America’s Leading Evangelist:
Charles G. Finney
By Karen Thompson
Second in a Five-Part Series
This is the second installment in our series on America’s Second Great Awakening. In our first installment, we learned about the camp meeting revivals that took place in the new southern states. In this post, we’re going to learn about Charles Finney, America’s leading evangelist in the Second Great Awakening. During the years 1825 through 1835, Finney’s evangelistic ministry was concentrated in upstate New York and Manhattan. Not only were thousands of people converted to Christianity under his ministry, but extraordinary miracles were in demonstration wherever he preached. One of my favorite miracles happened to an illiterate woman who was converted during one of his revivals; she wanted desperately to read the Bible for herself, so she prayed and God supernaturally gave her the ability to read the Bible. Once when Finney came into the presence of workers while touring a cotton manufacturing plant, the power of God fell upon them in a mighty way. Simultaneously, workers fell into tears from the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and nearly everyone was converted! And the results of Finney’s revival meetings were transformative upon communities. A man who was converted in the revival in Rochester, New York, remarked how it changed the whole community. He said that wherever you went, the subject of conversation was always religion. All the “grog shops” (bars) were closed. The only theater in the city was turned into a livery stable. Churches were filled every Sunday with “happy worshipers.” “Fountains of benevolence” came forth where men lived to do good.
Finney’s Salvation and Calling
I so enjoy reading about Finney’s salvation experience and baptism in the Holy Spirit. He chronicled it in his autobiography entitled, “Charles Finney,” first published in 1876. Charles Grandison Finney was born in Warren, Connecticut on August 29, 1792. Being that his parents were not Christians, his upbringing was secular. He was raised in what he referred to as a spiritual wilderness. There were no churches in the area and very few professing Christians. The only sermons he heard were from the occasional traveling minister. He said some of them were ignorant, so ignorant that people would spend time laughing at the mistakes the preacher made and the “absurdities” he put forth.
He never went to college, but he had an interest in law. He joined a law firm to study law as an apprentice under Rev. George W. Gale who was educated at Princeton, New Jersey. When Finney joined the law firm, Rev. Gale had just become the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in the community. In his law studies, Finney found that the old authors very often quoted the Bible as a source of authority for the principles of common law. This motivated Finney to purchase his very first Bible. Whenever he came across a Bible reference quoted by one of the law professors, he would look it up in his Bible. This led him to begin his own intense study of the Scriptures.
Finney’s study of the Scriptures led him to engage Rev. Gale on different subjects of the Bible. These discussions caused Finney to become even more curious. He started attending the prayer meetings and services of Rev. Gale. All of this spiritual activity caused him to question his own spiritual state, which eventually led Finney to give his life to the Lord.
On October 10, 1821, Finney had made the decision he would seek God for his salvation. As was the habit of so many at that time, he went into the woods to pray early in the morning. He prayed in earnest and with intensity. After a while, he was filled with peace and tranquility. When he came out of the woods, he was shocked to learn it was noon time. He said his time in prayer felt as though it was just a short time, not hours. Though it was lunch time, he wasn’t hungry, so he went back to his office. Squire W was gone, so he decided to play his bass viol and sing sacred songs. As he sang, he was filled with the love of God. He described the experience as his heart being “liquid.” With a heart filled with liquid love, he began to weep and could not stop.
When evening came, he decided he would pray again after Squire W left. After accompanying Squire W to the door, when he closed the door, his heart became “liquid” again. His only thought was to pour out his heart to God, so he went into the back room to do just that.
It was there Finney would have an encounter with God!
Even though there was no fire or light in that room, he said the room appeared to be filled with light. It was the glory of God. He saw a vision of Jesus standing in front of him, face to face. Finney fell down at His feet and poured out his soul and “wept aloud like a child.”
After a time, he went back to the front room and was about to sit down close to the fire when he “received a mighty baptism of the Holy Spirit.” At the time, he had never even heard about such an experience. He described it as both like waves of electricity and waves of liquid love passing through him. The waves kept coming one after another, so much so that he felt he might die if they continued to pass over him. Yet he had no fear of death. He cried out, “Lord, I cannot bear anymore.”
As Finney was weeping, an acquaintance knocked on the door. Finney managed to get himself together and answered the door. The acquaintance took one look at Finney and asked him, “What’s wrong?” and “Are you in pain?” Still overcome, it took Finney a while to respond. He replied that he was “so happy that I cannot live.” Alarmed, his friend left and came back shortly with an elder from the church. The elder was a serious man, someone Finney had never seen laugh. Concerned, the elder asked Finney how he felt. As Finney began to answer his question, the elder responded in the most unexpected way. He fell into a “fit of laughter.” Finney called it “spasmodic” laughter. It appeared as though the elder was unable to stop laughing.
For the next several days, the presence of God remained strong upon Finney. When people came into his presence, they reacted in dramatic ways such as this elder. After his beautiful and intense encounter with God, Finney no longer desired to practice law. He knew he had to preach the Gospel.
Lot and the City of Sodom
There are so many outstanding things that could be said about Finney’s time of ministry. A favorite of mine was when he received an invitation to minister while he was preaching in Antwerp. An old man approached Finney and asked him to come preach in his village. He told Finney that his community didn’t have a church and, in fact, had never held a religious service. It was just three miles away, so Finney agreed to come the next day at 5 p.m. When he arrived, the schoolhouse was so full that he couldn’t get into the room, so he actually preached near the open door.
When he knelt down to pray, there came a strong spirit of prayer upon him. As soon as he was finished praying, he was surprised by the words that came out of his mouth. By the inspiration of the Spirit, he said, “Up, get you out of this place; for the Lord will destroy this city.” Up until that moment, he hadn’t even thought of what subject he was going to preach. But since he uttered these words by the Spirit, he assumed that’s the subject the Lord wanted him to minister. Finney went on to explain that the text was about a man named Abraham and his nephew, Lot. He explained the relationship between the two men and how, at one point, the two of them split and went separate ways. Lot settled in a city named Sodom, which was filled with exceedingly wicked people. They were so wicked that God told Abraham He was going to destroy the entire city. Abraham began to plead with God, asking Him to spare the city for the sake of the righteous within it. It turned out that there was only one righteous man in the city, Abraham’s nephew, Lot.
While he was preaching his sermon about the wickedness of Sodom, he noticed the collective expression on their faces was anger. And the longer he preached, the angrier they looked. He was perplexed by their reaction. When he completed his message, he said to them that since this was their first ever religious meeting that he took it for granted they were all ungodly people. After pressing them along this line for 15 minutes, there fell upon them an “awful solemnity.” The power of God fell upon the congregation. Men and women alike began to literally fall from their seats and cry out to God for mercy. Finney said that if he had, had a sword in each of his hands, he couldn’t have cut them off in their seats as fast as they all fell. All the people in the meeting were either on their knees or laying prostrate before the Lord, crying out to Him for mercy.
All, that is, except one man. The only unaffected person was the old man who had invited Finney to preach. Taking in what was happening all around him, the old man sat in a sort of shocked amazement.
Finney stopped preaching because no one could hear him above the roar of their cries to God. He tried to get their attention, but they were too loud. His only solution was to go from person to person and to pray with each person individually. He stayed with them until it was time for him to go to his next preaching appointment. Amazingly, the people stayed there all throughout the night, seeking God in prayer. The next day, they sent for Finney and asked him to come back because the meeting was still going on but had moved to a private home. Finney returned and finished praying with and ministering to all of them.
When the meeting had drawn to a conclusion, Finney finally learned why they reacted so strongly to his message. It seems their town was called Sodom and the man who fetched Finney to come preach was Sodom’s only godly man, named Lot!
Rochester, New York
The greatest and most successful revival Finney held was in Rochester, New York. Presently, the population of Rochester, NY is over 208,000. The city was established by a group of people from Maryland in 1812. When Finney visited Rochester, the community was only 18 years old. It remained a small community until the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. After that, the city’s population boomed from 1,502 in 1820 to 12,252 in 1824.
In 1830, Finney was invited by the Presbyterian Church in Rochester to preach, but he did not want to accept the invitation. In fact, it was the last place he wanted to minister. He had received numerous invitations to preach and decided to go elsewhere, but in prayer, the Lord redirected him to Rochester. The Lord said the very reasons he didn’t want to go to Rochester were the very reasons he should go. It was an area greatly in need of God. Finney repented for avoiding Rochester.
In obedience to the Lord, Finney traveled to Rochester by the Erie Canal and ministered there from September 1830 to March 1831. Though Finney was a Presbyterian minister and preached primarily in Presbyterian churches, his revivals attracted multitudes from other denominations. Such was the case with the revival in Rochester. People traveled great distances to get to Rochester just to hear Finney preach; some came from as far away as 100 miles.
The Rochester revival was wildly successful. It was so successful that it was said to be the greatest revival the world had ever seen. In only one year’s time, there were 100,000 conversions as a result of the Rochester meetings. What made it so remarkable is that the conversions took place in so short of time! The rosters of the churches in the surrounding communities greatly increased. No other revival in that era came close by comparison to the work done in Rochester, NY.
The Rochester revival was the zenith of Finney’s ministerial career. Between September 10, 1830 and March 6, 1831, Finney preached 98 sermons. During that time, local businesses would close their stores when Finney preached. They posted notices telling potential customers they were closed for Finney’s meeting and urged them to come as well. It was reported that during that time, Rochester’s population increased by two-thirds and crime dropped by two-thirds.
Finney’s Other Callings
Finney’s ministerial resume includes his time as minister in the Chatham Street Chapel in New York City in 1832. He later founded and preached at Broadway Tabernacle, a Congregational Church in the upper west side of Manhattan. In 1835, he was a professor at Oberlin College in Ohio, teaching systematic theology. (Systematic theology is the study of one particular subject in the Bible: his topic was revival.) Finney became Oberlin’s second president in 1851 to 1866.
Finney continued as pastor at Oberlin and a lecturer at the seminary until 1875. His last day on earth was a quiet Sunday. After retiring for the night, he experienced pains in his chest and died the next morning on August 16, 1875. It was two weeks away before his 83rd birthday.
There is so much more to say about Finney and his ministry; for instance, he was called “the Father of Modern Revivalism” because he introduced “new measures” into revivalism. He stirred up controversy as an ordained Presbyterian minister by declaring he didn’t agree with the denomination’s theology. All of this brought about division among the Presbyterians which culminated in a showdown at The New Lebanon Conference where angry ministers confronted Finney! But all of that is the subject of the next post!
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