The name of Charles Finney is legendary amongst students of Revival. He is well known as revivalist, theologian, author, pastor, college professor and reformer. After experiencing a thorough Christian conversion he received a powerful infilling of the Holy Spirit and subsequently became an unusually gifted itinerant evangelist. It is claimed (not by himself) that over half a million people came to Christ through his ministry.
Finney was born the year after Wesley died on 29th August, 1792 in Warren, Connecticut. In 1794 his family moved to New York state, eventually settling at Henderson, near Lake Ontario. Although he received only a brief formal education he decided to study law and joined the practice of a local lawyer, Benjamin Wright. He was also very musical, played the cello and directed the choir at the local Presbyterian Church pastured by Rev. George Gale.
His conversion on October 10th 1821 reads like something out of the book of Acts. Smitten with conviction from Bible reading he decided to ‘settle the question of my soul’s salvation at once, that if it were possible I would make my peace with God.’ (Autobiography) This conviction increased to an unbearable level over the next couple of days and came to an head when he was suddenly confronted with an ‘inward voice.’ He was inwardly questioned about his spiritual condition and finally received revelation about the finished work of Christ and his own need to give up his sins and submit to Christ’s righteousness.
As he sought God in a nearby wood he was overwhelmed with an acute sense of his own wickedness and pride but finally submitted his life to Christ. Back at work that afternoon he was filled with a profound sense of tenderness, sweetness and peace. When work was over and he bade his employer goodnight, he then experienced a mighty baptism in the Holy Spirit, which was recorded as vividly as the day he experienced it, though it was penned some fifty years later. (please refer to his Autobiography, chapter 2 to read this amazing account)
The next morning Finney announced to a customer that he was leaving his law studies to become a preacher of the Gospel.
He was licensed to preach in 1823 and ordained as an evangelist in 1824. His penetrating preaching was quite different from many local ministers and included an obvious attempt to break away from the traditional and, as he saw it, dead, orthodox Calvinism. He married to Lydia Andrews in October 1824 and was also joined by Daniel Nash (1774-1831), known popularly as ‘Father Nash.’ Undoubtedly Nash’s special ministry of prayer played a great part in Finney’s growing success as an evangelist. Things really took off when he preached in his old church, where Rev. Gale still ministered. Numerous converts and critics followed! Similar results were experienced in nearby towns of Rome and Utica. Soon newspapers were reporting his campaigns and he began drawing large crowds with dramatic responses.
Soon he was preaching in the largest cities of the north with phenomenal results. Campaign after campaign secured thousands of converts.
The high point of Finney’s revival career was reached at Rochester, New York, during his 1830-1 meetings. Shopkeepers closed their businesses and the whole city seemed to centre on the revivalist. Responding to his irresistible logic and passionate arguments many of his converts were lawyers, merchants and those from a higher income and professional status.
Finney openly preached a modified Calvinism, influenced with his own theology of conversion and used what were perceived to be ‘revivalistic techniques.’ These ‘means’ included the use of the anxious bench (a special place for those under conviction), protracted meetings, women allowed to pray in mixed meetings, publicly naming those present resisting God in meetings and the hurried admission of new converts into church membership. Opponents viewed his preaching of the law as ‘scare tactics’ and his persuasive appeals for sinners to come to Christ for salvation were seen as over-emphasising the responsibility of men and ignoring the sovereignty of God.
His theology and practise soon became known as the ‘New Measures’ and attracted many opponents from the Old School Presbyterians led by Asahel Nettleton (himself no stranger to true revival and , the revivalistic Congregationalists headed by Lyman Beecher.
Finney accepted an appointment as pastor of Chatham Street Chapel in New York City in 1832 where he remained until 1837. It was during this time that he delivered a series of sermons published in 1835 as ‘Lectures on Revivals of Religion.’ Here he clearly stated his views regarding revivals being products of the correct use of human means. Such was the controversy that he left the Presbyterian denomination and joined the Congregationalists in 1836.
The next year he became professor of theology at Oberlin College (Ohio) where he taught until his death. He was President here from 1851 until 1866, but still continued regular revival meetings in urban settings (twice in England, 1848, 1851) until 1860. During his stay at Oberlin he produced his, Lectures to Professing Christians (1836), Sermons on Important Subjects (1839) and his famous Memoirs.
There is no doubt that Charles Grandison Finney well-deserves the title ‘The Father of Modern Revivalism.’ He was an evangelistic pioneer whose model was followed by a long line of revivalists from D. L. Moody to Billy Graham. His writing have made a massive impact on the entire evangelical world and particularly the ‘Lectures on Revivals’ which has, arguably, ignited more fires of revival than any other single piece literature in evangelical history.
This ‘Prince of Revivalists’ passed away peacefully at Oberlin on Sunday, 16th August, 1875 aged almost 83 years.
Bibliography: I Will Pour Out My Spirit, R. E. Davies, 1997; Ed: A. Scott Moreau, Baker Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, 2000; Dictionary of Evangelical Biography 1730-1860, Vol. 1, 1995.