Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: November 1, 2005, p. 69.
While revivals were relatively common in the British Isles prior to about one hundred years ago, America can boast of only two major revivals. The first, called “The Great Awakening,” took place in New England during the ministry of Jonathan Edwards and by means of the preaching of George Whitefield. The second, called “The Second Great Awakening,” was sparked by Charles Grandison Finney and took place chiefly in Ohio, western New York, and western Pennsylvania.
Charles Finney lived in the nineteenth century. His dates are 1792-1875. He is considered the father of modern evangelical revivalism, and his beliefs and methods still regulate much of revivalistic preaching in our day.
Finney was born and raised a Presbyterian, but never was comfortable within that strongly Calvinistic denomination. Although many of the years of his revivalistic work were performed as a minister in the Presbyterian Church, he left that church during his labors in New York City and joined the Congregationalists. One of the interesting and significant features of his work was the fact that, though an avowed enemy of Calvinism, he labored within the Presbyterian Church without ever being expelled for his heresy.
In this article I intend to explore the reason for this seeming anomaly and describe Finney’s doctrinal position and revivalistic views.
The Presbyterian Church in the United States was the only strong representative in America of Calvinistic Presbyterianism. It was established in America prior to the Revolutionary War as early as 1611, and some Presbyterians were active in the struggle for independence from Great Britain. It was, on the whole, strongly Calvinistic, and was faithful to the Westminster Confessions after they were adopted in 1647. Princeton Seminary, founded in 1812, became the citadel of Calvinistic Presbyterianism under the leadership of Charles Hodge and Samuel Miller.
Presbyterianism, however, was seriously divided, beginning in the 1740s, when Gilbert Tennant began what became known as “New Side Presbyterianism.” For many decades a struggle went on within Presbyterianism between New Side and Old Side Presbyterians. The Old Side men were strongly committed to the confessions of the church, taught and fought for a consistent Calvinism, and emphasized knowledge of the truth as essential for the Christian life. New Side Presbyterianism, on the other hand, was much more loosely committed to the creeds, tended to be far more ecumenical in its thinking, and wanted to put the emphasis in church life, not on the local congregations, but on evangelistic efforts. The division was so sharp and deep that it eventually brought about a split within the denomination in 1837, a split that was healed in later years at great cost to the doctrinal integrity of American Presbyterianism.
Finney, in his evangelistic work, was influenced by many factors. Among the most important were the evangelistic labors of John Wesley, with his emphasis on postconversion holiness, whom he read avidly, Jonathan Edwards and his reshaped Calvinism, and New School (which New Side people were sometimes called) Presbyterianism. In fact, Finney stayed in the Presbyterian Church as long as he did because he wanted to do battle with Old School members of the church.
New School Presbyterians readily embraced Finney and his evangelistic labors, but Old School men opposed him. These attacks came chiefly from Princeton, and some heresy trials were held involving followers of Finney; but in every case Finneyites were acquitted. Presbyterianism simply could not summon the spiritual strength to condemn Finney and Finneyitism. It was a commentary on the denomination.
Soon after Finney’s conversion he abandoned the doctrines of original sin and limited atonement. He considered them to be barriers to evangelistic work and unreasonable in any case. But once having committed himself to a Pelagian position, he could not stop there. In a debate with a Universalist, Finney adopted the Governmental Theory of the atonement of our Lord. This theory, first proposed by the Arminians in the Netherlands in the latter part of the sixteenth century, taught that Christ’s death was not a vicarious or substitutionary death, nor a propitiatory death, but was simply an example of what God could have done to us if He had chosen to be strictly just. But now God forgoes His justice in the interests of His mercy and tells sinners that, although He could do to them what He did to Christ, He will not punish them if they accept Christ as their Savior.
Such a view of the atonement, one that destroys the atonement altogether, is a necessary consequence of maintaining that Christ died for every man head for head, even though all are not saved. And it fits in perfectly with the Arminian position of free will, for it makes the decisive act of salvation man’s free-will choice to accept Christ. Finney’s Arminianism reflected itself in his preaching. Two of his favorite themes in his sermons were: “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts,” and ” How to Change Your Hearts.”
We must not conclude from all this that Finney was vitally interested in doctrine. Finney was an ardent ecumenist—as all defenders of revivalism must be. In his ecumenical frenzy, Finney was doctrinally indifferent. He did not care about differences in doctrine between churches, and he had no interest in studying and developing doctrine—even though he was professor of theology in Oberlin College.
Finney’s problem with backsliders (those who were converted in revivals but were unfaithful and returned to their former wicked ways) and some perfectionist literature, especially of John Wesley, led him to embrace the idea that a converted sinner could give perfect obedience to the law of God. This was in keeping with his denial of original sin. Finney, in keeping with Pelagianism throughout the ages, denied that sin was in the nature, insisting that it was limited to the actions of people. Hence, “entire sanctification” is a matter of the activity of a person, not his nature. Entire sanctification does not imply any change in the powers of a person, good to begin with. Only the right use of these powers is required and can be attained. This is a superficial view of sin, which gives the lie to what every believer knows full well: that he is by nature prone to hate God and his neighbor. Finney admitted that a man could make mistakes, and not always feel at peace, even though he had attained perfection. Even New School Presbyterians balked at Finney’s perfectionism.
Revivalism is inherently mystical. Finney claimed to have direct revelations from God and was guided in what he did and where he went by inner voices or feelings that revealed to him God’s will. When he faced opposition, he resorted to closet prayer, and he wrote that he in prayer met God as Moses did on Sinai. “The Lord showed me as in a vision what I had to pass through. He drew so near to me … that my flesh literally trembled on my bones. I shook from head to foot, like a man with an ague fit.”
Robert Evans, the chief figure in the 1904-1905 Welsh revivals, also claimed to have occasional conversations with God over a period of three or four months. He described the first such conversation in a letter to a friend, in which he spoke of being awakened by God, visiting with God for three or four hours, and enjoying face-to-face conversation. This in spite of the fact that John says in his gospel that “No man hath seen God at any time.”
Finney also spoke of a further baptism of the Spirit after conversion and thus paved the way for modern Pentecostalism.
Finney was deeply involved in social betterment. Early in his work in various parts of New York he adopted what can only be called an evangelistic and social-reform modified Calvinism. He established mission societies, frequently composed of women who supported him and helped him in his work. In fact, a woman mission society was established in western New York State, which commissioned Finney to preach and supported him financially. Finney encouraged women to be busy in missions and to participate so fully in the work that they could preach.
Finney was also busy in temperance work and joined with the temperance movement in any effort to rid the country of the evils of drinking.
As the Civil War approached, Finney began an abolitionist crusade and involved himself deeply in the efforts to secure the freedom of slaves. So strongly did he preach abolition in his church in New York that during his absence while at the Mediterranean Sea to recuperate, his church was the scene of terrible riots between abolitionist and pro-slavery citizens of New York City.
Finney is noted above all for his revivals. His reputation as an outstanding teacher and preacher is staked on his success as a revivalist. Proponents of revivalism, in their support of his revivalistic teachings, are ready to overlook his doctrinal aberrations, his poor preparation for preaching, his opposition to Calvinism, and his disdain for the established church.
Totally apart from the question of the biblical condemnation of revivalism, a criticism that we intend to develop in the next article, Finney’s views on revival were so contrary to Scripture that one wonders how anyone with a semblance of understanding of Scripture can possibly approve of Finney’s work.
Finney published in 1835 his Lectures on Revivals of Religion. He boasted in his Memoirs that the book enjoyed wide sales. In a book on Charles Finney, Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe writes:
He [Finney] rejoiced in the Memoirs that the book did well in America (12,000 copies sold immediately), went through numerous editions in England (several hundred thousand copies were in print by the mid-1840s), and quickly achieved worldwide distribution. The Welsh translation sparked a notable revival in Wales, and it was soon translated into French as well….
In his Lectures on Revivals, Charles Finney argued provocatively that just as “religion is the work of man” and “consists in obeying God,” so a revival of religion is an essentially human activity. Contrary to the traditional Edwardsian view of them as a “surprising work of God” that could not be predicted or precipitated, Finney always believed that a revival was the “purely philosophical result of the right use of constituted means.” In other words, if a preacher delivered the right gospel message, extemporaneously and with appropriate enthusiasm, and if the work was accompanied with faithful prayer, a revival could be expected. “A revival of religion is not a miracle,” he wrote, in one of the most controversial sentences in American religious history; it is not “something above the powers of nature” but results from “the right exercise of the powers of nature.” Old School and even moderate Presbyterian critics would have a field day with this, but Finney cared nothing for their opinion. In his view, he was simply updating the old doctrine of the “means of grace” with effective “new measures” and carrying on the spirit (if not the letter) of Jonathan Edwards’s example as his lengthy quotations from Edwards suggest.
Finney was of the opinion that he alone was capable of bringing about revivals. He thought that he alone knew how to accomplish this, by which boasting he either left out the Holy Spirit altogether or considered himself a very special agent of the Holy Spirit.
In any case, it is evident that Finney’s entire work was fatally flawed by his departures from the teachings of Holy Scripture.