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According to this article from the The Society for Effective Evangelism:

Up until Billy Sunday, altar calls were invitations for seekers to come to an after-meeting or inquiry room where counselors would help people understand their heart condition. These ministers worked in concert with the Holy Spirit to help seekers repent and yield to God, and to pray that God would save them. Someone was saved only when they were born again—when the Holy Spirit came into them. Conversion and being born again meant the same thing.

Of course, I've been to many Christian events that feature altar calls and even more where the speaker simply asks non-Christians to "pray the Sinner's Prayer" with them. I assumed the practice went back at least to Revivalists such as Charles Finney, but according the the article, evangelists before Sunday provided individual counseling before telling people they were saved.

Is there any evidence the practice of "salvation by altar call" is older than Sunday?

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2 Answers 2

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The altar call predates Billy Sunday, though possibly not by that name.

Charles Finney pioneered many evangelistic methods in the 1820s and 1830s, including what he called the "anxious seat" or "anxious bench", where sinners could come forward to receive instruction and counseling.

William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army, used similar techniques—although they renamed the "anxious seat" to the "mercy seat". Like Finney, the Booths considered the altar call to be just the first step toward salvation.

Sometimes people would stay there all night, and on a few occasions, even a few days, weeping and confessing their sins with broken hearts. There were always some who would stay right there to instruct them further, encouraging them to make a clean sweep of sin from their lives.

Dwight Moody began having altar calls after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 killed more than 300 people and destroyed Moody's church building, just after he had preached about repentance.

Moody asked his congregation to evaluate their relationships to Christ and return next week to make their decisions for Him. That crowd never regathered. While Sankey was singing a closing song, the din of fire trucks and church bells scattered them forever, for Chicago was on fire. The Y.M.C.A. building, church, and parsonage were all to be lost in the next 24 hours.

After the fire Moody vowed never to delay in asking his listeners to make a decision for Christ. Moody, however, stressed that the altar call itself did not bring about salvation.

It is not our work to make them believe. That is the work of the Spirit … I cannot convert men; I can only proclaim the Gospel.

However, by insisting that they make an immediate decision, Moody began to blur the line. At least one reporter understands Moody's methods to imply a connection between the altar call and salvation.

Moody was quick to point out that only the Spirit awakens sinners, and the individual’s trip to the altar is simply a sign marking one’s salvation.

So it's fair to say that no preacher prior to Billy Sunday explicitly equated the altar call with salvation, but it's possible that the "immediate decision" that Dwight Moody asked of his listeners could have been understood that way.

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The Society for Effective Evangelism webpage mentions Finney and Moody as pioneers of the altar call. But the question is really about whether they (or anyone else before Rev. Sunday) asserted that "public definite enlistment for Christ makes you a Christian." In other words, just walking to the front of the church at the proper time saves you; no need to get baptized, no need to go to church, no need for regular prayer, etc. –  Jon Ericson Dec 12 '12 at 1:41
    
@Jon: The information on Moody at least implies this, since he was concerned it might be the last chance some people might have to "make a decision". But I'm going to research it further to try to find something more definite. –  Bruce Alderman Dec 12 '12 at 2:51
    
Thanks for sticking with this answer. I think it's spot on and the links to outside sources are very helpful. We didn't get to where we are all at once, but over several generations of preachers. –  Jon Ericson Dec 17 '12 at 17:37

People have been going to the alter in one form or another since the days of Abraham, when John and Jesus were baptizing the Jordan was a form of alter. Throughout history spiritual leaders have been calling their congregations to approach and receive blessings, salvation, communion, etc... whatever you want to refer to it as being, it is ultimately one thing, the physically committed entrance into the presence of God, a conscious willful act of obedience, an effort to be known by your Father, to be blessed with the covering of His Spirit, acknowledge His existence, accept His offer of relationship and begin to know His LOVE... :)

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Welcome to the site. I think you've missed the point here. Jon seems to be looking for a bit more than what you're giving. This is a good start, but you've gotta show more of a trail than this. Remember that in evangelical Christianity the "altar" that the term "altar call" is purely metaphorical, I think we're looking for a trace of that metaphor through history, you've got the beginning, can you tie it to the present day? –  wax eagle Nov 21 '12 at 15:04
    
Perhaps I did not pay close attention to specific context (Evangelical: modern --- Alter Call: modern) and the subject matter in question (History of Evangelical Practices). I must apologize, I should not be answering questions that do not pertain to faith & salvation, my response was overzealous and purposed for describing historical action; motive and condition experienced. I do not consider the question relevant, I will be more attentive in the future. –  doogie Dec 8 '12 at 13:10
    

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