July 05, 2009

"Walking the Aisle" (Part 3)

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, and Part 2.

Earliest Origins

The earliest recorded event of a purposeful public invitation dates to Massachusetts in 1741, and Eleazer Whitlock. After preaching a sermon as a guest in Josiah Crocker’s church in Lebanon, the crowd would not leave, so Whitlock preached a second sermon on conversion. The people became under such conviction and began crying out so loudly that Whitlock could not finish his sermon. He invited all those in distress to join him in the seats at the front of the church in order to “counsel, direct and exhort them.” [1] Two months later, Crocker was a guest preacher in Middleborough. Though no one appeared in distress during his sermon, “about one-hundred remained outside the church crying in despair.” Crocker and the pastor invited them back into the church for counseling.[2] In 1798, a Virginian pastor, Jesse Lee, recorded the events following a sermon that Asbury preached on Halloween. At Paup’s Meeting House in Virginia, those who were in distress over the sermon were asked to come together while the preachers “kept singing and exhorting the mourners.”[3] At the close of the eighteenth century, the well-known Methodist evangelist, Lorenzo Dow began using a form of public invitation. In 1797, he began asking those in the congregation who wanted prayer for themselves to stand. He then invited anyone wanting to accept Christ to stand and come forward for prayer.[4] In 1806, a Methodist minister from New York named Aaron Hunt adopted the practice of calling people forward to a “space in front of the stand, called an altar” where mourners could come and be counseled separately from the congregation.[5] By 1807, the practice of using a mourner’s bench had reached England. In 1812, a frontier Baptist preacher named William Thompson gave a sermon in Missouri where more than twenty people spontaneously rose from their seats and came forward without any previous prompting.[6] All of these events played a key role in the development of the altar call.

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

[1] Bennett, Altar Call, 32-33. Streett, Effective Invitation, 94, records this event, also.

[2] John Gillies, Historical Collections of Accounts of Revival, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1981), 404.

[3] Bennett, Altar Call, 39, quoting Lee’s Journal.

[4] Bennett, Altar Call, 63-64. Streett, Effective Evangelism, 94.

[5] Richard Cawardine, Transatlantic Revivalism: Popular Evangelicalism in Britain and America, 1790-1865, (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1978), 13.

[6] Murray, Revival, 226.

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