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Charles G. Finney and a Theology of Revivalism

  • James E. Johnson (a1)


Charles Grandison Finney appeared on the American religious scene in the early 1820's, and following a rather dramatic conversion experience he determined to enter the ministry. With some tutoring from his pastor, the Reverend George W. Gale, but no formal theological training, he began to preach in the “burned-over district” of upper New York State. His early successes in attaining conversions led him to adopt a pragmatic approach to the problems of theology and thus to be quite impatient with the Calvinistic theological system.



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1. Foster, Frank Hugh, A Genetic History of New England Theology (Chicago, 1907), pp 5355.

2. Sweet, William Warren, The Story of Religions in America (New York, 1930), p. 185. The author comments that “It was the combination of these two influences—the presence among the people of a ‘tremendous amount of latent fear’ and the doctrine of human responsibility in conversion—that largely accounts for the great revival which began in central Massachusetts in the fourth decade of the eighteenth century… At the very center of this great religious movement stands Jonathan Edwards…

3. Mead, Sidney Earl, Nathaniel W. Taylor 1786–1858: A Connecticut Liberal (Chicago, 1942), pp. 1718. Hopkins was supposed to have been greatly influenced by the piety exhibited by Mrs. Edwards and a willingness to be “damned for the glory of God” became popularly synonymous with “Hopkinsianism.” The “Hopkinsian Triangle” was a term derived from a series of pamphlets called The Triangle by “Investigator” (the Reverend Samuel Whelpley), later published in book form (The Triangle, [New York, 1832]). The three Calvinistic doctrines of Original Sin, Inability, and the Atonement formed the triangle, which Whelpley, an ardent Hopkinsian, attacked in his pamphlets. Cf. Barnes, Gilbert H. and Dumond, Dwight L. (eds.), Letters of Theodore Dwight Weld, Angelina Griinke Weld and Sarah Grimke 1822–1844 (New York, 1934), I, 10, and Foster, , History of New England Theology, pp. 107155.

4. Mead, Sidney E., “Denominationalism: The Shape of Protestantism in America,” Church History, (12, 1954), p. 308.

5. Mead, Nathaniel William Taylor, p. 99. Mead demonstrates that these men had to become doctrinal fence straddlers, since they often reverted to the old Calvinism for their answers when doctrinal issues of a fundamental nature arose. Yet they were unwilling to be called either Calvinist or Arminian.

6. Baird, Samuel J., A History of the New School, and of the Questions Involved In The Disruption of the Presbyterian Church in 1833 (Philadelphia, 1868), pp. 1112.

7. Foster, , History of New England Theology, p. 547.

8. Beecher, Charles (ed.), Autobiography, Correspondence, Etc., of Lyman Beecher, D.D. (New York, 1865), II, 346350. Cf. Mead, , Nathaniel W. Taylor, p. 225.

9. Oberlin Evangelist, July 20, 1842.

10. Mead, , Nathaniel W. Taylor, p. 220.

11. Information on this episode can be found in: Baird, , History of the New School, pp. 191192; Foster, , History of New England Theology, p. 370; and Ahistrom, Sydney W., “The Scottish Philosophy and American Theology,” Churoh History, (09, 1955), pp. 262264.

12. Reminiscences of Rev. Charles G. Finney. Speeches and Sketches at the Gathering of His Friends and Pupils, in Oberlin, July 18, 1876, Together With President Fairchild's Memorial Sermon, Delivered Before the Graduating Classes, July 30,1876 (Obelin, 1876), p. 49. The Rev. George Clark tells that he was present at New Haven sometime in the early 1830's at an interview between Finney and Taylor, and listened as these two discussed great theological questions. Mead, , Nathaniel W. Taylor, p. 167, says that Finney spent the night at Taylor's home.

13. Walzer, William Charles, “Charles Grandison Finney and the Presbyterian Revivals of Northern and Western New York,” (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1944), p. 187.

14. Sweet, William Warren, Religion on the American Frontier 1783–1850, Vol. II, The Presbyterians (Chicago, 1936), 4647.

15. Baird, , History of the New School, pp. 344345.

16. Smith, Timothy, Revivalism and Social Reform (New York, 1958), p. 26.

17. Wood, James, Old and New Theology (Philadelphia, 1838), p. 7. Cf. Lefferts, Loetseher, A., “The Problem of Christian Unity in Early Nineteenth Century America,” Church History, (03, 1963), pp. 1314.

18. Memoirs of Charles G. Finney (New York, 1876), p. 54.

19. Foster, , History of New England Theology, p. 453.

20. Warfield, B. B., Princeton Theological Review, XIX (01, 1921), 17. See also Wright, George F., Charles Grandison Finney (Boston, 1891), pp. 25, 179, 181, 196, 200. Warfield was an Old School Presbyterian who was bitterly opposed to Finney's theology. His works are referred to occasionally in this paper because his research was impressive and his trenchant criticisms are well-stated, but nevertheless, biased.

21. Foster, , History of New England Theology, p. 457. Taylor's views are most adequately dealt with in Mead, , Nathaniel W. Taylor, passim. Mead has a footnote on pp. 224225 which briefly surveys some of the literature on Taylor and explains his (Mead's) differences with Foster and Haroutunian. Cf. Haroutunian, , Piety versus Moralism. (New York, 1932), pp. 256257. See also Ahlstrom, Sydney E. (ed.), Theology in America New York, 1967), pp. 4145, and “Theology in America: A Historical Survey,” in The Shaping of American Religion, I, Religion in American Life, 4 vols., Smith, James W. and Jamison, A. Leland, eds. (Princeton University Press, 1961), 254260.

22. Swing, A. T., “President Finney and an Oberlin Theology,” Bibliotheca Sacra, LVII (1900), 465.

23. Foster, , History of New England Theology, p. 453. Cf. Warfield, , Perfectionism, II, 19. disapproval of his theology of perfectionism.) (Later on several New School Presbyteries passed resolutions of censure expressing their

24. Mead, , Nathaniel W. Taylor, p. 158. See also McLoughlin, William, Modern Revivalism (New York, 1959), pp. 3078.

25. Foot, Joseph I., “Influence of Pelagianism in the Theological Course of the Rev. C. G. Finney Developed in His Sermons and Lectures,” Literary and Theological Review, V (1838), 50. Cf. Mead, , Nathaniel W. Taylor, p. 114, and Haroutunian, , Piety versus Moralism, pp. 255256.

26. Baird, , History of the New School, p. 217.

27. Walzer, , “Charles Grandison Finney and the Presbyterian Revivals,” p. 179.

28. A concise statement of Old School Calvinism can be found in Haroutunian, , Piety versus Moralism, pp. 143144.

29. Finney, , Memoirs, p. 59.

30. Taylor, Richard Shelley, “The Doctrines of Sin in the Theology of Charles Grandison Finney,” (unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Boston University School of Theology, 1953), p. 253.

31. Cole, Charles C. Jr, The Social Ideas of the Northern Evangelists (Columbia University Press, 1954), p. 63.

32. Mead, Hiram, “Charles Grandison Finney,” Congregational Quarterly, XIX, (01 1877), 2.

33. Finney, , Memoirs, p. 12.Foster, , History of New England Theology, p. 253, suggests that Finney's consciousness of his own freedom to act was one of his arguments in favor of free will, but Wright, , Finney, p. 6, says that Finney may have written in some theology' when he penned his Memoirs that was not there in his early years. He wrote the Memoirs when he was nearly eighty years old.

34. Taylor, , “Doctrine of Sin in the Theology of Finney,” p. 249.Mead, , Nathaniel W. Taylor, p. 65, says that most evangelists had to discard or evade the basic doctrines of Calvinism.

35. Fowler, P. H., Historical Sketch of Presbyterianism Within the Bounds of the Synod of Central New York (Utica, 1877), p. 262.

36. Finney, , Memoirs, p. 60.

37. Ibid., p. 51.

38. Ibid., p. 54.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid., p. 157.

41. Cross, Whitney R., The Burned-Over District (Cornell University Press, 1950), p. 160. Cross says that Finney contributed a set of practices more than a theology and thereby “served to popularize and vitalize the New Haven theology.”

42. The pamphlet literature was voluminous. An example of Unitarian pamphleteering was: Ephraim Perkins, A “Bunker Hill” Contest, A.D. 1826. Between the “Holy Alliance” For the Establishment of Hierarchy, and Ecclesiastical Domination Over the Human Mind, On the One Side; and the Asserters of Free Inquiry, Bible Religion, Christian Freedom and Civil Liberty on the Other. The Rev. Charles Finney, “Home Missionary,” And High Priest of the Expeditions of the Alliance In The Interior of New York; Head Quarters, County of Oneida, (Utica; 1826). The Presbytery of Oneida answered with A Narrative of the Revival of Religion In the County of Oneida, Particularly In the Bounds of the Presbytery of Oneida, In The Year 1826 (Utica: (1826). Perkins then rejoined with Letter to The Presbytery of Oneida County, New New York, and Their Committee, The Rev. John Frost, Rev. Moses Gillet, and Rev. Noah Coe, “Appointed to Receive Communications From Ministers and Others Respecting the Late Revival, In This County,” By “A Plain Farmer” of Trenton, (Utica, 1827). A Universalist pamphlet directed against one of Finney'a allies was: Skinner, Dolphus, A Series of Letters on Important Doctrinal and Practical Subjects, addressed to Rev. Samuel C. Aiken, Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, in Utica, N. Y. to which are annexed a Bible Creed and Six Letters to Rev. D. C. Lansing, D.D., late Pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church, in said city, on the subject of A Course of Lectures Delivered by Him Against Universalism, in the winter of 1830, (Utica, 1833).

43. Letters of the Rev. Dr. Beecher and Rev. Mr. Nettleton, on the “New Measures” in Conducting Revivals of Religion, With A Review of a Sermon by Novanglus (New York, 1828), p. 99.

44. Nettleton's clashes with Finney are covered in: Tyler, Bennet, Memoir of the Life and Character of Rev. Asahel Nettleton, D.D. (Hartford, 1845), pp. 238ff., Finney, , Memoirs, pp. 195ff.,Beecher, , Autobiography, II, 9394; Weisberger, Bernard A., They Gathered at the River (Boston, 1958), pp. 116120; and McLoughlin, , Modern Revivalism, pp. 3339.

45. A Pastoral Letter of the Ministers of the Oneida Association to the Churches Under Their Care on the Subject of Revivals of Religion, (Utica, 1827), passim.

46. Nevin, John W., The Anxious Bench (Mercersburg, 1843), passim. This is a trenchant criticism of new measures. Nevin was answered by Weiser, B., The Mourner's Bench, or An Humble Attempt to Vindicate New Measures (William Chapman, Jr., 1844). A more recent account is in Nichols, James Hastings, Romanticism in American Theology (University of Chicago Press, 1961), pp. 5263.

47. The proceedings were printed in full by the Unitarians in the Christian Examiner and Theological Review IV, (07 and 08, 1827), 357370. Beecher's account of it is found in the Autobiography, II, 89108. See also Finney, , Memoirs, pp. 201225; and the Western Recorder, (08 7, 1827). A good source is Cole, Charles C. Jr, “The New Lebanon Convention,” New York History, XXX (10, 1950), 391394.

48. Beecher increasingly sided with Finney while Nettleton became alienated from almost the entire New School. See Fletcher, Robert S., A History of Oberlin College (Oberlin, 1943), I, 30.

49. Finney, Charles G., Lectures on Revivals of Religion (New York, 1835), Preface.

50. Perry Miller says that “Indeed, Finney's chapter on ‘False Comforts for Sinners’ is so complete an uprooting of the historic American conception of Protestantism, so profound a reading of new meanings into the age of the Revival, that it is in effect a declaration of evangelical independence.” Miller, Perry, The Life of the Mind in America (New York, 1965), pp. 3233.

51. Independent Ministers of South Wales to Finney, July 13, 1940. Finney Papers (Oberlin College Library). See also Congregational Ministers of North Wales to Finney, February 27, 1840, Ibid.

52. John Keep to Smith, Gerrit, 11 13, 1839, Gerrit Smith Papers (Syracuse University Library).

53. The Biblical Repertory and Theological Review, VII (1835), 526527. The writer said: “We tender him our thanks for the substantial service he had done the church by exposing the naked deformities of the New Divinity. He can render her still another, and in rendering it perform only his plain duty, by leaving her communion, and finding one within which he can preach and publish his opinions without making war upon the standards in which he has solemnly professed his faith.” In the next issue of the same journal he said again, “We conclude this article, as we did our former, by pointing out to Mr. Finney his duty to leave our church.” Ibid., pp. 673- 674. (Finney did eventually leave the Presbyterian Church. He resigned from the third Presbytery on March 13, 1836, and then accepted the pastorate of the Sixth Free Church or Broadway Tabernacle under Congregational rather than Presbyterian rules.)

54. Ibid., pp. 482, 663.

55. Literary and Theological Review, II (12 1835), 697. 698. An excellent discussion of the Lectures is in: McLoughlin, , Modern Revivalism. pp. 8391.

56. Foot, , Literary and Theological Review, V (03, 1838), 71.

57. Asa Rand, The New Divinity Tried. The pamphlet by Rand, and another called the “Review of ‘The New Divinity Tried’,” were published in the Spirit of the Pilgrims, V (03 1832). The tone of the “Review” was to defend Finney from charges of heresy insisting that although he explained the doctrines of Christianity differently he was nevertheless orthodox.

58. Warfield, , Princeton Theological Review, X1X (01 1921), 47.

59. Wright, , Finney, p. 181.

60. Foster, , History of New England Theology, p. 453.

61. “Let me inquire again”; said Finney, “what are you doing for the conversion of sinners around you; and what for the conversion of the world? … Suppose there are a thousand million of men upon the earth; and suppose that one hundred million of these were just such Christians as you are, in your present state, and at your present rate of usefulness—when would the church be converted?” Oberlin Evangelist, February 13, 1839. Further, he stressed the fact that the older Christians should seek out the young converts so that they can help them to become stabilized and be in a better position to resist temptation. Ibid., January 29, 1840.

62. Ibid., August 28, 1839.

63. Ibid., February 12, 1845.

64. Foster, , History of New England Theology, pp. 464465.Wright, , Finney, chapter VII illustrates the importance of the Skeletons in understanding the early theology of Finney.

65. Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, XIX (1847), 237. The reviewer said: “This is in more senses than one a remarkable book. It is to a degree very unusual in original work; it is the product of the author's own mind. The principles which he holds, have indeed been held by others; and the conclusions at which he arrives had been reached before; but still it is abundantly evident that all the principles here advancd are adopted by the writer, not on authority, but on conviction, and that the conclusions presented have all been wrought out by himself and for himself. The work is therefore in a high degree logical. It is as hard to read as Euclid. Nothing can be omitted; nothing passed over slightly.”

66. Ibid., p. 239.

67. Finney, C. G., The Reviewer Reviewed: or Finney's Theology and the Princeton Review (Oberlin, 1847), p. 59.

68. Finney, Charles G., Sermons on Important Subjects (New York, 1836), p. 80.

69. Wright, , Finney, pp. 197198.

70. Finney, Lectures on Systematic Theology, II, Preface.

71. Warfield, Benjamin B., Perfectionism, (Philadelphia, 1958), p. 193. A defense of Finney can be found in Wright, George F., “Dr. Hodge's Misrepresentation of President Finney's System of Theology,” Bibliotheca Sacra, XVI (04, 1876), 381392.

72. Wright, , Finney, pp. 208209. One of Finney's students and admirers said that he “failed to ground law in the holiness of God and made it too much a matter of Expedience. It was the old error of Grotius. Government was a means to the good of being, rather than an expression of God's nature.” See Strong, Augustus H., Christ in Creation and Ethical Monism (Philadelphia, 1899), p. 383.

73. Finney, , Memoirs, p. 46.

74. Wright, , Finney, pp. 232233. Finney's statement on ministers seeking immediate decisions is in his Lectures on Systematic Theology, II, 520.

75. Swing, , Bibliotheca Sacra, LVII (1900), 466467.

76. Finney, Charles G., Sermons on Gospel Themes (Oberlin, 1876), pp. 335336.

77. Ibid, p. 97.

78. Finney, Charles G., Lectures to Professing Christians Delivered in the City of New York in the Years 1836 and 1837 (New York, 1837), pp. 294295. Stressing urgency, Finney said: “Some wait to become dead to the world. Some to get a broken heart. Some to get their doubts cleared up, before they come to Christ. THIS IS A GRAND MISTAKE. It is expecting to do that first before faith, which is only the result of faith.”

79. Quoted in Miller, Perry, The Life of the Mind in America, p. 33.

80. Warfield, , Princeton Theological Review, XIX (07, 1921), 482 said: “When Finney strenuously argues that God can accept as righteous no one who is not intrinsically righteous, it cannot be denied that he teaches a work-salvation, and has put man's own righteousness in the place occupied in the Reformation doctrine of justification by the righteousness of Christ.”

81. Finney, , Sermons on Important Subjects, pp. 2122.

82. Mead, Sidney E., “Denominationalism: The Shape of Protestantism in America,” Church History (12, 1954), p. 308. Mead is referring to criticism voiced by John W. Nevin in The Anxious Bench.

83. Finney, , Memoirs, pp. 183184.

84. Finney, , Sermons on Important Subjects, p. 20.

85. Brand, James and Ellis, John, Memorial Addresses on The Occasion of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of President Charles G. Finney (Oberlin 1893). p. 21.

86. Finney, , Sermons on Gospel Themes, p. 193. “All men …,” said Finney “naturally have freedom of will.… This freedom is in the will itself, and consists in its power of free choice. To do or not to do, and this is a moral sovereign over its own activities. In this fact lies the foundation for moral agency.”

87. Finney, , Memoirs, pp. 5051. There is a smug tone to the Memoirs at this point, since Finney abandoned the Westminster Confession in his argument with the Universalist. One can legitimately wonder, however, whether he could have formulated such a sophisticated argument at this point in his ministerial career even with the legal background which would have helped in some ways.

88. McLoughlin, , Modern Revivalism, p. 25.

89. Wright, , Finney, p. 22. Finney came in contact with Jonathan Edwards' Works on revivals at the home of S. C. Aiken in Utica,, New York. Wright says, “Of these he ‘often spoke with rapture,’ according to Dr. Aiken.…” Wright suggests that Finney toned down some of his harsh expressions after this experience. A letter by Aiken telling of Finney's reading of the works of Edwards while at his home is in the Beecher, , Autobiography, II, 91.

90. Taylor, , “Doctrine of Sin in the Theology of Finney,” p. 185.

91. Finney, , Sermons on Gospel Themes, pp. 5, 122, 206.

92. Walzer, , “Charles Grandison Finney and the Presbyterian Revivals,” p. 196.

93. Finney, , Sermons on Important Subjects, p. 139. Two visitors from England traveling in New York State in 1830 observed that many were teaching total depravity as a “voluntary rebellion against God.” Reed, Andrew and Matheson, James, A Narrative of the Visit to the American Churches, By the Deputation From the Congregational Union of England and Wales (New York, 1835), II, 26.

94. Finney, , Sermons on Important Subjects, p. 139.

95. Ibid., pp. 229–253.

96. Ibid, Sermon X “Doctrine of Election,” passim.

97. Ibid., Sermon I “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts,” passim.

98. Cross, , Burned-over District, p. 159.

99. Miller, , The Life of the Mind in America, p. 27.

100. Mead, Sidney E., “Denominationalism: The Shape of Protestantism in America,” Church History (12, 1954), pp. 308309.

101. Miller, , The Life of the Mind in America, pp. 2829. See also Cross, , Burned-over District, p. 199; Tyler, , Freedom's Ferment, pp. 23, 45; and McLoughlin, , Modern Revivalism, p. 131.

102. Johnson, James E., “Charles G. Finney and Oberlin Perfectionism,” Journal of Presbyterian History, (03, 1968), pp. 4257, and Ibid., (June, 1968), pp. 128–138.

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