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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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Not long after the Rochester campaign, Finney accepted the pastorate of the Chatham Street Chapel in New York City. Whether his wife was weary of caring for a family on the itinerant trail and influenced his decision can only be guessed, but they settled in at their new home. After a bout with illness and a trip abroad to recover his health, Finney gave a series of lectures that were transcribed and published as Lectures on Revivals of Religion. This book made Finney more famous and added to the controversy surrounding him, for he stressed at the beginning of the book that a revival was not a miracle, but the right use of proper means. Professor Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary, a famous Old School Presbyterian theologian, condemned the book; soon thereafter Finney left that denomination. He was now an acknowledged leader of the New School Presbyterians (progressive Presbyterians, many of whom had abandoned traditional Calvinistic teachings) and an important leader in the free church movement. Free churches were congregations that rejected the concept of pew rent in favor of free seating for anyone who wanted to enter the church. Friends of Finney built the Broadway Tabernacle in 1835 for him to pastor, and the emphasis there was on wide-open doors as an invitation for all to enter.

Oberlin and Social Reform

Finney’s life took another turn when he left New York City in 1835 to become a professor at Oberlin College in Ohio. (He was going to divide his time between Oberlin and the Broadway Tabernacle, but before long devoted himself to Oberlin.) This offer was made to him as a result of a group of students at Lane Seminary in Cincinatti, Ohio, who were mostly his converts from the Burned-over District revivals. These students insisted that slave-owning was a sin; they were opposed by Lane Seminary trustees, many of whom owned slaves themselves. The students left Lane and traveled to Oberlin on the condition that Finney become their professor. Arthur and Lewis Tappan—wealthy abolition leaders—agreed to underwrite the costs, so Finney and his family moved to Oberlin. There he taught a class in pastoral theology, went East each year after classes were over to conduct revival meetings, and began to write for the Oberlin Evangelist. The more his writings appeared, the more he irritated members of the Old School who sensed that he was distorting Calvinism in order to give a free and open invitation for all to be converted in his revival meetings.

Finney succeeded in involving Oberlin in the leading social reforms of the Jacksonian era. One historian said that he unleashed a mighty impulse to social reform by insisting that new converts make their lives count for the Kingdom of God. The result was an optimistic, postmillenial theological thrust and the revitalization of a “benevolent empire” of Protestant organizations determined to make the world a better place by hastening the coming of the Kingdom. The reform movements involved were: the temperance movement, Sabbath keeping, manual labor schools, and abolitionism. Oberlin even became a station on the Underground Railroad (a network of locations used to help slaves escape to Canada), and the scene of a dramatic slave rescue. Indeed, Finney was successful in linking evangelical circles to antislavery crusades. On the other hand, he cautioned Theodore Weld and others not to allow reform efforts to replace revivalism. Charles Finney was, first and foremost, a revivalist.

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