“Pastor, where do altar calls come from?”

the altar callIf you were at a worship service where people started to “fall under the power” (i.e., to the floor as if dead or asleep), would you think: a) “Wow! God is really on the move with mighty acts of salvation;” b) “Wow! These people are really holy;” or c) “Whoa! Where’s the exit? I’ve got to get out here fast.”

Emotionalism is nothing new in the church, especially during times of revival. Christians genuinely hungering for a “move of the Spirit” have experienced some remarkable times of spiritual harvest and growth. Up until the turn of the 19th century most thought of a revival as something that came by the sovereign will of God. Congregations would pray for the Spirit to “come down” but it was not an event to be planned and scheduled on the church calendar.

This was the theological conviction of those pastors and churches that experienced the First Great Awakening in New England in the middle 18th century. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), who saw two incredible moves of the Spirit in his Northampton church, wrote extensively about the revivals and their effects on the lives of those who were changed; his own wife being one of them.[1]

However, with the arrival of “camp meetings” in the middle 1700’s conducted by Methodist and Presbyterian ministers, new theological considerations about revivals began to take root. Eventually these became new theological commitments supplanting the old theological commitments. In fact, over time these leaders concluded that “If camp meetings and altar calls could produce the same number of ‘converts’ as revivals, what was the difference between them?”[2] Hence, a routine (or ritual?) for creating revivals soon replaced the real thing.

Some will tell you that the “altar call” or “invitation” came with the inventive measures of Charles G. Finney (1792-1875). He may have refined the practice, but it began earlier with the Methodist camp meetings in the American mid-west and south. No one is sure of the origin of the practice of the altar call. What most agree upon is that the altar call accompanied open-air meetings. An open-air meeting was common since John Wesley (1703-1791) and George Whitfield (1714-1770) in England. The meeting was a popular way of bringing spiritually hungry people together to hear the faithful preaching of God’s Word. But as one historian of American open-air camp meetings noted: “The camp meeting’s appeal was not just to the spirit of man hungering after righteousness but to his gregarious nature seeking surcease from the loneliness and hardship of the frontier.”[3]

The style of preaching at this time appears to have been dispassionate and perhaps a little heady. Americans wanted something different. Passionate and emotional camp meetings preachers found people more responsive to their messages and would display “nervous agitation” over the condition of their soul. There were accounts of “twitching” or “jerks” and dancing. At first, not many were happy about these outbursts but some who led these revivals were encouraged by what they saw and did nothing to prevent the excesses of physical phenomenon, like “the falling exercise.” In fact, these were taken as a “miraculous” move of God signaling the dawn of a new age of freedom in the Spirit. People claimed this new freedom in order to minister to one another in visions, dreams and prophecies (rather than “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19)?)

Lots of immature ministers added to the “maelstrom of confusion.”[4] The real problem behind the unfettered emotion was the ministers who “were like a parcel of boys suddenly [tumbling] out of a boat, who had been unaccustomed to swim, and knew not the way to shore. Some fixed upon one error and some upon another.”[5]

These had disastrous effects upon the churches, especially among the Presbyterians. The Separator-in-Chief (i.e., Satan) was at work in the churches. Any who criticized these events was labeled a “cold or dead” pastor, doing what could be done to hinder the work of the Spirit. Some pastors left their ministries to join the Shakers. If the ministers gave into error, they gave into corresponding ungodly behaviors. Churches split, married couples separated, children were given up.

As the camp meetings became increasingly disorderly, there was a related growth of new denominations, “all claiming to represent true religion.”[6] The camp meeting experience demonstrated what can happen when men and women untaught in the Scriptures decide for themselves its meaning. Although they claimed the Scripture as their only authority, “they could all too easily be carried away by things to which Scripture gives no sanction.”[7]

However, it would be too much to conclude that nothing spiritually genuine happened in these camp meeting revivals. Where leadership was sound in Scripture and congregations well-taught, faithful doctrine and conduct were maintained.

So how did these camp meetings influence the present-day question posed to many a pastor: “Why don’t you do altar calls?”

That’s the subject of the next blog!


[1]See three of Edwards’ works about revivals for helpful insights: A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton (1737), A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746), Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England (1742) and A Humble Attempt (1748, a call to concerts of prayer among Christian churches for revival).

[2]Iain H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), 190.

[3]Murray, Revivalism, 165. Murray quotes W. B. Posey author of Frontier Mission: A History of Religion West of the Appalachians (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1966), 25.

[4]Murray, Revivalism, 170.

[5] Murray, Revivalism, 170.  My italics.

[6]Murray, Revivalism, 173.

[7]Ibid., 174.

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