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Through the Lens of History
Area pastors reflect on the Revival that began in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1857.

Homeward bound from Oakville, and what they thought was their final Christian camp meeting of the season, Walter Palmer (a former doctor turned circuit preacher) and his wife Phoebe (a powerful preacher/exhorter) decided to pay a brief visit to friends in Hamilton. It had been a busy summer season of prayer and revival meetings, and the Palmers were eager to return to their New York City home. That night they stayed with their friends, totally unaware of the historic events that were about to unfold.


When Walter and Phoebe Palmer paid an unexpected visit to Hamilton in 1857, their prayer and preaching meetings sparked a revival that spanned the globe.

"We arrived at Hamilton about dark," Phoebe Palmer wrote in an October 10, 1857 letter to her sister. "Dr. P. made an effort to check his baggage through for Friday, so as to reach home by the Albany boat, on Saturday morning. But God has in a wonderful manner, detained us at every step. Dr. P. was frustrated in his attempt to leave his baggage, and we went to the house of a friend to remain over night, intending to leave for home early in the morning. It was the usual evening for prayer-meeting in the three churches here. Two of the ministers received information of our unexpected visit, and before we had finished our tea, were with us. They immediately made arrangements for uniting the prayer-meetings."

Hearing of the Palmers' visit, two Methodist ministers stopped by to explain that their congregations were holding a combined prayer meeting, and they urged the Palmers to attend. Accounts of what happened that eventful night state that Walter spoke for 20 minutes, and then Phoebe followed by quoting from the book of Malachi, challenging those in attendance to give not only their tithes, but also their lives to God. She encouraged everyone to bring at least one guest the following evening, so they too may learn about Christ. That night Phoebe had an impression that God was about to do mighty things in Hamilton. As the meetings continued, hundreds of people became Christians. The rest is history. It was the beginning of what is today labelled The Layman's Prayer Revival; a spirirtual movement that led to a global revival known as the Third Great Awakening – and it all started in Hamilton on October 8, 1857.

Phoebe Palmer also reported the extraordinary events in a letter to a New York Methodist clergyman that was later published in the Methodist Christian Advocate and Journal of New York. News of what had happened in Hamilton was inspiring Christians in New York. Shortly afterwards, the New York Union Prayer Meetings led by Jeremiah Lanphier, of the North Dutch Reformed Church became so packed with merchants and business people that additional facilities were required. As New York's passion grew, the rest of the world took notice, and the fire of revival soon spread across the ocean.

Known as the 'brick church; the Wesley Methodist Church (photos of exterior and interior) that once stood at the intersection of John and Rebecca streets, is where a prayer meeting in a basement room set events in motion for what became known as The Layman's Prayer Revival of 1857. These photos were taken during the Centennial of Wesley United Church, 1839-1939.

Photos courtesy Special Collections, Hamilton Public Library

While the original Hamilton churches that helped ignite the revival have undergone many changes, they had a profound impact in starting a movement that touched people in many nations.

The three Methodist churches at the core of the Hamilton revival later amalgamated with a few Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches to form a new church, under the umbrella of the United Church of Canada. Today, First-Pilgrim United Church and Centenary United Church hold the legacies of the Methodist churches that once set the world on fire.

Rev. Bruce Woods, formerly of Stanley Ave. Baptist Church in Hamilton, was instrumental in relating information of Hamilton's revival to a Christian business luncheon that was held at Centenary United's café during the 1980's. As a teenager he loved history, and read historian J. Edwin Orr's material on the Welsh revival and the worldwide awakening, which credited its origins to Hamilton. Years later Bruce recognized the luncheons he was attending were happening on sacred ground, so he decided to put his lifetime of research into a paper to share with others.

Bruce always dreamed of living through such a revival, and says, "In my 75 years of life it hasn't happened yet. I have hoped, dreamed and aspired that such a revival will come again to Hamilton.  He recognizes that such a move is dependant on God, and we can't unlock the secrets of why or when God chooses to move. "Maybe Hamilton will never see another day like it did in 1857, but we can hope. We need to be alert, listening and watching so that when God does speak and move, we won't miss it."

Rev. Paul Fayter, of First-Pilgrim United, is excited about his congregation's heritage since First Church, a Methodist church that was key in starting the revival, came to form part of First Pilgrim. "In one sense, history means almost nothing because it is over; it is the past,' he says. "But I get excited about history. If you study history properly it can tell us things about whom we are, where we are, and it can shed light on where we are going.


Bruce Woods; Paul Fayter

"The revival of 1857 is an interesting example of history with contemporary significance. Hamilton had a part in something that was globally recognized," he continues. "This may give us some sense of civic pride, but more importantly we can use this story to forge connections from the past so the Spirit can breathe His life into us today. We can deepen the bonds between churches, laying a foundation of unity among Christians. We can't manipulate the Spirit, but we can prepare the ground to be receptive to the Spirit. God is already alive and active, here and now. It is up to us to recognize what God is doing and where He is going and if we choose to participate in His work."

Rev. David Cummings of Hamilton Christian Fellowship agrees and says, "What goes around comes around with God. He was faithful in the past and in the future.

Isaac in the Bible re-dug the wells of his father. Although God is doing a new thing, it is built on old foundations. The churches in Hamilton have birthrights. They are composites of who we are and God's relationship with us. It is important to know who we are, and that we keep in touch with who God is and what He intends to do. Revival lifts us out of sin and into fresh hope, faith and new life, We are looking forward to all that God has for us, even though we don't anticipate all that it will be."

Rev. Wayne Irwin of Centenary United Church of Hamilton says that church feels blessed to have a heritage that can be traced back to the 1857 revival. Centenary was built in 1866 to house the overflow that other Methodist churches could not contain. "The [2007] anniversary reminded us who we are," says Rev. Irwin. "It reminded us of the moving of the Spirit."


David Cummings; Wayner Irwin

Although he is open to believing the presence of God or His Spirit can encourage a large revival to possibly happen again in Hamilton, Rev. Irwin cautions people not to look to the past for a certain 'formula' for revival. “The Spirit's expression in the lives of others may change, or look different today then it did in the past. The important thing is if we are open to it the Spirit will always change us. The revival is a historical sign to show us what we are about. It helps us in conjunction with the Spirit to focus outward, not inward, That is the essence of a true revival."

He believes that revival happens everyday in the lives of Christians who seek after God.

“Maybe we will participate in something big again," says Rev. Irwin, "but if you look around you will see that God is already doing something in people's lives all the time. It is our job to continually seek out revival in our own lives by getting rid of the stuff that stands in the way of our relationship with God." He adds that after our hearts have experienced revival, we need to take action. "Christians need to take up Jesus' challenge for us to go fishing with him. When you go fishing you just never know what kind of fish you are going to catch'

Rev, Roy Pierce of Crossfire Assembly in Hamilton says, "The revival caught everyone by surprise, and that excites me. It was not a planned thing. No one could take recognition for it, which makes it a truly God thing. Although the past is great and interesting, I want to live in the present and the future, so that when people look back they can say of our generation, Look what God has done: I want to be part of building wonderful monuments and moments that are part of God's history.

“There have been various prophets that say what was started in 1857, God promises to finish. I believe that, for I sense the rising call to pray and ask God to come, so that we can give ourselves to His use in new ways."

No matter which Reverend, Minister or Pastor in Hamilton you speak with, there is a general belief that if revival is desired again, it would be helpful if proper foundations of repentance and unity could be built in individuals and churches. Although there is no formula for revival, history clearly shows that repentance and unity are definite earmarks of a strong and influential move of God.

Rev. Pierce says, "We need to get to a place where we are discontent with our spiritual status, and the status of the entire body of Christ, where we repent and call out for God to move in our lives."

Rev. Irwin put it best when he said, "We need to do our best to respect each denomination. Each has its place. It's part of the genius of the church to nourish the personalities of each other. We shouldn't attack each other's church, but rather we need to collectively attack the demonic within the city:'

Sandra King is a writer based in Hamilton, Ontario.

Originally published in Beacon, September/October 2007.




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