An Investigation into Claimed Early Uses of the Altar Call
I have defined the altar call as:
“A method of evangelism, within which a regular or frequent, planned invitation is given to “unbelievers” to respond to Jesus Christ publicly at the conclusion of a sermon or other gospel presentation, in such ways as: calling out a response, raising a hand, standing, or walking to a designated spot in the evangelistic setting. A response to such an invitation would normally be followed by immediate counseling and later by some form of follow up. It often incorporates an appeal to Christians for such issues as rededication and call to mission. It is not a theology, though it does reflect and support particular theologies.”[i]
This practice appears to have begun in the eighteenth century. However there have been claims that it has been used earlier than that. Some of those claims are examined below
John Chrysostom (c.347-407)
John Chrysostom, the Bishop of Constantinople, was a great preacher. Indeed, the name Chrysostom means the “golden-mouthed”. R. Allan Streett, in his book The Effective Invitation, says,
“As [John] advanced from exposition to illustration, from scriptural principles to practical appeals, his delivery became more rapid … The people began to hold in their breath … A creeping sensation like that produced by a series of electric waves passed over them. They felt as if drawn forwards toward the pulpit by a sort of magnetic influence. Some of those who were sitting rose from their seats; others were overcome with a kind of faintness … by the time the discourse came to an end the great mass of that spellbound audience could only hold their heads and give vent to their emotions in tears.”
Here Streett is quoting from Thomas Pattinson’s book The History of Christian Preaching, which in turn is quoting from a work by “Dr Macgilvray”.[ii] Streett also implies that John Chrysostom used the altar call. Streett says that John “moved his listeners to physical response”,[iii] and this is true for people wept, felt faint, stood up and some appear to have moved forward. However, there is no indication that John urged them to do so. In other words, there is no evidence here that John made an altar call asking people to move forward. Any moving forward appears to have been either their choice or an involuntary action.
Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)
R. Allan Streett, in his book The Effective Invitation, says, “The fruitful efforts of Bernard of Clairvaux” in the twelfth century “ushered thousands into the Kingdom of God. An evangelist during the Crusades, he issued a public invitation on a regular basis.”[iv] To support this Streett quotes a book by Lloyd M. Perry and John R. Strubhar, which says, “The basic appeal of Bernard of Clairvaux was for people to repent of their sins. Often he would call for a show of hands from those who wished to be restored to fellowship with God or the church”.[v] In other words, Streett is saying that Bernard of Clairvaux used the evangelistic altar call in the twelfth century. In fact, Streett argues that this disproves the suggestion that the altar call began with Charles Finney in the nineteenth century.[vi] Neither Streett nor Perry and Strubhar give any other reference to support their claim, so we do need to take a quick look at Bernard’s life and methods to see if these comments are valid.
Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was a highly influential, French, Cistercian Monk. His monastic beliefs were very different from modern evangelicalism,[vii] so if he did use an appeal as described by Perry and Strubhar, one suspects that it would be for different reasons from those connected with the altar call used in evangelical circles today.
In fact, the solution appears to be that Bernard did make appeals that expected such responses as the raising of a hand, though it was for a very different reason. It was not to encourage enquirers to move forward at an evangelistic “crusade”,[viii] but to enlist soldiers for the Crusades.
Edwin Dargan points out the Bernard and others often preached with the specific purpose of enlisting people to fight in the Crusades. As Dargan argues “It was not exactly preaching – in the proper sense of the word – but it was the urging of men to immediate self-sacrificing devotion to what was believed to be a religious cause.”[ix] Thomas Pattison also noted that Bernard insisted that individuals needed to repent before they could enlist as a crusader.[x]
Jonathan Riley-Smith, a major authority on the Crusades, says that when people had been called to assemble
“any papal general letter in which Christians were summoned to crusade would be read in translation. This explains the highly emotional words with which so many of these letters opened… The preacher would then launch into his homily. It was common for this to be quite short and to be based at least partly on the general letter that had just been read. It would conclude with an invitatio, in which the preacher would implore his listeners to take the cross. In a handbook for preachers, written in the 1260s, Humbert of Romans provided twenty-nine examples of invitationes. Here is one: ‘And so it is clear, most beloved, that those who join the army of the Lord will be blessed by the Lord. They will have the angels as companions and they will receive eternal rewards when they die.’ Each of the invitationes on Humbert’s list ends with the word cantus. Humbert explained in his introduction that an invitatio should be accompanied by a hymn. He referred to the Veni Sancte Spiritus, the Veni Creator, the Vexilla regis, and the Salve crux sancta, but he added that the preacher could arrange for the singing of any other that he deemed to be suitable. As early as 1100 the archbishop of Milan made use of a popular song, Ultreia, ultreia. So as a preacher bellowed out his passionate appeal a choir would strike up and would presumably continue singing as men came forward to commit themselves publicly. As each recruit made his vow he was presented with a cloth cross. He was supposed to have it attached to his clothes at once and to wear this very visible sign of his commitment until he came home with his vow fulfilled. This aspect of the proceedings needed careful preparation, because otherwise there would have been confusion; at Vézelay in 1146 so great was the enthusiasm that the stock of made-up crosses ran out and Bernard of Clairvaux, with typical theatricality, had to tear his habit into strips to provide additional ones.”[xi]
This is certainly strikingly similar to an altar call at a modern evangelistic rally: a crowd is assembled a sermon is preached, at the end of which a choir sings and people are invited to move forward to, supposedly, enlist in Christ’s cause. However, the purpose is totally different. The mediaeval version is to enlist in a literal army to fight a literal battle, a battle in which you would try to kill others and hope that you would not be killed. The modern version is to enlist as a follower of Christ in what one hopes would be a much more peaceful cause.
In other words, Streett’s use of this medieval incident to support the use of the Altar Call today is fatally flawed.
©David Malcolm Bennett (2016)
[i] David Bennett, The Altar Call: Its Origins and Present Usage (Lanham: Uni. Press of America, 2000), xvi.
[ii] R. Allan Streett, The Effective Invitation (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1995), 83-84. Streett is quoting from Thomas Harwood Pattinson, The History of Christian Preaching (Philadelphia: American Baptist, 1903), 71, who is in turn quoting from a Dr Macgilvray. This is Dr Walter MacGilvray, a nineteenth century Scottish academic, who had written a biography about John Chrysostom. So the account is a nineteenth century description.
[iii] Street, Effective, 83.
[iv] Streett, Effective, 84.
[v] Lloyd M. Perry and John R. Strubhar, Evangelistic Preaching (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 44.
[vi] Streett, Effective, 84-85. The altar call did, in fact, begin before Finney, but not nearly as early as Streett claims, see Bennett, Altar Call, 29-79.
[vii] Richard V. Pierard, “Bernard of Clairvaux” in J.D. Douglas, The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (rev. ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 123. See also Edwin C. Dargan, A History of Preaching (2 vols. Grand Rapids: Baker,  1968), 1:208-13.
[viii] The first time an evangelistic campaign was called a “crusade” appears to have been in the early 1950s, when the Billy Graham organisation used it to replace the term “campaign”. “Crusade” seems to have been first adopted by Willis Graham Haymaker (1895-1980), a major helper in Graham’s campaign in Columbia, South Carolina, which began 19 February, 1950. Billy Graham said Haymaker “urged us to drop the word Campaign in favour of Crusade”. See Billy Graham, Just as I am (New York: Harper Collins, 1999), ? page. Information supplied by K.C. James of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, e-mail, 5 March 2015.
[ix] Dargan, Preaching, 1:183.
[x] Thomas Harwood Pattinson, The History of Christian Preaching (American Baptist, 1903), 98.
[xi] Jonathan Riley-Smith, (2008-11-10). The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam (Bampton Lectures in America) (pp. 38-39). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition. Though Humbert’s Handbook was written after Bernard had died, it does appear, as indicated, that the practice of singing as prospective crusaders moved forward was also used in Bernard’s time.
Claude Brousson (1647-98)
Thomas P. Johnston, Associate Professor of Evangelism at Mid-Western Baptist Theological Seminary, has a few other suggestions. In chapter 22 of his book Evangelizology he shows the same flaw as Alan Streett in his work. That is, he tends to confuse a gospel invitation with a gospel invitation requesting a public response. His definition is of an invitation expecting a public response, but he seems to regard any gospel invitation as coming within the scope of that definition, see p. 727 (for the definition) and pp. 736-38 (for some examples). As with Streett, this leads him to see a public invitation (or altar call, if you prefer) where it does not seem to exist.
On pages 736-38 Johnston gives three historical examples of what he seems to regard as examples of a public invitation. The first, from a Cathar document ritual possibly of the thirteenth century, does not fit his definition or mine. The third is a from a tract by Charles Haddon Spurgeon, which again does not fit either definition.
However, the second does give what appears to be an early public invitation, earlier than any I had found. It occurred in the ministry of Claude Brousson (1647-98), a French Huguenot, who was a lawyer and preacher. The Huguenots were French Calvinistic Protestants, who suffered greatly in the sixteenth century and in the second half of the next, particularly during the reign of the all-powerful King Louis XIV (reigned 1643-1715, initially as a child). In 1598 the Edict of Nantes had given Protestants in France freedom to practice the various aspects of their religion, and something closer to equality with Catholics. Jeannine Olson says, “The edict granted the Huguenots the right to worship in certain places in France and to have their schools and academies, the right to hold public office, the right to arm certain cities, and a better chance for justice in the courts because of guaranteed Huguenot judges on some of the courts.” Under King Louis XIV these freedoms were gradually eroded, and persecution increased. In October 1685, the King revoked the Edict of Nantes with the Edict of Fontainebleau, which forbad meeting for Protestant worship and unleashed further persecution, some of which was savage. Some Huguenots escaped overseas, while others remained in France. Many, possibly “hundreds of thousands”, converted to Roman Catholicism to escape the persecution.
Claude Brousson travelled widely and preached frequently, and some of his sermons to his gospel-starved hearers lasted for more than three hours. While his theology was generally considered orthodox, his preaching style seems to have been emotional and he did focus overmuch on the return of Christ, an emphasis triggered by the persecution.
In 1689 he delivered a sermon to some who, to escape the troubles, had deserted the Protestant faith and had joined the Roman Catholic Church. The account runs,
“When the sermon was over, the preacher asked whether there was any among his hearers wishing to be reconciled to God and His Church, and to re-enter the communion of saints … Then, any who were so minded came forward and knelt before the preacher, who began to remonstrate with them and showed them how enormous was the sin they had committed in forsaking Christ. That being done, they were asked to say whether they did repent, and would henceforth live and die in the Reformed faith, in spite of the allurements and threats of the world; whether they heartily renounced the errors of the Church of Rome, the Mass and all thereto appertaining…. (This was done in much detail.) They had to answer Yes to all these questions, each individually. After this, they had to promise not to attend Mass any more, and to take great care not to pollute themselves with Babylon, either by marriage or in other ways; not to allow their children to be trained in it, but, on the contrary, to instruct them in the principles of our religion. Each having duly promised, the minister then proclaimed the remission of their sins, saying, ‘In the name and authority of Jesus Christ, and as a faithful minister of His Word, I declare to you the remission of all your sins, and there is now no condemnation for you, since you are in Jesus Christ.’ Then followed a prayer on their behalf …
“Forty-two of us were admitted in this manner, the rest of the flock having been received back at previous gatherings. The number of the communicants was about two hundred and fifty, men and women.
“Tell our former pastor, M. Modens, that nearly half of his flock are now restored, and by God’s grace the rest will soon follow. The churches at Uzès, Nîmes, Sommières, etc., have all received the same blessing and are now restored. Our foes may say and do what they will, the Holy Spirit has had mercy on us and has reconquered our souls.”
This does sound like a public invitation as we have defined it, though it comes closer to a modern act of rededication than conversion. That is, the people concerned were apostates and the record says, ‘any who were so minded came forward and knelt before the preacher’. However, it does not say that an invitation to move forward was given, though seeing that a large group did so, that seems likely. Clearly the translator has omitted something in the third line and it would be interesting to know what that is.
Brousson was a heroic figure, who spent many years challenging, encouraging, and teaching his people. He was eventually brutally martyred. There is another account of Brousson’s work written by John Quick an English Presbyterian, who had interviewed him. This account though is even less clear (from an altar call perspective) than the above, but it may indicate that after he had preached, he frequently called people forward, or urged them to kneel, or both, as a sign of returning to the faith. It runs:
“After the sermons were ended, he usually made a plain and familiar discourse, in which he exhorted those who by reason of the violence of temptation, and frailty of human nature had fallen from their holy profession, to repent. heartily and enter the bosom of the church unfeignedly, and to renounce all the reigning sins of this present age, and the abominations of unclean Babylon, and to swear allegiance and fidelity unto God, and to keep his commandments diligently for the future. And the. Lord crowned this exercise with a rare and wonderful blessing. For I remember in those five hours conversation with him in my house, he told me that in one part only of one of the western provinces of France, no fewer than five thousand persons kneeling down upon the bare ground with streaming tears, deep sighs and heart cutting groans, after such familiar exhortations of his, did most bitterly lament their revolt from our holy religion, and with eyes and hands lifted up to heaven did call God to witness upon their souls that they renounced the Romish faith, worship and discipline, that they would never any more have or hold communion with that idolatrous antichristian synagogue, that they would never bow the knee to Baal more, never go to mass, come what there would of it, and that they would hold fast the profession of their faith, and the true religion through the grace of God without wavering, and persevere immovably in it unto the end. This l say was in only one part of a province. But he had reclaimed some thousands more in other provinces. So mighty was the power and presence of God with him in his ministry.”
This account is consistent with the other report. According to Quick it was Boussard’s normal practice to make an after-sermon appeal of some description, though the nature of it is not stated. While this does not say that people moved forward to a particular spot, it does say that many knelt down to confess their desire to return to the Protestant faith. It does not say that Brousson had suggested this or had invited them to do it, but his “plain and familiar discourse[s]” after his sermons must have said something that led to those responses. The report also speaks of “thousands” responding in that way. However, it would seem unlikely that thousands responded on any one occasion, but rather they were the fruit of an ongoing ministry.
So how does this relate to the modern public invitation system? In my book on the altar call, I noted that the public invitation seems to have first appeared in a number of mainly isolated incidents in north America in the period 1741-1800. If Brousson, and perhaps other Huguenot preachers, were using the method outlined above in the late 1680s in France, it is possible that Huguenots escaping persecution took that practice to America, which may have influenced the emergence of the altar call.
It is said that about 200,000 Huguenots emigrated, mainly to other European countries, though it is probable that about 4,000 settled in America, before and after the incidents involving Claude Brousson, mentioned above. In America they settled mainly in New England, New York, the Carolinas and Virginia.
It must be remembered that the invitation practised by Brousson in France, if such it was, was a response to many leaving the Protestant faith caused by severe persecution. The situation was different in America, where Protestantism was strong in most states in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. While it is possible that Huguenot preachers in America followed Brousson’s practice or adapted it, it would seem unnecessary and thus unlikely.
 Jeannine Olson in Martin I. Klauber. The Theology of the Huguenot Refuge: From the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes to The Edict of Versailles (Kindle Locations 167-172). Reformation Heritage Books. Kindle Edition. See also Owen Chadwick, The Reformation (PHC, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 166-68; G.R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason, 1648-1789 (PHC, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), 17-21, 200. For the wording if the Edict of Fontainebleau, see Appendix A, in Klauber. Huguenot Refuge (Kindle Locations 6034-6105).
 Pauline Duley-Haour, in Klauber. Huguenot Refuge (Kindle Locations 1494-95).
 Brian E. Strayer in Klauber. Huguenot Refuge (Kindle Locations 3525-3546).
 (The emphasis is mine.) This account is supposedly from Matthieu Lelièvre, Portraits et Récits Huguenots, 274-82; translated and quoted by Reuben Saillens in his The Soul of France (London: Morgan and Scott, 1917), 85-87. Yet not all the quotation is from Lelièvre’s Portraits. Some of it is from Léopold Nègre, Vie et Ministère de Claude Brousson, 1647-1698, pp. 71-73. These quotations seem to have appeared originally in another work, which I have not yet identified, 9 May 2020.
 I have examined the Saillens original and he also had omitted that part.
 Allan C. Clifford, “Reformed Pastoral Theology under the Cross: John Quick and Claude Brousson”, Evangelical Quarterly, vol. LXVI, No. 4, Oct. 1994, 297, quoting John Quick, Icones Sacrae Gallicanae, 734-36.
 David Bennett, The Altar Call: Its Origins and Present Usage (Lanham: University Press of America, 2000), 32-44.
 Charles W. Baird, History of the Huguenot Emigration to America (2 vols. NY: Dodd, Mead & Co. 1885), 2:301-308, 311, 314, 319; Joe M. King, A History of South Carolina Baptists (South Carolina General Board of South Carolina Baptist Convention, 1964), 7; Olson in Klauber. Huguenot Refuge: (Kindle Location 436); Jane McKee in Klauber. Huguenot Refuge (Kindle Locations 816-824).
(c) David Bennett, 2016, 2020.