Charles Grandison Finney

From New World Encyclopedia

Charles Grandison Finney

Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875), often called "America's foremost revivalist," was a major leader of the Second Great Awakening that had a profound impact on the history of the United States. He had a paradigmatic personal conversion from rationalist skepticism to fervent Christian faith, and applied his training as a fledgling lawyer to the task of convincing his audiences of their personal guilt and need for Jesus Christ. In the process he captured a shift in American religiosity from "wait on the Lord" to "make your decision now." He pioneered revivalism as a "scientific method" he called the "new measures," a template developed by revivalists ever since.

Finnney ignited a wave of spiritual transformation among a sector of American society that emphasized the human responsibility to dramatically improve, if not perfect, the self and society. In its wake, converts generated movements for social reform in morality (temperance, anti-tobacco, anti-prostitution), honoring the Sabbath, the humane treatment of prisoners, the insane and the handicapped, women's rights and the abolition of slavery was where they had their greatest impact.

Life and Works

Finney was born in Warren, Connecticut as the youngest of seven children. In 1794, his family moved to Oneida County in central New York, "to a great extent a wilderness," and a few years later to the New York shore of Lake Ontario. His parents were farmers and, by Finney's account, non-believers. Finney attained some education locally and at an uncle's academy back in Connecticut. He never attended college but learned some Latin, Greek and Hebrew from Presbyterian minister George Gale in western New York. However, his six-foot two-inch stature, piercing blue eyes, musical skill, and leadership abilities gained him good standing in his community. He studied as an apprentice to become a lawyer in Adams, New York, but after his dramatic conversion experience at the age of 29, Finney began a period of theological study under the tutelage of Reverend George Gale and earned his license to preach from the Presbyterian Church. With that, a local Presbyterian women's home missionary society hired him to serve as an evangelist in the small villages and towns of western New York.

Early career

He began this ministerial career "with a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause" in 1822. Records of his first years of evangelism in Jefferson and St. Lawrence Counties come primarily from his memoirs. He tells of dramatic conversions wrought among lukewarm Christians and his powerful repudiation of skeptics; it is not until his work in Rome and Utica, New York, in 1825 that the light of historical evidence is cast. But the historical evidence is consistent with his account of the early revivals in the "burnt district," so-called because of the frequency at which the fires of revival swept through the region. In Utica he counted among his converts Timothy Weld, later a prominent anti-slavery activist. By 1830 he was preaching in New York City and Boston. By now wealthy Christian laymen were in his support, most prominently the Tappan brothers. At the same time, his theological emphasis upon the human part in the salvation process and his methodical and utilitarian uses of publicity and psychological techniques to generate revivalist enthusiasm and effect conversions raised the ire of the Presbyterian establishment. He eventually departed the Presbyterian fold, to which he had been licensed an evangelist, not a pastor. By his account, he had never consented to the details of the church's doctrines, but had been licensed on the basis simply of his statement that he agreed with it insofar as he understood it on a partial reading.

Finney moved to New York City in 1832 where he pastored the Free Presbyterian Chatham Street Chapel and later founded and pastored the Broadway Tabernacle, known today as Broadway United Church of Christ [1]. The structure was built for Finney in 1836 to his own design. It was formed as a Congregationalist Church, a relatively liberal denomination more flexible in embracing Finney's theological views. During this period Finney published his "Lectures on Revivals," explaining his theological approach as well as his methods for bringing people to Christ. He famously claimed that bringing a revival was a "scientific" process that, if carried out according to spiritual laws, would bring the harvest of souls just as surely as natural laws guide seeds planted in the spring to bring forth harvest in the fall. His lectures were reprinted in England and translated into French, Welsh and German.

Oberlin College

His anti-slavery supporters in New York City, chiefly the Tappan brothers, provided the financial means to found a new college in Oberlin, Ohio, for evangelical education in a social setting inspired by and reflecting Finneyite reforms, in particular the breaking down of the barriers between blacks and whites. In 1835, Finney moved to Ohio where he would become a professor at and, in 1851, President of Oberlin College [2] Oberlin was a major cultivation ground for the early movement to end slavery. Oberlin was also the first American college that allowed blacks and women into the same classrooms as white men, and allowed black and white to eat together at the same table. In addition to his college duties Finney served as pastor of the First Congregational Church in Oberlin (1837-1872), from whence he maintained his revivalist activities throughout the American northeast and in England. The Oberlin community played an important role in facilitating the underground railroad and promoting the abolition of slavery.

Finney wrote his Memoirs beginning in 1866, in response to recently published autobiographies of Lyman Beecher and Asahel Nettleton. Both Beecher and Nettleton had opposed his early revivals based, in Finney's mind, on serious misrepresentations of them. This opposition presented an obstacle to his continuing revival work in the larger society, including in England. With the encouragement of his friends and colleagues at Oberlin, Finney set to paper his Memoirs, focusing primarily on the revivals and the theology behind them. According to his friends "His work as a theologian, a leader of thought, in the development and expression of a true Christian philosophy, and as an instructor, in quickening and forming the thought of others, has been less conspicuous, and in his own view doubtless entirely subordinate; but in the view of many, scarcely less fruitful of good to the church and the world. To set forth the results of his life in these respects, would require another volume, which will probably never be written; but other generations will reap the benefits, without knowing the sources whence they have sprung." [3] Finney had hoped that the beneficial social impact of the revivals, as well as a fair-minded reading of his theology distanced from the heat of the battle, would have altered the views of his opponents, but this hope was never realized.

Charles Finney maintained an active career of preaching, teaching and writing to the last weeks of his life, which ended at his home in Oberlin of apparent heart failure on August 16, 1875, two weeks prior to his 83rd birthday.

Finney's Theology and Approach to Ministry

Theologically, Finney drew elements from the eighteenth century American minister and theologian Jonathan Edwards and the New Divinity Calvinists. His teachings also resembled that of Nathaniel William Taylor, a professor at Yale University. Many people view Finney as an Arminian [9] in his theology, but he explicitly denied this. Much closer to a "New Divinity" Calvinist, his views on the atonement and original sin are much closer to those espoused by the "moral government" theory that was particularly advocated by Joseph Bellamy and Samuel Hopkins. For example, Finney's views on the atonement were much closer to the moral government system that Edwards' followers embraced because it rejected the notion that Jesus died only for Christians. Nevertheless, he bore a tremendous amount of criticism by theologians such as Charles Hodge for departing from traditional high Calvinism, criticisms frequently repeated today. It has been reported that the theologian G. Frederick Wright pointed out that Hodge misrepresented Finney's views in his criticism, however it is also the case that in his memoirs Finney recounts his rejection of the offer of a free theological education at Princeton, giving as his reason "I would not put myself under such an influence as (the Presbyterian clergy he had been exposed to as a young man) had been under… I was confident they had been wrongly educated; and they were not ministers that met my ideal at all of what a minister of Christ should be. This I told them reluctantly, but I could not honestly withhold it." Finney held the view that settled clergy typically hold about souls brought to life through revivalism; "if he had ever been converted to Christ, he had failed to receive that divine anointing of the Holy Ghost that would make him a power in the pulpit and in society for the conversion of souls. He had fallen short of receiving the baptism of the Holy Ghost which is indispensable to ministerial success." [4]

The crux of Finney's position was that human nature is not intrinsically sinful and that human beings are not "passive in regeneration." Rather, human beings have the ability to choose righteously when the truth is presented to them in language that they can understand. He based his views about sin and salvation on his reading of the Bible and rejected the authority of a church to apply a doctrinal overlay on the scriptures. "I was quite willing to believe what I found taught in the Bible," he said, even when it contradicted the Presbyterian doctrines, in particular those of double predestination and original sin.

At the same time, Finney rejected the secular argument of the day, set forth by the Universalist movement, against the morality of a God who punishes sin with eternal death. He viewed God's government as righteous in its punishment of those who, in the face of the truth, reject Christ and follow the way of evil. He thus rejected the beliefs of the left and right on the matter of Christian faith and life, and arrived at a theological middle way, that Christ died for the salvation of all who would accept him, and that those who do not accept him suffer damnation, eternal separation from God, justly. He thusly defined a broad middle ground that has maintained itself for generations since.

Innovative preaching style

Finney clarified and wrote in boldface the theological foundations for revivalist preaching and evangelical church development. On this foundation, Finney developed the innovations in preaching and conducting religious meetings for which he is best known. He worked closely with host pastors to prepare villages, towns and, later, cities and nations for his campaigns. He gathered teams of churches to work together inviting guests; he set in motion prayer and fasting in preparation for the revivals; he utilized advertising, he welcomed controversy to generate interest. He allowed women to pray in public. He set aside a pew in the front of the church or hall to which he called those individuals who were worried about the state of their souls, called the "anxious bench." Those considering the message and their own eternal fate would be counseled and prayed for by an elder, relative or the pastor himself. He would visit such people at their homes, to counsel and pray with them.

Finney was best known, however, for his use of extemporaneous preaching. He spoke from the pulpit as an attorney, outlining his argument as if to convince a jury, using logic, persuasion and playing on the emotions of hope and fear. He rejected the prevailing view of the Gospel as complex theology, and presented it in simple form. One early admirer is reported to have said, "Bro. Finney doesn't preach; he just explains what all the other fellows are preaching about." His brilliance lay in his ability to set forth the choice that he wanted the people to make, to give people no room for neutrality and non-commitment. He intended to create a crisis for people on a personal level. His work split many churches into pro- and anti-revivalist congregations, often constituting the "First" and "Second" Presbyterian or Congregationalist Churches in that area. The "new side" and "old side" factions tended to also line up on opposite sides in the debate over social reform—in particular the question of slavery.


In addition to being a successful Christian evangelist, Finney was involved with the abolition movement and frequently denounced slavery from the pulpit. Beginning in the 1830s, he denied communion to slaveholders in his churches. His revival spirituality resonated with a social trend that problems have solutions and that human determination and moral vision exist for creating a better society. Through the 1820s this attained millenarian proportions, with the subtle (or not so subtle) sense that Christ's return to earth would be abetted by, and was just waiting for, Christians to take action on his behalf to mold society according to godly principles. The evangelical Christians, many of them products of Finney revivals, addressed issues of alcohol and tobacco use (to the extreme of criticizing consumption of ice cream), the theater (which they viewed, often correctly, as havens for prostitution), honoring the Sabbath (the Sabbatarian movement), anti-Masonry, amelioration of conditions for prisoners, the handicapped and mentally ill, women's rights (the Seneca Falls Convention was spawned in part by Finney followers) and the abolition of slavery. In contrast, evangelical Christians after the Civil War took a stance that true Christian social reform is vanity and nothing really will change until Christ comes (pre-millennialism).

Finney was a primary influence on the "Revivalism" style of theology which emerged in the nineteenth century. Though coming from a Calvinistic background, Finney rejected several tenets of "Old Divinity" Calvinism which he felt were un-biblical and counter to evangelism and Christian missions.

In his Systematic Theology, Finney fully embraced the Calvinist doctrine of the "Perseverance of the Saints." [5] At the same time, he took the presence of unrepentant sin in the life of a professing Christian as evidence that they must immediately repent or be lost. Support for this position comes from Peter's treatment of the baptized Simon (see Acts 8) and Paul's instruction of discipline to the Corinthian Church (see 1 Corinthians 5). This type of teaching underscores the strong emphasis on personal holiness found in Finney's writings.

While some theologians have attempted to associate Finney with Pelagian [6] thought, it is important to note that Finney strongly affirmed salvation by faith, not by works or by obedience. (see [7] [8] Finney affirmed, however, that works were the evidence of faith. The presence of sin thus evinced that a person never had saving faith.

There are also questions over Finney's understanding of the meaning of Jesus' death on the Cross. His view is complex and has suffered from multiple misunderstandings, often due to reading quotes out of context.

Besides making Christ's death, rather than Christ's obedience, the centerpiece of justification, Finney's understanding of the atonement was that it satisfied "public justice" and that it opened up the way for God to pardon people of their sin. This was the view of the disciples of Jonathan Edwards, the so-called New Divinity which was popular in Finney's day. In this view, Christ's death satisfied public justice rather than retributive justice. As Finney put it, it was not a "commercial transaction." This view, typically known as the governmental view or moral government view [9], differs from the Calvinistic view where Jesus' sufferings equal the amount of suffering that Christians would experience in hell.

Finney's Place in the Social History of the United States

As a new nation, the United States was undergoing massive social flux during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and this period birthed quite a large number of independent, trans-denominational religious movements such as Mormonism (1830) as well as Millerism (1830s and beyond) and its offshoots the Jehovah's Witnesses (1870), and the Seventh-day Adventist Church (1863). The nation's westward expansion brought about untold opportunities and a readiness to dispense with old thinking, an attitude that influenced people's religious understanding.

Western New York, the so-called burned-over district, was a geographical area described by Finney himself as a "hotbed" of religious revivalism, and it was in this area that he developed his distinctive preaching style and had the early success that generated a momentum for his lifetime and generations of revivalists since. The lack of clergy from established churches ensured that religious activity in these areas commenced in a free-market environment, with preachers and ideas colliding with each other and competing for people's attention. Finney's intense personality and God-given confidence made his message one that fit the expectations and attitudes of his culture.

Finney's logical, clear presentation of his Gospel message reached thousands and promised renewing power and the love of Jesus. Some estimates are that his preaching led to the conversion of over 500,000 people. His writings continue to challenge many to live a life holy and pleasing to God. His most famous work is the "Lectures on Revivals of Religion." [10] The Christian singer Keith Green was heavily influenced by Finney, and other famous evangelicals like Billy Graham speak highly of his influence. Although Finney was originally a Presbyterian, he eventually became a Congregationalist and often bears much criticism from conservative Presbyterians. Nonetheless, Finney's "new measures revivalism," with its use of advertising, multi-church participation, clear expository preaching, the call for an immediate decision between Christ and the fallen life, musical and cultural media to expand the message, and personal prayer and counseling with the newly converted, established a methodological pattern for Christian revivalism that influenced major modern exponents like Dwight D. Moody, Billy Sunday, Rev. Billy Graham and hundreds more.

Finney helped initiate what church historians later came to call "christocentric liberalism."[11] The emphasis on belief in Jesus Christ and Scripture, rather than a creator God and theology distinguishes its thrust from the First Great Awakening led by Jonathan Edwards.

What Finney managed to achieve was to be the most successful religious revivalist of his day in England and New England. While groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and Seventh-day Adventists tended to become closed and exclusivist, Finney was widely admired and influential amongst more mainstream Christians. His optimism left him open to accusations of antinomian perfectionism; i.e., that human beings can attain complete sanctification, or freedom from evil, and live in perfect love without law. Finney deflected this accusation, but nonetheless was a part of the movement known as "Oberlin Perfectionism." At the same time, unlike inspired religionists of his era (Joseph Smith, Ellen G. White, William Miller), Finney never started his own denomination or church and he never claimed any form of special prophetic leadership that elevated himself above other evangelists and revivalists.

More flexible Christian denominations, such as the Baptists and Methodists, were able to draw many of Finney's converts into their churches while more established denominations, such as the Presbyterians, were not as successful.

Finney's involvement with the abolitionist movement ensured that the Northern states had some form of legitimate religious backing to their opposition to slavery. There is no doubt that the religious beliefs of the South were more conservative. In this sense, then, Finney's religious beliefs and his success matched the attitudes of the North more so than the South. It also set up a direct link between Revivalism and social welfare, a link that grew stronger in the church after the Civil War.

Links have also been drawn between Finney's revivals and the emergence of the mercantile and manufacturing economy as opposed to the agricultural and crafts-centered economy. Thus it is argued that his revivals provided religious legitimation to a free-labor, wage-based workforce and helped solidify the middle class regime in the national period.[12]


  1. [1] Broadway United Church of Christ. Retrieved April 28, 2008.
  2. [2] Oberlin College. Retrieved April 28, 2008.
  3. (Memoirs, 637)
  4. Memoirs, 57
  5. The Rev. CHARLES G. FINNEY'S SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY (1851) [3]Gospel Truth Ministries. Retrieved April 28, 2008.
  6. "The Pelagian Heresy - AD 418" [4] Britannia history. Retrieved April 28, 2008.
  7. Sermon: "Justification by Faith." [5] April 28, 2008.
  8. Sermon: "Sanctification by Faith." [6]).Gospel Truth Ministries. Retrieved April 28, 2008.
  9. Lectures on Systematic Theology [7]
  10. [8]Gospel Truth Ministries. Retrieved April 28, 2008.
  11. H. Shelton Smith, Robert T. Handy, and Lefferts A. Loetscher. American Christianity: An Historical Interpretation with Representative Documents, vol. II (1820-1960). (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1963), 255-265.
  12. Paul E. Johnson. Shopkeepers Millennium Society & Revival. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978. ISBN 9780809001361)

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Finney, Charles. Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney, edited by Garth M. Rosell and Richard Dupuis. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002. ISBN 0310243351
  • Finney, Charles. Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney, edited by Garth M. Rosell and Richard Dupuis. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989. Annotated Text. ISBN 0310459206
  • Johnson, Paul E. Shopkeepers Millennium Society & Revival. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978. ISBN 9780809001361
  • Smith, H. Shelton, Robert T. Handy, and Lefferts A. Loetscher. American Christianity: An Historical Interpretation with Representative Documents, vol. II (1820-1960). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1963.

External links

All links retrieved December 4, 2023.


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