Additional thoughts on the Sinner’s Prayer and the Altar Call.

“The Sinner’s Prayer: Its Origins and Dangers” and
“The Altar Call: Its Origins and Present Usage”
Additional thoughts
By David Malcolm Bennett

It is proposed to place a few additional thoughts about the Altar Call and the Sinner’s Prayer on this website. More will be added from time to time.

Added December 2015

Earlier uses of Printed Sinner’s Prayers in Britain.

In my book on the sinner’s prayer I said that “there seems no evidence that printed Sinner’s Prayer were used” in Britain “before the Billy Graham crusades” of the mid-1950s. That is the type of prayer used in such booklets as “Four Spiritual Laws” and “Steps to Peace with God.”[1] My near namesake David Robert Bennett, also known as Dave Bennett, has found an earlier use in Britain and that from a British source.[2] In 1950 John Stott published a booklet called “Becoming a Christian”, which had a longer-than-usual sinner’s prayer in the closing pages. The prayer refers to the person praying opening “the door” and inviting the “Lord Jesus” to “Come in”. An additional note makes it clear that anyone who has “humbly and sincerely echoed this prayer” has “received the Lord Jesus Christ”.[3] This is a sinner’s prayer as I defined it.

David R. Bennett has also noted that Maurice Wood also published two booklets not later than 1955 that each contains a sinner’s prayer. They are “How can I Find God?” and “How can I Accept Christ?” While Bennett concedes that there might have been some American influence on Wood,[4] there does not appear, at that stage, to have been any direct American influence on Stott. Indeed, the primary influence on both men was an Englishman, a Church of England clergyman named E.J.H. Nash (1898-1982).

Nash, nicknamed “Bash”, worked for Scripture Union from 1932 to 1965, specialising in a remarkable camp-ministry for boys from 30 public schools, most or all of which had a Church of England background. Public schools in the British system are, perhaps oddly, private schools. They cater mainly for Britain’s elite. Amongst the many that Nash influenced were Stott, Wood, David Shepherd and Michael Green, who all became Anglican evangelicals, two of them Bishops and one a major scholar.[5]

Nash wrote a booklet called “Life at its Best”, which, though it does not contain a sinner’s prayer, uses Revelation 3:20 and the famous Holman Hunt painting of Jesus standing outside a closed door to convey the idea of a sinner opening the door of their heart to Christ.[6] Stott used that idea of Jesus standing outside the door in his prayer in “Becoming a Christian.”[7] While this does not prove the influence of Nash, it is consistent with it and it is presumably one of the areas in which he influenced Stott.

This leaves us with the question, “What were the influences on Nash?” In his work with the public school boys Nash often lent them books by the American evangelist R.A. Torrey. Torrey, it seems, had been one of the major influences upon Nash. D.L. Moody appears to have been another.[8] Moody, the evangelist, and Torrey, the first head of the Moody Bible Institute, were quite likely early users of the sinner’s prayer, though neither seem to have produced it in printed form. They certainly had a sinner’s prayer theology and methods that fitted in with it.[9] It would seem probable, then, that Torrey and Moody influenced Nash in the direction of the sinner’s prayer. After that Nash influenced a host of future Anglican clergy in the same direction.

David R. Bennett also suggests that belonging to a liturgical church such as the Church of England may have made it easier for people such as Stott and Wood to accept the use of a set, printed sinner’s prayer. Bennett says, “It seems only a small step” from using liturgy “to supplying a suggested prayer for those responding to the Christian Gospel”.[10] This makes sense and it sound likely. It is certainly striking that the earliest British examples of this appear to be from Anglican clergy. In my book on the altar call, I suggested that the practice in some denominations of moving forward in church to take the Lord’s Supper may have made it easier for some to accept the idea of moving forward after an altar call.[11] In some settings, then, each of these innovations could have developed from regular church practice.

[1] David Malcolm Bennett, “The Sinner’s Prayer: Its Origins and Dangers” (Brisbane: Even Before Publ. 2011), 147. My definition of the sinner’s prayer appears on page 2 of that book.
[2] David Robert Bennett, “An evaluation of adopting or excluding suggested prayers of response in evangelistic literature used by British Christians with particular reference to authorial intention” (D.Min University of Bangor, 2013), 46-48.
[3] John R. W. Stott, “Becoming a Christian” (Leicester: IVP, 1950, reset 1972), 16-19. David R. Bennett has seen an original copy of this booklet (1950) and this prayer was in it, so it is not something that has been added to later editions. However, the pronouns “Thee”, “Thou”, “Thy” and “Thine” have been changed to “you” and “your” in the more recent editions.
[4] David R. Bennett, “An evaluation”, 51-52. The original dates for Wood’s two booklets are unknown, but the material in them appeared in some articles in Crusade magazine in the second half of 1955.
[5] Georgina Giles, “Bash”, Evangelical Times, accessed 2 Dec. 2015; “E.J.H. Nash”, accessed 2 Dec. 2015.
[6] David R. Bennett, “An evaluation”, 49-51. Nash did include a prayer in this book, but both David R. Bennett and David M. Bennett agree that it is not a sinner’s prayer as such.
[7] Stott, “Becoming”, 17-18.
[8] “E.J.H. Nash”, accessed 2 Dec. 2015.
[9] David M. Bennett, “Sinner’s Prayer”, 93-107, 116-21.
[10] David R. Bennett, “An evaluation”, 55-59.
[11] David [Malcolm] Bennett, “The Altar Call: Its Origins and Present Usage” (Lanham: University Press of America, 2000), 45-46.

©David Malcolm Bennett (2015)

Added December 2016

Did Spurgeon use the Sinner’s Prayer?

Thomas P. Johnston cites Spurgeon’s tract Salvation and Safety (aka Ark of Safety) as including a sinner’s prayer.[1] This tract does, indeed, include a prayer, which runs “Lord I trust Thee; I have nothing else to trust to; sink or swim, my Saviour, I trust thee.”

I did examine this tract and its prayer when researching my book on the sinner’s prayer. I concluded, that though Spurgeon “advocated non-Christians praying for salvation”, this prayer in its context was not a sinner’s prayer[2] as I had defined it.[3] I can understand Johnston regarding this as a sinner’s prayer, but it does not contain the common assumption that modern sinner’s prayers have. That is, that if one prays the prayer sincerely, one will certainly and immediately become a Christian. Spurgeon’s prayer does not make that assumption. My definition includes those elements of certainty and immediacy.

Also Immediately after the prayer Spurgeon says, “And as surely, sinner, as thou canst put thy trust in Christ, thou art safe.” Trust/faith is the crucial issue in this tract, and reciting a prayer, even sincerely, does not necessarily demonstrate faith. It can be just a form, a ritual, or it may be “prayed” under persuasion. In addition, on page 2 of the tract Spurgeon says, “My works, my prayers, my tears can not save me … If you make ordinances the basis of your soul’s salvation, they are lighter than a shadow.”[4] (emphasis in the original.)

[1] Thomas P Johnston, Evangelizology (2 vols. Liberty, MO: Evangelism Unlimited, 2011), 2:721.

[2] David Malcolm Bennett, The Sinner’s Prayer: Its Origins and Dangers (Brisbane: Even Before Publishing, 2011), 93.

[3] Bennett, Sinner’s Prayer, 2.

[4] C. H. Spurgeon, Salvation and Safety, accessed 19 Dec. 2016, http://www.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/docs/tract01.html (Emphasis in the original.)

© David Malcolm Bennett (2016)

Further Research on the Altar Call

Morgan Edwards

Morgan Edwards (1722-95) was a Welsh/American Baptist, who was a co-founder of Brown University in Rhode Island, USA. He wrote a book called Customs of the Primitive Churches (Philadelphia: 1768). I read the sectionadmission into the church”, pp. 66-71, which presented the method used to accept converts into some Baptist churches in America in the mid-eighteenth century. I found no reference to the Altar Call.

©David Malcolm Bennett (2015)

 

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