Lewis Sperry Chafer, one of the founders of Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote helpful book on evangelism in which he said this:
“Careful students of evangelism have noticed that where the necessity of public action as a part of conversion has been most emphasized there has been a corresponding increase in the God-dishonoring record of so-called ‘backsliding’; and this is natural…To attempt to ‘come unto God’ on the grounds of a public performance, even with great earnestness, is but to fail, and the misguided soul who makes that attempt, when his hope has proven false, is often the hardest to reach thereafter.” True Evangelism, p. 15-16.
Some things never change. Christianity has always been in conflict with man-made religion. American Christianity has been working out the same theological conflict between man-made religion and God-made religion in a heightened way since the 1800’s.
The dawn of the 19th century saw the emergence of a truly great awakening. The earliest evidences of revival seem to have been in Kentucky but soon spread throughout the land. Mass crowds began to clamor after preachers to hear the Word of God preached. Many were saved. Soon after this revival began, the public performance of the altar call was invented in order to separate those who were under strong conviction or were hopeful converts from those who were not. In doing this, evangelists hoped to bring about a direct focus on certain people in a public way that would lead to their conversion. This inevitably led to a quenching of the Spirit and many false conversions. This practice became a flash point of controversy in that day and was an example of a broader clash over evangelistic methods in general. It is of this time period that church historian Iain Murray writes:
“The crux of the difference over this new institution was not whether one was for or against large numbers. Crowds as such were not the issue. Throughout the period vast congregations were to be found in all denominations. But the Methodists, harnessing, as they thought, a lesson from Kentucky, came to believe that the organization of mass meetings was a very effective [emphasis mine] part of evangelism. Emotion engendered by numbers and mass singing, repeated over several days, was conducive to securing a response. Results could then be multiplied, even guaranteed. Calvinists, using their Bibles rather than any knowledge of psychology, saw from the New Testament that no technique could produce conversions. On the contrary, the use of techniques was calculated to confuse the real meaning of conversion. Thus the opposition to the camp-meeting psychology was theological, and Richard M’Nemar was correct to identify Calvinism as the main hindrance to the type of meeting in which excitement was given full sway.” Revival & Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858, p. 183-84