Technologies of GospelCircuits and Networks of Sacred/Secular Innovation
Altar Call Music
“You Are My Friend”, Sylvester, 1985
You can leave the church; the church can even move to actively estrange you, but the church doesn’t exactly leave you, either. This story of American Gospel music has been told in different ways for the past four generations: we carry the church with us and implement it where ever we land…whether the church approves or doesn’t.
Readers from the STEAM fields (I’m writing from one) are invited to think of Gospel artists as a multigenerational community of disruptive innovation. Gospel music, by design, invites you in.
“You Are My Friend” as rendered by the visionary Sylvester with Izora Rhodes and Martha Wash is a classic altar call selection.
Conservative Evangelical newsmagazine Christianity Today has a decent piece on the history of the altar call, which stems from two roots: Anglicanism and by extension Methodist Episcopalianism, and a post-Calvinist Presbyterian.
The altar call gained popularity in the 1830s with the preaching of Charles G. Finney. Finney rejected Calvinistic teaching that human nature was irreparably depraved; he believed only men’s wills, not their natures, needed to be converted. His “new measures,” then, set out to make regeneration as easy as possible. “A revival is not a miracle,” Finney wrote. “It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means.”
The altar call as done by the early Evangelicals was an innovation on worship arts, one that signaled a move away from strict, written-down liturgy, and one more suited to people on the move (this concept of “mobility” comes up again and again in the history of Gospel music); on an expanding continent, ironically getting smaller by the day thanks to locomotives, and literal, physical STEAM.
North America was also a continent that by the 1830s was gaining more and more Baptist and Methodist converts from enslaved and free African American populations, as well as American Indians in the northwest, plains and eastern seaboard. These demographic changes would change American Christianity forever in ways the collective evangelist didn’t anticipate.
An altar call is a communication tool, an invitation to respond to the call of Christian siblinghood. Evangelicalism itself is communications technology, and so is Gospel (music).
“Disco sensation” Sylvester James, the spiritual inheritor to Patti Labelle’s “You Are My Friend”, (literally) came out a Church of God in Christ (COGIC) background in Los Angeles. Moving to the Bay Area, California and finding refuge in Love Center of Oakland, he was also known to include Biblical references in his album liner notes, and of course sing as if it was either Sunday Morning 11:00 service, or Wednesday night around 7:30. These secular liturgical performances mark the many moments when the church is unable to contain or control the method, or means, of its own propagation.
For further reading, see Suzan Revah’s beautifully researched The ‘Mighty Real’ Legend of Sylvester Never Grows Old. I used to work with Suzan Revah at the mouthpiece of the internet economy, before it all fabulously, infamously flamed out.
It’s worth it to add that though there are pockets of acceptance, LGBTQ persons who are part of Pentecostal contexts like the COGIC are still subject to intense over-scrutiny, theological bullying, and propagandistic hatred. This alarmist video from antigay polemicist reverend Earl Carter is a great example that uses gay-baiting, one of the oldest bats in the world, to attack the historic West Angeles Church of God in Christ.
In it, founding Bishop C.H. Mason purportedly speaks from the grave. And ironically, you’ll find some fantastic clips of interviews, including Tonex, former COGIC favorite son Bishop Carlton Pearson, and Bishop Yvette Flunder of Oakland’s City of Refuge United Church of Christ. Click at your own risk; it’s both absurd, and ugly…