The Historical Origin of the Modern Day Altar Call

Dr. Stephen Nichols, Dr. Steve Lawson and Dr. R. C. Sproul respond to a question about altar calls:

Origin of the Altar Call, and a Personal Story from Pastor Steve Lawson from Falsified Ministries on Vimeo.

The Question of Altar Calls

A Transcript: From the second Question and Answer session at “The Truth of the Cross – 2014 Regional Ligonier Conference”

What is your opinion of altar calls?

stephen-nicholsDr. Stephen Nichols: I’ll speak about a Church history sermon, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” and Eleazar Wheelock was there present at Enfield when that sermon was preached. He went on to found Dartmouth University (College), and he recorded for us what happened at that sermon. And this of course is the sermon when Edwards had to stop speaking because of the shrieks of the congregation. And so at the conclusion of this Eleazar Wheelock writes that the minister concluded his sermon. We sung a hymn and we went home.

In those days they had this idea that if someone was so anxious they would, after the sermon, write a note and then have an elder or deacon from the Church come to them, and then as they counselled with them they would make a profession of faith and then on another Lord’s day or a few Lord’s day following they would then make their public profession of faith, and they would become full members and communicate members and partake of the Lord’s supper. This was how it was done in Edward’s Churches and the new England Churches in the Great Awakening. We really see the altar call as an American phenomenon in the Second Great Awakening with Charles Finney. And Finney had this idea of what he called “The Anxious Bench” – if you are so anxious then come down forward and you’ll be dealt with here in the service, and Finney called that an “anxious bench.” And that’s where the introduction of the altar call in American Church history. And this is what Church historians are good for. They simply give you the historical data; they leave it to the pastors and the theologians to judge. I just report. You can judge.

Dr. Lawson, you come from a Baptist tradition where altar calls are prominent. What is your opinion on that?

steve_lawsonDr. Steve Lawson: I remember when I graduated from seminary in 1980 I immediately went to a large Southern Baptist Church, and the very first week I was there I stepped into the College ministry, overseeing it as well as young marrieds. And I remember the very first weekend that I was there. There was already scheduled a young couples retreat. So there were about 50-60 of us that went on this young couple’s retreat and I remember Friday night we all got in a big circle and just as kind of an ice breaker way to start the weekend and for me to know the people I said “let’s go around the circle and I would like for everyone to give us your name, where you are from and give us your testimony, when you came to know Christ.”

And by the time we got all the way round the circle my jaw was on the floor. I could not believe what I was hearing. And what I heard again and again and again and again and again was the testimony of people who had walked forward as a child, as a teenager “but my life never changed, I went off to College, I lived like the world, I sowed my wild oats and prayed for crop failure… (that hit a nerve didn’t it?) … and then was married and we had a child, etc. etc.’ They finally got serious and committed their life to Christ. But what I heard again and again and again, non stop was people walking forward and there was no conversion, though people were praying, signing a card, whatever.. people were not being saved.

So after that the next week I was appointed (since I am the College pastor) to be the guy standing at the front while the pastor stands in the pulpit and gives the alter call.

So, as the people come forward I gather them, ok. I take them back stage and I have now maybe 30 seconds to get their name, their address, their phone number, when they were saved, get their testimony and then bring them back out before we finish “Just as I am” – you know, the 48th verse!

So I mean I actually lived through this.

After about 3 weeks of this I just realized this is absolutely insane! I mean we are presenting people back before the Church, I don’t even know who this person is. I mean you’ve got 15 seconds to give me your testimony. I’m having to sort through just awful, bad testimonies, trying to interpret.. I’m finishing their sentences for them “what you’re trying to say…” and then bring them back out so I just had to completely stop this.

I said to the pastor, this is killing my conscience. You are the pastor, we can do however you lead us but I cannot be the person out here to do this.

So I eventually pastored a large Southern Baptist Church of 4 to 5 thousand members and there was an altar call at the end. I mean that’s what you do if you’re the pastor of such a church. And so I preached there for 8 years.

The interesting thing was, I would preach and literally no one would walk forward. My office was behind the pulpit area (the choir loft). I’d go back to my office and literally week after week after week, there would be this knock on the door.. and after the service is over.. its like Spurgeon said, “A wounded deer wants to withdraw to the thicket to lick its wounds.” It does not want to be paraded in front of people as an object.

And so I am back in my pastor’s study and as RC would say, “stop me if I’m lying…” it was the most amazing thing, Wednesday night, Sunday night, Sunday morning, there were Church members just being converted week by week by week by week. Nobody would walk forward but everyone was being converted by themselves. People would be converted in the parking lot, on the front doorsteps of the Church.. I don’t think hardly anyone walked forward…

So when we started our new Church I said, “this is crazy!” There will be no altar call whatsoever. I’m going to preach the word. The entire sermon is going to be a summons to give your life to Christ and I’m the easiest person to find after the service. I’m at the front, I’m in the lobby, I’m the last person to leave. If you want more information, please come talk to me, but the fact is, there was no precedence till the 19th century. So somehow for 18 hundred years in Church history, people were being saved without any sawdust trail, without any walking forward.

So I think it lends itself to great abuse and I’ve experienced it and lived through it.

RCtestDr. R. C. Sproul: The sad abuse is that it gives multitudes of people a false sense of security who think that they’re saved because they raised their hand or prayed a prayer or walked an aisle. You know Edwards preached that sermon a warning to professors (it was not a warning to academic teachers). It was to those who had made a profession of faith and who believed that because they made a profession of faith that they were saved. Now everybody who is saved is called to make a profession of faith, but Jesus warned again and again and again many will come to Me on that last day saying “Lord, Lord, didn’t I do this, didn’t I do that?” And He will say, “Depart from Me you workers of iniquity. I never knew you.”

You are not justified by a profession of faith. You’re justified by a possession of it. And you can’t manipulate that. Only the Holy Spirit can convert. Only the Holy Spirit can change the disposition of the soul and regenerate that person who is dead in sin and trespasses. We can’t force that, and when we do, we put people at everlasting peril when we give them a false sense of security.