The revivalists of “The Great Awakening” (in the 1700’s) frequently appealed to Revelation 3:20 which was written to lukewarm Christians, misapplying the words of Jesus in order to appeal to non-Christians for salvation: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and be with me.”
Here is an example from one of the “Great Awakening” preachers, John Webb: “Here is a promise of Union to Christ; in these words, I will come into him. I.e. If any Sinner will but hear my Voice and open the Door, and receive me by Faith, I will come into his Soul, and unite him to me, and make him a living member of that mystical body of which I am the Head” (Christ’s Suit to the Sinner).
Mourner’s Bench: The typical method of responding to the gospel invitation in the mid-1700’s was by coming to the front of the church to be seated on the “Mourner’s Bench” and engaging in a period of prayer to seek for God’s salvation. The usual response was a subjective feeling – a “strange warming of the heart” – or some mystical experience that would be a sign of salvation. So much was this sought after that those mourners who did not receive such an experience were sometimes driven to commit suicide.
Charles Finney: It was about 1835 that Charles G. Finney (1792-1875) emerged to champion the basic system still used by modern evangelical preachers today. He took the “Mourner’s Bench” practice which he called the “Anxious Seat,” and developed a theological system around it. Finney was straightforward about his purpose for offering such an altar call and wrote the following comment in his book “Revivals of Religion”, 1868:
“The church has always felt it necessary to have something of this kind to answer this very purpose. In the days of the apostles, baptism answered this purpose. The gospel preached to the people, and then all those who were willing to be on the side of Christ were called out to be baptized. It (baptism) held the precise place that the anxious seat does now as a public manifestation of their determination to be Christians.” (Russell E. Boatman “The Mourner’s Bench” The Kentucky Evangel, Glasgow KY)
Dwight Moody: Near the end of Finney’s career it became evident to everyone and himself that the Anxious Bench approach led to a high fallout rate among converts. By the 1860’s Dwight Moody (1837-1899) was the new leader of American evangelicalism. He took Finney’s system and modified it. Instead of calling for a public decision, which tended to be a response under pressure, he asked people to join him and his trained counselors in a room called the “Inquiry Room.”
In the Inquiry Room, the counselors asked the possible convert some questions, taught him from Scripture and then prayed with him. The idea that prayer was at the end of the process had been loosely associated with conversion from the 1700’s. By the late 1800’s it was standard technique for “receiving Christ” as Moody’s influence spread across both the United States and the United Kingdom. This was where a systematic “Sinner’s Prayer” began, but was not called such until the time of evangelist Billy Sunday.
Billy Sunday: Billy Sunday, a professional baseball player first with the Chicago White Stockings, had been converted in the Pacific Garden Mission, Chicago’s most successful implementation of Moody’s scheme. Eventually, Sunday left baseball to preach. He had great public charm and was one of the first to mix entertainment with ministry. By the early 1900’s he had become a well-known evangelistic crusade leader. In his crusades, he popularized the Finney-Moody method and added the touch of showmanship. After fire and brimstone sermons with political overtones and humorous, even outlandish behavior, an invitation for salvation was offered. Most often it was associated with prayer, at other times people were told they were saved simply because they had walked down the tabernacle’s “sawdust trail” to the front to shake Sunday’s hand, acknowledging that they would follow Christ.