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.
In these pages Johnston gives three historical accounts of what he seems to regard as examples of public invitations. The first, which is of a Cathar ritual (possibly of the thirteenth century), does not fit his definition or mine. The third is a from a tract by Charles Haddon Spurgeon (nineteenth century), which again does not fit either definition. In other words, these two records are not genuine examples of the public invitation.
However, the second does give what appears to be an early public invitation, earlier than any I had found in my research. It occurred in the ministry of Claude Brousson (1647-98), a French Huguenot, who was a lawyer and preacher. In 1689 he delivered a sermon to some Protestants who had returned to Roman Catholicism. The following account was originally written in French and this is a translation by Reuben Saillens.
“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 returning to the Reformed faith from Catholicism. The record says, ‘any who were so minded came forward and knelt before the preacher’. However, it does not clearly say that an invitation to move forward was given, though seeing that a large group did so, this seems highly likely. But clearly the translator has omitted something (‘…’) in the second line, and it would be interesting to know what that is.
 This translation appears in Reuben Saillens, The Soul of France (London: Morgan and Scott, 1917), 85-87. (The emphasis is mine.) The French original appears to have been in a book by Matthieu Lelièvre, though I have been unable to locate which one. It was not Portraits et Récits Huguenots.
See Thomas P. Johnston, Evangelizology (2 vols. Liberty: Evangelism Unlimited, 2011), 727, 736-38.
© David Malcolm Bennett (rev. 2016)