Revivals in the 19th Century
1821 October 10 – Adams, America – Charles Finney
Charles Finney became well known in revivals in the nineteenth century. A keen sportsman and young lawyer, he had a mighty empowering by God’s Spirit on the night of his conversion on Wednesday, October 10, 1821. That morning the Holy Spirit convicted him on his way to work, so he spent the morning praying in the woods near his small town of Adams in New York State. There he surrendered fully to God. He walked to his law office that afternoon profoundly changed, and he assisted his employer, Squire Wright, to set up a new office. That night he was filled with the Spirit. He describes that momentous night in his autobiography:
By evening we had the books and furniture adjusted, and I made a good fire in an open fireplace, hoping to spend the evening alone. Just at dark Squire W—, seeing that everything was adjusted, told me good night and went to his home. I had accompanied him to the door, and as I closed the door and turned around my heart seemed to be liquid within me. All my feelings seemed to rise and flow out and the thought of my heart was, “I want to pour my whole soul out to God.” The rising of my soul was so great that I rushed into the room back of the front office to pray.
There was no fire and no light in this back room; nevertheless it appeared to me as if it were perfectly light. As I went in and shut the door after me, it seemed to me as if I met the Lord Jesus Christ face to face. It seemed to me that I saw him as I would see any other man. He said nothing, but looked at me in such a manner as to break me right down at his feet. It seemed to me a reality that he stood before me, and I fell down at his feet and poured out my soul to him. I wept aloud like a child and made such confession as I could with my choked words. It seemed to me that I bathed his feet with my tears, and yet I had no distinct impression that I touched him.
I must have continued in this state for a good while, but my mind was too much absorbed with the interview to remember anything that I said. As soon as my mind became calm enough I returned to the front office and found that the fire I had made of large wood was nearly burned out. But as I turned and was about to take a seat by the fire, I received a mighty baptism of the Holy Spirit. Without any expectation of it, without ever having the thought in my mind that there was any such thing for me, without any memory of ever hearing the thing mentioned by any person in the world, 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 of liquid love, for I could not express it in any other way. It seemed like the very breath of God. I can remember distinctly that it seemed to fan me, like immense wings.
No words can express the wonderful love that was spread abroad in my heart. I wept aloud with joy and love. I literally bellowed out the unspeakable overflow of my heart. These waves came over me, and over me, and over me, one after another, until I remember crying out, “I shall die if these waves continue to pass over me.” I said,
“Lord, I cannot bear any more,” yet I had no fear of death (Wessel 1977, 20–22).
That night a member of the church choir that Finney led called at his office and was amazed to find the former skeptic in a “state of loud weeping” and unable to talk to him for some time. That young friend left and soon returned with an elder from the church who was usually serious and rarely laughed. Finney observed:
When he came in, I was very much in the state in which I was when the young man went out to call him. He asked me how I felt and I began to tell him. Instead of saying anything he fell into a most spasmodic laughter. It seemed as if it was impossible for him to keep from laughing from the very bottom of his heart (Wessel 1977, 22).
The next morning, with “the renewal of these mighty waves of love and salvation” flowing through him, Finney witnessed to his employer, who was strongly convicted and later made his peace with God. Also that morning, a deacon from the church came to see Finney about a court case due to be tried at ten o’clock. Finney told him he would have to find another lawyer, saying, “I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead His cause and I cannot plead yours.” The astonished deacon later became more serious about God and settled his case privately.
Finney described the immediate change in his own life and work:
I soon sallied forth from the office to converse with those whom I might meet about their souls. I had the impression, which has never left my mind, that God wanted me to preach the Gospel, and that I must begin immediately….
I spoke with many persons that day, and I believe the Spirit of God made lasting impressions upon every one of them. I cannot remember one whom I spoke with, who was not soon after converted….
In the course of the day a good deal of excitement was created in the village because of what the Lord had done for my soul. Some thought one thing and some another. At evening, without any appointment having been made, I observed that the people were going to the place where they usually held their conference and prayer meetings….
I went there myself. The minister was there, and nearly all the principal people in the village. No one seemed ready to open the meeting, but the house was packed to its utmost capacity. I did not wait for anybody, but rose and began by saying that I then knew that religion was from God. I went on and told such parts of my experience as it seemed important for me to tell. … We had a wonderful meeting that evening, and from that day we had a meeting every evening for a long time. The work spread on every side.
As I had been a leader among the young people I immediately appointed a meeting for them, which they all attended. … They were converted one after another with great rapidity, and the work continued among them until only one of their number was left unconverted.
The work spread among all classes, and extended itself not only through the village but also out of the village in every direction (Wessel 1977, 26–31).
Finney continued for the rest of his life in evangelism and revival. During the height of the revivals he often saw the awesome holiness of God come upon people, not only in meetings, but also in the community, bringing multitudes to repentance and conversion. For example, he preached in Boston for over a year during the revival in 1858–1859, and many reports tell of people who repented as they sailed into Boston Harbor, convicted by the Holy Spirit.
Wherever he journeyed, instead of bringing a song leader, he brought someone to pray. Often Father Nash, his companion, wasn’t even in the meetings but in the woods praying. Finney emphasized Hosea 10:12: “…Break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the Lord, till He comes and rains righteousness on you” (NKJ). He believed that if we do our part in repentance and prayer, God will do His in sending revival.
Finney founded and taught theology at Oberlin College, which pioneered coeducation and enrolled both blacks and whites. His Lectures on Revival were widely read and helped to fan revival fire in America and England.
© Geoff Waugh. Used by permission.