When I was a teenager I went on an autumn date with a favorite, intellectually gifted girlfriend who tolerated my mix of spiritual curiosity, philosophical energy and resulting early devotional eccentricities. My soulmate of the day was not surprised when I suggested that after dinner, we attend a religious service in Washington, D.C.’s Griffith Stadium (now the site of Howard University Hospital).
The evangelist Billy Graham was in town, and I was eager to go see him. My enthusiasm was not simply attributable to the Graham organization’s policy of free admission for revivals. I’d had a taste of the wonders of his typical crusade in Philadelphia when I visited grandparents the previous summer, and I was longing for more: great music along with theology that was inspiring and challenging and at the same time consoling, laced with deeply affecting oratory that had a way of driving the Gospel message straight into the heart.
My thesis in this meditation is that the Old Testament’s Hexateuch (first six books) adds to the Pentateuch or Torah a sixth book that we know as “Joshua,” sets out a ritual pattern in chapter 24 that I see replicated in the “altar call” of evangelical Christianity in the 18th through 20th-century phases of the Great Awakening, of which the late, great Rev. Graham’s revival services were prime examples. Typically, in Graham’s day, altar call went like this:
• First, the people lavishly praised our Creator God
• Second, the leader (almost always Graham) asked us to acknowledge and cast aside our commitments to “false gods,” which is to say, wickedly unproductive behavior and contemplation thereof (both deeds and neglects).
• Third, the leader asked the people to publicly acknowledge anew, or perhaps to make initial commitment to our God in Christ, the One whose way of love by nature had saved us magnificently in the past, and who, if we inerrantly followed him, would save us from misbehavior (ours or others’) in the future
• Fourth, the leader asked those needing and desiring fresh commitment — for example to fidelity and to the acts of loving-kindness (feeding, quenching, welcoming, covering, healing, and befriending) — to leave our pews, approach the altar (near the pitcher’s mound) and publicly profess new-found determination to be God’s own.
This was more or less the case with the tribes of Israel summoned by Joshua to Shechem, where Joshua declared: “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve ... But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:15.)
Note that the author in the Book of Joshua uses the Sacred Tetragrammaton when referring to the Divine, enhancing the book’s authoritative nature.
— The Rev. Dr. Wesley S. Williams Jr., J.D., LL.D., D. Min., K.St.J, is Washington National Cathedral Priest Scholar and Chaplain, and he previously served churches in the Episcopal Diocese of the Virgin Islands.