reviewed by Karl Dahlfred
Has the altar call always been a part of Christian evangelism? If not, where did it come from? How did it become so popular? And is it really as effective as is sometimes claimed? These are the questions that David Bennett sets out to answer in The Altar Call - Its Origins and Present Usage. Based on his M.Th thesis for the Australian College of Theology, Bennett has put together a thorough, scholarly, and extremely readable book that is vastly informative for anyone who has ever wondered about the legitimacy of the altar call.
Although Bennett has a definite theological bias (which I happen to share), the book reads in a very even-handed manner. In the first half of the book, Bennett takes up the question of historical origins from the eighteenth century through the end of the nineteenth century. He has read broadly in the primary sources and is careful to qualify his conclusions where the historical data is ambiguous. In the second half of the book, the author looks at modern usage and then makes an analysis and assessment of the altar call, drawing upon theology, statistics, and contemporary rationale for use of the altar call. For those who favor the altar call and would hesitate to read Bennett’s work, respected church historian Mark Noll assures readers in the foreward that “the book should be as stimulating for those who fully embrace use of the altar call as for those (like Bennett) who see real problems in its use.” (vi)
Did Edwards, Whitefield, and Wesley Use the Altar Call?
Because debate concerning the altar call often falls along Calvinistic and Arminian lines, the first chapter of the book helpfully looks at the evangelistic ministries of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley. All three are widely acknowledged as successful evangelists who saw many come to Christ, yet the first two were Calvinsts and the third Arminian. However, as Bennett documents, none of them used the altar call or any other form of public invitation to produce Christian conversions. While listeners would sometimes approach these preachers to inquire about salvation, these men did not issue public or private calls for people to indicate their conversion by an external response of some sort. These men preached about law and gospel, counseled people, and left the results to God (21-22). In one instance, Wesley met with a woman who had two outbursts in one of his evangelistic meetings, and was under conviction of sin. After spending some time with her, “he did not seem to be concerned about leaving her to go on to his next port of call, apparently reasoning that if God was really working in the woman’s life He could bring it to fruition without Wesley’s further assistance” (9). Bennett notes that Wesley did not press for a “decision” as is often done in the Arminian-oriented post-response counseling of modern crusade evangelism. Bennett’s observations about Wesley’s evangelistic methods are notable because they contradict the claims of R. Alan Streett in The Effective Invitation. In his influential argument for the altar call, Streett makes a case from history and Scripture, finding examples of the public invitation from biblical times to the present. Bennett examines these claims and finds them wanting. In the case of John Wesley, Bennett shows that Streett misreads the historical evidence and relies on unreliable second hand assertions about Wesley. Wesley did not use the altar call. Setting the facts straight about Wesley is not a conclusive argument for or against the altar call, but it does highlight the fact that debate concerning this evangelistic method cannot be simply reduced to a case of Calvinism versus Arminianism.
Historical Development of the Altar Call
Continuing on from the era of Wesley, Whitefield, and Edwards, Bennett chronicles early instances of the public invitation in America at the end of the eighteenth century, showing how it became more widespread and systematized in camp meetings on the American frontier (Ch. 2-4). Chapter 5 deals with the massive theological changes in the American church that paved the way for greater acceptance of the altar call. Under pressure from Deists and Unitarians, many Calvinists softened their doctrine, particularly their teaching on human depravity (92). This opened the way for a high view of man’s ability and responsibility for his own salvation. In the context of this compromised Calvinism, Second Great Awakening evangelist Charles Finney rose to prominence (Ch. 6). Though Finney did not invent the altar call and other so-called “New Measures” evangelistic methods, he greatly popularized them, and was the first one to articulate a theological rationale these methods. The Brethren and D. L. Moody further modified and popularized the altar call (Ch. 8), and American evangelists influenced adoption of this method in the U.K. (Ch. 7) and Australia (Ch. 9).
Contemporary Usage and Exaggerrated Numbers
In the second half of the book, Bennett jumps forward from the end of the nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth to look at modern usage. Examining statistics of usage for the altar call in the United States and Australia, Bennett finds that the majority of churches that use the altar call were formed after the camp meetings of the early nineteenth century (Ch. 10). Frequency of usage varies and the altar is not always used for reasons of salvation. Recommitment, dedication of Christian service, healing, and other reasons cited for contemporary usage. The rationale for using altar call (Ch. 11) and counseling and follow-up (Ch. 12) are chronicled and questioned. In Chapter 13, Bennett compares the theology of conversion common in altar call evangelism with the teachings of Scripture. He finds that the Bible emphasizes the activity of God in converting people whereas altar call evangelists emphasize human decision and human activity. Conversion is a process that depends on divine intervention, not a decision that can be made at anytime. In Chapter 14, Bennett examines the most important reason given for using the altar call, namely, “it works” (187). Analyzing numbers of converts claimed for Billy Sunday and Bill Bright, Bennett finds the statistics to be greatly exaggerated. The book concludes in Chapters 15-17 with a critical assessment of the problems inherent in the altar call, and recommendations for the needed trajectory in contemporary evangelism.
Confusing "Coming Forward" with "Conversion"
The two major criticisms of the altar call that come up time and again in Bennett’s book are the confusion of “going forward” and “conversion”, and the emphasis on human decision. Organizations and evangelists commonly talk about the number of people going forward for an altar call as if all those going forward are being converted. Yet, these same organizations and evangelists acknowledge that some people go forward for rededication, some our of curiosity, and some for no discernible reason (169). The varied reasons for going forward are then apparently ignored in reporting by groups such as the Billy Graham organization, which believes that 2% of those going forward become Christians during the sermon, 48% in a counseling session, and 50% during follow-up (195). This inconsistency, at the very least, calls for a recommitment by evangelists to engage in responsible good faith reporting. Exaggerated numbers of converts gives the impression that altar call evangelism is much more effective, and therefore justified, than it really is.
Divine Action or Human Decision?
Another area where Bennett calls for reassessment is the disproportionate emphasis given to human decision in evangelism. A survey of the Scriptures and the evangelism of Wesley, Whitefield, and Edwards shows that both biblically and historically, God is the primary actor in conversion. The fact that modern evangelism de-emphasizes repentance and advertises salvation as a quick and easy transaction should concern evangelical Christians across the theological spectrum.
Good Overview, But More Coverage Needed
While Bennett has successfully covered a large amount of material, both biblical and historical, some areas were lacking. While his inclusion of Australian and British history is most welcome in the face of many American-centric resources, it would have been good to see a history of the spread of the altar call in the non-English speaking world. A brief survey of the contributions of Billy Sunday and Billy Graham in the development of the altar call would have also been helpful in connecting history with the present. The sinner’s prayer is touched upon briefly but this evangelistic method and its relationship to the altar call deserves more coverage. This last point might be overlooked however, since Bennett himself has seen the need to consider the sinner’s prayer in its own right, and has subsequently written a small volume titled, The Sinner’s Prayer: Its Origins and Dangers.
For what he has set out to do, David Bennett has written a scholarly yet readable book that will be a key resource for years to come. For anyone who wants to know the history and rationale behind the altar call, The Altar Call - Its Origins and Present Usage is a must read.