1. A Very Unusual Man
In the small frontier town of Adams, in western New York, a young lawyer paced back and forth in his office. He was troubled--deeply troubled.
Outside, trees had turned from the green of summer to the red, gold and brown of autumn. The October morning air had a zestful edge to it. All the signs of nature clearly signaled the waning of the year. Soon 1821 would be history.
But Charles G. Finney's attention that day was not on the weather or the season of the year. The questions that disturbed him so deeply were about matters that reach beyond all time.
He stopped his pacing and sat down again to read the book lying open on his desk. Finney had recently passed his twenty-ninth birthday. For twenty-six of those years he had paid little attention to the Bible. But that was before he began studying law.
Noticing that the old legal authorities frequently appealed to the Scriptures, Finney decided to secure a copy and read for himself the passages cited in the law books.
Meanwhile, he began to attend the local Presbyterian church. There he listened to the preaching of Reverend George W. Gale, the Princeton-educated pastor.
Gradually he became aware of the pressing importance of eternal issues. Heavy conviction of sin weighed him down. This frame of mind continued for some time, becoming almost unbearable. Then, on Sunday night, October 7, he resolved to seek the salvation of his soul without further delay.
Monday came. Then Tuesday. He prayed. He read the Scriptures. Whenever he heard someone coming to the office, he threw his Blackstone law books over his Bible so the visitor would not know he had been reading it.
His stress increased. Tuesday night Finney's nerves gave way under the stress of his spiritual conflict.
The next morning he rose early and started for the office. Just before he arrived, an inner voice stopped him with the question: "What are you waiting for?"
Suddenly, standing there in the street, he realized that salvation comes not through our own works but through the completed work of Christ on our behalf, accepted as a free gift.
"Will you accept it now--today?" The question bore down on Finney's mind.
"Yes, I will accept it today, or I will die in the attempt!" he replied.
Self-consciously he walked into the woods north of town. Out of sight of the village, he tried to pray. But every few minutes he imagined he heard someone coming.
Then it dawned on him--he was too proud to be seen praying! He was ashamed to be seen on his knees making his peace with God. Realizing his sinful pride, he shouted out that he would not leave that place even if everybody saw him.
Finney was heartbroken before the Lord. Soon the promise of Jeremiah 29:13 came to him: "Ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart." Immediately he seized the promise by faith. God cannot lie; so Finney decided then and there to trust His word.
As other promises came to him from the Scriptures, his heart took them in. Soon his heart was full. His distress was gone. He had peace with God.
That evening God mightily baptized him in the Holy Spirit. Here is how Finney described it:
"... 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. It seemed like the very breath of God. I can recollect distinctly that it seemed to fan me, like immense wings.
"No words can express the wonderful love that was shed abroad in my heart. 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." 1
The call of God to preach the gospel came to Finney immediately. He was certain of it and eager to fulfill it.
A well-known incident demonstrates Finney's resolve. One of the deacons of the church had retained Finney to be his attorney in a pending lawsuit. On the morning the case was to be tried, the deacon reminded him of it. Finney replied: "I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause, and I cannot plead yours." 2
Finney's conversion and his testimony for Christ had a profound effect on the little town. Some of his close friends and associates were converted almost right away. In some cases Finney said just a few words to someone about his personal relationship with God and the person would go off into the woods and seek God for salvation.
Finney began theological studies under his pastor, Reverend Gale. But the experience turned out to be most frustrating for both teacher and student. Hyper-Calvinism was the popular theology of the times. But when the good Reverend tried to instill those views into Finney, the lawyer's keen analytical mind could not accept them as being either Scriptural or logical.
As Finney saw it, man has something more to do in conversion than to wait passively for God to change him. The sinner has a free will. He is a sinner by choice. By the exercise of his free will he can repent of his sins and receive Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord. This God commands him to do--now.
In love, God is doing all He wisely can to persuade the sinner to change his own heart. But God will not force him. The sinner is totally responsible for being a sinner. His own desires have such a hold on him that he will not repent unless the Holy Spirit mightily persuades him to do so. But the divine influence is aimed at getting him to make the decision to submit to God and believe the gospel. And that decision is up to the sinner.
And so, armed with these convictions, and with an intense love for God and the souls of men burning deeply inside him, Charles Grandison Finney set out to preach the gospel.
Initially Finney felt that all he was qualified for was home missionary service among the frontier settlements.
Finney's strategy in preaching was to appeal to reason--to press the claims of Christ upon the intelligence of his hearers. But he knew full well that his own persuasions alone would not move the stubborn wills of the unconverted. For that he depended entirely on the Holy Spirit. That is why he prayed so much and so earnestly. He prayed in faith, and so prayed effectively.
Things began to happen immediately. When he called on the people at Evans Mills to indicate publicly whether they would accept Christ or reject Him, they were astonished. No preacher had ever confronted them with such a demand! They rose up in anger and walked out of the meetinghouse. Finney went to prayer.
The next night the building was packed. Once again Finney preached. Assuming that they had indicated the day before their intention to reject Christ, the evangelist pressed upon them the consequences of their commitment. Many listeners became deeply distressed. Through the night these alarmed souls came to Finney for help. They were lost if they did not find peace with God, and suddenly they realized it.
Conversions multiplied. Revival fires spread to the little German village of Antwerp, then to Perch River, Brownville, LeRayville, Governeur, DeKalb, and Western. In some cases nearly the whole community surrended to the Lord Jesus Christ. Some conversions were dramatic. The Holy Spirit was mightily at work.
Such a revival could not go unnoticed very long. Soon the churches in the east began hearing of the unusual happenings in western New York, particularly in the town of Western. When the revival hit Western, the eastern establishment took notice. As the news spread, accounts of what was happening grew proportionately. Some stories were factual; some were distorted.
With the theological climate extremely Calvinistic, strong objections were inevitable. Telling sinners that they can repent on the spot if they but choose to do so! Telling them that they were to blame for not being Christians! Such heresy! Pelagainism! Self-salvation! Emotionalism! Didn't Finney know that sinners can do nothing about their own salvation? Didn't he know that everyone has to wait passively and see if God will regenerate him before he can know whether or not he is elect?
But the reaction was not all negative or hostile. Some influential ministers in larger city churches recognized that Finney's preaching and his methods were right on target.
So Finney was invited to Rome, New York. Immediately the power of God took hold of the people. Hardened sinners were cut down by the Holy Spirit under Finney's preaching. People of all classes were affected equally.
Meanwhile, over in Utica, the spirit of travailing prayer took hold of an influential Christian woman. The worldliness of the church and the carelessness of sinners distressed her deeply. Soon her pastor became aware of her prayer burden and recognized it as the work of God. Believing that God was ready to awaken Utica, he sent for Finney. The evangelist arrived shortly and began laboring for souls. In a few weeks' time, five hundred people were converted to Christ.
During the revival at Utica, the evangelist was invited to tour a cotton factory a few miles west of the city. He agreed to go to a nearby village, preach there in the evening, and go through the cotton mill the next day. Finney tells us what happened:
"The next morning, after breakfast, I went into the factory, to look through it. As I went through, I observed there was a good deal of agitation among those who were busy at their looms, and their mules, and other implements of work. On passing through one of the apartments, where a great number of young women were attending to their weaving, I observed a couple of them eyeing me, and speaking very earnestly to each other; and I could see that they were a good deal agitated, although they both laughed. I went slowly toward them. They saw me coming, and were evidently much excited. One of them was tying to mend a broken thread, and I observed that her hands trembled so that she could not mend it. I approached slowly, looking on each side at the machinery, as I passed; but observed that this girl grew more and more agitated, and could not proceed with her work. When I came within eight or ten feet of her, I looked solemnly at her. She observed it, and was quite overcome, and sunk down, and burst into tears. The impression caught almost like powder, and in a few moments nearly all in the room were in tears. This feeling spread through the factory. Mr. Wolcott, the owner of the establishment, was present, and seeing the state of things, he said to the superintendent, 'Stop the mill, and let the people attend to religion; for it is more important that our souls should be saved than that this factory run.' The gate was immediately shut down, and the factory stopped; but where should we assemble? The superintendent suggested that the mule room was large; and, the mules being run up, we could assemble there. We did so, and a more powerful meeting I scarcely ever attended. It went on with great power. The building was large, and had many people in it, from the garret to the cellar. The revival went through the mill with astonishing power, and in the course of a few days nearly all in the mill were hopefully converted." 3
While at Utica, Finney became aware of the nature and extent of the opposition building up in the east. The reports clearly indicated that many objections to the revival were based on misinformation. But Finney refused to be diverted from the work at hand, and left to others the task of replying to the misrepresentations.
As a result of the Rome and Utica awakening in 1826, three thousand converts were received into the Presbyterian churches of the Oneida Presbytery.
From Utica, Finney went to Auburn, Troy, New Lebanon, Stephentown, Wilmington, and Philadelphia.
In spite of well-organized opposition led by influential men, the larger cities of the east began to open their pulpits to Finney. The pastors who invited him had a love for God and for souls that overrode their objections to Finney's emphasis on man's free will. God blessed their broadminded, Christian attitude.
For about a year and a half, Finney ministered in Philadelphia with great power. The results in the city were deeper and more far-reaching. The city population generally was better educated and more intellectually responsive to the profound logic of Finney's sermons. So the results were more lasting.
From Philadelphia Finney went to two other Pennsylvania cities, Reading and Lancaster. In both, the need for genuine revival was urgent. Professed Christians were very worldly and the public very dull and careless about eternal matters. But God blessed His Word and the cities woke up.
In 1830 Finney returned to the state of New York. During a short revival in Columbia nearly everybody in the town was converted.
Then the Christian philanthropist, Anson G. Phelps, invited Finney to come to New York City. Phelps was both deeply spiritual in heart and highly successful in business. He put both himself and his pocketbook into the revival. He rented a vacant church building on Vandewater Street and Finney started preaching there. People were converted and soon a congregation gathered. Phelps purchased a church building on Prince Street, and Finney and many of the converts organized a new church there.
During 1830 Finney received an invitation from Rochester, New York, to labor for souls in that place. Rochester did not look like a very promising field to him. In his own mind he wanted to go back to New York City or Philadelphia. The issue perplexed him for a while. Finally he realized that the problems at Rochester were part of the very reason he should go there. So, trunks packed, the Finneys were off to Rochester!
And it is a good thing they went. A tremendous revival broke out. Most of the community leaders were converted, including many in the legal profession.
News of the Rochester revival spread all over New England. People started coming from far and near. Dr. Lyman Beecher (who, incidentally, had led the earlier opposition to Finney) told Finney later that from that revival one hundred thousand converts were added to the churches in one year! Rochester's jail was said to be empty for years afterward.
Finney worked himself to exhaustion at Rochester. The local doctors thought he had "consumption" and was dying. His friends implored him to rest. But instead of resting, he went back to Auburn. The invitation came from the very ones who had led the opposition to him when he was there previously! Five hundred were converted in six weeks. From Auburn he went to Buffalo, where again the revival had a great effect among the influential classes.
In 1831 Finney went to Providence, Rhode Island, for three weeks. Then Boston opened its doors. The pastors cooperated beautifully and revival started immediately. By this time Finney realized how exhausted he really was from his intense labors and decided to accept an invitation from the Second Free Presbyterian Church in New York City to become its pastor.
Lewis Tappan and others leased a theater on Chatham Street, and in April of 1832 the Finney family moved again to the big city.
Revival broke out. So did the cholera. Finney himself came down with it and spent the winter recuperating both from the disease and from the primitive medical practices of the time. Eventually, Finney recovered and went on with his work.
The people who worked with Pastor Finney realized the power of the printed page. Soon the presses were busy and revival literature blossomed in New York City, spreading its delightful fragrance over the nation and across the ocean to Europe. The New York Evangelist began publication as an "official organ" for the defense and promotion of the revivals. And when Finney's Lectures On Revivals was published, twelve thousand copies sold as fast as they could be printed. Wherever they were read and applied, revivals broke out.
Finney moved into the Tabernacle on Broadway and continued his preaching there.
But out west in Ohio something was happening. A group of young ministerial students had left Lane Seminary because the trustees had prohibited the discussion of slavery. These young students headed for Oberlin. In those days, Oberlin consisted of a clearing in the woods, a few dwellings, a charter for a college and one college building. These dissident students from Lane Seminary, most of whom had been converted under Finney's ministry, now wanted to study for the ministry under the great evangelist himself, even if it meant "roughing it" in barracks out in the wilderness.
The call went out for Finney to come to Oberlin. What should he do? After wrestling with the question for some time, he decided to spend his summers teaching in Oberlin. Arthur Tappan, a successful business man, opened his big heart and substantial resources to fund the project as long as necessary (that was before the depression of 1837 wiped him out). In the summer of 1835 Finney brought his family and a round tent one hundred feet in diameter to Oberlin.
Finney came on two conditions: (1) there would be complete academic freedom to discuss slavery, and (2) there would be no racial discrimination.
The news spread that Finney was coming to Oberlin. More students poured in, and by the time classes started about a hundred eager young people were on hand. In the years that followed many young people received their theological education and training for the ministry under Charles G. Finney. Oberlin grew, and so did Finney. His influence expanded--through his students, his preaching, and his writings.
In 1842 he returned to Rochester, where at one service a group of lawyers rose spontaneously and came forward en masse to accept Christ.
The parade of revivals, conversions and victories marched on. Finney labored diligently, teaching at Oberlin, pastoring the First Church at Oberlin, conducting revivals in the United States and Britain, and writing prolifically. In 1857 and 1858 a great revival spread across the northern states. Prayer meetings sprang up from Omaha to Boston. During the peak of the awakening, fifty thousand people were being converted per week.
In some of the cities where Finney's influence had been the greatest, the majority of the adult population were born-again Christians. In some villages around Boston, not one sinner could be found!
Finney continued his labors as health permitted him right up until his death early in the morning of August 16, 1875, at nearly eighty-three years of age.
In fifty years of ministry, Charles G. Finney won approximately half a million people to Jesus Christ. Volumes have been written about his remarkable life and ministry, about the times during which he ministered, about his great influence on nineteenth century America.
But our main concern now is to find out what it was that Finney believed and preached that had such a powerful effect on his hearers, especially on the more educated and intelligent audiences--not the sermons themselves, but the deep underlying principles and philosophy.
What clear Scriptural concepts did Finney present with compelling logic that would bring such full endorsement by the Holy Spirit? What great principles were so deeply instilled in the new converts that kept the majority of them true to Christ and made them effective workers in the Church?
Yes, Finney was a man of tremendous prayer and faith. But so have been others with fewer results. Yes, he had many helpers. But so have others.
A lot could be said about social and political factors, about the nature of the young nation. But none of these explains a qualitative difference about Finney's ministry.
Did he say something fresh and meaningful? Did he present some principles that are valid in every age--principles that society in general and the Church in particular desperately need to know now, today? Many of us believe he did.
In 1846 Finney wrote his most important work. He called it Lectures On Systematic Theology. It is his declaration of the principles that produced such great results when put into practice.
And do we have access to those priciples today?
Fortunately, we do. But for some reason they have been neglected. This neglect is one of the tragedies of our time.
Oh, yes, people like to talk about Finney's great life and revivals. But not very many are willing to dig down into his theology with an open mind to discover the real why--the logical, Scriptural truth that set so many free.
The dynamic ministry of Charles G. Finney is an eloquent practical demonstration of the principles set forth in his Theology. Likewise, the Theology is an outpouring of the giant intellect and noble heart of this prince of soul-winners. No, Finney was no cold logician or dead theologian; his ministry proves that!
So, when someone who won half a million souls to Christ tells us what the basic principles are, we ought to examine those priciples very carefully.
Let us do so.