Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Among the churches in some parts of Europe, particularly in the British Isles, revivalism is a popular conception. Churches who, while once strong and vibrant, have become lethargic and small look to revival for deliverance from their present woes. Spiritually weak churches think that revival will be the solution to all their problems, and many prayers are made for this special outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
While such countries as the British Isles, perhaps especially Wales and Northern Ireland, have been noted for revivals in the past, this phenomenon has not been quite as common here in America. From a certain point of view, Charles Finney can be called the father of American revivalism.
By calling Finney the father of revivalism, I do not mean to imply that America had not seen revivals prior to his time. When George Whitefield came to this country and worked in New England with Jonathan Edwards, revival was said to have come to the colonies there. This took place in the first half of the eighteenth century. Charles Finney was born in the last half of the eighteenth century and did his work in the first half of the nineteenth. His method of revivalism and the theological aspects of his evangelistic preaching left their indelible mark on American evangelicalism. And insofar as there is still hope of revival in this country, it is mostly of the Finneyan type.
If Finney’s method and theology are ostensibly rejected by some conservative churches and preachers who pray for revival, their search for a “better” form of revival leaves one puzzled. Finney borrowed heavily from John Wesley; and John Wesley has received favorable treatment by conservative churches in the British Isles. His revivals have become something for which conservative churches long. To approve of Wesleyan revivalism is, therefore, to approve of Finney’s revival teachings.
Finney’s influence is widespread. He is frequently appealed to as a model of modern evangelistic preaching, and his methods are said to be just what the church needs if it is going to engage in the work of “saving souls.”
It is worth our while to examine Finney’s life and teachings.
Charles Finney’s early life was unspectacular, with few evidences of what he would someday become. He was born August 29, 1792 in Warren, Connecticut into a family of farmers. He was the seventh son in this rather large Puritan family, and he was born and raised among those who for over 160 years had attempted to maintain a Calvinistic religion in New England, where the Puritans had originally settled. Jonathan Edwards had given the colonies a strong Calvinism, and, because of Edwards’ association with the Whitefield revivals, revivalism had made an early mark on Finney. But it was also a time of national turmoil and change. The country had just emerged from its battle for freedom, and the Constitutional Convention was still fresh in the minds of people.
It was also a time when doughty settlers were pushing the boundaries of the country farther west with each passing month. On the frontier, tent meetings, emotional religion, hastily organized churches, and circuit preachers were the order of the day. By comparison with the yeasty frontier, Warren, Connecticut was staid and bland. But superb educations were available on the eastern seaboard, something not true on the frontier. The move of the family to Oneida, New York, a town in the western part of the state and considered part of the frontier, had a profound effect on Finney’s educational career and religious viewpoint. He never became a highly educated person, but he did become a religious man.
Although the family was a part of the Presbyterian church, Finney considered most of the preaching to be doctrinally dry. Apparently the same was true of the family, for, after moving to Oneida, the family worshiped in a Baptist church. A great deal of the preaching on the frontier was revivalistic and attractive to the emotions, and this type of preaching seemed to be more appealing to Finney. A religion that emphasized the knowledge of the truth was to him stodgy; a religion with an emotional appeal and therefore more exciting suited his tastes.
Finney did make an effort to continue his education. He enrolled in Warren Academy in his hometown and stayed for two years. He was a good student and became proficient in music: voice, violin, and cello. For four years, from 1814-1818, Finney taught school, but soon turned his attention to law. He returned to his home in Oneida and became an attorney’s clerk. Although once again Finney attended a Calvinistic church, he really had no interest in theology or religion. He did study the Bible, as he tells us in his autobiography, but his interest in the Bible was due to his interest in law and the influence the Bible had on jurisprudence.
Finney claims to have been converted in 1821. He describes his conversion, probably at a revival meeting, in these words: “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.” He claims to have been made a different man.
Finney was committed from the outset of his “new” life to the notion that the choice of the human will was decisive in the work of conversion. From this Pelagian position he never wavered. But it is better to discuss this aspect of Finney’s ministry a bit later.
Finney committed himself to the ministry. As is so often true of new “converts,” his first impulse was to preach that which he had come to believe. He began to study for the ministry under his Presbyterian pastor, George W. Gale. This study continued from 1822-1825, during which time he also engaged in preaching. Finney claims that the committee of presbytery that was responsible for preaching in the district where Finney lived wanted him to go to Princeton, but that he refused because he was convinced that the students who studied there were all wrongly educated. Finney’s pastor, however, said that the school was reluctant to take him.
Finney’s preaching soon aroused curiosity and some excitement, for it seems that almost from the outset it resulted in the conversions of many people and frequently sparked revivals.
It was not long before Finney began to disagree with fundamental Calvinistic doctrines, notably the doctrines of original sin and limited atonement. He considered them to be unreasonable, unbiblical, and impractical from the viewpoint of evangelical preaching.
When Rev. Gale became ill, Finney was invited to fill his pulpit. This required that he appear before presbytery. Under questioning by the presbytery he was so vague on the question of his agreement with the creeds (the Westminster Confessions)—he said that he was in substantial agreement with them—that he got by. In fact, he had never read the creeds completely, much less studied them.
Finney prided himself in never preparing sermons prior to preaching. In fact, he sometimes entered the pulpit without even knowing what text he intended to use as the basis for his sermon. He thought that the Holy Spirit would give him his sermons, and that preparation would be nothing but an obstacle to the free work of the Spirit. Nevertheless, he was ordained into the ministry as a full-time evangelist on July 1, 1824. Without seminary training, admittedly hostile to some key doctrines in the Westminster Confessions, a traveling evangelist without any fixed charge, he was nevertheless ordained. Such action speaks loudly of the state of Calvinism in the Presbyterian churches in those years. I will discuss this matter a bit later.
In the Fall of the same year that he was ordained, Finney was married to a woman by the name of Lydia Root Andrews. With her he had six children, one of whom died in childbirth and another as a child. An interesting story is told of his early married life. Apparently Finney found it necessary to move to the northern part of New York. He had to go a considerable distance to obtain a cart in which to pack their belongings. While going to fetch the cart, he preached here and there and began revivals wherever he preached. The result was that he did not return to his wife with his cart for six months.
As Finney’s work gained in popularity he was invited to more and more churches that were considered dead—although the definition of “dead” is not always clear. He sparked revivals in almost every place and considered his work successful only if a revival followed his preaching. Finney, in his preaching, required of his audience immediate decisions for Christ. In fact, he instituted the “anxious seat,” which was a row or two in the front of the building, to which “seekers” could come, and in which seat they were pressed for a decision. This idea of an anxious seat was the forerunner of the invitation system or altar call so common in present day revivalism.
Finney’s revivals were accompanied by noise, which sometimes was so great that all Finney could do was move about and holler the gospel into one ear, then into another. Bellowing, roaring, weeping, shouting, holy laughter—all kinds of bizarre behavior were the results of Finney’s preaching, and such bizarre behavior was considered a sure sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit and the success of revival. Such activity was not unique to the Finney revivals; it was characteristic of revivals in New England and in the British Isles.
Finney’s method was to preach sometimes every day of the week, visit people in their homes, hold inquiry meetings, roam about through the audience assembled to hear him, and summon people to the anxious seat. This was thought to increase pressure on people to make immediate decisions. His Memoirs are frequently boastful of his success.
Finney was soon invited to the big cities to perform his revivalistic work. Philadelphia was a target city, and in it he gained the support of the Dutch Reformed minister and the German Reformed minister. In New York City he began a chapel in the city’s most depraved area. The chapel became a church that grew rapidly, but the overwork soon brought Finney to the brink of bad health. As a result, he went on what was scheduled to be a ten-month cruise, by himself, in the Mediterranean Sea. In his absence, troubles arose in the church he had founded, and the life of the church deteriorated rapidly. He cut his trip short, but seems to have lost his popularity in New York. This decrease in his popularity sapped his energies, for he fed on acclaim.
In 1835 the Oberlin Institute in Ohio offered him a professorship in theology. He accepted this offer and began what amounted to a new career. Although he attempted to keep up his work in New York City, this proved to be impossible. For reasons of health and finances, he could keep up both no longer. Before resigning from the church in New York, Finney left the Presbyterian denomination in which he had worked all these years, and he organized the New York church as a Congregational church. From henceforth his labors were as a congregationalist. But Finney did mix his work in Oberlin Institute with revival work.
In Oberlin, meetings were frequently held in a tent, which seated as many as one thousand people. This was the beginning of tent revivals, common in America in the first half of the twentieth century.
Finney’s wife died in 1847 after many years of poor health and many trials, including the care of a mentally handicapped girl, the death of a son-in-law, and her husband’s own poor health. Finney married again in 1848, but his second wife, Elizabeth, died in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War. His third wife was Rebecca Allen Baze, whom he married when he was 78 years old and Rebecca 41. Finney died in August of1875.