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People & Ideas: Charles Finney

Charles Finney

Lawyer, theologian and college president, Charles Grandison Finney was also the most famous revivalist of the Second Great Awakening. He did not merely lead revivals; he actively marketed, promoted and packaged them. Unlike other ministers who waited for the Spirit to deliver the right moment, Finney argued that men and women of faith had to take the initiative and act: "More than five thousand millions have gone down to hell, while the church has been dreaming, and waiting for God to save them without the use of means."

To attract more converts, Finney introduced a series of innovations, called New Measures, which included the "anxious bench," where would-be converts could contemplate their decision for Christ. More than any other historical figure, he made revivals a standard feature of the American religious landscape.

Intent upon saving individual souls, Finney also sought to expand the role of women, to strengthen the churches and to bring about social reform. Women's prayer groups had often served as a base to engage the larger community during revivals. Finney allowed and encouraged women to speak at prayer meetings, in the presence of both men and women. Some ministers condemned this innovation, describing the meetings as "promiscuous assemblies," but by the end of the century, it had become accepted practice for many denominations.

Finney also argued that both men and women had a moral obligation to be active in social reform. His background as a lawyer enabled him to weave together a logical argument methodically. Coupled with his theological knowledge and the strength of his conviction, he became a formidable persuader of souls. During his tenure as president of Oberlin College, Finney put his ideas into practice. Founded in 1833, Oberlin became the first college to admit both women and blacks; it also became an important stop on the Underground Railroad, providing moral and practical support to runaway slaves who sought freedom in Canada.

Finney shared the widespread hope and expectation that the millennium was just around the corner; he announced in 1835 that it might occur within three years. He was greatly encouraged at the number of conversions that took place in another great revival just before the outbreak of the Civil War. He reported that as many as 50,000 had occurred in a single week, but added on a more somber note that the revival lost steam as it headed South.

Finney became a controversial figure in the Presbyterian Church. His encouragement of revivals, his emphasis on social action, and his bold and public belief that sin was voluntary were departures from the Presbyterian creed. Calvinist preacher Lyman Beecher strongly objected to Finney's ideas. Upon learning that Finney planned to travel to his home state to preach, Beecher declared: "I know your plan and you know I do. You mean to come into Connecticut, and carry a streak of fire to Boston. But if you do attempt it, as the Lord liveth, I'll meet you at the State line, and call out all the artillery-men, and fight every inch of the way to Boston, and I'll fight you there." According to the historian Sydney Ahlstrom, "In the Presbyterian church the tensions created by his kind of ministry contributed to a recurrence of schism."

In spite of the strife he engendered, Finney is remembered today not as a divisive figure, but rather as the "father of modern revivalism," unifying people around Christ.


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Published October 11, 2010

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