In his NYRB review of Frances FitzGerald's new book, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, Garry Wills describes the role of the anxious bench, or as he calls it, the anxious seat, in the history of American revivalism:
To walk down toward a revival’s preacher, to make one’s decision for Christ, is a dramatic moment not only for the ones doing the deciding but for the onlookers, who are internally cheering them across the finish line to salvation. The great revivalist Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875) knew how to increase this urge of people to save others. He created the “anxious seat” at his revivals, for those still hesitating to commit themselves to Jesus. Anyone in the anxious seat became the instant target of all the circumambient prayers. If the prayers successfully dislodged any of those seated, whoops of joy would greet another victory for the Holy Spirit.The key to conversion to Christ at a revival meeting and the decision to buy a new car from an auto dealer both hinge on the dynamic of putting someone on the spot. The idea is to create an isolated moment of decision for the convert/buyer. What happens in this moment is that any prior misgivings or doubts are instantly neutralized and the odds of taking the bait move from, say, 20-80 to 50-50. Instead, the internal dialogue shifts, with the assistance of the preacher or salesman, from finding fault in the product to finding fault in oneself. Am I resisting Jesus because the devil has control of me? Because I'm a coward or person of base character? Am I resisting the car purchase because I'm too obsessed with money and am cheap? Does part of me resist the idea of living in style? Do I think I don't deserve it?
Then you add in the pressure from the outside and you might tip it in favor of completing the transaction. The praying attendees of the revival root for you to join the team. It feels good to walk with Jesus! The salesman brings you back to the manager's office, the inner sanctum, where he will sweeten the deal and dangle the possibility of joining the brotherhood of those who roll in style.
I once read -- or at least power browsed -- a book called A Nation of Salesmen, and at that time I was something of an anti-materialist purist, so I was sympathetic to the subtitle, The Tyranny of the Market and the Subversion of Culture. Now I think to myself that, yes, we are a nation of salesman, but so what? I don't think there's anything intrinsically wrong with the sales model. What I don't like is the hard sell, as we see at the revivals and auto dealerships. To my own detriment perhaps, I like the soft sell, which is probably why I continue to labor away here on blogger instead of at facebook.