July 07, 2009

"Walking the Aisle" (Part 5)

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, Part 3 and Part 4.

Charles Finney and New Measures

While the emotional appeals of the frontier camp meetings were taking place in the early nineteenth century, such measures were virtually unheard of in the eastern United States. Church leaders occasionally used the “inquiry room”, but only to counsel with people from Scripture—and, not because of spiritual distress.[1] In 1828 in Virginia, Asahel Nettleton would not hold inquiry meetings unless the number of those needing further help was greater than private meetings could accommodate.[2] This would soon change with the advent of the ministry of Charles G. Finney and the introduction of “new measures”. Exactly how “new” these measures were is up for debate. Most of his methods, especially the anxious seat, were adopted from practices that the Methodists had been using for three decades. Finney’s major contribution was popularizing the use of these public invitations. Early in his ministry, Finney experimented occasionally with different types of public invitations, but never settled on one consistent practice, nor did he always offer the appeal. In those years, Streett says that Finney would ask “anyone anxious about their souls to stand at their seats as a sign of a repentant heart.”[4] During his first ministry position at Evan’s Mill in New York, Finney modified his form of public invitation. After a series of sermons that produced no visible response, he gave an unusual and confusing invitation. He admonished those in the crowd who wanted to accept Christ to stand, and those who were willing to publicly reject Christ to remain seated. This left no proper response to anyone in the audience who was already a Christian, leading the crowd to storm out. The next night, he made no appeal, yet many sought him out later that night seeking counseling. In 1826, he began the practice of calling forward those who had already been converted to receive extra counseling. Then, in 1830 at a revival in Rochester, Finney began consistently using the anxious seat.

As Finney continued the use of the anxious seat in his services, he began to develop a new theology of conversion. Beginning in the 1830’s, Finney delivered a series of lectures on revival where he stated his belief that unregenerate men could change their own will to follow Christ, and thus be converted.[5] Critics attacked this “new theology” that was being used to defend these “new measures”, along with its use of emotional ploys. John Nevin said, “no conversions are more precarious and insecure than those of the Anxious Bench.”[6] Finney defended the use of the anxious seat saying that it, in fact, “prevents a great many spurious conversion,” and that dating back to the apostles, “the church has always felt it necessary to have something of the kind” to publicly demonstrate someone’s faith.[7] Finney argued that these methods were necessary to convert men and “to bring them to submission.”[8] He claimed that the use of the anxious seat always led to the multiplication of converts, which must be the work of God’s divine power.[9] These ideas led to the development of his belief that revival was always available if Christians would agree in prayer and in faith. Thus, the altar call, through Finney’s theology and practice, became a tool to induce revival, and anyone opposed to it became an enemy of that revival.


Finney’s popularization of the altar call led to a new generation of evangelists using similar practices. In 1832, the same year that Finney’s ministry began in New York City, a magazine inspired by the local revivals ran a series of articles on how to conduct these “revivals”, including instructions on the use of the “anxious seat.”[11] His lectures on revival also encouraged the use of the public invitation, and his practices were adopted throughout America and Britain. One commentator said that Finney tamed “the exuberant camp meeting and tailor[ed] it to fit the local church.”[12] Bennett also notes, “the modern practice of evangelism…built, as so much of it is upon the altar call, owes probably more to him than anyone else.”[13] Murray states, “before the 1820’s the altar call…was little known in most churches.”[14] In contrast, William McLoughlin wrote that, “after 1835 it was an indispensable figure of modern revivals.”[15] By the 1840’s, Finney began preaching a doctrine of sanctification that stressed perfection. His altar calls became, according to McLoughlin, “spur-of-the-moment decisions lacking in depth or meaning,” leaving the anxious seat a “stereotyped and forced ritual.”[16]

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



[1] Ibid., 216.

[2] Ibid., 232-3, 233n. Autrey, Basic Evangelism, 131, claims that Nettleton began using the inquiry room in 1817. His source is Whitesell, Sixty-five Evangelistic Invitations, 16. Whitesell offers no source for his claim. This appears to be erroneous, since Nettleton opposed the use of such “new measures” (see Murray, Revival, 230-37), and was only known to use them as stated.

[3] Mark Galli and Ted Olsen, eds., 131 Christians Everyone Should Know, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000), 69.

[4] Streett, Effective Invitation, 95, citing Henry B. McClendon, “The Mourner’s Bench” (Th.D. diss, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1902), 16.

[5] For a full treatment of Finney’s theology of conversion, see Murray, Revival, 244-50, and Bennett, Altar Call, 108-13.

[6] John W. Nevin, The Anxious Bench, (Chambersburg, PA: German Reformed Church, 1844), 83.

[7] Charles Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, (New York: Leavitt, Lord & Co., 1836) in Robert R. Mathisen, ed., Critical Issues in American Religious History: A Reader, (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2001), 159.

[8] Murray, Revival, 246, citing Charles Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, (New York and London, 1910), with introduction and original notes by W.H. Harding, 116-17.

[9] Ibid., 283.

[10] Ibid., 249.

[11] Bennett, Altar Call, 112.

[12] Ibid., 112, quoting Leon McBeth, Women in Baptist Life (Nashville: Broadman).

[13] Ibid., 112.

[14] Murray, Revival, 277.

[15]William McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham, (New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1959), 97.

[16] Ibid., 148.


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