Charles G. Finney was one of the Great Awakening’s chief protagonists, promoting a frontier revival movement and eventually leading Oberlin College as a social reformer.
The early 19th century was a period of transition for Americans as the new nation was coming to terms with an expanding political system, a national identity, and the on-going westward movement. It was during this time of change that Charles Grandison Finney gave up his law practice to preach an emotional Christianity that resulted in acute frontier revivalism. Finney’s contribution to the Great Awakening of that early century came to affect not only collective spirituality, but the abolition movement and temperance reform.
The Early Life of Charles Finney
Finney was born in Connecticut in 1792 to a family that neither prayed nor attended church. Ironically, prayer would eventually become the very tool enabling Finney to confront his own doubts and later use extensively during his frontier ministry. He purchased his first Bible at the age of 29 while working as a lawyer.
After leaving Connecticut, Finney’s parents moved to Oneida County in New York. As a young teen, Finney enjoyed the vigorous outdoor work and became particularly fond of hunting, an activity that stayed with him throughout his life. He attended Hamilton College, founded originally as the Hamilton Oneida Institute by Samuel Kirkland who had dedicated his life as a missionary to the Native Americans.
The Beginning of Revivalism
Charles Finney had no formal theological training, relying only on his own understanding of the Bible and occasional sessions with established ministers. He turned down offers to attend Yale and Princeton. He derived his energy through fasting and prayer, often spending long hours by himself in the forest.
As with the first Great Awakening in the 1730’s and 1740’s, Finney took his message outdoors to wherever people would listen, much like George Whitfield and John Wesley had done. Like that earlier time, mainline, established churches refused to open their pulpits to the emotional preaching of the revivalist preacher. Finney pioneered the use of “testifying” by converts that related their conversion experiences during mass meetings. He also promoted impromptu prayer.
Traveling throughout the Northeast, Finney spoke to thousands. In his Memoirs, he relates, “I preached out of doors; I preached in barns; I preached in schoolhouses…” The theme of his sermons focused on the individual need for personal salvation and more than once congregations stormed out of meeting houses after being confronted by their own indifference and, according to Finney, “wickedness.” In every case, they later returned and converted, often through very emotional personal experiences.
The Professor and Reformer
In 1835 Charles Finney became the driving force behind Oberlin College, newly founded to train young men as ministers. Significantly, Oberlin accepted black students at a time this was virtually unthinkable even by many northern institutions. Finney became a vocal advocate of abolition as well as temperance reform, a national problem in the early 19th century.
While teaching theology at Oberlin, Finney continued to preach, notably in New York at the Broadway Tabernacle which had been built years earlier specifically around his preaching. Finney took revivalism to Boston and New York, although vigorously opposed by the staid ministers of established churches.
Finney and the Great Awakening
The religious movement known as the Second Great Awakening changed the spiritual lives of tens of thousands due to revivalist preachers like Charles Finney and his message of personal salvation and “active Christianity.” According to political scientist James Morone, the movement “pushed religion into the vernacular.”
Charles Finney’s eloquence rested in the fact that he preached to people on their level without resorting to the dry homiletic of carefully constructed sermons. His firebrand style of preaching was the very essence of revivalism as it roared through the American frontier communities and later the urban centers of the Northeast.
- Basil Miller, Charles Finney (Dimension Books, 1941)
- James A. Morone, Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History (Yale University Press, 2003)