Altar Call Revisionism
Christopher Columbus’ (1451-1506) American voyages did not convince Europe that the earth was round, at least not until Washington Irving’s 1837 book, History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. In fact, Medieval Europe (even Roman Catholics!) widely believed the earth was round long before Columbus. But Irving’s historical novel sowed “flat earth” seeds that Darwinists then harvested in their late nineteenth-century battle with Christians. The Darwinist’s battle plan, skillfully executed by the founder of Cornell University Andrew Dickson White, was to advance an argument by appealing to history. And what was the argument? Christian’s were archaically ignorant compared to the advances of science. This sort of “outcome-based” revisionist history has been remarkably effective in an intellectually thin, relativistic, and secular society. Historical arguments are now produced on the basis of the outcome it produces. Outcome-based history asks: Who cares if it requires appealing to false historical knowledge to create a persuasive argument, so long as the argument advances the desired myth turned to fact?
There has been just such an outcome-based attempt at the history of the altar call. I chose not to interact with the Alan Streett’s revisionist history of the altar call in my book, The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call. The main reason was that I wanted to keep the book short and accessible, making such historiographical debates just beyond the scope of the book. Another reason is that Streett’s claims about the history of the altar call are so outlandish that they make Andrew Dickson White look like a paradigm of probity. For example, Streett manages to transfer the true origins of the altar call during the late 1700s back to the time of Constantine in the fourth century. He also claims that Boniface and Bernard of Clairvaux employed some version of altar call tactics. To make these historical claims, Streett fails to place these individual’s in their historical context or counter the tidal wave of historical evidence that decimates his claims. Streett’s book, The Effective Invitation, seems to be rooted more in upholding his particular theology than carrying out basic objective historical investigation. No person should be faulted for having a bias, or else we all are at fault. But should that bias take precedent over the historical evidence?
Streett’s motives for revisionism are not my concern. But I am concerned for the present-day church, especially young evangelicals, to learn the history of the altar call, which remained as the foremost evangelistic method for two hundred years and played a prominent role in shaping the present-day evangelical doctrine of conversion.
Ronald Numbers, ed. Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).
Timothy Larsen, “’War is Over, If you Want it’: Beyond the Conflict between Faith and Science,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 60, no. 3 (September 2008): 147-155.
Robert Royal, “The Pizza Theory,” First Things (March 1992).
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