Like a mighty river running through the colonies, the Spirit of the Lord brought forth great change to the Church in America through the First Great Awakening. Like a Master Potter, the Lord began the process of molding and shaping the Church into a beautiful vessel fit for His use. The most important change He brought to America was the message of the new birth: “You must be born again to enter the kingdom of God.” Through men like Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and many other lesser known ministers, the message of salvation was spread throughout the colonies. While the Lord brought forward the message of salvation, He also began to prune from the Church undesirable doctrine and harmful traditions that actually stifled the spread of Christianity. However, all the changes the Lord brought forth in the First Great Awakening were only the beginning. The Master Potter wasn’t done molding His Church into a holy vessel. In this post, we’ll talk about how the Lord would continue His work in reshaping the Church through America’s Second Great Awakening. We’ll see how He continued to further tear down harmful traditions and counterproductive culture in order to bring forth change that would shape the Church into a vessel He could use to pour out His glory in the earth! READMORE
America’s Second Great Awakening
By Karen Thompson
Third in a Five-Part Series
In the Second Great Awakening, the Lord inspired the Camp Meeting revivalists to use new innovations to conduct their meetings. The critics at that time referred to these new innovations as “new measures.” These new measures were unheard of in the traditional “old light” churches. There were many changes, but I’ll list the ones that brought the most criticism. First, the Camp Meetings were protracted, in that they would go on for several weeks. And they didn’t just meet once a day. In fact, their meetings went from morning until evening, nonstop. Often, multiple preachers would operate as a sort of “tag team.” Second, music became a significant part of the meetings. They didn’t just simply have someone get up and sing a song. For lack of a better word, their times of singing could be described as “singathons.” Singers would lead the crowds in singing songs inspired by the Holy Ghost where they would sing them over and over and over. The spirited singing was usually interactive with clapping and “hand shaking” (throwing their hands over their heads and shaking them). Thirdly, the revivalists would invite seekers to come forward to designated areas where they could pray with ministers to lead them into salvation. They called it the “anxious seat.” Fourth, the revivalists began using advertising to spread the word about the Camp Meetings using printed fliers and newspaper advertisements. Lastly, the revivalists didn’t preach “over the heads” of the people using theological phrases no one understood. They preached using common language so all would understand their message.
Charles Finney: Father of Modern Revivalism
The Camp Meetings took place a few decades before Finney’s time of ministry. It’s the Camp Meetings that initiated these new measures, but it was Finney who perfected them and made them mainstream. Using these new measures, Finney forever changed the way revivalist meetings were conducted. For that reason, Finney is referred to as the “Father of Modern Revivalism.” It is said about Finney that he was the prototype for the evangelists that came after him, evangelists like Dwight L. Moody 1837–1899, John Wilbur Chapman 1859–1918, Billy Sunday 1862–1935, and Billy Graham 1918–2018. Going forward, the new measures made popular by Finney were adopted by evangelists after him.
Because Finney was the pioneer in modern evangelism by perfecting these new measures, he took a lot of heat from the established old-school churches. The main reason he got so much heat for the way he conducted his meetings was because he was a Presbyterian minister from New York. For the most part, Presbyterians were staunch Calvinists and old school. In fact, his mentor Rev. George W. Gale, an ordained Presbyterian minister who received his religious training at Princeton, was a strict old-school Calvinist. The truth is, if Finney had been a Methodist minister, he would not have received the criticism he did. (Presbyterian churches were split; most were Calvinists but some like those involved in the Camp Meetings were Arminians.)
Let’s look at the new measures started by Finney. We’ll start first with one of the most controversial new measures—the altar call invitation. Older people are familiar with how Billy Graham ended each of his evangelistic crusade meetings, where he would invite people to accept Jesus as their Savior by telling them to stand up and come forward to the altar. Here’s an edited and trimmed-down version of a typical invitational call at one of Billy Graham’s crusades.
Billy Graham: “Without Jesus Christ, there’s an emptiness in your life. You know how to be saved? how to go to heaven? Christ has already done the work on the cross. Willing to forgive you and to make you a new person. But what do you have to do? You have to, by faith, receive it. You have to be willing to repent of your sins and receive Him as Savior. I’m asking you to let Him come into your heart and forgive you of your past sins. To receive Him as Lord and Savior. And I’m going to ask 100s of you to get up out of your seats right now and come and stand in front of this platform. And you say by coming ‘I want forgiveness. I want to know I’m going to heaven. I want Christ in my heart.’ I’m going to ask you to come right now, quickly. Hundreds of you. Young man. Young woman. Father and mother. If you start from that top balcony it’ll take you two or three minutes to come, so start now. We’re going to wait. You just get up and come.”
Then Billy would take a prayerful pose while someone would sing a song: ♪ Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidst me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come. ♪
The typical altar call that we are all familiar with today had its origin in Charles Finney. Very early on in his ministry, Finney initiated the practice of asking for a public response from the congregation on whether they would make a commitment to Christ or not. The inspiration came to him when he was preaching in a town called Evan’s Mills. After he preached, the congregants would line up to tell him how much they enjoyed his message. This didn’t bring him any satisfaction. In fact, it bothered him greatly because he was there to secure their salvation, not entertain them. He began to press them on the issue of making a decision for Christ. When that didn’t get the results he wanted, Finney decided to be direct with them about his intentions. He told them outright that he wanted to know where they stood on the matter of salvation. He asked them if they were interested in Christ’s salvation or were they just wasting his time.
Then he became bold. He asked them to do something no one had ever asked them to do before, something that was never done in church. He asked those who wanted to make their peace with God to stand to their feet. This is a common invitation among evangelistic churches today, but at that time, no one had heard of it.
And they didn’t like it.
At first, they were confused, like “is this guy actually asking us to stand up in church?” Finney said they all looked at each other. Then they looked at him. But no one stood up.
Finney said they looked angry. They rose en masse and headed straight to the door. The whole next day, the congregants were in wrath. Some talked about driving him out of town. Finney agreed to preach one more night. To make a long story short, the Lord was with Finney. In the next meeting, the Spirit of the Lord fell upon the congregants and they came under heavy conviction. Finney led many of them to the Lord.
Years later, Finney revised his public invitation to stand if anyone wanted to accept Christ into what was referred to as the “anxious seat.” At every service, he would have empty seats in the front. When he finished preaching, he ended his message with an invitation to stand and come forward to the anxious seats. He said the reason he employed the anxious seat was because he felt he needed something that would commit them publicly to the service of Christ. Before he simply asked them to stand, but now he was asking them to come forward in front of the whole congregation to these specific seats. He said, “I had felt for some time that something more was necessary to bring them out from among the mass of the ungodly to a public renunciation of their sinful ways and a public committal of themselves to God.”
This is the origin of the modern-day invitation call asking those who wanted to surrender their lives to Christ to “stand to their feet and come to the altar.”
Now let’s look at another one of their complaints: Finney’s preaching style. Finney wasn’t raised in the church so his exposure to religious meetings was limited. In his biography, he described one of the few times he heard a sermon preached when he was young. The old tradition of reading sermons had not yet died out and was still in use by Calvinist preachers. Finney said he listened to an older gentleman, dearly loved by the community, preach a sermon. The preaching, Finney said, was not anything that captivated his attention. He said the old minister was old school, which meant he read his sermon. He spoke in a monotonous voice and had a humdrum way of reading. He had his message written down on pages the size of his Bible. His fingers were inserted in his Bible to the verses he would read. Each time he read one of the verses, it would free up that finger. After all his fingers were freed, he was done with his message. This manner of preaching confined him to stand in one place and prevented him from walking around or gesturing with his hands. After the message, Finney said the people spoke well of his message but wondered what he was talking about. They were always curious as to “what he was aiming at.” It was the kind of preaching that failed to ignite an interest in spiritual matters.
Though extemporaneous preaching had become mainstream, the tradition of reading sermons was still in practice. Those who still read their messages were unwilling to abandon this tradition. Instead, they criticized those who did not follow in their fashion. College-educated Presbyterian ministers complained that Finney’s preaching style brought down the dignity of the pulpit and that it was a disgrace to the ministerial profession. They said his manner of speaking was too informal, too common, some even used the word “vulgar.” They complained that he made his messages too personal by saying “you,” addressing the congregants directly. And they didn’t like it that he talked so much about hell.
The Princeton educated Calvinistic Presbyterian ministers were taught to write out their sermons and make them “literary essays.” They illustrated their sermons using references to ancient history. Finney, however, illustrated his sermons using references from everyday experiences from the ordinary man. He spoke using the common language of the people. Finney said preaching should be conversational, using anecdotes that are interesting. They complained about Finney saying, “He tells stories.” But Finney reminded them that’s how Jesus preached… using parables.
Finney compared the Presbyterians with the Methodists, saying the Presbyterians have failed to gather the large assemblies or won so many souls like the Methodists. He said the reason is because they refuse to conform to the new times. They continue to produce a “stiff, dry, prosing style of preaching” from a half a century ago. When confronted about his style of preaching, Finney said he didn’t dare preach like they did for fear he would have the same results.
The revivalists preached extemporaneously. The literal definition of extemporaneous means “without preparation or impromptu.” In the most literal sense, the revivalists did not preach without preparation. They memorized their messages beforehand and used notes while preaching. However, Finney truly did preach extemporaneously. He almost never knew what he was going to preach about until he stood up to give his message. He was so filled up with the Word that he was able to preach literally without preparation.
Like the Camp Meetings before, Finney also conducted weeks-long meetings. Finney said the reason for protracted meetings was to make a more powerful impression upon the minds of the people. But he realized that prolonged meetings can only go on for so long. People need to get back to their daily lives and all the responsibilities that, that entails. Protracted meetings became a matter of course.
Like the Camp Meetings, Finney also employed the use of music and singing during his revival meetings. Finney used modern music in his meetings. To help him modernize the music in his meetings, Finney had a music assistant by the name of Thomas Hastings. Hastings was anointed in worship music; he produced several songbooks and also taught and wrote music. Hastings composed the melody for the well-known hymn, “Rock of Ages.” Today, “Rock of Ages” is an old fashioned song, but in Finney’s time, it was modern!
One of the complaints leveled against Finney is that women would pray in the public meetings. The culture and tradition of that time was that women could not pray in a mixed gender meeting. Traditionally, it was only proper for them to pray in a women’s only meeting. Finney said he actually didn’t initiate this practice. As the Spirit of God was moving, it just naturally happened and no one at the churches were opposed to it—not the pastors or the congregants. The opposition came from people who had never attended the meetings. They heard reports that women were praying when men were present. They didn’t care whether it was prompted by the Holy Spirit. Their only concern was that according to tradition and their culture, it was improper.
When he became a pastor, Finney perfected a method of advertising his meetings that ensured maximum attendance. When Finney had decided to hold extra meetings, members of his church would go door to door all over the city to hand out printed invitations. It would always result in a packed house. Also, Finney was influenced by the local politicians and their methods of communication. Like the politicians, Finney believed ministers should utilize modern innovations to call attention to their special meetings by producing handbills and pamphlets and by advertising in the local newspapers. This sort of thing violated the custom of that time. The established churches didn’t like seeing God’s meetings being advertised in the same way as a theater would advertise its plays. In their opinion, it was debase. Like it or not, advertising for special meetings became a part of modern evangelism and is here to stay.
The New Lebanon Conference
While Finney was laser focused on his work of making converts, there arose great opposition to his ministry. He learned from various sources that there was an “extensive union of ministers and churches” working to “hedge me in and prevent the spread of the revivals in connection with my labors.” When he heard about the planned sabotage of his ministry, Finney didn’t talk to anyone. He took the matter to God in prayer. The Lord drew near to him, and in fact, showed him in a vision what he would be up against. The presence of God came upon him so much so that he shook from head to toe. He said he was in awe and humbled before God. The Lord assured Finney that He would be with him and uphold him and that no “opposition would prevail against.” After such a mighty time with God in prayer, Finney said a perfect peace come upon him. He no longer had fear about the matter or anger toward those trying to bring him down. He had complete assurance that all would come out all right.
The plot to end Finney’s ministry resulted in the New Lebanon Conference held in July 1827. The meeting convened specifically to resolve disputes in the Presbyterian churches concerned the “new measures” being instituted and popularized by Charles G. Finney. The new measures being discussed were, 1) the practice of calling out people by their names from the pulpit for their sins, 2) the anxious seat, 3) repeated singing of the same hymns over and over for the purpose of creating an emotional effect on the people, and 4) urging outward motions of the body to accompany inner conviction.
The ministers who organized the meeting were Nathan Beman and Lyman Beecher. Nothing was settled in the meeting, and it did not achieve its intended purpose. Heman Humphrey, William R. Weeks, and others represented the traditional side of ministry and opposed the new measures. Finney and his supporters were there to defend the new measures.
In the end, nothing was resolved because they did not have sufficient evidence against Finney. Nothing could be decided upon because the critics were uncertain about the actual origin of some of these new measures and couldn’t be sure who was primarily responsible for them. The meeting failed to bring unity among the Presbyterians, and it failed in its intent to get rid of Finney.
In his autobiography, Finney said the opposition against him began to subside, so much so that after the tremendous revival in Rochester, he didn’t feel any resistance against him at all. In fact, Finney said that the revivals had become so successful and extensive that people were afraid to oppose them. The agreed upon consensus was that the revivals were the true work of God.
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