EXCERPT

In 1858, tumbling financial markets prompt a religious revival, the government launches a “diversionary crusade,” and a new leader finds his voice.


Buchanan rode to the White House on a boom the like of which even  Americans had never experienced. Since 1846 their economy had received successive injections of adrenaline including Britain’s embrace of free trade, the Mexican War, the California gold rush, railroad mania, and voracious European markets for cotton and then for commodities of all sorts during the Crimean War (1854-1856). Wall Street bulls binged on real estate, shipping, and especially railroad stocks until, by June 1857, the situation became scary. “What can be the end of all this but another general collapse like that of 1837, only upon a much grander scale?” asked James Gordon Bennett in the New York Herald. “Government spoliations, public defaulters, paper bubbles of all descriptions, a general scramble for western lands ... hundreds of thousands in the silly rivalries of fashionable parvenues, in silks, laces, diamonds, and every variety of costly frippery are only a few among the many crying evils of the day. The worst of all these evils is the moral pestilence of luxurious exemption from honest labor, which is infecting all classes of society.” Bennett feared a crisis. Clever bears, such as Winston Churchill’s grandfather Leonard Jerome, spied opportunity. Jerome sold short (betting that stocks would fall), then spread rumors of weak banks and rickety railroads. In July, when a dip in exports lent credence to croaking, the market started to tumble. By August one firm after another went belly-up. The Panic of 1857 was on.

Jeremiah Calvin Lanphier recommended sackcloth and ashes. He had tried for two decades to get rich in New York before giving up at age 48. He decided that Wall Street must burn as it did in December 1835, but this time by the fire of the Holy Spirit. On a Wednesday in September 1857 he called businessmen to noontime prayer in an upper room of the North Dutch Church at the corner of William and Fulton streets. Just six stragglers peeked in. The following Wednesday 20 desperate traders showed up, and a week after that, 40. During those “melancholy days,” as Whitman called them, prayer meetings spread all over New York; and then to Chicago, where Dwight Moody rededicated his life; and to Philadelphia, where the retailer John Wanamaker and the Quaker Hannah Whitall Smith evangelized high society; and then to “every nook and cranny of the great Republic.” Southern businessmen prayed, too, but the revival was strongest in the North. It seemed the Lord was calling men in the free states to repent of materialism and stand up against slavery. Best-selling accounts such as Samuel Irenaeus Prime’s The Power of Prayer and William Conant’s Narratives of Remarkable Conversions suggested that the triumph of contrition over pretense and pride might be a sign of the coming millennium. By February 1858 the revival was front-page news. Banner stories tallied attendance at meetings and featured celebrity converts. The clergy and women got into the act, but the leadership of lay businessmen marked the inception of a “muscular Christianity” that defined the rest of the century. The YMCA, founded in England in 1851, took flight in America during the revival of 1858.

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