The Public Invitation: how historical is it?” part II

February 7, 2014

by Dan Nelson, pastor
FBC Camarillo, Calif.

The history of public invitation is interesting, indeed. Our current, traditional public invitation has evolved from various sources. We noted last week how gospel sermons in Scripture have an appeal to the hearer. This certainly could be said concerning great evangelistic preachers of the past. I will not give an exhaustive list of evangelistic preachers since I want to explore those methods, which relate to our current practices.

The First Great Awakening movement featured masses of people finding Christ and being captivated by the preaching of such notables as George Whitefield, John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards. George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards represented the Calvinist wing of the Awakening movement, while Wesley, the Arminian position. Whitefield did not give a public invitation as such. He had one of the strongest appeals to come to Christ of any gospel preacher. People were prone to jump to their feet and beg God for mercy in his meetings. He instead, asked those who were awakened to counsel with him afterward. Often times he would not go to bed till 3 a.m. from the heavy load of sharing with inquirers. Whitefield also had those awakened write their name and experience and had it brought to him. He would then read the person’s name and their experience of saving grace.[1]

Jonathan Edwards followed a similar pattern in his preaching. Emotional outbursts were a common sight in the two Awakening movements at Northampton. Yet, he had no altar call as such.[2]

John Wesley probably exemplified modern day evangelistic methods in the invitation more than anyone did. Dr. Alan Streett, in his book, “The Effective Invitation,” shares four methods Wesley used in the public invitation: First, he employed exhorters or personal workers to be on the lookout for anxious souls. Those workers were specially gifted in inviting people to Christ. The second method was to call upon all seekers to attend the mid-week service. A third variation of the public invitation used by Wesley was to invite seekers to step forward publicly and present themselves for church membership. All were then formed into local societies for Bible Study, prayer and evangelism. Finally, Wesley made use of the mourner’s bench or anxious seat. As the mourner’s bench was located at the front of the church, those desiring help made their way forward.[3]

Some may wonder what type of invitation was given by a Baptist in the Awakening Movement. The late J. Edwin Orr, a foremost authority in spiritual awakening, told me it surprises many Southern Baptists to learn that the Particular Baptists gave no invitation after their message. General Baptists, noted for revival meetings and more aggressive evangelism, varied their approach in calling people forward as they trusted Christ for salvation.[4]

Most students of the evangelistic preaching would say that Charles Finney was the pioneer of modern, evangelistic types of invitation. Finney’s lawyer background aided him in appealing for decisions from those to whom he preached. He sought to win the verdict for Christ.

Finney experimented with many types of public invitations. Until 1822, he asked those anxious about their souls to stand at their seats as a sign of a repentant heart. He later combined this method with an invitation for the convicted to move forward to go to the mourners’ bench, where they would be instructed, receive prayer and be led to Christ.[5]

C. H. Spurgeon employed the method of an inquiry room. According to Eric Hayden, the architecture of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London did not lend itself to hundreds coming forward; so, Spurgeon did the next best thing: he would often request inquirers to go below to one of the basement lecture halls to be counseled by his elders.[6]

D. L. Moody employed an invitation similar to Spurgeon’s. Sometimes people were requested to stand and indicate their desire to receive Christ by saying, “I will.” Those standing were invited to the inquiry room. Moody would come down from the pulpit, pass through the aisles with outstretched hands, and motion for the people to continue rising and follow him into the inquiry room. Only inquirers and Moody-trained counselors were admitted into the room, where they were matched, one-on-one. After the inquirer’s name, address and church were secured, counseling began.[7]

Billy Sunday employed the term of hitting the “sawdust trail” as a primary reference to repentance from alcohol and other binding sins. He would have people come and shake his hand. He would then instruct them, and counselors would give further instruction.[8]

The Billy Graham type of invitation is one of the most effective forms of issuing a public invitation. It really had its heyday in the ’50s and ’60s. Many still use Graham’s method in a scaled down way. The counselors come forward first and stand around the platform with the inquirers, who were instructed by Graham. He prayed with them collectively, and then they were paired with counselors. Be careful with this type of invitation. You may wind up like the preacher who was so impressed by the Graham-style invitation that he decided to use it in his own congregation of 25 – who got a little suspicious when he asked hundreds of them to come forward and receive Christ.[9]

God has greatly used these methods of invitation throughout history. Which method is best for your church?

(All comments are pre-moderated for propriety, relevance and general content.)

(Read part I of this essay, HERE.


[1] Composite understanding of Whitefield’s methods as described in soon to be released book “A Burning and Shining Light: The Testimony and Influence of George Whitefield” by Dan Nelson to be published by Borderstone Press: Mountain Home, Arkansas, 2014.

[2] Edwards sermon: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” reveal these kind of responses as described by every biographer of Edwards. The most thorough is George Marsden’s work celebrating the 300th anniversary of his birth in 2003 by Yale University Press.

[3] Alan B. Streett, The Effective Invitation, (Old Tappan: N J: Fleming H. Revel) 1984, 91-92.

[4] Based on personal conversation had with Orr who retired in the community where I pastor before his death in the ’80s.

[5]Streett, 95-96.

[6] Ibid, 97.

[7] Ibid,98.

[8] Ibid, 104.

[9] Information received in Billy Graham Counselor Training and School of Evangelism, Seattle, Wash., 1976.