Christian History Home > Evangelists and Apologists > Charles Finney
Father of American revivalism
Identifying Finney's revivals with those a few decades earlier in places like Cane Ridge, Kentucky, many were ecstatic about prospects for "awakening" in the northeast. But others were opposed to the "plain and pointed preacher." The Old School Presbyterians resented Finney's modifications to Calvinist theology. Traditional Calvinists taught that a person would only come to believe the gospel if God had elected them to salvation. Finney stated that unbelief was a "will not," instead of a "cannot," and could be remedied if a person willed to become a Christian.
Such rigid Calvinism, he said, "had not been born again, was insufficient, and captionogether an abomination to God."
The revivalistic Congregationalists, led by Lyman Beecher, feared that Finney was opening the door to fanaticism by allowing too much expression of human emotion. Unitarians opposed Finney for using scare tactics to gain converts. Across the board, many thought that his habitual use of the words you and hell "let down the dignity of the pulpit."
During this time, Finney developed what came to be known as "New Measures." He allowed women to pray in mixed public meetings. He adopted the Methodists' "anxious bench": he put a pew at the front of the church, where those who felt a special urgency about their salvation could sit. He prayed in colloquial, common, and "vulgar" language. Most of these New Measures were actually many decades old, but Finney popularized them and was attacked for doing so.
In July 1827, the New Lebanon Convention was held to examine these practices, as well as some false reports of excesses. Vote after vote ended in stalemate. When a last attempt was made at a resolution condemning questionable revivalistic practices, Finney countered by proposing a condemnation to "lukewarmness in religion." Neither proposal passed.
The zenith of Finney's evangelistic career was reached at Rochester, New York, where he preached 98 sermons between September 10, 1830, and March 6, 1831. Shopkeepers closed their businesses, posting notices urging people to attend Finney's meetings. Reportedly, the population of the town increased by two-thirds during the revival, but crime dropped by two-thirds over the same period.
From Rochester, he began an almost continuous revival in New York City as minister of the Second Free Presbyterian Church. He soon became disenchanted with Presbyterianism, however (due largely to his growing belief that people could, with God, perfect themselves). In 1834, he moved into the huge Broadway Tabernacle his followers had built for him.
He stayed there for only a year, leaving to pastor Oberlin Congregation Church and teach theology at Oberlin College. In 1851, he was appointed president, which gave him a new forum to advocate social reforms he championed, especially abolition of slavery.
Finney produced a variety of books and articles. His Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1835), a manual on how to lead revivals, inspired thousands of preachers to more consciously manage (critics said "manipulate") their revival meetings. His Lectures on Systematic Theology (1846) teach his special brand of "arminianized Calvinism."
Finney is called the "father of modern revivalism" by some historians, and he paved the way for later mass-evangelists like Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham.
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