Why John Wesley Didn’t Use the Altar Call
Debate concerning the altar call often falls along Calvinistic and Arminian lines, but to reduce it to a case of Calvinists versus Arminians is a bit too simplistic... and historically inaccurate.
In his book, “The Altar Call,” author David Bennett looks at the ministries of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley. All three are widely acknowledged as successful evangelists who saw many come to Christ, yet the first two were Calvinists and the third an Arminian. However, as Bennett documents, none of them used the altar call or any other form of public invitation to produce Christian conversions. While listeners would sometimes approach these preachers to inquire about salvation, these men did not issue public or private calls for people to indicate their conversion by an external response of some sort. These men preached about law and gospel, counseled people, and left the results to God.1
In one instance, Wesley met with a woman who had two outbursts in one of his evangelistic meetings, and was under conviction of sin. After spending some time with her, “he did not seem to be concerned about leaving her to go on to his next port of call, apparently reasoning that if God was really working in the woman’s life He could bring it to fruition without Wesley’s further assistance”.2 Bennett notes that Wesley did not press for a “decision” as is often done in the post-response counseling of modern crusade evangelism. It would appear that John Wesley had a higher view of God’s sovereignty than some evangelists of today who identify themselves as Arminians.
Bennett’s observations about Wesley’s evangelistic methods are notable because they contradict the claims of R. Alan Streett in “The Effective Invitation”. In his influential argument for the altar call, Streett makes a case from history and Scripture, finding examples of the public invitation from biblical times to the present. Bennett examines these claims and finds them wanting. In the case of John Wesley, Bennett shows that Streett misreads the historical evidence and makes his case based on unreliable second hand assertions about Wesley. Wesley did not use the altar call.
Setting the facts straight about Wesley is not a conclusive argument for or against the altar call, but it does highlight the fact that debate concerning the altar call cannot be simply reduced to a case of Calvinism versus Arminianism.1 David Bennett, “The Altar Call - Its Origins and Present Usage”. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2000, p.21-222 David Bennett, “The Altar Call - Its Origins and Present Usage”. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2000, p.9