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Christian History Home > 1988 > Issue 20 > Charles Grandison Finney: Father of American Revivalism

Charles Grandison Finney: Father of American Revivalism
James E. Johnson is professor of history and Chairperson of the Department of History at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dr. Johnson is also Editor of Fides et Historia, the historical journal published three times a year at Bethel College by the Conference on Faith and History. | posted 10/01/1988 12:00AM

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The career of Charles Finney was nothing short of remarkable. From international fame as a revivalist, to professor at and president of a unique educational institution, to advocate and defender of a controversial doctrine of Christian perfection, Finney has left a major imprint on American religion. He challenged common ideas about conversion, evangelism, and personal holiness, and helped reshape American Christian thought. No matter what your opinion of the controversial Charles Finney, this magnetic Christian leader was genuinely remarkable.

Charles Finney was born in Warren, Connecticut, in 1792 into an old New England family. In 1794 his family moved to New York State, where, in the central and northern sections, he spent his childhood. Eventually, his family settled in Henderson, near Lake Ontario, where Charles spent most of his adolescent years.

As a young man he decided to study law, and he began that study in the office of lawyer Benjamin Wright in Adams, New York. Charles was also an amateur musician who played the cello, and apparently led the choir at the local Presbyterian church, which was pastored by the Rev. George W. Gale.

According to the account in his Memoirs, around this time he decided that he must settle the question of his soul’s salvation. Having gone alone into the woods, he knelt by a log and wrestled with God in prayer, and was instantaneously converted. The event was so dramatic that Finney later recalled that he experienced what seemed like waves of liquid love throughout his body; it so affected him that he explained it in intimate detail when he was at an advanced age. The drama of the event may have made him impatient in later years with those who could not testify to a similar experience.

The next morning at the law office a client came in to inquire about the status of his case. No doubt to the client’s consternation, Finney replied that the man would have to find someone else to help him, for he was no longer going to pursue a law career so that he might become a preacher of the gospel. The St. Lawrence Presbytery took him under their care and he was licensed to preach in December 1823. The Female Missionary Society of Western New York commissioned him as a missionary to Jefferson County in March of 1824. Thus Finney’s revivalistic career was launched.

Early Work and the Burned-over District

Finney’s early meetings were held in the frontier communities of upper New York state, and he received, at best, a mixed reception. It was plain that his preaching was different than that of the local parish ministers, and his theology seemed a reaction against the prevailing Calvinism of the time. He married Lydia Andrews of Whitestown, New York, in October 1824, and appeared to be on a course for a normal and uneventful parish ministry of some sort in that area.

However, Finney’s career took a turn in 1825, when while on a journey to Whitestown to visit Lydia’s parents, he and his wife stayed over at the home of his former pastor, George Gale, in the town of Western, NY. Gale asked Finney to preach and when the young evangelist complied, the results were immediate and dramatic. Crowds came to hear Finney and many asked him for help in obtaining assurance of conversion. The results were the same when he afterward preached in the towns of Utica and Rome, NY. (The whole area where Finney was then preaching has been referred to by historians as the “Burned-over district”; a reference to the fact that the area had experienced so much religious enthusiasm—from revivals and new religions, to cults and spiritualism—that the district had been scorched.) The revival meetings were described in detail by the Oneida Presbytery in a pamphlet referred to as the Narrative of Revival. These meetings in the Burned-over District moved Finney up a notch and made him the subject of some notice in East Coast newspapers.

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