Why Have Christian Historians Ignored the Altar Call?
Updated: May 11
The altar call is simultaneously the most central and most unstudied methodology in the American church in the past two hundred years. Those two things should not go together. While there are several websites that provide an overview of the history of the altar call, and there are a few books on revivalism that give a few pages of attention to the altar call, and there has been one previous book dedicated to the history of the altar call (which is wildly inaccessible, with a used copy costing $54 on Amazon), there is almost no book-length treatment given to the history of the altar call. Why is this the case? Why have professional historians shown so little interest in the history of the altar call? I will hazard two suggestions.
1. There seems to be a mutual antipathy between professional Christian historians and the local church
It’s not that they each actively antagonize over the other, but that they each seem to have a disinterested prejudice against the other. The local church has been trained to be suspicious of Christian academics. In America, this goes back to the Baptist movement that spun off from the Separatist Puritans in the first half of the seventeenth century. The Puritans, not at all interested in religious freedom for anyone but themselves, ostracized and frequently persecuted the growing number of Separatists that began rejecting infant baptism. This group of dissenters--primarily Baptists--found themselves having to use laypeople to preach in their churches. For the Puritans, this was just further evidence that the Baptists were illegitimate. But as the Baptists grew during the late seventeenth century, and then boomed during the Second Great Awakening, their thumbs-down to educated preachers spread to other denominations. This can be seen from comments made by abolitionist Gerrit Smith, who said during a Civil War era debate, "The true religion is too simple to make the training of a theological seminary necessary for those who teach it." The basic assumption is America has been that the Bible is too simple and the academy too complicated for them to belong together. Preaching featuring funny-stories-pretending-to-be-illustrations made expository preaching, in contrast, seem like a drab. An uneducated clergy was prized and the educated Christians were seen as a problem.
Professional Christian historians, on the other hand, are far more interested in telling the history of great men and great ideas. No doubt these things should be the primary subject of historians, but the local church has little interest in thinking about such things, as the body of Christ too often assumes that spirituality and thinking are mutually exclusive. Professional historians, in response, seem to have little interest in lowering themselves to the level of the local church and telling the story of an event that was born out of an intellectually-averse movement. Wilfred McClay writes, "For most of today's professional historians, the suggestion that their work might be so written as to address itself to a general public is unthinkable." David Wells says "that what preoccupies theologians is remote to most people in the Church." Speaking of Christian academics, Wells also notes how they produce "volumes . . . largely written . . . for students; . . . they are not written by those who want to engage the Church as it lives out its life in the postmodern world." Now, obviously I am generalizing some, but the result is that professional historians continue to write books for other historians and the stories of the local church, in this case the altar call, remain untold. McClay explains it this way, "Their graduate training, their socialization into the profession of historical writing, and the structure of professional rewards and incentives within which they work, have so completely focused them upon the needs and folkways of their guild that they find it exceedingly hard to imagine looking beyond them."
2. There seems to be an abiding hostility against the history of methodology
The assumption of Christian history mirrors the assumption of the Bible, namely, that theology ought to produce methodology. Historians, most of which are naturally more curious about causes than events, see theology as the cause of methodology. This places their historical investigation into the realm of intellectual systems instead of methodology. The problem rests with the historian’s assumption. True as it is that the Bible assumes theology ought to produce methodology, what about when it doesn’t actually work that way? Preoccupation with ideas over events, theology over methodology, suggests that historians have lost a sense of the contingent causal structure of how things frequently work versus how they ought to work.
And this is why I have written a book about the history of the altar call. The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call is available on Amazon.
David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride (Oxford University Press, 1984), xiv-xv.
Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins, Baptists in America: A History (Oxford University Press, 2015), 1-18.
Mark A. Noll. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (The University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 17-29.
David F. Wells, Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (Eerdmans, 1998), 10.
Wilfred M. McClay, A Student's Guide to U.S. History (ISI Books, 2000), 14.
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