The pastor closes his sermon: "The Holy Spirit bids you come. The congregation, praying, hoping, expectant, bids you come. On the first note of the first stanza, come down one of these stairways, down one of these aisles. May angels attend you. May the Holy Spirit of God encourage you. May the presence of Jesus walk by your side as you come, while we stand and while we sing." And come they do. Week after week, in churches all across the America—and other parts of the world—scenes like this play out at the end of thousands of sermons. The congregation stands and sings "Just As I Am" or "Come Just as You Are." Sinners walk the aisle and pray for salvation.

This common evangelistic method, known as the altar call or the public invitation, has not always been around. Successful evangelists such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley never gave an altar call. In fact, they did not even know what it was. They invited their hearers passionately to come to Christ by faith and regularly counseled anxious sinners after their services. But they did not call sinners to make a public, physical response after evangelistic appeals. So where did the altar call come from? When did it begin?

At first, the altar call was used as an efficient way to gather spiritually interested people together for counseling after a sermon. Rather than searching out penitent seekers one by one, a preacher would call them up to the front, or into another room, for conversation and prayer. Some Anglo-American ministers used such altar calls at the end of the 1700s, but only during the camp meetings of the Second Great Awakening in America did they flourish.

Camp meetings were common in frontier states like Kentucky and Tennessee beginning ...

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