The Life and Legacy of Charles Grandison Finney

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Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875)

Charles G. Finney was the greatest figure of the Second Great Awakening. His “new measures” of revivalism decisively shaped American Protestant evangelicalism.

Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) was an American evangelist, whose profound influence cannot be overstated. His new methods of evangelism transformed American Christianity and inaugurated a new era in revivalism. It can be said, with certainty, that one cannot understand American Christianity today without studying the life and work of Charles G. Finney.

Early Life

Born in Litchfield County, Connecticut on August 27,1792, his family moves to Oneida County in western New York. This gave him a rugged frontier experience and his education is largely self-directed. He was trained as a lawyer and practiced law. But in 1821, Finney went through an unusual conversion experience. His pastor, the Rev. George W. Gale, offered to tutor him after Finney made known his intentions to enter the ministry. After spending some time as a missionary in western New York, he is ordained as a Presbyterian minister on July 1, 1824.

New Measures of Revivalism

Finney’s own unusual conversion influenced his later views, as he began to construct a new theology that he felt better suited the Jacksonian era. He rejected Calvinism at the outset, finding it too restrictive for his method of conducting revivals. Finney even confessed at his ordination that he had not read the Westminster Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church. Instead, he modified Calvinism and came up with innovative ideas that he called “New Measures,” thus paving the way for New School Presbyterianism and the subsequent controversies that followed. Some of these novel techniques included:

  • Praying publicly for people by name that they would be saved.
  • Encouraging women to pray in public.
  • Protracted nightly meetings.
  • The “anxious bench” to which sinners were invited for counsel and prayer.
  • Finger pointing at people who were considered unsaved.
  • Altar calls: calling people down the aisle to pray on their knees. Finney would wait for long periods of time for people to come.
  • Dramatic, extemporaneous, itinerant preaching that was direct, tough, popular, and inescapably premised on the free will of the individual.

These new ideas were published in the New York Evangelist, Western Recorder, Rochester Observer and in a multitude of pamphlets. Charles Finney used these novel techniques most successfully between 1825-1832 and rose to national fame as a result. He held spectacular revival meetings in Western, Rome, Troy, Utica and other towns along the Erie Canal in upper state New York. Revivals took place so frequently in that area, that it was called the “burned over district;” Finney, in fact, was the one who named it that. He also preached in New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston.

From the very beginning, his methods, preaching style, and theology created controversy. His approach was direct, his language was blunt, and his attitude at times appeared to be almost arrogant. Yet this charismatic preacher continued to draw crowds. Eastern newspapers began to carry reprints from New York state papers, and Finney became known far and wide.

In 1835, he moved to Oberlin College in Cincinnati, Ohio, to become a professor of theology. Oberlin would be Finney’s home for the rest of his life. Oberlin, a new college close to America’s western frontier, was founded by Congregational Evangelicals who hoped to usher in the new millennium and it soon became the embodiment of Finney’s revivalism. It was ardently revivalistic. Finney was criticized for encouraging new converts to become active social reformers. Oberlin was in the vanguard of social reform. It admitted women and African Americans, at a time when no other institution of higher education was doing so. It was also outspoken against slavery and was a hotbed of abolition.

That same year, Finney published his Lectures on Revivals of Religion, that presented his “New Measures” and revolutionized the theology of revival. In 1851, Finney became president of Oberlin and continued to hold revival meetings until 1860, when age prevented traveling. He remained at Oberlin until his death on August 16,1875.

Legacy

Finney was an enormously successfully practitioner, if not the inventor of modern, high-pressure revivalism. His new revival techniques were indeed extremely successful and he rose to prominence as a a result. It has been estimated that half a million were converted through his ministry. In his various roles, Finney left the impress of his character upon thousands of lives and contributed greatly to the shaping of religion in the new American republic. As one contemporary, William McLoughlin, wrote, “When Charles Grandison Finney left his law office in 1821 to devote his life to saving souls, he inaugurated a new era in American revivalism. He not only developed new techniques for promoting conversions and a new style of pulpit oratory, but he transformed the whole philosophy and process of evangelism.” (Johnson, 175)

References:

  1. Johnson, James E. “Charles Grandison Finney and the Burned-over District,” in Eerdmans Handbook to Christianity in America ed. by Mark Noll, et. al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983): 174-177.
  2. Noll, Mark A. Old Religion in a New World, The: The History of North American Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002)