Walk the Aisle
Popularized by frontier camp meetings and Charles Finney's "anxious bench," the altar call became an evangelistic staple of American churches.
The pastor closes his sermon: "The Holy Spirit bids you come. The congregation, praying, hoping, expectant, bids you come. On the first note of the first stanza, come down one of these stairways, down one of these aisles. May angels attend you. May the Holy Spirit of God encourage you. May the presence of Jesus walk by your side as you come, while we stand and while we sing." And come they do. Week after week, in churches all across the America—and other parts of the world—scenes like this play out at the end of thousands of sermons. The congregation stands and sings "Just As I Am" or "Come Just as You Are." Sinners walk the aisle and pray for salvation.
This common evangelistic method, known as the altar call or the public invitation, has not always been around. Successful evangelists such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley never gave an altar call. In fact, they did not even know what it was. They invited their hearers passionately to come to Christ by faith and regularly counseled anxious sinners after their services. But they did not call sinners to make a public, physical response after evangelistic appeals. So where did the altar call come from? When did it begin?
At first, the altar call was used as an efficient way to gather spiritually interested people together for counseling after a sermon. Rather than searching out penitent seekers one by one, a preacher would call them up to the front, or into another room, for conversation and prayer. Some Anglo-American ministers used such altar calls at the end of the 1700s, but only during the camp meetings of the Second Great Awakening in America did they flourish.
Camp meetings were common in frontier states like Kentucky and Tennessee beginning around 1800. These multi-day gatherings were a way for ministers (mostly Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Disciples) to introduce the gospel to rural settlers. Early camp meetings were filled with passionate preaching and extreme responses. Hundreds of listeners would cry out, shriek, groan, faint, swoon, twitch, and weep. Ministers usually viewed these responses as evidence of the Holy Spirit's work.
By 1805, these spontaneous, bodily movements were less common. Ministers used an "invitation to the altar" as a visible way to measure people's response to their message. "Altars" were fenced areas near the main preaching spot of the camp where preachers urged sinners to seek salvation. Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright described a camp meeting in 1806: "The altar was crowded to overflowing with mourners." Another circuit-riding preacher recounted a time when "the enclosure was so much crowded that its inmates had not the liberty of lateral motion, but were literally hobbling en masse." Methodists experienced exponential growth during the first 20 years of the 1800s partly because of their evangelistic methods, including camp meetings and altar calls.
Many people consider Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) to be the "father" of the altar call. Ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1823, Finney did not begin giving public invitations until long after Methodists had made the altar call a regular part of their camp meetings. Finney, however, did more than anyone to establish altar calls as an accepted and popular practice in American evangelicalism. Finney regularly called anxious sinners to the front of the congregation to sit on an "anxious bench." There, they would receive prayer and often be preached to directly. The altar call was also one of Finney's famous "new measures." He was convinced that ministers could produce revival by using the right methods, and that the altar call "was necessary to bring [sinners] out from among the mass of the ungodly to a public renunciation of their sinful ways."
While many embraced Finney's "new measures," others were wary of the theology behind them. Finney believed that Christ's death had made salvation possible for all. Human depravity was "a voluntary attitude of the mind," not a nature one was born with. Conversion, therefore, depended on the human will being persuaded to repent and trust Christ. According to Finney, the altar call was a very persuasive tool to move the human will. Calvinist ministers such as Asahel Nettleton rejected Finney's confidence in human ability and his reliance on the altar call. They believed human beings were born with a sinful nature. Sinners were unable to trust in Christ until God changed their hearts. Historian Iain Murray describes many opponents of the altar call who "alleged that the call for a public 'response' confused an external act with an inward spiritual change." Moreover, Murray says, the altar call effectively "institute[d] a condition of salvation which Christ never appointed." Critics argued that altar-call evangelism resulted in false assurance, as a high percentage of those who went forward to "receive Christ" soon fell away.
Despite criticism, the altar call continues. It has become a permanent fixture in American evangelicalism. One need only watch a few minutes of a Billy Graham crusade on TV to recognize that what was once a "new measure" has become mainstream. Graham's distinctive voice calls out, "Up there—down there—I want you to come. If you are with friends and relatives, they will wait for you. The buses will wait for you. Christ went all the way to the Cross because He loved you. Certainly you can come these few steps and give your life to Him." While the venue has changed from the backwoods of Kentucky to modern football stadiums, and the mode of transportation has evolved from covered wagons to charter buses, the altar call has endured. It is featured even today in the stories of countless Christians who met Christ when they stood up, stepped out, and walked the aisle.
Douglas A. Sweeney is professor of church history and the history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Mark C. Rogers is a Ph.D. student inhistorical theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.