“Men are so spiritually sluggish, there are so many things to lead their minds off from religion, and to oppose the influence of the gospel, that it is necessary to raise an excitement among them, till the tide rises so high as to sweep away the opposing obstacles.”
Charles G. Finney was the preeminent revivalist of the Second Great Awakening, a period of religious revival in the United States from the 1790s to the 1840s (exact dates vary among historians). Unlike earlier ministers in the United States, Finney believed that people could create the conditions that would lead to revival, rather than simply waiting for revivals to happen by divine action. Finney invented many techniques in his evangelistic campaigns that came to be known as the New Measures, although not all of them were new or original to Finney. Revivalism prompted much controversy within American denominations, between those who supported the revivals (often called New Lights) and those who opposed or were suspicious of the revivalist preachers and their methods (the Old Lights). Finney’s book Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1835) virtually became a textbook for those who approved of his methods and hoped to emulate his success, but it was the target of much criticism from the Old Lights.
Christianity in the United States has gone through several periods of religious revival, or awakenings. The First Great Awakening was one such movement, dating from roughly the 1740s to the 1760s. In these early revivals, many of the ministers involved believed that revivals arose spontaneously, as a direct work of God. This was in part because of their Calvinistic theology. John Calvin, a Swiss reformer of the 1500s, believed that God has chosen the elect, or those who will be saved. Therefore, Calvinism seemed to downplay the role of human effort, either in calling people to repent and follow Christ or in the response of the individual who became a Christian. There was considerable debate over the use of means, referring to human efforts or techniques, to bring about the conversion of individuals or the revival of religious communities. Finney, who was perhaps the most influential revivalist preacher of the Second Great Awakening, was often the target of those who opposed the use of human means or agency in the conversion of nonbelievers. While Finney never completely abandoned Calvinism, he rejected any aspects of that theological heritage that seemed to deny the role of human effort or the ability of non-Christians to respond to the gospel. Both the message he preached and his evangelistic methods prompted much controversy among Presbyterians and other denominations that were heavily influenced by Calvinist theology.
In this excerpt from Finney’s book Lectures on Revivals of Religion, it is clear that Finney emphasizes human activity. He stresses what humans do in response to God’s calling in the gospel. He argues that the fact that scripture calls on people to repent and respond to God’s offer of grace suggests that Christians should be involved in extending the invitation to make these responses. People tend to be “spiritually sluggish,” Finney says, and distracted by other cares to the neglect of religious duties. Christians need to be diligent to arouse them out of this indifference. Besides the agency involved in the unbeliever responding to the gospel, Finney also stresses that a truly converted person should be involved in trying to change the world. He places a strong emphasis on social action, as seen in the sections of this excerpt where Finney discusses Christian involvement in politics, temperance, the antislavery movement, and efforts to stop “Sabbath-breaking”—working or conducting business on Sunday, which churches believed should be observed as a Christian Sabbath.
Charles G. Finney was born in Warren, Connecticut, on August 27, 1792. When he was a young child, his family moved to Oneida County, New York. It appears that as a youth, Finney was only nominally religious. He attended Hamilton Oneida Academy in Clinton, New York, and in 1812 moved back to Warren to study in the Warren Academy, hoping to prepare for entry to Yale College. His tutor convinced him that he could study on his own and progress more rapidly than he could at Yale, so Finney never completed any formal higher education. He taught school for a few years, and in 1818, he began studying law while working with Judge Benjamin Wright in Adams, New York. On October 10, 1821, Finney underwent an evangelical conversion experience after attending a local revival. He decided to abandon his legal career to devote his life to preaching. When he expressed a desire to study for the ministry, the Saint Lawrence Presbytery took him under its supervision and assigned him to study with George Gale, a Presbyterian minister in Adams.
Finney was ordained as a Presbyterian minister on July 1, 1834. During the next fifteen years, he earned a national reputation as a revival preacher. Some of Finney’s most remarkable revivals were in cities along the route of the newly completed Erie Canal in western New York. Finney describes his methods, including the techniques that became known as the New Measures, in his book Lectures on Revivals of Religion. Those who admired Finney and wanted to replicate his results studied the book avidly, but opponents criticized Finney’s innovations in evangelistic techniques and what they perceived to be a departure from strict Calvinist theology. Finney stressed Christian social action, believing that when people are truly converted, they should work to try to reform the world around them. Finney himself became one of the major leaders of the antislavery movement in the East. When health problems forced him to cut back on his travels, he served pastorates at two congregations in New York City before accepting a call to become a professor of theology at Oberlin Collegiate Institute in Oberlin, Ohio, a school enthused with revivalist and social-reform sentiment. Finney taught there for the rest of his career and was president of the school from 1851 to 1866. He also served as the pastor of the First Congregational Church in Oberlin from 1837 to 1872. He died in Oberlin on August 16, 1875.
As the preeminent revivalist of the Second Great Awakening, Finney was admired and imitated by many, but he was also the object of criticism from those who doubted his methods and his theology. The Calvinistic theology that many American churches embraced in that era raised questions about the whole issue of revivalism. Calvinism, based on the theology of the sixteenth-century Swiss Protestant reformer John Calvin, suggests that God has already selected, or predestined, those who will be saved. Some Calvinist preachers took this to mean that the elect, those chosen to be saved, will be brought into the church by direct action from God, rendering human means or agency unnecessary. Like many revivalist preachers, Finney rejected this idea, and in this excerpt from his Lectures on Revivals of Religion, he stresses the human role in responding to God’s call in the gospel and the responsibility of churches and evangelists to take actions designed to bring about this response. Finney’s career as a revivalist preacher illustrates his commitment to these ideas, as he held numerous revival campaigns in the towns and cities of the northeast that met with great success.
In this excerpt, Finney begins by stressing that “religion is the work of man.” It is a person’s response to God and his or her obedience to the commands of God. He concedes that “God induces” a person to make this response, as Finney believed that the Holy Spirit influences the person whom God is calling. If trying to revive the faith and obedience of people to the commands of God were not necessary, Finney argues, then the scriptures would not have recorded entreaties such as “O Lord, revive thy work” (Hab. 3:2).
Simply to suggest that religion must be revived, Finney says, “presupposes a declension.” If there were no perception that people had neglected or drifted away from their religious obligations, there would be no need for a revival. But people tend to be neglectful and “spiritually sluggish.” The cares of everyday life crowd out religious influences. However, Finney says there is an “excitability” in mankind, as people can be swept up in a renewed awareness of their religious duties, and their senses of guilt and of the danger facing their eternal souls can be awakened. Revivals are necessary, therefore, to create this excitement or awakening.
Finney believed that the churches could not go along steadily, just assuming that these feelings of responsibility and spiritual need would continue to be manifested. He argues that “worldly”—secular or nonreligious—interests will prevail if the needed religious feelings are not continually awakened and excited. It will probably be this way in the church, Finney suggests, until the millennium. In evangelical Christian theology, the millennium refers to a period when Christ will return to reign on earth, before the final judgment. The word millennium comes from a Greek word meaning “one thousand years”; theologians differ over whether that one thousand years is to be understood literally or symbolically. Like most evangelicals in the early nineteenth century, Finney was a postmillennialist. He believed that the influence of Christianity and of the gospel in the world would eventually produce a kind of golden age of peace and goodwill, and at the end of this millennium, Christ would return for the final judgment. Before that golden age, Finney argues, the church cannot “go along uniformly” and hope to “gradually” attract converts, as it is neither stable enough nor advanced enough in its knowledge of God’s will for this method to prevail. Thus, Finney argues, there must be periodic works of “special excitement.” Just as there are political and other worldly excitements that will distract people from true religion, there must be times of religious excitement to awaken their sense of religious needs and obligations.
Finney believed that even in nations where Christianity had long been preached, there would be failures without periodic revivals. Likewise, he argues that Christian missions in the “heathen nations” also must include revivalist methods. Churches were trying to bring about the conversion of American Indian tribes and foreign people groups by education and other methods that Finney refers to as “cautious and gradual improvements”; Finney believed that on the mission field, just as in the American churches, the “powerful excitements” of revivals would be necessary.
The latter sections of this excerpt deal with several specific recommendations for things that Finney believed the American churches and their ministers and evangelists needed to do in order to bring about revival. The first of these is that the ministers themselves must repent. Repentance in Christian theology is a change of heart and actions, a turning away from sin and toward obedience to God’s commands. Finney includes himself in this, saying, “WE, my brethren, must humble ourselves before God.” The ministers, he argues, need to lead the way for their churches by exhibiting a repentant spirit. In point four, he says, “The church must take right ground in regard to politics.”Finney maintains that he is not “going to preach a political sermon”; nor does he wish to start a Christian political party in the United States. But he does advocate some particular issues on which he believes the churches must take a firm stand. Some of these are rather innocuous and probably would have raised little controversy, such as his suggestion that Christians must vote for honest, upright men. But some of the specific points he raises caused substantial controversy among the American churches. Finney believed these points had to be addressed, arguing that God could not continue to bless the United States if Christians neglected their duty to see that honest, upright men were elected to office.
The first issue he brings up is slavery. Finney became one of the major leaders of the antislavery movement in the North. Slavery had long been controversial among the American churches. Initially, few churches had taken a stand against slavery, and the South had even developed an extensive scriptural defense for slavery, noting that neither the Old Testament nor the New explicitly forbids slavery and that in the New Testament, the apostle Paul instructs masters to treat their slaves well but never commands them to free their slaves. Proslavery advocates also used the argument of civilization and paternalism, arguing that masters genuinely cared for their slaves and that through being brought to the United States, the slaves had been exposed to Western civilization, and many had become Christians. Around the time of the American Revolution, many people, including those in the South, had come to recognize that slavery was wrong, but defenders of slavery called it a necessary evil: it was wrong, but it was built into the social fabric of the southern states and could not easily be eradicated. It is important to understand that to American defenders of slavery, the “peculiar institution,” as it was sometimes called, was not just a system of labor; it was a system of social control. Widespread racist sentiment, even among many antislavery Americans, meant that African Americans were generally considered inferior. If slaves were freed, people wondered, how would the two races get along in society unless the white race were clearly placed in a superior position?
As the antislavery movement gained strength in the North, partly due to the success of the Second Great Awakening (although there were many who opposed slavery on simply moral or philosophical grounds rather than because of religious beliefs), many began to reject the idea of slavery as a necessary evil. Antislavery people saw slavery as a moral evil, simply wrong and morally indefensible. As antislavery thought made this transition, the proslavery argument also shifted. Defenders of slavery ceased to define it as a necessary evil, and moved toward the argument that slavery was a positive good, using the arguments of paternalism and civilization to support this point.
Virtually all of Finney’s evangelistic work was in Northern states, except for his foreign tours. But even in the Northern churches, there were those who would have found his strong antislavery stance controversial. Some believed that the issue would divide the churches, and indeed, several of the leading Protestant denominations in the United States did divide into Northern and Southern branches in the 1840s, with slavery and the sectional crisis being a major cause of these divisions.
Finney shows an awareness of the dangers of dealing with the subject of slavery. Christians had to avoid “get[ting] into an angry controversy on the subject,” as that would injure the cause of religion and the interests of the slaves themselves. When Finney refers to “slave-holding professors,” he means people who profess to be Christians and yet own slaves. Such people would naturally try to defend themselves and justify their actions, just as Christians who sold rum or other alcoholic beverages would defend themselves by pointing to the example of Christians who drank. Finney firmly supported the temperance movement, which aimed to outlaw the production of all alcoholic beverages in the United States. The word temperance was somewhat misleading, for temperance implies moderation, while the nineteenth-century temperance movement advocated for total prohibition of the production and use of alcohol. Thus, to Finney, just as a professing Christian could not drink or sell alcohol, a professing Christian could not own slaves. Slaveholding Christians might have become angry with anyone who tried to stir up their conscience on this issue. While Finney acknowledges the potential explosiveness of the issue, he still maintains that slavery is a subject “upon which Christians, praying men, need not and must not differ.” Despite Finney’s hope that this issue could be dealt with without anger or dispute, it seems apparent that such angry differences would inevitably emerge—as indeed they did throughout the years leading up to the American Civil War.
The churches must not try to take a neutral position on the issue of slavery, Finney writes, any more than they could be neutral on “Sabbath-breaking” or any other moral issue. Finney asserts that slavery is “a great national sin” and “the sin of the church.” Churches that had admitted slaveholders to communion had given the impression that slaveholding is not sinful. Finney charges that all American denominations have been guilty of this. This was generally true, but not completely; there were a few small religious bodies, such as some of the Mennonite or Pietistic groups, that had always taken a stand against slavery. Additionally, in many denominations, there were congregations that would not admit slaveholders to membership, even if the denomination as a whole had never taken a stand on the issue. Finney gives the Quaker denomination credit for having recently “washed their hands” of involvement in slaveholding. Because of the Quaker belief that all people are equal in the sight of God, early Quaker immigrants to the New World had taken a strong stand against slavery, but over time, the pervasive influence of the culture surrounding them led many Quakers to believe that owning slaves was not incompatible with their religious beliefs. Around the time of the American Revolution, and continuing up to Finney’s time, Quaker fellowships, called meetings, had returned to their original understanding of the immorality of slavery and had begun to insist that members of their meetings either divest themselves of their slaves or leave the fellowship. Except for isolated cases like the Quakers, however, Finney writes that in America, “all denominations have consented” to Christians owning slaves and thus “have virtually declared that it is lawful.” The word lawful in this context does not mean legal according to the laws of the government, for slavery clearly was legal in several states by that definition, but moral in light of the laws of God. By not condemning people who claimed to be Christians and yet held slaves, Finney is saying, the churches have created the impression that slavery is not immoral.
In points six and seven, Finney deals with three other issues: the Sabbath, temperance, and “Moral Reform.” In order to promote a revival of religion, the churches must “sanctify the Sabbath,” Finney argues. Technically, in the Old Testament of the Bible, the Sabbath that the Hebrew people were commanded to observe was the seventh day—Saturday in most calendars. But many Protestant groups in colonial America and the nineteenth-century United States held to a belief called Sabbatarianism, which stated that Sunday should be observed as a Christian Sabbath. They believed that only essential work should be done on this day, and time should be devoted to worship services and rest. Finney notes the extensive “Sabbath-breaking” in the land. Merchants opened their shops on the Sabbath; travelers, including those riding on public conveyances such as canal boats or stagecoaches, traveled on the Sabbath. The government broke the Sabbath by moving the mail on Sunday, which was a controversial issue to many Sabbatarians in that era. Although he does not specifically mention it in this excerpt, Finney favored legislation that would outlaw these practices.
Finney had already woven comments on temperance into his earlier discussion of slavery, comparing the two issues by noting that just as those who consumed or sold alcohol could seek to justify themselves by pointing to professing Christians who did the same, slaveholders could make the same arguments concerning professing Christians who owned slaves. Finney held to a theological doctrine known as perfectionism or Christian perfection, sometimes also referred to as holiness theology. He believed that Christians could advance to a state of sanctification in which they would not deliberately break the commands of God and thus would achieve holiness. Perfectionism grew out of the theology of “perfect love” in the Methodist movement, begun in England in the late eighteenth century by John Wesley. While not all Methodists in Finney’s day held to perfectionism, it was a theological viewpoint held by many evangelical Christians of various denominations. Because of his perfectionist theology, Finney was concerned with Christians living a pious, devout life, and to him, this included abstaining from all alcoholic beverages.
In a similar vein, Finney supported the various moral-reform movements that were active in his day. While the term moral reform could refer to virtually any efforts to improve society, the way the phrase was used in that era generally referred to efforts to outlaw public vice and lewdness. Moral-reform groups sought to outlaw dueling, prostitution, and public use of profane language. Laws were passed in some states on several of these issues; in other cases, the reformers sought to persuade people to abandon these acts of lewdness. Again, as with slavery and temperance, Finney believed the churches had to speak out on this issue and avoid any pretense of taking a neutral ground.
Throughout this excerpt, Finney makes his argument that the churches must be involved in promoting revivals of religion. Beyond that, one can also see his strong commitment to social reform in his insistence that the churches must work to end slavery, promote temperance, and end Sabbath-breaking and other types of vice. Over the next twenty years after Finney published his book, the great social and moral issue of slavery would come to overshadow all these other reform issues.
From the time of his personal conversion, Finney worked to promote the conversion of others and to awaken or revive the commitment of those who already professed to be Christians. Finney also believed that sincere Christian commitment also meant a commitment to trying to change the world, to bring the social and political order into harmony with what he believed to be God’s purposes and goals for humankind. Several key themes emerge in this excerpt: a defense of revivalism, his commitment to social reform, and his perfectionist or holiness theology.
Finney lived at a time when the firm commitment to Calvinist theology that had been typical of many American denominations was being eroded. Revivalists like Finney tended to disregard anything in the Calvinist tradition that downplayed the ability and responsibility of humans to make a response to God’s call to salvation. If people cannot respond, they argued, then why preach or promote revivals? Protestant evangelical Christianity in the United States was moving toward a freewill theology, often called Arminianism in reference to the sixteenth-century Dutch reformer Jacobus Arminius, who had been one of the early advocates of this position. Finney typified this transition, and his widespread success as a revivalist and his writings promoting revivalism also contributed to this shift. In the first part of this excerpt, Finney makes the argument for why revivals are necessary.
One can also see in this excerpt Finney’s commitment to social reform. Revivalism, to Finney, was not just about filling the churches and seeing personal conversions to Christianity; those who had been converted or revived in their faith had to work to make society more just and moral. Finney was not the only revivalist of his time to make this connection. Social-reform movements arose throughout the North in response to the revivals of the Second Great Awakening. To Finney, the most serious social and moral problem facing the nation was slavery. He called it “a great national sin,” but he also specifically referred to it as “a sin of the church,” because the churches, by accepting slaveholders into their ranks, had created the impression that slavery was morally acceptable. In the years after Finney wrote, the antislavery cause would continue to grow until it eventually overshadowed all of the other social-reform movements.
Finney’s commitment to moral and social reform was also connected to his perfectionist or holiness theology. Finney believed that sincere Christians could progress in growth and maturity in their faith to the point of achieving sanctification and would not deliberately violate the commands of God after achieving this status. Perfectionists generally recognized that everyone falls short of God’s commands, but for the one sanctified, this is because of human weakness rather than a deliberate disregard of God’s will. Christians who were concerned about living a devout and pious life, therefore, could hardly fail to concern themselves with trying to stamp out evil in the world around them. In many ways, the perfectionist and reform elements of Finney’s thinking and preaching presaged some of the themes of the Social Gospel movement as it emerged in the late nineteenth century.
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