Great Chicago Fire & altar calls


Wall Street Journal reporter Grant Wacker talks “Unbroken” film, Lou Zamperini’s turning point, Billy Graham and altar calls in this piece: http://preview.tinyurl.com/qazs44c

The act of walking the aisle of a church to convey publicly a spiritual decision is rooted in mid-19th century America, and, many say, by way of the Gospel of Matthew.

Biblical scholars point to several Scriptures they say support the “outward expression of an inward decision,” but Matthew 10:32-33 is perhaps the most often referenced: “Whoever acknowledges Me before men, I will also acknowledge him before My Father in heaven. But whoever disowns Me before men, I will disown him before My Father in heaven.”

Kentucky church growth experts Dan Garland and Thom Rainer agree that in Southern Baptist and other evangelical churches, baptism is considered by many as the ultimate act of public confession. Nevertheless, aisle-walking remains a “first step” of faith for many new believers.

If anyone could be dubbed the “father” of the altar call, it probably would be Charles Finney. The University of Virginia American Studies program provides one of many summaries of Finney’s background and ministry.

A Connecticut native and one-time lawyer, Finney was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1824. By 1830, he was one of the major figures of the Second Great Awakening—a period of Christian revival with Kentucky as one of its epicenters.

Encouraging listeners to repent and accept Christ as Savior, Finney would invite them to the “anxious seat,” also known as the “mourner’s bench,” at the front of a church or whatever gathering area was being used.

At the anxious seat, men, women and children would receive prayer and counsel from a pastor or other church leaders.

From the anxious seat came the “inquiry room,” a method brought into prominence by evangelist D.L. Moody, according to Daniel Whitesell’s book, “Great Personal Workers.”

When a message came to a time of decision, people who felt under conviction were led to a room away from the larger crowd where they could be counseled personally.

Some biographers tell the story of a Sunday night service in Chicago in 1871 that led Moody to emphasize immediate public decisions.

Reportedly, he asked the crowd gathered that night to ponder their spiritual condition and return the next week to further explore any decision they needed to make. But the infamous great Chicago fire broke out during the service, scattering the congregation and burning the church. There was no opportunity to regroup the following week.

Evangelist Billy Graham’s stadium-sized altar calls testify to the acceptance and effectiveness of the method, but pastors and biblical scholars are quick to point out that the act of walking an aisle or repeating a collection of phrases cannot be equated with a heart-felt acceptance of God’s grace through Christ.

“People can respond to Christ anywhere,” said Dan Garland, head of evangelism for the Kentucky Baptist Convention. “I think the best venue of response is in the home—parents leading children to Christ, or children leading parents to Christ. Then, they come to church to have that decision affirmed.”

March 3, 2005 by Dannah Prather, partnership editions editorWestern Recorder

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