This article is a biography on Charles Finney. It looks at his theology, and the impact it had on the practice of his ministry.

Source: Australian Presbyterian, 2005. 3 pages.

Man-Made Revivals Charles Finney hoped to usher in Christ’s millennium in three years

Billy Graham refers to Charles Finney as “one of history’s great­est evangelists”, so he must be no mean figure. Who, then, was Charles Finney? Charles Grandison Finney was born on 29 August 1792 in Connecticut, and died in Oberlin on 16 August 1875, having almost attained the age of 83. He was a revivalist, theologian, author, pastor, college professor and reformer. At the height of his powers, in 1851, he became president of Oberlin College, resigning in 1866 due to advanc­ing old age. He married three times, his last wife dying 100 years ago, in 1907.

Although born in Connecticut, Finney was raised in New York state where the family had moved in 1794. The family does not seem to have been at all religious, and when Charles left school, he was a pagan. By the age of twenty, he was over six feet tall with piercing, almost hyp­notic, blue eyes. At work, he was studying law, but at play, he was quite capable both at sport and music (he played the cello).

Finney was converted in a dramatic way in 1821 — he went into the woods to pray, knelt by a log, and was instanta­neously converted. Later he said that he felt as though waves of liquid love flowed through his body. Immediately he announced his intention to give up his study of law, and pursue a career as a preacher of the gospel. He was licensed to preach by the rather lenient St Lawrence presbytery in December 1823, and subse­quently was commissioned a missionary in the local area by the Female Missionary Society of Western New York. The fact that his conversion was followed so quickly by his being catapulted into full-time Christian work may not have been wise (1 Tim. 5:22).

As a preacher, Finney was bold and log­ical. Crowds flocked to hear him, and Finney became well-known to the Oneida presbytery and the whole East Coast area. However, it soon became obvious that he had adopted so-called “new measures”, although these actually go back to prac­tices that began to emerge about 1800. Ultimately they were based on a new theology, but it was the practices which drew attention to the beliefs behind them.

Finney used an “anxious seat” for souls under conviction of sin; sinners were sometimes publicly named; meetings became protracted; women were allowed to pray and even to speak in mixed public meetings; and new “converts” were admitted very quickly to church membership. Finney was quite aware that in pur­suing these “new measures” he was breaking with Calvinism, both in theory and practice. On 4 March 1827 he preached provocatively in the Presbyterian Church of Troy on Can Two Walk Together Except They Be Agreed? (Amos 3:3). Finney argued that the difference between the two approaches was a difference between a dull and dry spiritual life and a spiritual life animated by warmth and vigour.

During 1830-31, just as the Second Great Awakening was fading, Finney preached to huge crowds at Rochester, New York. Shopkeepers closed their busi­nesses, and the whole city seemed to come to hear him. It was said that his preaching resembled that of a lawyer arguing a case before a jury.

As the pastor of the Chatham Street Chapel in New York City, Finney deliv­ered a series of sermons published in 1835 as Lectures on Revivals of Religion. The opening statement of the book declared that revival was not a miracle but the right use of means.

He wrote that a revival “is as naturally a result of the use of the appropriate means as a crop is of the use of its appro­priate means”. Indeed: “If the Church will do all her duty, the millennium may come in this country in three years.” Revival was linked to the power of the human will. As Robert Dabney later put it: “They expect and prepare to convert the world as they built the Pacific railroad, by money and numbers.”

In attacking Calvinism, Finney mocked the “ancient men, men of another age and stamp from what is needed in these days, when the Church and world are rising to new thought and action”. The Westminster Confession was repudiated for teaching “the dogma that human nature is sinful of itself”. Yet Finney’s preaching very much aimed to convict his hearers of sin.

Finney declared of God: “He has no right to command unless we have power to obey.” Sinners were urged to “vote in” the Lord Jesus Christ; conversion was simply a matter of the sinner’s exerting his will. In 1831 in Boston Finney preached Make yourselves a new heart. Revival and conversion were viewed by Finney as works of man, not God. In keeping with this view, in 1835 he wrote that “pious parents can render the salva­tion of their children certain”, although in 1856 he was lamenting that his six chil­dren were unconverted. The bastion of Calvinism, Princeton Seminary, was por­trayed as the enemy of evangelism and revival. Nor could Finney leave much room for a godly opposition. His lan­guage was: “I was divinely directed” and “God led me by His Spirit, to take the course I did.”

Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary urged Finney to leave the denomina­tion, and later was to accuse him of virtu­ally deifying the human will. Finney left the Presbyterians in 1834 and became a Congregationalist, although he was sup­ported by New School Presbyterians. The Broadway Tabernacle was built for him by friends. Here pew-rents were abolished, and slave-owners were not admitted to communion.

After a dispute over the slavery debate, a number of students at Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, led by Theodore Weld, moved to Oberlin in Ohio, west of New York, on condition that Finney be their mentor. Finney became Oberlin’s theology profes­sor, and wrote for the Oberlin Evangelist. Armed with his postmillennial optimism, he advocated a vari­ety of causes — temperance reform, education, Sabbatarianism, the Sylvester Graham diet (no coffee, tea, tobacco, pepper, meat, etc), anti-slavery, and (peace be upon him) anti-Freemasonry. Mary Jane Patterson graduated from Oberlin, as the first black woman in America to receive a bachelor’s degree.

Finney also gave much pastoral advice to ministerial students. Some of this is still applicable today. Students were told not to spit on the carpet, nor to take off their boots and socks when visiting fami­lies. They were not to cut their meat with their pocket knife, and not to wipe their mouth on the table cloth. More signifi­cantly, Finney came to formulate a doc­trine of Christian perfection: “The sinner has all the faculties and natural abilities requisite to render perfect obedience to God.”

In Finney’s view, Romans 7 could not possibly refer to a real Christian; those who believed that have “hugged their delusion till they have found themselves in the depths of hell.” Finney taught that “It is self-evident, that entire obedience to God’s law is possible on the ground of natural ability.” Yet he also backed off from press­ing this too hard, and maintained that “to overcome sin is the rule with everyone who is born of God, and that sin is only the exception; that the regenerate habitually live without sin, and fall into sin only at intervals, so few and far between, that in strong language it may be said in truth they do not sin.”

Finney’s Memoirs were published by J. H. Fairchild in 1876, and sold in great numbers, although it is only since 1989 that the full text has been in print. In the course of his life he trained 20,000 students, and is credited with the conversion of 500,000 people. In actuality, the Second Great Awakening drew to a close about 1830, and Finney did not usher in a new period of revival, but presided over a decline in theology and evangelistic prac­tice. His strongest opponent was the Calvinistic evangelist, Asahel Nettleton. He was also Finney’s most charitable critic: “I heartily pity brother Finney for I believe him to be a good man, and wishing to do good.”

In summary, Finney was a strange mix­ture of energy and insight. He was no more soft in his preaching than Pelagius was, but his rejection of the doctrine of original sin led him to see conversion as simply an exercise of the human will, and so he downplayed the role of the Holy Spirit. It also led him to embrace a kind of perfectionism which ill accords with either Scripture or reality. That Billy Graham sees him as “one of history’s greatest evangelists” tells us much about the state of evangelism in 19th century America, and in our own day.

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