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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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8 thoughts on “A Brief History of the Altar Call”

  1. David Layman says:

    Dr. Kidd, Just thought I’d let you know that a new scholarly edition of Nevin’s Anxious Bench is in the final stages of preparation and should be out sometime this fall. It will be in volume 5 of the Mercersburg Theological Study Series: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, Tome 1: John Nevin’s Writings on Ecclesiology (1844–1849), published by Wipf & Stock. (The volume was so long that we had to divide it into 2 tomes. Tome 2 will cover 1851–57.)

  2. Jack Springer says:

    Atlar calls fit perfectly with Baptists and the Reformed … no basis in the Bible just like their belief in the rapture and millennialism which are also non-Biblical. Yet they don’t believe in Holy Baptism or Holy Communion which over and over again in the Bible are shown to be means of salvation and the forgiveness of sins. Confusing huh ,… people who call themselves Evangelicals are non-Evangelical.

  3. Loren Sanders says:

    And even in the midst of this article on whether we should/shouldn’t use such things as altar calls in our pulpits, the writer has no problem whatsoever using the modern church nonsense of “accepting/receiving/inviting” nonsense of preaching that helps implant that salvation is ultimately up to us, rather than being solely the work of Holy God. Nowhere in the gospels does it say to “invite” men to “accept/receive” Christ, it says to call all men to repentance – not the same thing!

    The more we use terms and ideas that support or worse, implant, the notion that we have some part to play in our salvation, that we are somehow “partnered” with Christ in it, rather than blessed by His choosing us, the more we push forward the mindset that puts us in charge of it all…exactly where we all want to be: in control. Just as we have wanted since the Garden, different day – same sin.

    How does John 3:30 sound anything like God being dependent on our actions, on our being on ANY other footing with Him than NEEDING?

    Pride/Ego/Vanity/Self….has always been the issue, and it seems that until He returns, it always will be.

    1. Jay says:

      I find it interesting that ALL THROUGHOUT SCRIPTURE is the basic, fundamental assumption that God’s truth and grace is something an individual must come into agreement with. It’s just the opposite of pride. If what you say is true, then this scripture from Paul would make no sense at all, “As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.” (2 Cor 6:1) If it’s all God and no human acceptance then there would never be a question of it being “in vain.”

    2. Sam says:

      Amen!

  4. It is most interesting that Finney was a Presbyterian. More so that he was a Northern Presbyterian. Many of his beliefs fell in line with the more progressive New School revised Calvinism popularised in the New England Congregational denominations. Finney’s alter calls were out workings of his theology.

  5. Jack Springer says:

    Why is my comment ‘awaiting moderation’? There was a comment this morning that has already been approved. No bad language in my comment.

  6. Roy Thomas says:

    I don’t get the “every head bowed eyes closed call.” To me it teaches a privacy about faith that doesn’t belong. How about a stand up and shout call instead: “I’ve heard the voice of my Savior and I’m gonna follow.” :)

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ThomasSKidd

Thomas S. Kidd, PhD


Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, and the author of many books, including Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father  (Yale, 2017); George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale, 2014) and Baptists in America: A History with Barry Hankins (Oxford, 2015). You can follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his weekly author newsletter.

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