July 03, 2009

"Walking the Aisle" (Part 2)

I'm taking the next few days to post in several parts a paper I once wrote on the history of the practice of using an "Altar Call" in church worship services. Click here for Part 1.

Much disagreement exists over the exact origins of the altar call. Dr. R. Alan Streett in his book, The Effective Invitation, places the first public invitations back with the first century preachers. He claims that these invitations were given until Constantine established Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire, thus giving every citizen the opportunity to be baptized as a member of the church. Streett states that it was after this “Christianization” of the empire that the public invitation virtually disappeared, only to resurface with the advent of the Reformation and developed more fully during the First and Second Great Awakenings.[1] Street offers no sources to back his claims, though, and few people hold to these beliefs.[2] Most scholars date the appearance of the public invitation to America’s first Great Awakening in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

While the general time period of the origins of the altar call can be agreed upon, there is no clear evidence of who first used it. Many give credit to early figures in the Great Awakening, such as Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley and George Whitefield for beginning these practices. Bennett proves, however, that none of these men used such methods in the services that they led.[3] Others claim that it was Charles G. Finney with his introduction of the “anxious seat”.[4] Records show, however, that Francis Asbury was using the practice in the late eighteenth century.[5] Rather than being the idea of one man, or flowing out of one incident, it is probable that a series of occurrences led to the development of these methods that were taken and used in church and revival culture.

Click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, or Part 8.

[1] R. Alan Streett, The Effective Invitation, (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1984), 81-100.

[2] Streett’s work contains some historical inaccuracies and poor Biblical interpretation, but to argue these would go beyond the scope of this paper. Because he never gives a clear definition of “public invitation”, he is free to conclude that these “practices” were common to Jesus, the disciples, and other well-known church figures without giving any specific details of their methods or actions. Faris D. Whitesell, Sixty-five Ways to Give Evangelistic Invitations, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1945), 15-16, stops short of saying that the public invitation can be seen in the Bible, stating rather that the “spirit and principle…is as old as the Bible itself.”

[3] Bennett, Altar Call, 1-21. Both Streett, Effective Invitation, 89-92, and C.E. Autrey, Basic Evangelism, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1959), 130, inaccurately portray Wesley as using the mourner’s bench in his ministry. When they do cite sources, none of them are contemporary to Wesley, as are Bennett’s. His research goes to great length to disprove this view about Wesley and the claims that Whitefield and Edwards used forms of public invitation.

[4] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1971), 270. Whitesell, Sixty-Five Ways, 16, says that Finney first used the anxious seat at a Rochester, NY revival in 1831, though he offers no source. Streett, Effective Invitation, 95, quoting Howard G. Olive’s “The Development of the Evangelistic Invitation”, (Th.M. thesis, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1958), 42, and Bennett, Altar Call, 112, quotes Finney’s Revival Fire: Lectures on Revivals, (Minneapolis: Dimension, n.d.), 81-87. They place the date in 1830, as does C.E. Autrey, Basic Evangelism, 131.

[5] Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism, 1750-1858, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), 184.

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