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Charles Finney: The Controversial Evangelist

By William P. Farley

In the autumn of 1821, a 29-year-old legal intern began to seek the Lord. During the past year a revival had been sweeping his hometown of Adams, New York; and he had resisted involvement. But afterward he began to pray. Forty years later, he recalled his conversion: “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 of liquid love, for I could not express it in any other way. It seemed like the very breath of God. I can remember distinctly that it seemed to fan me, like immense wings. No words can express the wonderful love that was spread abroad in my heart.”1

Thus began the ministry of Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875), one of the most prominent and influential evangelists in American history.

Finney’s ministry was the high-water mark of the Second Great Awakening (roughly 1792–1835). His was a time of rapid westward expansion and unparalleled population growth. Americans had internalized the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, and with it optimism in human achievement and potential that was unique in history. Finney was the spiritual embodiment of this ideal.

Summing up Finney’s importance, Mark Noll writes, “A good case can be made that Finney should be ranked with Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Carnegie … as one of the most important public figures in 19th-century America. Beyond doubt, he stands by himself as thecrucial figure in white American evangelicalism after Jonathan Edwards.”2

Early Years

Shortly after his dramatic conversion, Finney began to study under his Presbyterian pastor, George Gale. Gale encouraged him to attend Princeton Seminary. But despising both theology and theologians, Finney wrote, “I plainly told them that I would not put myself under such an influence as they had been under.”3

In his memoirs, Gale remembered it differently: “Finney did not go to seminary because he was unable to gain admittance.”

Whatever the reason, Finney did not pursue formal theological education. As a result, his presbytery apprenticed him under Gale and another pastor. In 1823, Finney was licensed to preach, and was ordained in 1824.

About this time the Female Missionary Society commissioned him to work as an evangelist in the wilderness villages and towns of northwestern New York. There God gave him some success.

In 1825, there came a turning point in his ministry. Finney was invited to preach in Utica, New York. Utica was located near the newly dug Erie Canal. It was a bustling, growing western metropolis. For two years Finney preached in Utica and the surrounding towns of Rome and Syracuse with increasing effectiveness.

Finney’s techniques were novel. He did not evangelize like his predecessors, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Asahel Nettleton.4 To secure conversions, he deliberately raised the emotional timbre of the meetings. He adopted and popularized the Methodist practice of asking converts to come to the altar or sit on an anxious seat to signify their decision to follow Christ. To wear people down so they would make a commitment, he lengthened his meetings. Sometimes his meetings lasted 4 hours or longer. These forms of manipulation did not escape his critics.

New Lebanon Conference

Finney achieved significant success, but because of his new measures, a ground swell of resistance arose. His principle opponents were two national figures, Lyman Beecher and Asahel Nettleton.5

In the summer of 1827 a conference was called at New Lebanon, New York, to work out their differences. According to Iain Murray, the conference “was a question of being for or against, not emotion, but rather the adoption of means, in addition to preaching and prayer, to promote emotion.”6

Nettleton and Beecher were on one side; Finney and his supporters were on the other. Nettleton and Beecher were both graduates of Yale. They represented the New England theological tradition of their forefathers. Finney, lacking formal education, stood for personal interpretation of Scripture and change.

The New Lebanon Conference ended in a stalemate. The failure to censure Finney became a Finney victory. It gave him a measure of respectability that was previously lacking. For the first time the churches in the great cities on the eastern seaboard opened to his ministry. From the summer of 1827 to the fall of 1829 he conducted campaigns in Wilmington, Philadelphia, and New York.

Revival In Rochester

From the fall of 1830 to the summer of 1831, Finney’s ministry hit its high point in Rochester, New York. God’s Spirit was with him in great power. Like Utica, Rochester was a bustling commercial center near the newly completed Erie Canal. Such was the power of God on Finney’s work that the entire business district often shut down to attend his meetings. Great crowds followed Finney as he preached from church to church.

A Finney biographer, Charles Hambrick-Stowe, notes, “Many were to say that it was the greatest local revival in American History.”7 Quoting Beecher, he continues, “The nationwide revival sparked by Rochester was ‘the greatest work of God, and the greatest revival of religion, that the world has ever seen in so short a time.’ ”8

The Rochester campaign also united Christians around two significant social issues — temperance and the abolition of slavery. Both were to have far-reaching implications.

Writing And Teaching

In 1832, the revival fires began to cool and Finney took a pastorate in New York. In 1835, the newly founded Oberlin College (Ohio) invited him to be its first professor of theology. Finney was 43 and exhausted. Needing rest and sensing the change in spiritual climate, he accepted. For the rest of his life he alternately taught at Oberlin and conducted revivals in several places, including New York, Boston, and England.

Until then, Finney had kept himself to evangelism. Because he was not published, his theological assumptions were relatively unknown. All of that changed in 1835 when Finney published his Lectures on Revivals of Religion.Summing up the content, Nathan Hatch writes, “Finney launched a blistering critique of Calvinist orthodoxy, going straight for the jugular of the Calvinist system. He denied the implicit authority of learning, mocked the impotence of carefully crafted written sermons … and decried the detached and dignified style of educated ministers. He railed at ecclesiastical bureaucracy, particularly the theological hairsplitting and heresy hunting that had come to characterize Presbyterian enclaves. … Finney called for a Copernican revolution to make religious life audience-centered. He despised the formal study of divinity.”9

The problem was Finney wrote Revivals of Religionwhile he was an ordained Presbyterian minister. This exposed his opposition to his own denomination’s theology. In addition, later writings confirmed that he believed in the possibility of sinless perfection for newly converted Christians, the denial of the imputation of Adam’s sin and guilt, the human ability to create for oneself a new nature, the denial of the substitutionary Atonement, and the power to manufacture revival by the application of specific techniques. In other words, he denied large sections of the Westminster Confession that he had sworn to uphold. He and Asa Mahan (1799–1889), the president of Oberlin College, later developed these ideas into what is labeled “Oberlin theology.”

In 1837, sensing pressure from his Presbyterian colleagues, he resigned from the Presbyterian denomination and affiliated himself with the Congregationalists.

In 1851, under pressure, Mahan resigned from the presidency of Oberlin and the faculty unanimously called Finney to assume the presidency. He was 59. Finney held this position until 1866 when he resigned due to age. But he continued to teach at Oberlin and evangelize until his death in August 1875.

Finney’s Ministry

Finney’s ministry was unique. At a time when most pastors read their sermons, Finney preached without notes — and usually without preparation — rising to speak as the Spirit gave him utterance. Later he spoke from a skeleton outline.

Finney looked down on formal training. His preaching style was sometimes criticized for its harsh, judgmental spirit.

Finney practiced many innovations. Since he did not believe in original sin, he believed men could turn to God in repentance without supernatural intervention. Therefore, any measure that could elicit a decision for Christ was legitimate. Altar calls, the practice of praying publicly for unconverted people that were present, and the demand for instant decisions to follow Christ characterized his work.

Although Methodists, and some Baptists, had been practicing these techniques for sometime, Finney popularized them. They remain in use today. As Murray notes, “What happened there [Western New York under Finney] became a watershed in evangelical history and introduced the first major controversy on the meaning of revival between leaders who equally professed their belief in the work of the Holy Spirit.”10

To his credit, Finney also motivated the social application of the gospel. Finney, Mahan, and his followers were early leaders in the movement to abolish slavery. He also took a strong stand against the Masonic order.

Finney’s Theology

Finney was outspokenly Pelagian. His other theological beliefs mentioned earlier further revealed his revulsion of theological training. One historian sums up Finney’s theology: “The whole idea that an unregenerate man was governed by a fallen nature was all wrong. … A decision of the will, not a change of nature, was all that was required to be converted. … If conversion was the result of the sinner’s decision, and if the inducing of that decision was the responsibility of the preacher … then any measure that would bring the unconverted right up to the point of instant and absolute conversion had to be good”11

These ideas were contrary to the prevailing orthodoxy that most had accepted since the Mayflower had landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620.

Where did Finney get these ideas? Most historians point to the influence of Nathaniel William Taylor (1786–1858), professor of theology at Yale. Finney’s views were almost identical to those found in Taylor’s “New Haven Theology” also labeled the “New Divinity.”12 “The voice was Finney’s,” notes Murray, but “the thinking Taylor’s.”13 Or, as Nathan Hatch put it, “The abstractions of New Haven theology had suddenly come to life in the coarse, bustling fanaticism of [Finney’s] New Measures.”

Ultimately, the New Haven theology, popularized by Finney, produced a split. In 1838, the Presbyterians divided into the Old School and the New School. The former represented the theological tradition that had descended from the Reformation through the Puritans. The latter embodied the new divinity of Taylor and Finney.

Finney’s Strengths

Finney’s many strengths help explain the powerful way God used him. One of his strengths was his prayer life. He was a man of intense and prolonged prayer, a discipline pastors need. Finney thought he could produce revival through certain techniques, but his prayer life was a greater contribution. He often spent hours in prayer both before and after revival meetings.

His second strength was the liberal anointing of the Holy Spirit’s power that rested on him. When he preached, people would often fall into hushed silence. Then they would come under a deep, prolonged, piercing sense of their sin, and a great turning to Christ would result, which human means alone could not explain.

Finney’s third strength was his work ethic. When conducting a revival he labored 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. After such intense exertion, he would retreat for several weeks each summer to his in-laws’ New York farm to recover his strength.

Fourth, Finney’s evangelistic zeal was unparalleled. He loved lost people and gave himself extravagantly for their redemption.

Weaknesses

Finney also had weaknesses that limited his long-term usefulness to the church, and in some cases have caused great harm among the undiscerning.

The first was his lone-ranger mentality — me and the Bible only. For Finney, theology and church history were flyover territory. Because of this, he was often unteachable and uncorrectable. (We have noted his unwillingness to listen to his seniors at the New Lebanon Conference in the summer of 1827.)

For example, Finney wrote, “There is a vast ignorance in the churches on the subject of revivals. … There are very few who have any real consistent knowledge on the subject.”14 But great revivals had been occurring in North America and England since 1790. Probably the greatest revival in history, the Great Awakening, took place under Whitefield, Edwards, and Wesley in the 1740s. Ignoring recent history, Finney assumed he was the first to really understand revival.

“Finney began his own religious quest,” notes Nathan Hatch, “by denying the force of inherited religious authority. He relied upon his own enlightened, albeit theologically untutored, reason.”15 This posture excluded him from historic confessional Christianity on many significant doctrinal issues. Some of these we have already noted.

His second weakness, which is related to the first, was the elevation of reason over revelation. Finney demanded that many biblical mysteries be pressed into rational human formulas. Finney struggled to “adjust the truths of Christianity into such a harmonious system of thought that no violence should be done to the dictates of reason,” observes Murray. “This, as he often said, was (after that of the actual conversion of souls) the great aim of his life.”16 Finney could not accept mysteries, like the congruence of the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man.

Lessons

We can learn many lessons from Finney’s life. First, God delights to use imperfect vessels. God perfected His power through Finney’s weaknesses (2 Corinthians 13:4). This should encourage every pastor. Despite Finney’s imperfections, God delighted to use him. Despite our imperfections, He will use us as well.

Second, we need to be discerning. God’s supernatural power is not an endorsement of everything a man believes or does. God anointed Samson even though he slept with Philistine prostitutes. God anointed and loved Charles Finney even though he rejected original sin and substitutionary Atonement.

But the opposite is also true. A man’s failings do not negate God’s ability to work through him. Balaam was an idolater, but God still spoke prophetically through him. We learn from Finney not to reject the power of God on a man just because his life or doctrine is imperfect.

Third, our theological assumptions will determine our practice. Finney’s New Haven theology determined his evangelistic techniques. He overemphasized the place of human decisions because he rejected original sin. His high view of man governed his evangelistic practice. In the same way, our theological assumptions determine our practice.

Fourth, be humble. Do not be a lone ranger. Read church history and learn from it. Study the theology of great Christian thinkers such as Augustine, Calvin, Luther, and Edwards. You won’t be disappointed because —

History is His story.

WILLIAM P. FARLEY is pastor of Grace Christian Fellowship in Spokane, Washington. He is the author of For His Glory, Pinnacle Press, and Outrageous Mercy, Baker. You can contact him at 509-448-3979.

Endnotes

1. c.g. Finney, The Autobiography of Charles Finney(Minneapolis: Bethany, 1876. Reprint 1977), 21,22.

2. Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 176.

3. Finney, 47.

4. For more information on the methods of his predecessors see William P. Farley, “Asahel Nettleton — The Forgotten Evangelist,” Enrichment (Fall 2005).

5. See William P. Farley, “Asahel Nettleton — The Forgotten Evangelist,” Enrichment (Fall 2005).

6. Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism(Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994), 243. Emphasis mine.

7. Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe,Charles Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelism(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 110.

8. Ibid., 113.

9. Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity(New Haven: Yale, 1989), 197.

10. Murray, 227.

11. Murray, 245,246.

12. See William P. Farley, “Asahel Nettleton — The Forgotten Evangelist,” Enrichment (Fall 2005).

13. Murray, 262,263.

14. Murray, 248.

15. Hatch, 199.

16. Murray, 256. This is a quotation from Finney’s memoirs.

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