shown a remarkable regard to little children; never was there such a glorious work amongst persons in their childhood, as has been of late in New England. He has been pleased, in a wonderful manner, to perfect praise out of the mouths of babes and sucklings; and many of them have more of that knowledge and wisdom that please him, and render their religious worship acceptable, than many of the great and learned men of the world. I have seen many happy effects of children’s religious meetings; and God has seemed often remarkably to own them in their meetings, and really descended from heaven to be amongst them. I have known several probable instances of children being converted at such meetings.”11

In 1747, Edwards published An Humble Attempt to promote an explicit agreement and visible union of God’s people through the world, in extraordinary prayer, for the revival of religion and the advancement of Christ’s king­dom on earth. Usually referred to thereafter as An Humble Attempt, this book was reprinted by Christian Focus in 2003 as A Call to United, Extraordinary Prayer. Edwards said he was motivated to write on “a concert of prayer” for two reasons: first, he realized that the revivals of the mid-1730s and the early 1740s would not recur until God’s people engaged in earnest prayer for revival. Second, he wanted to provide additional theological support for a document simply called Memorial, written by some Scottish pastors.

David Bryant tells us the story of Memorial:

Rising out of scores of prayer societies already functioning in Scotland around 1740, especially among young people, by 1744 a committee of ministers determined it was time to do more. They decided to try a two-year ‘experiment,’ uniting all prayer groups and praying Christians in their nation into a common prayer strategy. They called for focused revival prayer on every Saturday evening and Sunday morning, as well as on the first Tuesday of each quarter. By 1746 they were so gratified by the impact of their experiment that they composed a call to prayer to the church worldwide, especially in the colonies (Memorial). However, this time the ‘concert of prayer’ was to be for seven years.12

Citing Zechariah 8:20-22, Edwards said that God’s rich promises encourage us to expect great success from corporate prayer. He said: “That which God abun­dantly makes the subject of his promises, God’s people should abundantly make the subject of their prayers.” He concluded that when believers persevere in united, concerted prayer, God will grant a fresh revival, which “shall be propagated, till the awakening reaches those that are in the highest stations, and till whole nations be awakened.”13

Edwards’s book had a limited influence during his lifetime. Republished late in the eighteenth century in England, it influenced William Carey (1761-1834) and his prayer group. It also affected John Sutclif (1752­ 1814), a well-known Baptist pastor in Olney, who led weekly prayer meetings for revival in the Baptist churches of the Northamptonshire Association, to which his church belonged. Those prayer meetings spread throughout the British Isles, particularly impacting eighteenth century revivals in Wales. Heman Humphrey writes in his Revival Sketches, “One of the most important revivals of religion, when the effects are considered, is that which occurred in the ‘Principality of Wales’ under Howell Harris and Daniel Rowlands; and this was carried forward and fostered by means of private societies for prayer and religious conference.”14In the end, tens of thousands were converted throughout Britain from the 1790s to the 1840s.15

Edwards’s treatise became a major manifesto for the Second Great Awakening around the beginning of the nineteenth century. It also fueled other awakenings in the late 1850s. Samuel Prime’s The Power of Prayer, published by Banner of Truth Trust, explains how corporate prayer ushered in the famous 1857-1859 revival (sometimes called the Third Great Awakening) along the eastern coast of the United States, then spread west, resulting in the conversion of hundreds of thousands of people.

Beginning in the fall of 1857, six men gathered at noon every day for corporate prayer in the consistory room of a Reformed church in New York City. Prayer was the Spirit’s means to germinate the seeds of revival. By early 1858 more than twenty prayer groups were meeting at noon in New York City. In Chicago, more than 2,000 people gathered daily for prayer at the Metropolitan Theatre. The movement spread to nearly all the major cities of America, then made its way to the British Isles and around the world. Prayer meetings sprang up everywhere: in churches, on college campuses, in hospitals, among sailors, on mission fields, and at orphanages and colleges. To men­tion only one example, at Hampden-Sydney College, one student found another student reading Joseph Alleine’s Alarm to the Unconverted, and told him that there were two other students who were also in favor of such literature. The four students held a prayer meeting, while other students harassed them. When the president heard that the four young men were accused of holding a prayer meeting, he said with tears, “God has come near to us,” and joined them himself at their next meeting. A remarkable revival swept through the college and into the surrounding area. Soon, more than half the college was attending prayer meetings.16

Scholars estimate that two million or more were converted in the revivals of the late 1850s, while hundreds of thousands of professed Christians were deeply affected.

In the 1860s, Charles Spurgeon organized prayer meetings at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. People met at 7 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. every day. More than 3,000 came to the meeting on Monday evenings. One evening a visitor asked Spurgeon what accounted for the success of his ministry. Spurgeon walked his visitor to the sanctuary, opened the door, and let him watch the participants. Nothing more needed to be said.

The great revivals of the twentieth century were likewise inspired by prayer. The Welsh revival of 1904-1905, the revival in Latvia in 1934, and more recent revivals in Romania and Korea were all born and nurtured in prayer.17Today, most evangelical churches hold weekly prayer meetings, but there seems to be so much lukewarmness in prayer. We desperately need churches to unite in the kind of prayer that the Spirit may use to produce world-wide revival.


  1. ^ Johnston, The Prayer-Meeting, and Its History, 131-37. 
  2. ^ Ibid., 137.
  3. ^ Arthur Fawcett, The Cambuslang Revival (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1971), 65-67.
  4. ^ Donald Fraser, The Life and Diary of the Reverend Ebenezer Erskine (Edinburgh: William Oliphant, 1831), 523-26.
  5. ^ Fawcett, The Cambuslang Revival, 58-59.
  6. ^ The Prayer-Meeting, and Its History, 110, 145; cf. Thomas Houston, The Fellowship Prayer-Meeting, 80-84.
  7. ^ Cf. F. W. B. Bullock, Voluntary Religious Societies, 1520-1799 (London, 1963). 
  8. ^ Cited in Johnston, The Prayer-Meeting, and Its History, 154.
  9. ^  Fawcett, The Cambuslang Revival, 71-72.
  10. ^ Johnston, The Prayer-Meeting, and Its History, 165-66.
  11. ^  Cited by ibid., 173.
  12. ^ Jonathan Edwards, A Call to United, Extraordinary Prayer (Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2003), 16-17
  13. ^ Ibid., 18.
  14. ^  Revival Sketches and Manual (New York: American Tract Society, 1859), 55ff.
  15. ^ Erroll Hulse, Give Him No Rest: A call to prayer for revival (Durham: Evangelical Press, 1991), 78-79.
  16. ^  Johnston, The Prayer-Meeting, and Its History, 185-87.
  17. ^ Hulse, Give Him No Rest, 103-107. 

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