A Short History of the Evangelistic Appeal part 1

Billy Graham’s final evangelistic meeting at the LA Coliseum, 1963. This meeting remains the largest ever attendance of the venue, at 134,254. An evangelistic appeal (or ‘altar call’) followed the sermon.

In terms of a qualified defence of the practice, I have written on this subject elsewhere. I certainly acknowledge the danger of presumption and of giving a false impression as to the nature of the spiritual work done in a person who has responded to the gospel message by ‘going forward’[1]

It is often asserted that Charles Finney is the dastardly inventor of this religious device, which has had both the staunchly Reformed and the weak-of-faith irritated by its popularity and reluctant to employ it at the end of their messages.

That Finney is the originator of this overwhelmingly popular form of response is apparently enough for some Reformed pastors to reject it outright. Tut tut.

But author Iain Murray, a friend of Dr Lloyd-Jones and a keen historian of revival, has unintentionally come to Finney’s rescue.

Revival and Results
In Revival and Revivalism, Murray discusses the dangers of emotionalism. Strange things happen in genuine revivals: people fall down, overcome with the power of the Holy Spirit.[2]

But, when such things take place, there begins a dynamic in which such outward displays of religious excitement can become indicators of success, and preachers eager to see a response to their preaching, or, worse, driven by an ambition to be known as powerful, can fall into the trap of encouraging such responses.

These elements, he argues, were fully at work during the Kentucky Camp Meetings in the early 19th Century, noting menacingly that some ‘went the full distance into delusion’[3]. Nevertheless he credits the Kentucky revival and the Second Great Awakening in America generally as ‘giving men the Bible as their guide instead of the goddess Reason whose reign had begun in France.’[4]

The old Calvinism under threat
In the context of these developments he raises the problem of Calvinism’s loosening hold on the prevailing theology of evangelicals. Although the late 18th century revivals had begun primarily amongst Calvinists, new opinions were gaining ground. The first American Methodist magazine was bullishly titled ‘The Arminian Magazine’.

The opinion of those Methodists who were vigourously engaged in the work of evangelisation was that the Calvinists had a tendency to slow things down and get in the way.

If the revival in Kentucky had given a boost to the Christian cause generally it was at the expense of the old Reformed doctrinal unity.

Here Murray charges the Methodists with being ‘overbalanced on an experience-centred Christianity, and too ready to exalt zeal above knowledge.’[5]

Mass Evangelism, Organized Campaigns, Lots of Singing, Presumption

An appeal at one of Billy Graham’s 1979 evangelistic meetings in Sydney

Thus several regrettable outcomes: ‘the Methodists…came to believe that the organization of mass meetings was a very effective part of evangelism. Emotion engendered by numbers and mass singing, repeated over several days, was conducive to securing a response. Results could thus be multiplied, even guaranteed.’

The Calvinists, by contrast, according to Murray, ‘using their Bibles rather than any knowledge of psychology, saw from the New Testament that no technique could produce conversions.’[6]

That the Methodists were then doing what Whitefield had done a generation before (organize mass meetings), and what all believers shall do one day (ie, sing songs of worship to Jesus Christ in a massive, massive crowd cf Rev 7:9-10) is of little consequence to Murray: he is setting the stage for the still irritatingly prevalent ‘altar call’.

How do you know what’s happening?
At first it was difficult to tell who was being actually converted. Should they count the ones who fell down as converted? Obviously not. Murray omits the fact that even Whitefield tended to consider the general weeping of one of the mass congregations as a good indicator, even explicitly mentioning the broken emotional responses of Bristol miners as a sign of their repentance.

The whole connection between Kentucky emotionalism and the evangelistic appeal is tenuous anyhow as no ‘altar calls’ happened there anyway.[7]

The first modern appeals
Nevertheless here it is: Murray has pinpointed what may well be the first instance of the evangelistic appeal (and it wasn’t Finney): ‘Before the end of the eighteenth century, in some congregations of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the innovation had been introduced of inviting ‘mourners’ to come to the front, metaphorically, ‘to the altar’.

‘Jesse Lee recorded in his journal for 31 October 1798: ‘At Paup’s Meeting House Mr Asbury preached on Eph 5:25, 26, 27…I exhorted, and the power of the Lord was among us…John Easter proclaimed aloud, “I have not a doubt but God will convert a soul today”. The preachers then requested all that were under conviction to come together. Several men and women came and fell upon their knees, and the preachers for some time kept singing and exhorting the mourners…two or three found peace.’’

Murray gives a further example: ‘In 1801 another Methodist in Delaware reported: ‘After prayer I called upon the persons in distress to come forward and look to the Lord to convert their souls. Numbers came forward.’’[8]

As a Christian who joyfully embraces Reformed theology I struggle to see the problem with that example.

What do you think?

More next time…

For the first part in the Charles Finney Story click here

© 2012 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog


[1] NB. In the US the appeal is still referred to by the archaic sounding term ‘altar call’. The term ‘evangelistic appeal’ also has problems, of course, considering that the actual appeal is contained in the message itself.

[2] ‘The phenomenon of hearers falling prostrate during a service or crying out in anguish is nor uncommon at the outset of revivals.’ Revival and Revivalism, Iain Murray, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth 1994) p.163

[3] ibid p.170

[4] ibid p.174

[5] ibid p.183

[6] ibid p.184

[7] He says later, ‘There were no ‘altar calls’ in the early great communion services and camp meetings in the Kentucky revival but, with the impetus that high emotion imparted to the immediate and the visible, it was a short step to its introduction by the Methodists.’ P. 186 Thus he reveals the weakness of his historical argument.

[8] Ibid p.185

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3 thoughts on “A Short History of the Evangelistic Appeal part 1

  1. Chris Rowland August 23, 2012 / 8:28 am

    Thanks for writing this, Lex. A question many of us have grappled with I’m sure. My own experience as a teenager was one of having misheard the preacher’s question, raising my hand and then being compelled to the front by my sister… but having thought back, I had made a real commitment to Christ months earlier. The lack of an altar call at that earlier time meant that I was not followed up in any way, and I had no real idea what a commitment to Christ meant. It was through that later altar call that I was then encouraged to attend church, read the bible, and pursue a meaningful relationship with God.

  2. Elysha McAllister February 10, 2013 / 5:50 pm

    Thank you, Lex, for writing this. I have been wondering about this as well as I plan some chapels for my school and am confronted with this tension daily. In my own experience, an encounter with God does elicit some emotion because your soul is finally free and your emotions follow suit. The emotional reaction can range from weeping to laughing. The emotional reaction does not signify repentance, but the Lord knows the intention of the heart. I do not know where I stand when church organizations try to pull at people’s heartstrings because that is manipulative, but God can use their attempts for His glory. God does not need our own attempts to bring hearts to Him, but I think He does use the environment to set people free. I do not have all the answers, so I cannot make definite statements and accurately call them truths. But I do know that there is a very fine line that pastors and different church organizations must walk in regards to today’s very emotion-based society and their efforts to reach people.

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