The Ministry of Charles Finney

CHARLES FINNEY1

 

 

 

 

The Life of Charles Finney

ART BY RAMONA STEVENS (based upon a painting by Waldo and Jewett circa 1834)

 

 

Charles Grandison Finney has stood out as one of the most widely known revivalists from pre-civil war America. There are many dimensions to the spirituality of this leader; passion for God, passion for prayer, and passion for revival mark Finney. Few ministers in history have borne so much spiritual fruit and have ministered with as much raw spiritual power as this man. From his salvation at age twenty-nine, to his death at eighty-three, Finney’s journey is one long, progressive account of overcoming victory. It is challenging to read his words; it is also challenging to summarize his story. The following is not an exhaustive record of all that occurred in his ministry. It is a humble attempt to share some of the highlights of his story. Of particular interest to me is Finney’s conversion, his experience of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and his preaching. I have taken a handful of accounts from his many experiences in revivals, and would like to share them with you.

 

 

Quit praying for Finney 1 was the advice the cynical Rev. Gale gave to members of his church. In his judgment, the unspiritual, unconverted Charles Grandison Finney was too hardened to ever be converted. Another man scoffingly said to his wife, “If religion is true, why don’t you convert Finney? If you Christians can convert Finney, I will believe in religion.” 2 They did not know that the day of Finney’s conversion was rapidly approaching, and with it a Great Awakening that would shake not only their town, but the eastern United States as well.

 

Finney was born in Warren, Connecticut, in 1792. The family moved to Oneida County, New York, where the young Finney grew up. He studied law in New Jersey and, at that time, visited a local Presbyterian church. He decided to attend regularly and conversed often with the minister, Rev. Gale. Before his conversion to Christian faith, Finney was a complex individual. On the one hand, he seemed to have an interest in spiritual things. He began attending that church’s prayer meeting, on a weekly basis, out of a fascination he had with listening to their prayers. He also had a curiosity in the Mosaic Law and he bought his first Bible, which he read, although he admits that he did not understand it. On the other hand, he disputed with Rev. Gale frequently and “criticized his sermons unmercifully.” 3 On one occasion, those in Rev. Gale’s prayer meeting offered to pray for Finney, but he responded, “I suppose I need to be prayed for, for I am conscious that I am a sinner: but I do not see that it will do any good for you to pray for me, for you are continually asking, but you do not receive.” 4 He had come to the conclusion that God was not answering the prayers of those who gathered there. However, Finney’s search was not over.

 

Something was gnawing inside Finney. He says that one Sabbath evening he made up his mind that he would settle the question of his own salvation and make peace with God. He began very seriously studying the Bible and engaging himself in prayer. Over the coming days, he began to receive revelation and understanding of the atonement of Christ. He felt God prompting him with the question, “‘Will you accept it now, today?’ I replied, ‘Yes; I will accept it today, or I will die in the attempt.’” 5 So, having decided, he found a private place in the woods and promised, “I will give my heart to God, or I will never come down from there.” 6 Finney describes what followed in these words:

 

But when I attempted to pray I found that my heart would not pray. I had supposed that if I could only be where I could speak aloud, without being overheard, I could pray freely. But lo! when I came to try, I was dumb: that is, I had nothing to say to God; or at least I could say but a few words, and those without heart. In attempting to pray I would hear a rustling in the leaves, as I thought, and would stop and look up to see if somebody was not coming. This I did several times. Finally I found myself verging fast to despair. I said to myself, “I find I cannot pray. My heart is dead to God and will not pray.”I then reproached myself for having promised to give my heart to God before I left the woods. I thought I had made a rash promise, that I should be obliged to break. That when I came to try I found I could not give my heart to God. My inward soul hung back, and there was no going out of my heart to God. I began to feel deeply that it was too late; that it must be that I was given up of God and was past hope. The thought was pressing me just at this moment of the rashness of my promise, that I would give my heart to God that day or die in the attempt. It seemed to me as if that was binding upon my soul; and yet I was going to break my vow. I recollect that a great sinking and discouragement came over me at this point, and I felt almost too weak to stand upon my knees.

 

Just at this moment I again thought I heard someone approach me, and I opened my eyes to see whether it were so. But right there the revelation of my pride of heart, as the great difficulty that stood in the way, was distinctly shown to me. An overwhelming sense of my wickedness in being ashamed to have a human being see me on my knees before God took such powerful possession of me that I cried at the top of my voice and exclaimed that I would not leave that place if all the men on earth and all the devils in hell surrounded me. “What!” I said, “such a degraded sinner as I am, on my knees confessing my sins to the great and holy God, and ashamed to have any human being, and a sinner like myself, know it, and find me on my knees endeavoring to make my peace with my offended God!” The sin appeared awful, infinite. It broke me down before the Lord. Just at that point this passage of Scripture seemed to drop into my mind with a flood of light:”Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you.

 

And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.” 

 

(I have corrected his misquotation of Jeremiah 29:13)   I instantly seized hold of this with my heart. I had intellectually believed the Bible before, but never had the truth been in my mind that faith was a voluntary trust instead of an intellectual state. I was as conscious as I was of my existence of trusting, at that moment, in God’s veracity. Somehow I knew that that was a passage of Scripture, though I do not think I had ever read it. I knew that it was God’s Word, and God’s voice, as it were, that spoke to me. I cried to Him, “Lord, I take Thee at Thy Word. Now Thou knowest that I do search for [T]hee with all my heart, and that I have come here to pray to Thee, and Thou hast promised to hear me.” That seemed to settle the question of the fact that I could then, that day, perform my vow. The Spirit seemed to lay stress upon that idea in the text, “when ye shall search for me with all your heart.” (I have corrected his misquotation)The question of when, that is of the present time, seemed to fall heavily into my heart. I told the Lord that I should take Him at His Word, and that He could not lie, and that therefore I was sure that He heard my prayer, and that He would be found of me.

 

He then gave me many other promises both from the Old and New Testaments, and especially some most precious promises respecting our Lord Jesus Christ. I never can, in words, make any human being understand how precious and true those promises appeared to me. I took them one after the other as infallible truth, the assertions of God who could not lie. They did not seem so much to fall into my intellect as into my heart, to be put within the grasp of the voluntary powers of my mind; and I seized hold of them, appropriated them, and fastened upon them with the grasp of a drowning man.7

 

After this experience Finney got up, left the woods, and as he was walking, found that his mind had become “wonderfully quiet and peaceful” 8 and he had no more consciousness of any conviction of sin. Later that evening, he continued to reflect upon his experience, and said, “The thought of God was sweet to my mind, and the most profound spiritual tranquility had taken full possession of me.” 9 He had an overwhelming desire to pray and to pour out his soul to God. As he went to sit down in front of a fireplace, he had this further spiritual experience:

 

But as I returned and was about to take a seat by the fire, I received a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost. Without expecting it, without ever having the thought in my mind that there was any such thing for me, without any recollection that I had ever heard the thing mentioned by any person in the world, at a moment entirely unexpected by me, the Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me, body and soul. I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed it seemed to come in waves, and waves of liquid love – for I could not express it in any other way. And yet it did not seem like water but rather as the breath of God. I can recollect distinctly that it seemed to fan me like immense wings; and it seemed to me, as these waves passed over me, that they literally moved my hair like a passing breeze.

 

No words can express the wonderful love that was shed abroad in my heart. It seemed to me that I should burst. I wept aloud with joy and love, and I do not know but I should say I literally bellowed out the unutterable gushings of my heart. These waves came over me, and over me and over me one after the other, until I recollect I cried out, “I shall die if these waves continue to pass over me.” I said to the Lord, “Lord, I cannot bear any more.” Yet I had no fear of death.10

 

Finney had not only been converted; he had been transformed. His heart continued to burst with love and passion for Christ, and he began sharing his experience with others. It was very obvious that God’s hand was upon Finney. He left practicing law and, within a very short period of time, he was given a license to preach within the Presbyterian denomination

 

(Dec. 30,1823). He began preaching in Rev. Gale’s church and went on to preach in school houses, barns, and even groves.

 

When preaching in these places, Finney told his audiences that they must repent from sin and turn to God. Many were aroused to do just that. Others, however, were deeply offended, and soon Finney’s preaching created a theological controversy. The denomination that had licensed him was strongly Calvinistic in its theology. Finney came to the conclusion that this theology was not only false, but dangerously deceptive. 11 More specifically, Finney opposed points of Calvinism that taught that Adam was responsible for all human sin, and that Christ’s atonement was only provided for the elect. Finney felt that these positions excused individuals from their responsibility for sin, and that they contradicted Christ’s command to preach the hope of salvation to all (see Mark 16.15; Matthew 28.19). Finney objected to the Calvinistic teaching that men were not able to choose to repent. Finney called these Calvinistic dogmas “a perfect strait-jacket” 12 that “froze people in sin.” 13 People were frozen in sin because they believed that their eternal state was predetermined, and they saw themselves as unable to repent and choose God’s way of salvation.

 

While some believed that they couldn’t repent, Finney called people to make an instant choice of repentance, and of accepting the Lord. Finney would say, “If there is a sinner in this house, let me say to him, Abandon all your excuses. You have been told to-night that they are all in vain. To-night it will be told in hell, and told in heaven, and echoed from the ends of the universe, what you decide to do. This very hour may seal your eternal destiny. Will you submit to God to-night – NOW?” 14 Finney would warn his audiences of the unregenerate condition of their hearts, and would press upon them, with tremendous intensity, their responsibility to repent. One man described this intensity in these words:

 

His words were like an artillery barrage felling multitudes to the floor. His piercing eyes seemed to search out people, boring into their very souls, confronting them with the demands of the Savior. His plain, pungent, colloquial preaching arrested people in frozen and rapt attention. 15

 

Charles Hambrick-Stowe explains this fiery logic, saying that Finney “was instinctively able in the pulpit to combine hot passion and cold logic. He would present the problem of human sinfulness and the only possible solution as salvation in Jesus Christ, then argue that a decision had to be made immediately, or that it could be too late.” 17

 

Another witness to the intensity of Finney’s passion and logic said that Finney’s enlivened fiery preaching could almost raise the dead. 18 Under this preaching, many persons responded in a positive way, were converted, and found peace and hope through faith in Jesus Christ.

 

While some responded in a positive way, others were offended with Finney’s message. Finney made many enemies. Soon, well-known ministers were publishing literature openly denouncing Finney, his teachings and his revival meetings. Some labeled Finney “the madman of Oneida.” 19 One minister, Rev. Albert Baldwin Dod, wrote a ninety-seven page thesis denouncing Finney, criticizing his theology, and even his use of grammar. 20 Some labeled the revivals as fanaticism. One minister who opposed Finney and his work, Lyman Beecher, threatened:

 

Finney, I know your plan, and you know I do; you mean to come into Connecticut and carry a streak of fire to Boston. But if you attempt it, as the Lord liveth, I’ll meet you at the State line, and call out all the artillerymen, and fight every inch of the way to Boston, and then I’ll fight you there. 21

 

Another critic voiced his disapproval of Finney in the following words:

 

You breast yourself to the work like a giant. You open the attack with Jupiter’s thunderbolt. You take the doctrine for a damning fact – declare you know it – raise your voice – lift high your hand – bend forward your trunk – fasten your staring eyes upon the auditors – declare that they know it to be God’s truth; that they stand upon the brink of hell’s gaping pit of fire and brimstone … unless they repent forthwith. 22

 

This comment not only reveals the sentiment of the critic, but it gives us insight into the force and intensity of Finney’s preaching.

 

This kind of preaching is a typical feature of revival. One of Finney’s revivals broke out in the city of Antwerp. Upon arriving there, he learned that the local Presbyterian church consisted only of a few members and these members, apparently, did not meet for services. Finney engaged himself in serious prayer, and made arrangements to preach in the schoolhouse. This resulted in him ministering in a series of well-attended meetings.

 

At some point during this time, an elderly man requested Finney to come preach in a schoolhouse in his neighbourhood. Although tired, Finney agreed and, upon arrival, found the schoolhouse crowded full. As was his custom, Finney had not selected a text ahead of time. After some moments of prayer, the Lord impressed a scripture upon him and Finney began preaching on the following text; “… Up, get you out of this place; for the LORD will destroy this city. …” (Genesis 19.14). He expounded upon the story of the righteous man, Lot, who lived in the exceedingly wicked city of Sodom. God had announced to Lot that he would destroy Sodom. However, God had previously agreed that, if only ten righteous persons within the city could be found, He would spare it. It was found that Sodom had less than ten righteous persons and God rained down judgment upon it. As Finney was preaching on these events, his audience was becoming visibly angry. Finney says:

 

As soon as I had finished the narrative I turned upon them and said, that I understood that they had never had a religious meeting in that place; and that therefore I had a right to take it for granted, and was compelled to take it for granted, that they were an ungodly people. I pressed that home upon them with more and more energy, with my heart full to bursting. 23

 

In the following moments something amazing occurred. Finney describes it in these words:

 

I had not spoken to them in this strain of direct application, I should think more than a quarter of an hour, when all at once an awful solemnity seemed to settle down upon them, and a something flashed over the congregation – a kind of shimmering, as if there was some agitation in the atmosphere itself. The congregation began to fall from their seats; and they fell in every direction, and cried for mercy. If I had had a sword in each hand, I could not  have cut them off their seats as fast as they fell. Indeed nearly the whole congregation were either on their knees or prostrate, I should think, in less than two minutes from this first shock that fell upon them. Everyone prayed for himself, who was able to speak at all. 24

 

After waiting a few moments, Finney began praying individually with those who were seeking God, leading them to Christ. He found out afterwards that the reason many in the crowd were so visibly angry, at first, was because that area had been nicknamed Sodom, because of the exceeding sinfulness of its citizens. The man who had invited him there was the only known pious person of that area, and he had been nicknamed Lot. The people had thought that Finney had known this ahead of time, although he had not.

 

After finishing at Antwerp, and preaching in various other places, Finney traveled to a place called De Kalb and revival again broke out. While ministering there, Finney observed a new phenomena; several people collapsed during his preaching. Finney learned that this very thing also had happened in De Kalb during some previous Methodist meetings. Methodists called this “falling under the power of God.”

 

While some were falling under the power, others were testifying of what God was doing. In one meeting a man walked in to Finney’s service, already in progress, and announced his testimony. Finney records it, along with his own words:

 

I must tell you what the Lord has done for my soul. I was brought up,” said he, “a Roman Catholic, and I never dared to read my Bible. I was told that if I did, the devil would carry me off bodily. Sometimes when I dared to look into it, it seemed as if the devil was peaking over my shoulder, and had come to carry me off. But,” said he, “I see it is all a delusion.” And he went on to tell what the Lord had done for his soul right there on the spot – what views the Lord had given him of the way of salvation by Jesus Christ. It was evident to everybody that he was converted. This made a great impression on the congregation. I could not preach. The whole course of the meeting had taken on a type which the Lord had given it. I sat still and saw the salvation of God. One after another told what the Lord had done for their souls, and the work went on. 25

 

Concerning the De Kalb revival, Finney comments on the critical role that prayer played in their success. He describes it in these words:

 

I have said, more than once, that the Spirit of prayer that prevailed in those revivals was a very marked feature of them. It was common for young converts to be greatly exercised in prayer; and in some instances so much so that they were constrained to pray whole nights, and until their bodily strength was quite exhausted, for the conversion of souls around them. There was a great pressure of the Holy Spirit upon the minds of Christians, and they seemed to bear about with them the burden of immortal souls. They manifested the greatest solemnity of mind, and the greatest watchfulness in all their words and actions. It was very common to find Christians, whenever they met in any place, instead of engaging in conversation, to fall on their knees and engage in prayer. Not only were prayer meetings greatly multiplied and fully attended, not only was there great solemnity in those meetings, but there was a mighty Spirit of secret prayer. Christians prayed a great deal, many of them spending many hours in private prayer. It was also the case that two would take the promise, “…if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.” (I have corrected his quotation of  Matthew 18:19) and retire to make some particular person a subject of prayer, and it was wonderful to what an extent they prevailed. Answers to prayer were so manifestly multiplied on every side, that no one could escape the conviction that God was daily and hourly answering prayer. If anything occurred that was in danger of  marring the work, if there was any appearance of any root of bitterness springing up, or any tendency to fanaticism or disorder in any respect, Christians would take the alarm and immediately give themselves to prayer that God would direct and control all things; and in many instances it was surprising to see to what extent, and by what means, God would remove obstacles out of the way in answer to prayer.

 

In regard to my own experience, I will say that unless I had the Spirit of prayer I could do nothing. If even for a day or an hour I lost the Spirit of grace and supplication, I found myself unable to preach with power and efficiency, or to win souls by personal conversation. In this respect my experience at that time was what it has always been since – I found myself having more or less power in preaching and in personal labor for souls just in proportion as I had the Spirit of prevailing prayer. I have found that unless I kept myself – or have been kept – in such relations to God as to have daily and hourly access to Him in prayer, my efforts to win souls were abortive; but that when I could prevail with God in prayer, I could prevail with man in preaching, exhortation, and conversation. 26

 

After De Kalb, Finney began ministering in Western. It was from here that he was invited to the town of Rome. Although he was very much occupied with meetings in Western, he accepted the invitation to preach three times on a Sabbath. Finney says that the preaching of the word took great effect as his audiences came under deep conviction of sin. He says that “the work was with such power that only a few words of conversation would make the stoutest men writhe on their seats as if a sword had been thrust into their hearts.” 27 Men and women came under seemingly unendurable distress, and their agitation deepened every moment until Finney could hear their sobs, grieving and sighs. Again, certain members present swooned during the meetings and some even produced “a loud shrieking.” 28 If people did not find relief from the heavy conviction of sin during the meeting, they sought Finney out the following day. The morning after a particular revival meeting, Finney, with an assisting pastor, received requests to come and visit the families who were still under heavy conviction. Finney reports that as soon as he was out in the streets, on route to their homes, people from the community ran out of numerous houses and begged him to come into their homes. When he did go into a home, the neighbours from surrounding homes came as well, packing full the largest room. Finney would stay with them for a time, giving instruction, and then proceed to another house. He comments:

 

We found a most extraordinary state of things. Convictions were so deep and universal that we would sometimes go into a house and find some in a kneeling posture, some prostrate on the carpet, some bathing the temples of their friends with camphor, and rubbing them to keep them from fainting, as they feared from dying. 29

 

By noontime of the same day, Finney and the pastor concluded that, at the rate they were working, they were not able to minister sufficiently to all of the enquirers. A certain Mr. Flint, who managed a hotel in town, made available a large dining room. The room was filled almost to capacity and Finney conducted a meeting. Those who were not converted in the meetings, along with other seekers, met for another meeting the following day. Because of the size of the crowd, it became necessary to use the courthouse for the meeting. Over the following days more meetings were held in both the church and the schoolhouse, and the intensity had deepened to such a point that Finney himself was becoming worried that there would be an “outburst of overwhelming feeling.” 30 Finney says, “Sinners were exhorted not to go to sleep until they gave their hearts to God.” 31

 

While sinners were giving their hearts to God, Finney continued at a relentless pace, preaching every night for twenty nights in succession. In the daytime prayer meetings were held, followed by, or preceded by, sessions where Finney met with seekers. Finney comments on the services:

 

There was a solemnity covering the whole place, an awe that made everybody feel that God was there. Ministers came in from neighbouring towns, and expressed great astonishment at what they saw and heard, as well they might. Conversions multiplied so rapidly that we had no way of learning who they were. I therefore every evening, at the close of my sermon, requested all who had been converted that day to come forward and report themselves in front of the pulpit, that we might have a little conversation with them. We were every night surprised by the numbers and class of persons that came forward. 32

 

The success that Finney had in Rome continued to repeat itself. In 1827, Finney began ministering in Stephentown. The town had a distressing history. A wealthy individual had set up a fund to support a pastor for the local Presbyterian church. A chaplain, by the name of Mr. Bogue, accepted the pastorate for a short time. During this period, the church deteriorated and eventually Mr. Bogue left, not only the church, but his faith as well. He remained in the town and was openly hostile to the Christian faith. When Finney arrived, there was no pastor and only three elders remained, along with about twenty members. Finney says, “The whole town was a complete moral waste.” 33 Finney conducted several meetings and the people came crowding in. Once again, deep conviction of sin settled over the audiences. Finney says that “the word of the Lord would cut the strongest men down and render them entirely helpless….” 34 One man, named Jowles, who Finney described as “a man of strong nerves and of considerable prominence as a farmer in the town,” 35 came under such conviction that he fell to the ground and seemed to go into a fit. He “writhed in agony” and “groaned with deep feeling…” 36 before becoming still and motionless. Finney says that Jowles was soon converted, and was involved in bringing his friends to Christ as well. There were a few prominent families in the community who would not come to the meetings, apparently because of the influence of Mr. Bogue. During this time Mr. Bogue died. These same families, who previously would not come, after a short time, came and Finney says that “nearly or quite all” were converted. Before Finney left, he says that “nearly all the principle inhabitants of the town were gathered into the church.” 37 Finney lists the most striking features of the Stephentown meetings as :

 

1. The prevalence of a mighty Spirit of prevailing prayer. 2. Overwhelming conviction of sin. 3. Sudden and powerful conversions to Christ. 4. Great love and abounding joy of the converts. 5. Intelligence and stability of the converts. 6. Their great earnestness, activity, and usefulness in their prayers and labors for others. 38

 

Some time after finishing his meetings in Stephentown, Finney continued on to Wilmington, Delaware, at the invitation of a Rev. Gilbert. In the midst of one of the meetings, a Mr. Patterson said to Finney that if the Presbyterian ministers in Wilmington found out his views, they would hunt him down like a wolf. Finney replied, “I cannot help it. I can preach no other doctrine; and if they must drive me out of the city, let them do it and take the responsibility. But I do not believe that they can get me out.” 39 Revival, again, broke out.

 

This revival had a profound effect on the residents of Wilmington. One women, who was married to a tobacconist, came to the meetings and was converted and dramatically changed. Finney says that she “got into the liberty of the gospel, had great faith and peace of mind, and enjoyed much of the presence of God.” 40 Her husband was a sceptic and took great offence at his wife’s conversion. He forbade her to attend any further meetings. However, she did continue to attend. Her husband, enraged by this, threatened to kill her. When he saw that she did not fear his threats, he decided one evening to carry out his threat and chased her throughout the house with a drawn dagger. When she found that she could not escape, she dropped to her knees and began praying to God for mercy on both her life and the life of her husband. At this, the husband was overcome with guilt, dropped his dagger, fell on the floor and began crying out to God for mercy and forgiveness. Later Finney says that this husband “became one of the most earnest Christian converts.” 41

 

As well as the revival affecting the residents of Wilmington, it profoundly affected those visiting from other areas. In the spring of 1829, large numbers of lumbermen passed through Delaware, on route to Philadelphia, as their log-jams of lumber drifted down the Delaware River. These lumbermen were used to living in shanties away from the populated urban areas. They had no schools or churches, and one testified that he did not even know the alphabet. Many of these lumbermen, as they were passing through, came down and attended Finney’s meetings. Finney records that a wonderful revival began to take hold of the lumbermen. Many of them, after being converted, spread word in Philadelphia of what God was doing, and went back to their shanties in the wilderness and prayed for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

 

Another place that received an outpouring of the Holy Spirit was the city of Redding, forty miles west of Philadelphia. In the winter of 1829, Finney was invited there at the request of a Rev. Greer. At that time Greer’s church was holding a bi-weekly ball for the community and had no religious meetings, during the week, to Finney’s knowledge. Finney announced that the balls had to be discontinued because they were not compatible with his work. For the next three weeks, Finney preached three times on the Sabbath and four times during the week. He set up inquiry meetings for those seeking salvation. Once again, heavy conviction began to fall on those attending the meetings and upon those who came for inquiry. Finney says that “they were greatly pressed with conviction and more solemn meetings of inquiry I have scarcely ever attended. Conviction had taken hold of all classes, the high and the low, the rich and the poor.” 42 A certain Mr. Buck, who had no interest in religion, came to one of the meetings, apparently through the influence of his Christian wife. Finney describes him as a “stalwart man, very muscular, a man of great force of will and strength of nerve, and physically a proud specimen of humanity.” 43 Finney says “the sermon had torn him to pieces.” 44 An urgent message was brought to Finney at midnight saying that it was imperative that he visit Buck. Buck was in such a terrible state of mind, and under such awful conviction, that they felt he could not live unless something was done for him. Finney proceeded through a snowstorm to the home of Buck. Finney describes the rest of the story in these words:

 

We had to face the storm, and walk perhaps fifty or sixty rods. I heard his moanings, and perhaps I should almost say howlings, before I got near the house. When I entered I found him sitting on the floor, his wife, I believe, supporting his head – and what a look on his face! It was indescribable. Used as I was to seeing persons under great convictions, I must confess that his appearance gave me a tremendous shock. He was writhing in agony, grinding his teeth, and literally gnawing his tongue for pain. He cried out to me, “O Mr. Finney! I am lost! I am a lost soul!” and added several things that still increased the shock upon my nerves. I recollect exclaiming, “If this is conviction, what is hell?” However I recovered myself as soon as I could, and sat down by him and gave him instructions. At first he found it difficult to attend, but I soon got his attention to the way of salvation through Christ. I pressed the Savior upon his attention and upon his acceptance. His burden was soon removed. He was persuaded to trust the Savior, and he came out free and joyful in hope. 45

 

In 1830, Finney began ministering in Rochester, New York. Rochester was a large population centre, and in the 1820′s it was the fastest growing city in the United States. It is here that Finney’s work began to mushroom greatly. Masses began coming and experiencing both conviction and conversion. Finney comments on the high numbers of lawyers, physicians and merchants that flooded the meetings. He worked together with other pastors, and says that they were “obliged to hold meetings almost continually.” 46 At one high school in Rochester a significant number of students, who had attended the meetings, were burdened under strong conviction. The principal, Mr. Benedict, concluded that they could not continue with school studies until something was done to alleviate the student’s intense anxiety and conviction. Finney was invited to come and he reports that “the revival took a tremendous hold of that school.” 47 Nearly every person in the school was converted and, in coming years, more that forty of these students became ministers or missionaries. The work in Rochester continued to expand. Between September 10th and March 6th of 1831, Finney preached ninety-eight sermons and held many inquiry meetings.

 

During the Rochester revival, the Temperance movement also took large strides forward. Finney wholeheartedly denounced the sale of alcohol. On one occasion he stated “the man’s hands are RED WITH BLOOD who stands aloof from the Temperance cause.” 48 Finney forbade rum drinkers from taking communion, and said, “Let the churches of all denominations speak out on the subject of Temperance; let them close their doors against all who would have anything to do with this death-dealing abomination, and the cause of Temperance is triumphant.” 49 Finney encouraged church members to actively rebuke those involved in the rum-selling business. He said that if they would do this “such a strong and decided testimony … would soon drive these wretches from their trade of death.” 50 Under conviction of sin, Albert and Elijah Smith, the owners of the largest grocery and provision emporium in Rochester, had their employees remove all the liquor casks from their warehouse into the street and, before a large crowd, emptied thousands of gallons of rum into the street gutters. 51 Other liquor sellers emptied their supplies into the Erie Canal. Some revival converts purchased a store’s entire stock of liquor, and then emptied it in front of the employees of that store. Eventually, only one or two merchants in Rochester dared to continue their sale of alcohol. 52

 

While rum sellers were disposing of their stocks, the revival in Rochester continued at a furious pace. Crowds continued to come with “unabated zeal.” People were coming, sometimes from long distances, and revival spread into neighbouring areas as well. Some, from as far as a hundred miles away, were affected by this revival. The city’s crime rate was also affected. A lawyer, after examining the records, told Finney that since the beginning of the revival, the cities population had increased three-fold, and yet, the crime rate had gone down. Crime had decreased two-thirds, while the population increased two-thirds. 53

 

During the time of the Rochester revival, Finney’s health began to suffer and physicians told him that he had to discontinue preaching. Finney objected, and they told him further, that he had consumption and that he was going to die. Finney replied that he had been told this before and that it was a mistake. He continued with his work. Finney’s work expanded to the cities of Auburn and Boston, where he conducted meetings. However, in the mid-summer of 1832, a terrible outbreak of cholera appeared in New York and many died. Finney contracted it as well, and he was forced to take a break from the work for two or three weeks. Claiming that he had recovered from cholera, he continued to suffer from the effects of the treatment he had undergone during this time. He began conducting meetings in New York, alternating with other ministers. Once revival began to take hold, Finney threw himself into the work with greater zeal. He preached for twenty evenings in succession, but had to stop because he said, “my health was not yet vigorous enough to continue to preach every night.” 54 During this time Finney was given use of a theatre, which was renamed Chatham St. Chapel. This large, three-tiered theatre was ideal for the crowds, and its adjoining rooms were used for prayer meetings and lectures. Large numbers of the economically poor began coming to the meetings, and Finney became especially attached to them. He says of this crowd that “in general they were gathered from among the middle and lower classes of New York citizens. This was what we aimed to accomplish, to preach the gospel especially to the poor.” 55

 

The strains upon his health, during this time, led to some of Finney’s friends and co-workers compelling him to take a six-month leave of absence from the work. In 1834, they persuaded him that he should take a sea voyage to the Mediterranean. Sea travel in the nineteenth century was uncomfortable. Ships were generally small and were designed to carry cargo. They were leaky wooden vessels whose captains were know as gruff old sea-dogs. There was no refrigerated food, and food was only served warm if a cook could keep a fire going in the wet galleys. Bad weather, shrieking winds, creaking plank wood, dank cabins, wet bedding and sea sickness were some of the hardships travellers endured. After sixty-eight days of sea travel, Finney arrived in Malta and spent some weeks there, before visiting Sicily and a few other locations. After months of storms at sea, being away from his wife and children, Finney left for America. Finney says little about the whole trip in his journal, other than:

 

I was obliged to leave and take a voyage to sea. I went up the Mediterranean in a small brig in the midst of winter. We had a very stormy passage, my state room was small, and I was on the whole very uncomfortable, and the voyage did not much improve my health. I spent some weeks at Malta, and also at Sicily. I was gone about six months, and then returned. 56

 

Finney returned to America at an extremely tense time. The nation was divided over the issue of slavery and public sentiments on either side were at a high. There were many anti-slavery gatherings in New York, attended by those on both sides of the issue. These gatherings sometimes exploded into riots. Finney made no secret of where he stood on this issue. He condemned slavery in the strongest language possible. Whether behind a pulpit or behind a pen, Finney thundered that slavery was “a most revolting wickedness” and “an outrageous violation of fundamental right.” 57 He held before his audience this piercing question and sharp rebuke concerning slavery:

 

What! Shall men be suffered to commit one of the most God-dishonoring and most heaven-daring sins on earth, and not be reproved? It is a sin against which all men should bear testimony, and lift their voice like a trumpet, till this giant iniquity is banished from the land and from the world. 58

 

Slavery was a terrible evil that had to be overturned and Finney rallied abolitionist forces with these stirring words:

 

Are we to hold our peace and be partakers in the sin of slavery, by convenience, as we have been? God forbid, we will speak of it, and bear our testimony against it, and pray over it, and complain of it to God and man. Heaven shall know, and the world shall know, and hell shall know, that we protest against the sin, and will continue to rebuke it, till it is broken up. 59

 

In his protest against the sin of slavery, Finney took an unflinching public stand. He said on a previous occasion that he was “exceedingly anxious to arouse public attention to the subject.” 60 Finney forbade slave owners from partaking in communion. He became the vice-president of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society 61 and involved himself in this fight in other ways as well. Charles Cole, Jr. claims that “[no] one was more influential, directly or indirectly, in winning converts to abolitionism than the Oberlin evangelist [Finney].” 62

 

It is important to realize that even with all that Finney did to win converts to abolitionism, abolitionism was never the totality of his message. He stressed that his calling was to preach the gospel. Abolitionism was a component of, not the totality of, his message. Throughout this time, Finney conducted revival meetings with zeal and intensity.

 

The revival in New York was flourishing. Finney, by this point, had been given a church in which his meetings were held. As well as leading meetings, Finney took on the training of a number of students who were going into ministry. Around this time, a new door of ministry opened for Finney. A Rev. J. Shipherd, and a Rev. Asa Mahan, invited Finney to accept a position of teaching theology at The Oberlin Collegiate Institute. Finney wrestled with the decision. On the one hand, he was occupied in New York; on the other hand, the position in Oberlin would enable him to raise up other leaders who were needed in the expanding work. Finney decided to accept the position and in 1835 he was teaching at Oberlin. The college immediately began to expand. A large circular outdoor tent, one hundred feet in diameter, was erected on the college grounds. Finney lectured in the college and held revival meetings in the tent. For the next two or three years, Finney alternated between his work in Oberlin and the church in New York. His summers were spent engaged in the work at Oberlin and, during the winter, he preached in New York. Eventually, the demands on his health led to him relinquishing the pastorate in New York. During his years at Oberlin, Finney did much writing as well as teaching. The college became a well-known centre for the abolitionist movement. It accepted coloured students, and even became a stopping point for the “Underground Railroad.” 63 Finney would eventually become president of Oberlin College in 1851. Although he was a teacher at Oberlin, Finney still accepted invitations to hold meetings in various other cities.

 

In 1842, Finney accepted invitations to speak again in Rochester. Soon, he was again engaged in revival, preaching every night. However, a revival of even larger magnitude than this, or Finney’s earlier work, broke out in 1857. The 1857-1858 awakening involved many ministers besides Finney, and this revival swept the northern United States. It is estimated that at certain high points of this revival, there were 50,000 conversions occurring per week. 64 New York newspapers devoted whole issues to covering the revival. It is estimated that in the first year of the revival 500,000 souls had been converted, and a million had been converted before its close. 65

 

The closing of the 1857 – 1858 revival did not mean the closing of Finney’s work. Finney continued zealously. In his later years, in September of 1861, he contracted shingles and was confined to home. In February and March of 1862, he resumed preaching on a limited schedule, but his health again failed. In August of 1862, Finney turned seventy. Finney was not finished. He pastored for another ten years, officially retiring in 1872, a few months short of his eightieth birthday. He continued to write and preach from time to time and taught at Oberlin as late as 1875. He died that year at the age of eighty-three.

 

From towns like Stephentown to bustling cities like Rochester and New York, from barns, schoolhouses, a courthouse, a theatre, a tent, churches, homes, and Oberlin College, Charles Grandison Finney shook up America with his piercing, pungent, colloquial preaching. Combining hot passion and cold logic, he held before his audiences the choice of heaven or hell. He fought against Calvinism, slavery, the sale of alcohol, and sin in its many forms, Charles Finney took an unflinching, bold public stand. Whether speaking to an audience of students, who loved him, or whether reproving riotous slave-owners, who hated him, Finney let his standards be known. His words were like logic on fire, burning through the self-righteous, self-justifying, sin-excusing reasonings of men and women. We will give him the last word, as he challenges us with this question:

 

Brothers, you can tell from our subject whether you need a revival or not, in your church or in your city, and whether you’re going to have one or not, elders of the church, men, women any of you, and all of you. What do you say? Do you need a revival? Do you expect to have one? Have you any reason to expect one? You need not be in any mist about it, for you know, or can know, if you will, whether you have any reason to look for a revival. You see why you have not a revival. It is only because you do not want one. Because you are neither praying for it, nor feeling anxious for it, nor putting forth efforts for it. I appeal to your own consciences. Are you making these efforts now to promote a revival? You know, brethren, what the truth is about it. When you stand up and say that you have made efforts for a revival, have been disappointed, and you have cried to God, “Wilt Thou now revive us?” and that God would not do it. Do you wish revival? Will you have one? If God should ask you, this moment, by an audible voice from heaven “Do you want a revival?” Would you dare to say, “Yes?” If He were to ask, “Are you willing to make the sacrifices?” Would you answer, “Yes.” And if He said, “When shall it begin?” Would you answer, “Let it begin tonight. Let it begin here. Let it begin in my heart. NOW!” Would you dare to say so to God, if you should hear His voice tonight? 66

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ENDNOTES

 

1. Charles Finney Giants of the Faith, Dr. Michael L. Brown, 60 min., ICN Ministries, Audiocassette. 2. Charles G. Finney, The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 23.Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 3. Ibid., 7. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 4. Ibid., 8. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 5. Ibid., 12. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 6. Ibid., 12. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 7. Ibid., 12-14. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 8. Ibid., 14. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 9. Ibid., 15. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 10. Ibid., 16. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 11. Author Allen C. Guelzo has argued that Finney did not fully reject Calvinism, but rather, held a New England brand of Calvinism. Allen C. Guelzo, “The Making of a Revivalist: Finney and the Heritage of Edwards,” Christian History VII (1988): 30. Whatever the case, Finney’s theology was at radical odds with classical Calvinism. 12. Charles G. Finney, The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney, 47. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 13. Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, Charles C. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns Pub. Co., 1996), 153. 14. Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, quoted in Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, Charles C. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism, XVII. 15. Lewis Drummand, The Life And Ministry of Charles G. Finney, (Bethany House, 1985). 17. Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, Charles C. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism, 35. 18. Author unknown, quoted in Charles Finney Giants of the Faith, Dr. Michael L. Brown, 60 min., ICN Ministries, Audiocassette. 19.Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, Charles C. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism, 61. 20. “For surely, it has not often fallen to our lot to read a book, in which the proprieties of grammar as well as the decencies of taste were so often and so needlessly violated; and in which so much that may not inappropriately be termed slang was introduced.” Albert Baldwin Dod, quoted in Keith J. Hardman, Charles Grandison Finney 1791-1875 Revivalist and Reformer (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987), 286. 21. Lyman Beecher quoted in Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, Charles C. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism, 72. 22.Bunker Hill, quoted in Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, Charles C. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism, 55. 23. Charles G. Finney, The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney, 82. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 24. Ibid., 82. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 25. Ibid., 111. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 26. Ibid., 112-113. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 27. Ibid., 130. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 28. Ibid., 131. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 29. Ibid., 132. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 30. Ibid., 133. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 31. Ibid., 133. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 32. Ibid., 133. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 33. Ibid., 186. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 34. Ibid., 187. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 35. Ibid., 188. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com

 

36. Ibid., 188. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 37. Ibid., 190. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 38. Ibid., 190. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 39. Ibid., 196. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 40. Ibid., 199. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 41. Ibid., 200. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 42. Ibid., 213. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 43. Ibid., 215. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 44. Ibid., 215. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 45. Ibid., 215. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 46. Ibid., 240. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 47. Ibid., 241. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com 48. Charles Finney, Revivals of Religion (Westwood: Fleming H. Revell, n.d.), 324. 49. Ibid., 341.

 

50. Charles Finney, Lectures to Professing Christians (Oberlin: E. J. Goodrich, 1878), 121-122.

 

51. Keith J. Hardman, Charles Grandison Finney 1791-1875 Revivalist and Reformer (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987), 204.

 

52. Ibid., 205.

 

53. Charles G. Finney, The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney, 245-246. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com

 

54. Ibid., 270.Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com

 

55. Ibid., 273. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com

 

56. Ibid., 273. Taken from The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney by Charles Finney. Copyright © 2002 by Richard A.G. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com

 

57. Charles Finney, quoted in J. H. Fairchild, ed., Lectures on Systematic Theology (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1921), 228.

 

58. Charles Finney, Lectures to Professing Christians, 71.

 

59. Ibid., 74.

 

60. Charles Finney, quoted in Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, Charles C. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism, 141.

 

61. Charles C. Cole, Jr., The Secular Ideas of the Northern Evangelists (New York: Columbia University Press, 1954), 209-210.

 

62. Ibid., 204.

 

63. The “Underground Railroad” was a chain of locations where escaped slaves could secretly take temporary refuge as they proceeded northward to Canada, where they would be protected as free men and free women.

 

64. Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, Charles C. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism, 280.

 

65. Basil Miller, Charles G. Finney He Prayed Down Revival (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1941), 111.

 

66.Charles Finney Giants of the Faith, Dr. Michael L. Brown, 60 min., ICN Ministries, Audiocassette.

 

 

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