July 06, 2009

"Walking the Aisle" (Part 4)

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, Part 2, and Part 3.

Kentucky Camp Meetings

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a new phenomenon began in Kentucky—the camp meeting—which was a series of services conducted outdoors, often including several congregations. These services were usually characterized by the charismatic responses of the audience who would shout or cry out, and fall out in distress while under conviction. In the earliest camp meetings, there were no altar calls.[1] Within a few years, though, the “core of the camp meeting religion” became the altar service. Sermons on the depravity of man and the final judgment were typical and led to many numbers of people responding publicly. Mourner’s benches, mourner’s tents, praying tents and praying circles became fixtures at the larger camp meetings. Prayer circles were an early form of public invitation in which preachers and laymen would hold hands to form a circle and invite anyone who wanted to accept Christ to stand in the middle. By the 1820’s, the title “anxious seat” came into use. These “altars” were enclosed areas with seating and were set apart at the front of the meeting place where anyone under conviction of sin could come, sit and be counseled. This separated them from the rest of the saved and any sinners who were not under conviction.

These methods initially intended to publicly identify those who were not saved, so that they might be instructed. At first, no one saw these methods as the means to salvation, but soon coming forward to the altar became confused with conversion. Murray states that “people heard preachers plead for them to come forward with the same urgency with which they pleaded for them to repent and believe.”[3] Other problems emerged with this new practice, too, as the scene around the altar became a place of amusement for spectators. Peter Cartwright, an itinerant Methodist evangelist, wrote of one instance in 1822 when he had to “contend with ‘idle professors’ and ‘idle spectators’ who were overcrowding the altar.”[4] He then began to make each person entering the altar confirm that they were, indeed, concerned about their souls. Others also noticed the problems that came with this new form of invitation. “Conversions” were often “short-lived”, as Johnson conceded. One observer, though, noted that “because there have been counterfeits, we must not reject the genuine.”[5] Regardless of its long-term effect, the practice of the public invitation was refined and systematized in these Methodist camp meetings. Instead of the practices of these meetings reflecting the theology of those in attendance, theology began to change to fit the practices. Murray notes that the “establishment of camp meetings and altar calls arose from the best of motives, it was the result of erroneous theology and it led to a system with consequences that they failed to see.”[6]

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

[1] Ibid., 186.

[2] Charles A. Johnson, The Frontier Camp Meeting, (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1955), 132-3.

[3] Murray, Revival, 186.

[4] Johnson, Camp Meeting, 137, quoting Cartwright’s The Backwoods Preacher: An Autobiography of Peter Cartwright, 233-34.

[5] Ibid., 173-74, quoting A.P. Mead’s Manna in the Wilderness, 17-19.

[6] Murray, Revival, 190.

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