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The Origin of the Call for Decisions

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Date April 12, 2019

The practice of calling sinners to open response by the act of coming to the front of a congregation at the close of a service was introduced by C. G. Finney in the 1820’s in the United States. Finney coined the phrase ‘the anxious seat’, and substituted a new term ‘submitting to Christ’ to the old terminology of repentance and ‘believing on Christ’. Today the terminology has further changed, but it is clear that the theology behind this practice of calling for an immediate public response and the effects which it produces are still much the same as when Dr. Albert B. Dod wrote his long review of Finney’s ‘Lectures on Revivals’. It is not now generally known that the leading American evangelists of the era preceding Finney’s — men such as Asahel Nettletonopposed the new movement and so also did that bulwark of evangelical orthodoxy, Princeton Theological Seminary, where Dod was one of the professors. The following is an extract from the review mentioned above, and is printed in full in ‘Essays, Theological and Miscellaneous, reprinted from the Princeton Review’, 2nd Series, 1847, pp. 76-151.

After describing the methods formerly employed to help seeking and anxious souls, Professor Dod writes:

The measures which are peculiar to Mr. Finney and his followers are of a very different class. The anxious seat, for instance, is intended to produce an effect of its own. Its object is not simply to collect in one place those who are in a particular state of mind, that they may be suitably instructed and advised. No, there is supposed to be some wonder-working power in the person’s rising before the congregation and taking the assigned place. This measure then, and all that resemble it in its tendency to occupy and excite the mind, we should condemn on scriptural grounds as inexpedient and unauthorized . . .

We shall first consider what Mr. F. calls the anxious seat. His formal definition of this measure is, ‘the appointment of some particular seat in the place of meeting, where the anxious may come and be addressed particularly, and be made subjects of prayer and sometimes conversed with individually’. Let this definition be well marked. It points out with sufficient distinctness the nature and design of this measure. What then will be the surprise of the reader to learn, that on the same page he implicitly admits that the real design is totally different from the avowed one! In defending this measure from objection, he says, ‘the design of the anxious seat is undoubtedly philosophical and according to the laws of mind: — it has two bearings’. These two bearings are, that ‘it gets the individual (who is seriously troubled in mind), willing to have the fact known to others;’ and secondly, ‘it uncovers the delusion of the human heart and prevents a great many spurious conversions, by showing those who might otherwise imagine themselves willing to do anything for Christ that in fact they are willing to do nothing’. In defending this measure, who would not have supposed that his arguments would have been drawn from the importance of having those who were troubled in mind collected together that they might ‘be addressed particularly’, etc.? But there is not one word of his defence that has the remotest connexion with the avowed object of this measure. He was evidently thrown off his guard; and the plainness with which he thus incautiously reveals the true, in distinction from the professed design, is only a new instance to illustrate the difficulty of maintaining a consistent system of deception. We have understood from the beginning the guileful character of this measure, and it has constituted in our minds a strong objection against it; but we had not expected to find so distinct an acknowledgment of it in Mr. Finney’s defence. . .

The real operation of the anxious seat is not to make the individual upon whom it takes effect, willing to have his feelings known to others; it is to make him willing to display them before the whole congregation. And this is so far from being ‘an important point gained towards his conversion’, that it should be deprecated as fraught with almost certain evil. It is important that some one or more should be made acquainted with his state of mind, that he may receive the instructions adapted to his case; but it is highly undesirable that the whole community should know it, lest the thought that he is the object of general observation and remark should turn away his mind from the contemplation of the truth, and call up an antagonistic influence, which shall prevail over that which had begun to work within him. The risk, then, which is involved in the use of this measure, is incurred for the attainment of an end, which is of itself a positive and serious dis­advantage.

In this connexion, too, we would remark that the tendency of the anxious seat, and of the whole system of public pledging, voting, etc., or, as Mr. Finney calls it in his Saxon English, ‘of speaking right out in the meeting’, is to obstruct the operation of the truth. They distract the mind and divert it from the truth, by producing a distinct and separate excitement. Suppose an individual, listening to the message of God, feels the truth manifested to his conscience. As the preacher proceeds, the truth takes deeper hold upon him, the penitential tear starts from his eye, and he resolves that he will begin to seek the Lord. When the sermon is dosed, his heart still meditates upon the truth he has heard, and his feeling of anxious concern becomes each moment more intense. But now comes the call to the anxious seat. He hears himself exhorted in the most impassioned manner, to exchange the seat he now occupies for another designated one; and the vehemence with which this measure is urged upon him, and the motives and illustrations employed to enforce it, seem to imply that the salvation of his soul depends upon his taking this step. Here is a new subject presented to his mind, and one of a very agitating nature. The divine truth, which was but now occupying his mind, is forced away, while he revolves the questions, Shall I go or not? Who else will go? What will they say of me ? The excitement thus produced obliterates the impressions which the truth had made, and, but for the consideration we are now about to present, it would then be a matter of small moment whether he went to the anxious seat or not.

The consideration just alluded to, is the tendency of the anxious seat to form and cherish delusive hopes. Mr. Finney has, indeed, assigned as his second argument, and the only additional one to that already examined, in favour of this measure, that its bearing is ‘to detect deception and delusion, and thus prevent false hopes’. This argument would have astonished us beyond measure, had we not ceased to be startled by anything which Mr. Finney can say or do. He has worn out all our susceptibilities of this kind, and no measures from him, in argument or action, however new, could now surprise us. This case is but one out of several similar ones, in which Mr. F. resorts to the forlorn hope of reversing what he knows and feels to be the most formidable objections against him, and changing them into arguments in his favour. As might have been anticipated in every attempt of this kind, he has utterly failed. He supposes that the anxious seat operates as a test of character. ‘Preach’ he says ‘to him (the awakened sinner) and at the moment he thinks he is willing to do anything, — but bring him to the test, call on him to do one thing, to take one step, that shall identify him with the people of God or cross his pride — his pride comes up, and he refuses; his delusion is brought out, and he finds himself a lost sinner still; whereas, if you had not done it he might have gone away flattering himself that he was a Christian.’ This argument involves the capital error that no sinner who is truly awakened can refrain from obeying the call to the anxious seat. It assumes that to go to the anxious seat is ‘to do something for Christ’, and that it is impossible for him who refuses to go, to be a Christian. It supposes that these things are true, and that every awakened sinner is ignorant or undiscerning enough to believe them true. Some test of this kind, he says, the church has always found it necessary to have. ‘In the days of the Apostles, baptism answered this purpose. It held the precise place that the anxious seat does now, as a public manifestation of their (the people’s) determination to be Christians.’

The tendency of this measure to foster delusion and create false hopes is very evident. There are some persons who are fond of notoriety, and ever ready to thrust themselves forward on any occasion, or in any manner which will attract to them the notice of others. To such the anxious seat holds out a powerful temptation. This measure, if used at all, must be used without discrimination. It applies the same treatment to all, and does not permit us, according to the apostolic direction, to make a difference, ‘having compassion on some’, ‘and pulling others out of the fire’. While it unduly discourages, and in many cases overwhelms with despair, the timid and diffident, it invites forward the noisy and bustling, who need to be repressed. Others again will go to the anxious seat, who are not properly awakened, upon whom, indeed, the truth has produced no effect; but they go because they have been persuaded that to do so is ‘to do something for Christ’, and that it will be ‘an important point gained towards their conversion’. . . Whatever may be the theory of the anxious seat, in practice it is not used for the purpose of making visible and thus rendering permanent the impressions made by the truth, nor is such its . effect. This is most fully disclosed by Mr. Finney. Those who have been affected by the truth, and who obey the summons to the anxious seat, will not go with the view of making known their state of mind to their spiritual adviser. They will ordinarily make this ‘pilgrimage to Mecca’, because they have been deceived into the belief that it is a necessary step towards their salvation;1 and that they are rendering to Christ an acceptable service by thus attending upon an institution which is as good as baptism or perhaps a little better. The excitement which draws persons of these different classes to the anxious seats, not being produced by the truth, and yet partaking of a religious character, must tend to conduct the mind to error and delusion. Some, no doubt, who, in the heat of the moment, have taken this step before so many witnesses, will feel that they are committed, and rather than be talked of as apostates through the whole congregation, they will be induced to counterfeit a change which they have not experienced. We have not been surprised, therefore, to learn, what is an unquestionable fact, that where this measure has been most used, many hypocrites have been introduced into the church — men professing godliness, but living in the practice of secret wickedness. And a still greater number, through the operation of the same influence, have been led to cherish false hopes. In the mind of an individual who has gone to the anxious seat, an important place will be filled by the desire to come out well in the estimation of the multitude who have looked upon this declaration of his seriousness; and, already too much disposed to judge favourably of himself, he will be thus still more inclined to rest satisfied with insufficient evidences of a gracious change. Every extraneous influence of this kind, which is brought to bear upon a mind engaged in the delicate business of forming an estimate of itself, must tend to mislead and delude it.

The anxious seat, no matter how judiciously managed, is liable to the objection here advanced. It excites the mind and thus urges it forward, at the same time that it thrusts aside the truth, the attractive power of which is alone sufficient to draw it into its proper orbit. But the intrinsic tendency of this measure to lead the mind astray is very greatly enhanced by the manner in which it is conducted by Mr. Finney and his imitators. The ordinary course of proceeding with those who come forward to occupy the anxious seat is on this wise. They are exhorted to submit to God during the course of the prayer which the preacher is about to offer. They are told that this is a work which they can perform of themselves. They have only to summon up all their energies, and put forth one Herculean determination of will, and the work is done. A strong pull, as in the case of a dislocated limb, will jerk the heart straight, and all will be well. At the conclusion of the prayer, they are called upon to testify whether they have submitted. All who make this profession, without any further examination, are at once numbered and announced as converts. Sometimes a room, or some separate place, is provided to which they are directed to repair. Those who remain are upbraided for their rebellion, and again urged to energize the submitting volition during another prayer. All this process is continued as long as there is a prospect of its yielding any fruit. Does it need any argument or illustration to show, that the anxious seat, thus managed, must be a very hot-bed of delusion? The duty here urged upon the sinner is not, as we have shown in our former article, the duty which the Bible urges. We are at no loss to understand why Mr. Finney presents the sinner’s duty in this form. Submission seems to be more comprised than some other duties within a single mental act, and more capable of instant performance. Were the sinner directed to repent, it might seem to imply that he should take some little time to think of his sins, and of the Being whom he has offended; or if told to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, he might be led to suppose that he could not exercise this faith until he had called up before his mind the considerations proper to show him his lost condition, and the suitableness of the offered Saviour. Repentance and faith, therefore, will not so well answer his purpose. But with sub­mission, he can move the sinner to the instant performance of the duty involved, or, as he says in his Saxon way, can ‘break him down’, ‘break him down on the spot’, ‘melt him right down clear to the ground, so that he can neither stand nor go’. In the mental darkness, consequent upon this unscriptural exhibition of his duty, and while flurried and bewildered by the excitement of the scene, the sinner is to perform the double duty of submitting, and of deciding that he has submitted. Who can doubt that, under these circumstances, multitudes have been led to put forth a mental act, and say to themselves, ‘There, it is done’, and then hold up the hand to tell the preacher they have submitted, while their hearts remain as before, except, indeed, that now the mists of religious delusion are gathering over them? Had this system been designed to lead the sinner, in some plausible way, to self ­deception, in what important respect could it have been better adapted than it now is to this purpose?

Let it be noted that the spirit which we have here pictured, is not the spirit of Mr. Finney alone. Had it belonged to the man, we should not have troubled ourselves to exhibit it. But it is the spirit of the system, and therefore deserves our careful notice. And it is seen to be, as Dr. Beecher called it eight years ago, ‘a spirit of fanaticism, of spiritual pride, censoriousness, and insubordination to the order to the Gospel’. It is prurient, bustling and revolutionary — harsh, intolerant and vindictive. Can the tree which produces such fruit be good? The system from which it springs is bad in all its parts, root, trunk, branches, and fruit. The speculative error of its theology and religion is concrete in its measures and spirit. Let it prevail through the church, and the very name revival will be a by-word and a hissing. Already has it produced, we fear, to some extent this deplorable result. Such have already been its effects, that there can be no doubt, if it should affect still larger masses, and be relieved from the opposing influences which have somewhat restrained its outbreakings, it will spread desolation and ruin, and ages yet to come will deplore the waste of God’s heritage. To the firm opposition of the friends of truth, in reliance upon the Great Head of the Church, and prayer for his blessing, we look for protection from such disaster.

We have spoken our minds plainly on this subject. We intended from the beginning not to be misunderstood. It is high time that all the friends of pure doctrine and of decent order, in the cause of God, should speak plainly. Mr. Finney was kindly and tenderly expostulated with at the commencement of his career. Mr. Nettleton, than whom no one living was better qualified or entitled to give counsel on this subject, discharged fully his duty towards him. Others did the same. But their advice was spurned, their counsels were disregarded. To envy or blindness did he impute their doubts of the propriety of his course. He had a light of his own, and by it ‘he saw a hand they could not see’. All the known means of kindness and expostulation have been tried to induce him to abandon his peculiarities, but without success. It is the clear duty of the Church to meet him and his co-reformers with open and firm opposition. Let us not be deluded with the idea that opposition will exasperate and do harm. Under cover of the silence and inaction which this fear has already produced, this fanaticism has spread, until now twelve thousand copies of such a work as these Lectures on Revivals are called for by its cravings. And there is danger that this spirit will spread still more extensively.


  1. This is now taken for granted to such an extent that ‘coming to Christ’ is equated with obeying the invitation to come to the front. In the official history of the New York Crusade, 1957, we read that, ‘At the end of each sermon Graham invited his hearers to come forward and accept Christ. ‘I’m going to ask you to come,’ he said. ‘Come quickly, right now. Get up out of your seats all over, quietly and reverently, and come and stand here for a moment. If you are with friends or relatives, they will wait. Don’t let the distance keep you from Christ. Christ went to the Cross because he loved you. Certainly you can come these few steps. Come right now. . . You may wonder why I ask you to come forward. Jesus said, If you don’t confess me before men, I’ll not confess you before my Father which is in Heaven. There is something about coming forward which settles it, but, more than that, it is an act of your will in receiving Christ.” (God In The Garden, Curtis Mitchell, chapter 15.) Is it any wonder, under such teaching, if those who respond to the invitation are regarded as Christians and the decision to come to the front is spoken of as synonymous with ‘deciding for Christ’? And yet it was reported by the Graham Organization that of the decisions made at the 1963 Los Angeles campaign 58% were ‘first time decisions’. This reveals how far the whole procedure of appeals is from being a true indication of the spiritual results which follow the preaching of the Word of God. –Ed

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