July 09, 2009

"Walking the Aisle" (Part 7)

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, Part 5 and Part 6.

The Twentieth Century

With the “new measures” firmly engrained in the profession of revivalism, a new generation of evangelists were ready to follow in the footsteps of Finney and Moody. During the twentieth century, few new methods were developed. Instead, this new group of revivalists would modify and refine the methods that were already systematized in the previous century. At the time of Moody’s death, Samuel P. Jones, a Methodist circuit-riding preacher, was the most popular evangelist in America. Know as the “Moody of the South”, his campaigns were said to average two thousand converts.[1] While he occasionally used the inquiry room, Jones preferred holding “after-meeting” services for mourners concerned about their salvation. Often, he would shake hands with those coming forward and say, “God bless you” to them, give the crowd a brief exhortation, only, and turn them over to clergy and counselors who urged them to sign decision cards.

R. A. Torrey, successor to Moody, saw over one hundred thousand converts from 1901-1905. His practices included the use of several rows of empty seats where people could come forward for prayer and counsel from trained workers. During this time, other trained workers would work the crowd for five minutes pleading with those who had resisted the first altar call to give themselves to Christ.[3] A.C. Dixon took over the pulpit at Metropolitan Tabernacle in London filling the pulpit once held by Charles Spurgeon. He implemented a “come-forward” invitation that was foreign to Britain, and thus, received much criticism.

In the second decade of the twentieth century, Billy Sunday, the “baseball evangelist”, led revivalism to its climax. His 1915 campaign in Philadelphia was said to have seen over forty thousand converted. Early in his career, he first made appeals for anyone under conviction to come forward. Workers were then sent into the audience to urge others to come. Finally, he would have the choir begin to sing as others would begin to flood the front.[5] In later years, his public invitations generally consisted of inviting those who wanted forgiveness, and to have the personal “peace with Christ” that comes from “accepting Christ” to “hit the sawdust trail”.[6] This phrase originated from a campaign he led in Washington State, where lumberjacks would leave trails of sawdust behind them as they went into the deep forests, in order that they might find their way home.[7] Sunday made the same concept apply to his revival meetings. In his services, this amounted to coming forward, shaking Sunday’s hand, and then signing a decision card. The person coming forward was then handed a booklet assuring them that they had been converted. Sunday’s invitations were often pleas of reason to those resisting coming forward, and were often devoid of “any real religious content.” He believed that humans were not such bad people at heart. His semi-Pelagian views led his invitations to mainly focus on those who were interested in decency, against alcohol, or felt like Christianity was the “manly” thing to do. His main intention was to make the average citizen “give up his bad habits, profess his belief in the fundamentals, and pledge himself to join a church.”[8] Sunday’s career declined in his later years for numerous reasons, mainly including criticism of his commercialism and an erroneous prediction of the end of the world in 1935.

Billy Graham is considered to be the greatest evangelist of the twentieth century, and continued leading crusades across the globe until his recent retirement. He gave his first public invitation early in his career at a small Baptist church in Florida where three or four people came forward at the end of his sermon. In 1945, he preached to over three thousand at a Youth For Christ Rally in Chicago where more than forty people responded to a public invitation. As his crusade ministry began, he developed his own style of invitation that is still in use at crusades and churches today. According to Streett, this Graham-style invitation consists of preparing hearts for the invitation through his sermon, transitioning into the invitation, answering the question of how to be saved, calling for public commitment, and then having those who would respond move forward to be met by counselors who usually take them into a separate tent or meeting area.[10] While none of these practices are new, Graham has been able to refine them into a style that is uniquely his. Streett does, however, make clear that Graham “does not believe that merely making a public profession is a guarantee of personal salvation. Without the inner working of the Holy Sprit, an outward profession is meaningless.”[11]

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



[1] Streett, Effective Invitation, 101.

[2] McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism, 304-05.

[3] Streett, Effective Invitation, 101-02.

[4] Murray, Revival, 410, 410n, claims that not one public appeal was made at Metropolitan Tabernacle in Spurgeon’s lifetime, and that “he was against any regular use of inquiry meetings.” He notes that Lewis Drummond, Prince of Preachers, Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1992, 657, advances this theory. Murray refutes this claim on the basis that when the Tabernacle was being built in 1860, the public invitation was not in use in Britain. Streett, Effective Invitation, 97, notes the different types of public invitations Spurgeon was said to use, and mentions the architecture of the Tabernacle as a hindrance for a “come-forward” invitation.

[5] Streett, Effective Invitation, 103-04.

[6] McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism, 410.

[7] Street, Effective Invitation, 104.

[8] McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism, 434.

[9] Ibid., 446-448.

[10] Streett, Effective Invitation, 110-21.

[11] Ibid., 110.


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