Below is an extended excerpt from an excellent essay written by Truett-McConnell president, Dr. Emir Caner, posted on SBC Today. In the essay, Caner shows how Baptists in the south, both preceding and following the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention, were hardly as strongly Calvinistic–not to mention virtually singularly Calvinistic as many Founders-type Calvinists insist today–as one might imagine given the theological sympathies gleaned from the Calvinistic influence swelling across the present evangelical landscape.
Says Dr. Caner:
The Sandy Creek movement began nearly forty years before Finney’s birth. Its founder, Shubal Stearns, practiced innovative evangelism methods long before Finney.
One such revival meeting in 1760 demonstrates well how these Separatists used means to draw men and women to Christ: At the close of the sermon, the minister would come down from the pulpit and while singing a suitable hymn would go around among the brethren shaking hands. The hymn being sung, he would then extend an invitation to such persons as felt themselves poor guilty sinners, and were anxiously inquiring the way of salvation, to come forward and kneel near the stand, or if they preferred, they could kneel at their seats, proffering to unite with them in prayer for their conversion…After prayer, singing, and exhortation, prolonged according to circumstances, the congregation would be dismissed to meet again at night…for preaching or prayer meeting. They held afternoon or night meetings during the week. In these night meetings, there would occasionally be preaching, but generally they were only for prayer, praise, and exhortation, and direct personal conversation with those who might be concerned about their soul’s salvation.102
In some of those evening services, the preacher would not even preach. He would simply inquire regarding the state of the listeners’ souls. Can you imagine an entire service dedicated to people who are considering, like Cornelius, their own soul?
While preachers from the First Great Awakening such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield may not have given the equivalent of an altar call, Sandy Creek Baptists, to whom Southern Baptists owe much of their heritage, dedicated themselves to such personal invitations to Christ long before Finney’s revivals perfected such altar calls. These revival meetings and altar calls have been in our bloodstream for two hundred and fifty years. However, it seems we are undergoing a spiritual transfusion today, with new, more refined blood replacing the old stream. But it is revival fires that not only can see souls saved but unify a convention struggling with its theological moorings. Perhaps we should take heed of the words of the founder of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, B. H. Carroll (1843-1914), who pleaded that his students would preach Christ to all men, especially in a day of theological struggle:
It was a time of strong doctrine, and many Baptists were hyper-Calvinists in their views. But Leland himself tells us how one day, while preaching, ‘his soul got into the gospel trade winds,’ which so filled his spiritual sails that he forgot about election and reprobation, and so preached Christ to sinners that many accepted him as their Saviour and Lord. And, oh, I would to God that his people now, like old John Leland of long ago, would get into the gospel trade winds and bear away with flaming canvas the everlasting gospel to earth’s remotest bounds.103
When revival comes, we will not be caught in examining theological minutiae but busy seeing souls saved and baptized.