When the Methodists of the late 18th Century began inviting those seeking conversion to come forward at the end of church services the practice became commonplace.
The Methodist evangelist Peter Cartwright records how the preachers planned such meetings. If they were able to discern the Spirit of God moving in significant power they should call for people to give their lives to Christ and invite them to take a seat at the front.[i]
Cartwright records that one of the preachers said to him, ‘If I strike fire, I will immediately call for mourners, and you must go into the assembly and exhort in every direction, and I will manage the altar. But if I fail to strike fire, you must preach; and if you strike fire, [you] call the mourners and manage the altar. I will go through the congregation and exhort with all the power God gives me.’[ii]
Soon, large numbers were responding to the invitation and the Methodists, after counseling those who responded, were recording these numbers as hopeful conversions.
Understandably, even those who did not share the Arminian theology of some of the Methodists, began to see how an evangelistic appeal could help clarify a person’s response to the gospel and the practice began to spread.
A popular way of responding to the gospel
It became such a feature of the growing revival (often referred to as the Second Great Awakening) that preachers found it happening even without their encouragement.
A Baptist preacher, Wilson Thompson, describes what happened at an open air meeting in Kentucky in December 1812:
‘I took for a text the saying of Paul: For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ…At the close of this discourse the large congregation seemed deeply affected.
I cast my eyes over them, and the general appearance was a solemn stillness, as though some unseen power was hovering over them. Every eye was set on me, and I felt must with astonishment, and stood silent for some minutes.
I believe there was not a motion nor a sound during the time until, simultaneously, some twenty or more persons arose from their seats and came forward.’[iii]
But, as we’ll see in the next post, it was Charles Finney who, arguably being the most effective Evangelist of this period, became the preacher who popularized the practice more than any other.
For the first post on Finney click here
For the first part of the history of evangelistic appeals (or ‘altar calls’) click here
© 2012 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog
[i] These reserved rows of seats began to be referred to as ‘the anxious seat’.
[ii] The Backwards Preacher: An Autobiography of Peter Cartwright (London, 1859) p.37
[iii] Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1994) p.226