“The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.” (Mark 1:15)
These opening words of Jesus’ ministry, according to James Edwards, follow a characteristically Old Testament structure where divine action and blessings are to be followed by a duty or response on the part of the hearer. Put simply, when God speaks, people should respond.
The Apostles follow suit. In the book of Acts, for example, after the Gospel has been presented, Peter and Paul routinely offer an invitation to “repent,” “believe,” or “repent and be baptized.” Although the response varies slightly, there is consistently a call to action that follows the proclamation of the Gospel.
While a declaration from God has always demanded a response, the invitation, or “walking the aisle,” is a fairly recent development. George Whitefield, the early 18th Century preacher, helped prepare the way for the altar call with his innovative preaching style. In contrast to the scripted and theologically dense sermons that marked Puritan preaching, Whitefield delivered a winsome and lively sermon that left his hearers spellbound. Whitefield’s appeal was more emotional, targeting the individual with the offer to be born-again. Whitefield’s persuasive preaching compelled people to respond. Even Benjamin Franklin, who disagreed theologically with Whitefield, could not help but empty his pockets of all his money thanks to a “stroke of (Whitefield’s) oratory.”
Historians Douglas Sweeney and Mark Rogers claim that Whitefield did not have altar calls and would have been clueless as to what one was. Whitefield’s sermons, however, do signal a turn in American preaching, a turn that would set the stage for the altar call.
It was the camp meetings of the early 1800s that gave birth to the altar call. These camp meetings, occurring in the backcountry of a young America, were often chaotic. One camp meeting observer describes a scene of hearers “agitated” by the power of God and “swelling and urging like the sea in a storm.” Eventually, the disorder marking these early camp meetings was calmed as preachers began to invite individuals to the altar in a more systematic way. The goal was to have a way of tracking those responding to the preacher’s message.
It was Charles Grandison Finney who masterfully engineered and dignified what had been a fairly crude invitation system. Finney came to faith in 1821 and quickly became a successful, yet unconventional, Presbyterian preacher. For Finney, the formula for a successful revival was as simple as getting wheat to grow; provide proper soil, sunlight and water, and success will follow. Mark A. Noll explains Finney’s logic by saying, “Since God had established reliable laws in the natural world and since humans were created with the ability to discern those laws, it was obvious that the spiritual world worked on the same basis.”
According to Finney, one of the ingredients for a successful revival was the “anxious bench.” This bench was reserved at the front of the church for any respondents who would come forward for individual counsel and prayer. Finney’s method of inviting congregants to the front in response to the sermon stuck, becoming standard practice for many American evangelicals.
Consider D.L. Moody, the late 19th Century evangelist who regularly called individuals to the altar following his sermons. If Finney saw the altar call as a tool to bring about salvation, Moody was quick to point out that only the Spirit awakens sinners, and the individual’s trip to the altar is simply a sign marking one’s salvation.
As one moves into the 20th Century, it was the “Billys” who used the altar call with great success. While playing baseball for the Chicago White Stockings, Billy Sunday attended a church service that would profoundly impact his life and, through his extensive preaching, the lives of many others. Upon hearing the invitation to respond to the Gospel, Sunday went forward. Lyle Dorsett describes it this way: “Those legs that stepped into the batter’s box with confidence and sped down the baselines with breath-taking speed and abandon were now unsteady—moving with the tentative deliberation of a frightened man unsure of his journey and destiny.”
After stumbling over some chairs, nervous Sunday made his way to the front. In contrast to his walk to the altar, Sunday’s preaching was unwavering, and the altar call was a regular part of this early 20th Century preacher’s strategy.
Billy Graham, thanks to his use of a new medium, television, has reached countless individuals worldwide with the Gospel. One of the characteristics of Graham’s evangelism has been the waves of individuals making their way forward in response to his preaching. R. Alan Street has noted that Graham’s invitation has evolved. Originally, Graham’s call was progressive. He would ask for attendees to close their eyes and bow their heads. Then Graham would ask individuals, with heads bowed and eyes closed, to raise their hands if they had accepted Jesus. Those who raised their hands were asked to proceed to the front.
According to Street, Graham eventually dropped the raising of hands request and simply had individuals come forward as heads were bowed. During the mid 1960s, Graham trimmed his invitation even more, giving only a one-step command; he simply asked individuals to come forward.
There are signs that the altar call that has played such an influential role in American Christianity is falling out of favor with some evangelicals, especially younger ones. Brett McCracken, author of Hipster Christianity, describes a younger generation of evangelicals that “cringe at the thought of an altar call.” For those disagreeing with this evangelical practice, the altar call is considered manipulative and tends to be fraught with bait-and-switch tactics. Although it is uncertain what will become of this evangelical practice, the altar call has undoubtedly left an indelible mark on American evangelicalism.
Casey Shutt is a special correspondent for the Baptist Messenger.