A Brief History of the Altar Call

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By the mid-20th century, altar calls had become a staple of evangelical and Baptist life in America, especially in the South. Many evangelical and Reformed-leaning churches in recent years have stopped doing altar calls, for a variety of reasons. Critics of altar calls have pointed out that they have no strong biblical basis, and that they were part of the “New Measures” introduced by Charles Finney in the later stages of the Second Great Awakening.

In his anti-revivalist tract The Anxious Bench (1843), theologian John Williamson Nevin admitted that Finney’s “anxious bench” tactic was sometimes associated with real revivals. (Finney invited the unconverted to come to this bench at front of the room to pray, and to be prayed for, often resulting in an emotional breakthrough for the person.) But, Nevin wrote,

Spurious revivals are common, and as the fruit of them, false conversions lamentably abound. An anxious bench may be crowded, where no divine influence whatever is felt. . . . Hundreds may be carried through the process of anxious bench conversion, and yet their last state may be worse than the first.

Evangelists such as Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday also employed invitations to come to the front of the preaching hall. For Sunday, the journey to the front in response to a gospel invitation became known as “hitting the sawdust trail,” as recently explained by Justin Taylor. Billy Graham issued the most famous invitations of all, telling people “your friends will wait for you” as the choir sang “Just as I Am.”

Although some have made a sharp distinction between the era of Finney’s “New Measures” and the theologically pristine revivalism of the First Great Awakening, there were signs of calls for an immediate response to the gospel from First Great Awakening evangelists, including George Whitefield. Whitefield at the 1742 Cambuslang revival in Scotland gave one of his standard sermons on Isaiah 54:5. “Thy Maker Is Thy Husband.” As I wrote in my biography of Whitefield, he ended the sermon with a scene that might be discomfiting to many evangelicals today:

Whitefield asked whether anyone wished “to take Christ for their husband.” If they did, he extended an invitation: “Come and I’ll marry you to him just now.” . . . A twenty-one-year old male convert said that when Whitefield “laid out the terms” of the union with Christ, he found his “heart made sweetly to agree to those terms.” Another convert ran to embrace a friend, exclaiming that the minister had “married my soul to Christ.” . . . Whitefield wrote that many “were married to the Lord Jesus that night.”

Whether or not people actually came to the front, Whitefield’s intent was similar: trying to have people make a decision for Christ right then and there.

There was a growing trend toward practices in the 18th and 19th centuries that sound a lot like invitations or altar calls. Strangely, however, the term “altar call” was almost never used in the 19th century, at least not in print. It starts to show up first in Holiness and Nazarene publications in the early 20th century. For example, the term “altar call” appears as part of the program of 1908 commencement exercises at Pacific Bible College (a forerunner to Point Loma Nazarene University).

Nazarene Messenger, 1908, Google Books.
Nazarene Messenger, 1908, Google Books.

In Pastor C. B. Harrison’s Pioneer Days of the Holiness Movement in the Southwest (1919), he speaks of the altar call as if it had become routine. But the altar call for the Holiness meetings was as much about seeking sanctification as it was about salvation. Harrison describes a “song and praise service,” which “ended in an altar call as usual.”

The altar call delayed the beginning of preaching, Harrison wrote, because there “were twenty-five praying at the altar at the top of their voices to be sanctified.” Some Baptist observers were disgusted with this display, and at a competing revival meeting they reportedly prayed for God “to stop this heresy or smite the leaders of the holiness meeting.”

The practice of the altar call for salvation came through the longer trajectory of British and American revivalism. But the name “altar call” seems likely to have originated among Holiness and Pentecostal churches.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing an altar call, to be sure. In your church, it may make sense as a way to focus nonbelievers on their need to receive God’s offer of forgiveness through Christ. And publicly professing your faith in Christ, which I see as fulfilled ultimately in baptism, has clear scriptural support in passages such as Matthew 10:32-33. Others such as Jonathan Leeman have written compellingly about how you can modify the practice of altar calls in order to avoid their traditional pitfalls.

All evangelical preachers must invite nonbelievers to come to Christ for salvation. But however that invitation is issued, nonbelievers and immature Christians must never get the impression:

  • That walking an aisle and praying with the pastor, by definition, made them a Christian. Walking an aisle should be the beginning or continuation of a longer conversation about grace, faith, and discipleship.
  • That God will reward those who walk the aisle with salvation. Prospective Christians must understand that there’s nothing they can do to earn God’s favor.
  • That walking the aisle is the lone standard for how the prospective convert knows that he or she is a Christian. If “hitting the sawdust trail” is not followed by obedience (first by receiving baptism, at least in churches that practice believer’s baptism) and faithfulness to the Lord and the church, then the body of Christ may well doubt whether the one-time response to the gospel was evidence of real regeneration.

Pastors and churches should have a great deal of latitude to structure their services and methods the way that works best for them, assuming that a given practice does not contradict the Bible’s parameters. But practices like the altar call should be scrutinized to make sure they are not introducing bad assumptions or bad theology into the church.

For more historical background, see David Bennett’s The Altar Call: Its Origins and Present Usage (2000).

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