It may well be that the Evangelist is always in a controversial position.[i] He aims to be winsome but is sure to step on toes; tries to bring a simple message firmly, yet knows he deals with slippery objections; doesn’t want to offend, yet proclaims a message contrary to human self-sufficiency, and seeks to express certainties with humility. He mustn’t be driven by his own sense of persuasiveness, yet everyone wants results.
And it’s not only the message which can cause controversy; the changing methods employed by Evangelists can create trouble too!
As we’ve seen already, the appeal (or ‘altar call’, as it tends to be called in the US) is a method that became popular towards the end of the 18th century. After preaching for a series of meetings, those who were either converted or seeking conversion were asked to identify themselves by going to the front of a meeting and talking with a minister, or entering a separate ‘inquirer’s meeting’ for further instruction and prayer.
The reason the appeal is controversial today is because it can give a false impression of conversion, or can be used in the hope of producing conversion rather than merely connecting ‘seekers’ with a spiritual advisor.
Whether you’re a fan of Charles Finney or not you have to concede that, despite the modern critics, he was aiming at conversion through preaching and the Spirit’s work, and using the appeal as a means of either identifying those who already converted or those seeking conversion. We’ll see that in the following quotations.
In 1825 Finney preached a series of meetings in a small town called Evans’ Mills in Jefferson County, NY.
He writes, ‘The Spirit of the Lord was evidently poured out on the congregation; and at the close of the sermon I did what I do not know I had ever done before, called upon any who would give their hearts to God to come forward and take the front seats…
The moment I made the call [a] young lady was the first to arise. She burst out into the aisle, and came forward like a person in a state of desperation. She seemed to have lost all sense of the presence of anybody but God. She came rushing forward to the front seats, until she finally fell in the aisle and shrieked with agony.
A large number arose in different parts of the house and came forward; and a goodly number appreared to give their hearts to God upon the spot.’[ii]
A little later, preaching in Rome, Oneida County, NY, in the midst of what seems to be full-blown revival, he records,
‘Conversions multiplied so rapidly that we had no way of learning who they were. I therefore every evening, at the close of my sermon, requested all who had been converted that day to come forward and report themselves in front of the pulpit, that we might have a little conversation with them. We were very surprised by the numbers and class of persons that came forward.’[iii]
One observer, Catherine Huntingdon, reported, ‘I do not know the number of converts in our town; it may be four hundred. Two evenings since, when those were requested to come forward who had obtained hopes within the thirty-six hours, between twenty and thirty presented themselves. Usually every other evening the ministers made the request, that they might see who they were, and shake hands with them.’[iv]
The Missionary Herald published news of the revival stating, ‘During one week, it is said, scarcely any secular work was done, so intent were the people on the great concerns of the soul. It was a sort of sabbatical week.’ (published May 1826)[v]
The after-meeting and the appeal
While Finney began to see the importance of people being clear about conversion, he initially saw the ‘appeal’ as taking place after the meeting and not necessarily as part of the service itself. This is clear from his practice in Rome:
He writes, ‘Mr Gillett afterwards reported that during the twenty days that I spent at Rome there were five hundred conversions in that town, or an average of twenty per day. At evening when I requested that any who had been converted during the day should come forward and report themselves, the people would remain standing instead of retiring, to see who came forward to report themselves as having been converted; and the utmost astonishment was expressed by those present when they saw who came forward.’[vi]
On many occasions those who came forward took part in a further enquirer’s meeting and the benches or seats that were used at the front of the meeting halls began to be referred to as ‘the anxious seat’, where those anxious about their separation from God waited for prayer or counsel.
A settled practice
It may be worth quoting Finney’s at length here:
‘I had never, I believe except in rare circumstances, until I went to Rochester  used as a means of promoting revivals, what has since been called ‘the anxious seat’.
I had sometimes asked persons in the congregation to stand up; but this I had not frequently done…
From my own experience and observation I had found, that with the higher classes especially, the greatest obstacle to be overcome was their fear of being known as anxious inquirers. They were too proud to take any position that would reveal them to others as anxious for their souls.
I had found also that something was needed more than I had practiced to make the impression on them that they were expected then and there to give up their hearts; and something that would call them to act, and act as publicly before the world as they had in their sins; something that would commit them publicly to the service of Christ; some public manifestation or demonstration that would declare to all around them that they abandoned a sinful life then and there, and committed themselves to Jesus Christ…
I had felt for sometime that something more was necessary to bring them out from among the mass of the ungodly to a public renunciation of their sinful ways, and a public committal of themselves to God.
At Rochester, if I recollect right, I first introduced this measure…I made a call…upon all that class of persons whose convictions were so ripe that they were willing then and there to renounce their sins and give themselves to God, to come forward to certain seats which I requested to be vacated, and offer themselves up to God while we made them subjects of prayer.
A much larger number came forward than I expected…’[vii]
But how necessary was it during those revivals?
Through using this rather confrontational device Finney made a number of observations. It is very clear that Finney’s concerns and convictions were being shaped primarily by his desire to help people get converted.
And it is clear that his primary perspective was not from the study to the mission but from the impact the preaching was having from the recipient’s point of view, then he developed his thinking.
Again, I am quoting Finney at length to at least allow him the opportunity of a defence.
Exposing pride and clarifying obedience
He writes, ‘I found, as I expected, that this was a great power for good. If men who were under conviction refused to come forward publicly and renounce their sins and give themselves to God, this fact disclosed to them more clearly the pride of their hearts. If, on the other hand, they broke over all those considerations that stood in the way of their doing it, it was taking a great step; and as I found continually was the very step that they needed to take. And when the truth was explained to them, and they were made intelligent…this was one of the means used by the Spirit of God to bring them to a present submission to and acceptance of Christ.
Acting rather than waiting
I had long been of the opinion that a principal reason why so few were converted…was that they were not brought to the point…
Ministers had been in the habit of preaching to sinners sermons pointing out to them their duty; but then in all probability admonishing them at the close that their nature must be changed by the Spirit of God or they could do nothing. Ministers had been so much afraid of dishonouring the Spirit of God…
Thus just at the point where the sinner needed to think of Christ, of his duty, of the thing important to be done, his attention was turned back to see whether any divine influence was going to change his nature, and let the Spirit of God act upon his nature like an electric shock while he remained passive…
Therefore the thing to be done was to set the sinner’s duty clearly before him, and depend on the Spirit’s teaching to urge him to do it; to set Christ before him, and expect the Holy Spirit to take of the things of Jesus and show them to the sinner; to set his sins before him, and expect the Holy Spirit to show him his awful wickedness, and lead him to voluntarily renounce his sins. I saw therefore clearly that to cooperate with the Spirit of God as an intelligent agent in this work, I must present the truths to be believed, the duties to be done, and the reasons for those duties.’
Cooperating with what the Spirit is doing
The non-believer, hearing the sermon, ‘should understand distinctly that the Spirit’s work is not to convert him while he is passive, while he is waiting God’s time; but that the Spirit of God converts or turns him by inducing him to turn himself; that the act of submission is his own act, and the Spirit is persuading him to do this; that faith is his own act…That he gives us faith by inducing us to believe; and that he leads us to perform every duty, to repent, to believe, to submit, to love, by presenting the truths which are calculated to lead to these acts in so clear a light as to overcome our reluctance, and induce us voluntarily, with all sincerity and with all our hearts to turn to God, to trust Him, to love Him, to obey Him.
With these views of the subject I saw clearly that just at the point where the sinner is thoroughly instructed, and while under the voice of the living preacher with the strong pressure of truth set home by the Holy Ghost upon him, something was needed to induce him to act then and there upon his convictions.
I concluded then, and have always thought since, that to call the sinner right out from the mixed multitude to take a stand for God, to be…open and frank in his renunciation of sin…to call him to change sides, to renounce the world and come over to Christ, to renounce his own righteousness and accept that of Christ – in short to do just that which constitutes a change of heart, was just what was needed. I was not disappointed in the use of this measure.’[viii]
We may not agree entirely with Finney’s rationale, but his determination to serve the non-believer, once the Spirit of God has awakened them, is admirable.
Feel free to add your own insights. Finney said that this ministry device had not disappointed him. Was that because there was such a powerful revival happening anyway? What about Asahel Nettleton and the Reformed Evangelists who preached with similar results and power?
For my view on the use of appeals in churches now click here
For the first part on this three-part series on Evangelistic Appeals click here
For the first part of the ministry of Charles Finney click here
Over to you…
© 2012 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog
[i] See Keith Hardman, Charles Grandison Finney (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1987), p.79
[ii]Rosell & Dupuis, The Memoirs of Charles G. Finney (Michigan: Zondervan Academie Books, 1989), p.115
[iii] ibid p.162
[iv] ibid p.162 footnote
[v] ibid p.162 footnote
[vi] ibid p.164
[vii] ibid p.306-308
[viii] For the full argument see ibid p.320-323