July 08, 2009

"Walking the Aisle" (Part 6)

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, Part 4 and Part 5.

Dwight L. Moody

Dwight Moody was the first to organize citywide campaigns for evangelistic purposes by using several denominations, holding services for thousands in large venues, and using some form of public invitation.[1] If Charles Finney created a profession out of revivalism, then Moody made it a “big business.”[2] Known as the “great evangelist of love”, Moody’s practice of ministry was shaped early in his career in 1871. That night, he preached on “what shall I do with Jesus?” and sent the crowd home to think about it and come back the next week. Within twelve hours, the Great Chicago fire had erupted, killing over three hundred, leaving tens of thousands homeless, and destroying Moody’s church. He vowed never again to delay an invitation for the audience to respond. Under the influence of teachers and leaders of the Brethren denomination, Moody began to develop his use of the public invitation.

Earlier in his career, Moody’s methods were more aggressive. In the 1860’s, Moody was know to roam around his congregation in order to publicly confront individuals in order to inquire about their salvation. Those who hesitated or responded negatively were often asked to kneel so that Moody might pray for Christ to save them.[4] Moody then moved to the use of the inquiry room in 1873, followed in 1875 by having those in the audience who desired salvation to stand.[5] In 1887 at Cambridge, Moody and his traveling companion, Ira Sankey preached to a crowd of university students who wanted to upset the services. After three nights, Moody made a public appeal for anyone wanting to know Christ to meet him and Sankey in a group of unused seats. He repeated the appeal three to four times before people began to move towards the gallery.

Moody was not tied to one form of public invitation, but rather used what he deemed to be the best method for the circumstances. One author claims that Moody never used the anxious seat, but the evidence proves contrary.[7] Once at Oxford, he asked those seated in the front to leave their seats so that those concerned for their souls could come forward and sit in them. This occasion is rare, though, and it appears that Moody mostly preferred the inquiry room. He can be credited, however, for the introduction of two new facets to the public invitation. The first was the use of a singer working with the preacher as a supplement to the invitation. This role was often played by Sankey, who sang the gospel as Moody made the appeal. A second innovation was the introduction of organized counseling led by lay people. Due to the size of Moody’s campaigns, there were often too few pastors to counsel with the numbers who were making decisions. Moody recruited lay people to assist in counseling, and eventually set up the Chicago Evangelization Society to train them for evangelism. This Society was the beginnings of the Chicago (Moody) Bible Institute in Chicago.[8]

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

[1] Bennett, Altar Call, 139.

[2] McLoughlin, 166.

[3] Moody was particularly influenced by the Brethren preacher, Henry Moorehouse, who focused more on the acceptance of rational facts about Christ. He did, however, use the inquiry room, and on occasion had congregants stand in order to accept Christ.

[4]Bennett, Altar Call, 140.

[5] McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism, 261, refers to Moody’s conversations in the inquiry room as “little more than ad hominem, a sort of spiritual brow beating.”

[6] Ibid., 142, quoting G.E. Morgan, R.C. Morgan, 210-11. The author of this book was an undergraduate at Cambridge at this time and attended the revival meetings.

[7] Cawardine, Transatlantic, 17.

[8] Ibid., 144-45.

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