Finney Lectures on “Revivals of Religion” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In his delivery of a series of lectures to his Chatham Chapel congregation in New York City, Charles Grandison Finney preached of the need for a revivalist religion in the United States. He was the leading light of the Second Great Awakening, and his lectures were the definitive statement about conversion and New Light Christianity.

Summary of Event

Charles Grandison Finney did not intend to become one of the most influential religious figures in American history. Born in 1792 in Warren, Connecticut, he was moved by his parents when he was two years old to the newly settled frontier community of Oneida County in western New York. As with the case with many New Englanders of the late eighteenth century, the Finneys were in search of fertile lands to replace those that had been worn out by decades of farming in their home states. Finney’s parents were not well educated or even religious, but Finney himself was able to attend a common school in his youth, and he received a basic education. As a child he aspired to the profession of law and traveled in his twenties to Adams, New York, to study for the profession. When he was twenty-nine years old, he experienced a religious conversion that would prove pivotal to the course of his life. Finney, Charles Grandison Great Awakening, Second;and Charles Grandison Finney[Finney] New York State;and Second Great Awakening[Second Great Awakening] [kw]Finney Lectures on “Revivals of Religion” (1835) [kw]Lectures on “Revivals of Religion”, Finney (1835) [kw]"Revivals of Religion", Finney Lectures on (1835) [kw]of Religion", Finney Lectures on “Revivals (1835) Finney, Charles Grandison Great Awakening, Second;and Charles Grandison Finney[Finney] New York State;and Second Great Awakening[Second Great Awakening] [g]United States;1835: Finney Lectures on “Revivals of Religion”[1890] [c]Religion and theology;1835: Finney Lectures on “Revivals of Religion”[1890] Beecher, Lyman

Already profoundly uncertain of his relationship to God, Finney left his house one morning in 1821 to take a walk. In his memoirs, he later wrote,

I turned to go up into the woods, I recollect to have said, “I will give my heart to God, or I never will come down from [the woods].” I had gone into the woods after an early breakfast; when I returned to the village, I found it was dinner time.

Finney recalled that during that day he had prayed to God and was converted to a personal Christianity. He said that he was profoundly affected by the experience, explaining that waves of love flowed through his body. The next day, he quit his legal study and vowed to become a minister of religion.

By the end of 1823, Finney was licensed to preach as a Presbyterian Presbyterians minister. He was sent by the Female Mission Society of Western New York to serve as a missionary to Jefferson County, a community of upstate New York, where the increasingly industrial and commercial economy—brought on, in part, by the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825—caused many families to abandon their traditional structures and adopt middle-class characteristics.

From the beginning of his career, Finney avoided the traditional emphasis placed by preachers that tortuous fate awaited nonbelievers. He downplayed notions of predestination and assured his listeners that they could achieve salvation by truly repenting and embracing Jesus Christ as their savior.

During the first half of the nineteenth century many Americans were experiencing personal anxiety over the social upheaval caused by basic changes to the nation’s economy. Christian ministers such as Finney helped to allay the fears of many people by preaching the possibility of personal salvation. The nation was transferring from a mainly agrarian economy to one in which commercialism and industrialism accounted for more and more opportunities for employment. The changes in the economy, in turn, created changes in the country’s social structure, causing much consternation among the people. Increasing numbers of families, for example, which had traditionally lived and worked together on farmsteads, were moving to towns and small cities. Fathers worked in shops and factories and were kept away from their families during the day. Fathers, therefore, had less personal opportunity to interact with their children; mothers were forced to take upon the responsibility of solely raising children.

Historians have pointed to these social changes, as well as others, to explain the tendency among many Americans in the first half of the nineteenth century to seek religion for relief from a growing sense of social and personal anxiety. The religious revivalism that was so prominent during this period has come to be called the Second Great Awakening. A similar period of intense revivalism had taken place during the middle of the eighteenth century. In that period, called the First Great Awakening Great Awakening, First , preachers such as Jonathan Edwards Edwards, Jonathan , George Whitefield Whitefield, George , and Gilbert Tennent Tennent, Gilbert had participated in proliferating religious sects in colonial America.

Finney was the leading figure in the Second Great Awakening. First in Jefferson County and then in Utica and Rome in New York, he attracted tremendous numbers of people to revival meetings that met for days on end. He was called to a ministry in Rochester, New York, in 1830; his tenure there led to an intense revivalism that affected the entire community. Shops and factories were closed so workers from all walks of life could attend his lectures and sermons.

Hundreds of people gave up the consumption of alcohol and experienced conversions after hearing Finney speak. He told his followers that they could achieve salvation by simply rejecting sin. His sermons were long, and they appeared unplanned; in them, he promoted controversial methods, referring to individuals as sinners and advocating that people could and should totally eradicate sins in their lives. He also allowed women to pray in public at prayer meetings, used colloquial speech in his sermons, and advocated immediate church membership for converts.

Finney’s messages and methods of conversion were denounced by many traditional members of the clergy. In 1827, orthodox members of the Presbyterian Presbyterians Church tried to limit his appeal by questioning his liberal theology, but Finney had enough support from powerful clergymen such as Lyman Beecher Beecher, Lyman to escape the criticism of the conservatives. Finney went on to preach in Philadelphia and Boston and answered a call to the ministry in New York City New York City;and Second Great Awakening[Second Great Awakening] . It was there, in 1835, that he delivered his lectures on “Revivals of Religion,” which were published the same year and with the same name. The work explains the reasons for revivalism and the need for baptism to achieve salvation. His methods, while still controversial, were wildly popular among great numbers of Americans for many decades.

In 1835, Finney began working as a teacher of pastoral theology at the newly founded Oberlin College Oberlin College and Theological Seminary in Ohio. He later served as the president of Oberlin College, from 1851 to 1866. He published two books from his lectures on systematic theology and wrote his autobiography. He retired from the ministry in 1872 and died in 1875 at the age of eighty-two.

Significance

Charles Grandison Finney may have been responsible for the conversions of one-half million Americans between 1825 and 1850. He appealed to people from all economic strata and preached a form of salvation that threatened the doctrines of the traditional Christian churches.

Finney and his supporters were responsible for creating an American style of religion that was theologically egalitarian and emphasized individual responsibility. Revivalism stressed the necessity of immediate conversion and church membership, even though the American Protestant tradition had insisted upon the primacy of predestination and the power of an elite elect.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Finney, Charles Grandison. Lectures on Revivals of Religion: The Complete Restored Text, 1868. Edited by Richard Friedrich. Fenwick, Mich.: Alethea in Heart Ministries, 2003. Complete text of Finney’s 1835 lectures. Also available online through the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College. http://www .ccel.org/f/finney/. Accessed January 26, 2006.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Paul. A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004. An excellent examination of the effects of revivalism in the community of Rochester under Finney’s ministry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Perry. The Life of the Mind in America, from the Revolution to the Civil War. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1965. A classic work and an overview of the period of the Second Great Awakening by one of America’s leading intellectual historians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perciaccante, Marianne. Calling Down Fire: Charles Grandison Finney and Revivalism in Jefferson County, New York, 1800-1840. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. An examination of a community during the Second Great Awakening.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Russel, Garth M., and Richard A. G. Dupuis. The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2002. A reprint of Finney’s own accounts of his conversion and work as a revivalist preacher.

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