ABOUT THIS SITE
This is the online home for the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call by Jason Cherry. In 2014 Jason finished his Masters of Arts in Religion degree from Reformed Theological Seminary. He currently teaches American history and New Testament at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. To contact Jason, click here.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ABOUT THE "CONVERSION CULTURE"
Q: What is the "altar call"?
A: The altar call has been at the center of American Christianity for well over two hundred years. At the end of a worship service, after the preaching is complete, the preacher stands before the crowds and asks any in the crowd who wish to be saved to walk down the aisle to the front of the congregation. The preacher will then lead the respondent in the “sinner’s prayer” to ask Jesus into their heart or he will connect the respondent to a counselor.
Q: How did the altar call begin?
A: This is actually a complicated question, which is why The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call is such a needed book. The short version is that in the late eighteenth century we start to see some isolated cases of preachers using an anxious bench. That was when they would place a bench at the very front of the congregation that was reserved specifically for any who were anxious for their soul. During or after preaching the preacher would call any who were anxious for their soul to come sit on the bench where they could receive counseling. But it is really in the late 1790s and early 1800s, at the very beginning of the Second Great Awakening, that you start to see the altar call practiced more frequently. The altar call starts to be used in conjunction with the camp meeting movement, mainly as a way to organize potential converts in the midst of a disorganized and often chaotic camp meeting scene.
Q: Why is this book needed?
A: The altar call has been the foremost evangelistic methodology during the short history of the American church. And yet it is one of the most historically ignored aspects of North American Christianity. There are a number of books about revivalism, and the altar call is given secondary or peripheral level treatment, but there has been very little historical attention given to the altar call itself. There was one book written a couple of decades ago, but it trends toward the academic and costs ~$60 on Amazon, thus making it virtually inaccessible. There have been a few other books written about the topic, but they only give a few pages to the historical aspects of the altar call. And so, when you consider that we are talking about the central methodology of the American church, there is a giant gap in our history. The aim of this insightful new book is to fill that gap.
In filling that gap, one of the assumptions behind the book is that major movements like the altar call movement don’t just begin in isolation. The book goes back and tries to explain the complex cultural and theological changes that were sweeping through North American during the years preceding the altar call. Understanding these cultural and theological changes is critical if we are going to understand the altar call. Mr. Cherry presents thoughtful historical research of these complex changes in a succinct and readable way. One of the goals of this book is that you can sit down in just four to five hours and complete the entire book while also having a full and clear understanding of the topic. Most people don’t have time to just sit down and read a 300-400 page book. This book tries to fill a giant gap in our church history, while also respecting your time.
Q: Why is it important that Christians know about the history of the altar call?
A: The altar call has been the central evangelistic methodology in the history of the church and yet it has been one of the most unstudied aspects of American Christianity. Many people may know that the altar call began in the early 1800s and they may somehow associate it with Charles Finney, but they have no idea of the enduring effect the altar call has had on the theology of American Christianity. As the altar call was being formed, there were certain cultural and theological beliefs paving the way for just such a methodology to develop. So you have theology creating a methodology. But as the practice of the altar call develops and becomes systematized, it becomes almost an institution in and of itself. And the result is that the altar call has come to be so much the assumption for how an individual comes to Christ that the altar call helped shape the present day theology and beliefs of Christians. It is increasingly possible that there may be Christians out there who have never attended a church who practices the altar call, or they may not even know exactly what the altar call is. But it is likely that their own beliefs have been shaped by this thing they know almost nothing about. As the altar call continues to decline in use it is going to be critical that the younger generation of Christians has an accessible yet thorough history that shows, not only the perfectly timed blend of cultural and theological ideas that produced the altar call, but also the long lasting, continuing effects the altar call is still having, even if it isn’t being practiced as frequently.
Q: Who might find this book interesting?
A: Since this book tackles the foremost methodology in the history of the American church, it will be of interest for anyone who likes to learn about the history of American Christianity. Also, since this part of church history has had such a formative role in present day Christian belief and language, this book will be of interest even for those Christians who aren’t usually drawn to church history. Finally, this book will be of interest to both the pastor who features the altar call as part of their pulpit ministry and the critic who disparages the practice. For both parties this book will provide a fuller picture of either that which they practice or that which they disparage.
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