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People & Ideas: James Finley

James Finley

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Finley challenged and eventually rejected his father's faith. Finley could not accept predestination -- the belief that God had chosen some people for salvation and condemned others to damnation. As a young man living on the frontier, Finley experienced both its temptations -- dancing, hunting and gambling -- and the overwhelming sense of loneliness and isolation.

Finley had little interest in religion after rejecting his father's Presbyterian faith, but in 1801 his curiosity drew him to Cane Ridge, Ky. There, an estimated 20,000 people gathered for the largest and most powerful revival in American history. Finley was determined not to be seduced by the emotional displays of the faithful and the converts, but he later described its impact: "The noise was like the roar of Niagara. The vast sea of human beings seemed to be agitated as if by a storm. I counted seven ministers, all preaching at one time, some on stumps, others in wagons. ... [M]y heart beat tumultuously, my knees trembled, my lip quivered, and I felt as though I must fall to the ground."

Finley converted and went home to rural Ohio, where he blamed a lack of spiritual guidance on his eventual backsliding in faith. After a second conversion experience, he joined the Methodist Church, which was expanding and reaching more people on the frontier. He soon felt a call to preach and became a Methodist circuit rider.

Admitted on a trial basis in 1809, Finley was assigned to the 475-mile Wills Creek Circuit in Ohio. It took him four weeks to traverse it. He wrote: "I entered upon this work with great fear and trembling." He built a 12-by-14-foot cabin to provide shelter for his wife and daughter. He was so poor that he had to sell his boots to buy food for his family. In his first year, he converted 178 persons on the circuit. In September 1811, Finley and 19 others were ordained by Francis Asbury, one of the first American Methodist bishops.

Finley's friend and colleague Abel Stevens described him as "a genuine child of the wilderness, ... of stalwart frame, features rather coarse, with large benevolent eyes, sandy hair, standing erect, a good expressive mouth, a voice like thunder." Another Methodist minister said his voice "seldom failed to penetrate every citadel of the soul." His nickname was the "lion of the forest."

Under the guidance of Finley and the circuit riders, Methodism exploded, becoming the fastest growing denomination in the antebellum era. It was not simply a question of the number of converts. The greatest impact and more lasting result was the growth in reform movements intended to improve society. Many believed that once souls were saved, fundamental changes in society were bound to follow. As Methodism pushed through the frontier, it brought a surge of Bible societies, temperance groups and other organizations with the aim of reforming society and educating people living on the new nation's fringes. These voluntary societies, combined with the tremendous energy and "can-do" optimism of the frontier, decisively shaped the American religious landscape.

Finley himself became involved in prison reform, temperance, rights for Native Americans, women's causes and slavery. His father freed the slaves he had when Finley was a teenager, and Finley spoke on the subject at a contentious Methodist conference that ended with the church dividing between the North and the South: "How any man can say it is right for him to hold his fellow being in bondage, and buy and sell him at pleasure, put him under an overseer, and drive, whip, and half starve him, and that this is connived by the Methodist Church, I cannot comprehend."

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Published October 11, 2010

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