Born AUGUST 29, 1792Charles Grandison Finney played a pivotal role among American revivalists. His contributions served as a bridge between the ministry of Jonathan Edwards in the 1700s and the revival campaigns of D. L. Moody in the late 1800s. Born three years after George Washington’s first inauguration, Charles grew to adulthood during the Second Great Awakening, which his preaching then influenced.
The Connecticut native who grew up in New York recalled in his autobiography that his parents nor his neighbors were very religious. When as a young man Charles began studying law, he noticed something in his books: they frequently quoted the Old Testament. He bought himself a Bible.
He found work in Adams, New York. God continued dealing with him. On a fall morning in 1821, Charles didn’t go directly to his law office. Instead, he walked into the woods where he often took a stroll. He found a place to pray between some fallen trees. After a time of internal struggle, he was impressed with the words of Jeremiah 29:13: “And you will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.”Charles poured his heart out to God with no concept of time. When he returned to his office, he found that the morning had passed. That evening after work, the Holy Spirit flowed over him in waves. His description of the experience is, “Indeed it seemed to come over in waves and waves of liquid love, for I could not express it in any other way.” Charles awoke the next morning free of the burden of guilt he’d carried for so long.
His conversion immediately influenced people around him. Some whom he talked to about their spiritual condition sought places to pray, making their hearts right with God.
It didn’t take long for Charles to switch professions. As much as he liked being a lawyer, he believed after his experience in the woods that he must start representing God instead. Charles was ordained in July of 1824. That same year, he married Lydia Root Andrews.His first ministry position was reaching out to settlers in upstate New York. He preached a New School Presbyterian message inherited from Jonathan Edwards, which refuted limited atonement. After preaching a sermon, Charles called for a response on the spot. Service after service, listeners came forward, sometimes with great emotion, to seek God’s forgiveness and surrender to His grace.
Not everyone agreed with his practices. His “new measures,” as they were termed, included preaching at times without notes, calling people to repentance at the “anxious bench,” and allowing women to pray in public.
FROM NEW LEBANON TO NEW HEIGHTSOther evangelists were adopting Charles’ methods. Dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterian and Congregational leaders expressed disgust at the things they heard about his services. Lyman Beecher, one of the most well-known preachers of that day, led the call for a convention to settle questions he and others had. The meeting place: New Lebanon, New York.
Before the convention ended, a letter of complaints was read, which spoke of certain practices which had allegedly taken place during Charles’ meetings. They didn’t address his actual practices that broke with tradition. The charges included in the letter proved to be false.
In the end, the New Lebanon Convention enlarged the ministry of Charles Finney. It established his name as a revivalist to not just a regional, but a national audience. He expanded his venues to include Philadelphia, New York City, Rochester, and Boston.
The results of the services in Rochester were astounding. Charles’ former critic, Lyman Beecher, later reflected, “That was the greatest work of God, and the greatest revival of religion, that the world has ever seen, in so short a time. One hundred thousand were reported as having connected themselves with churches, as the results of that great revival.”
When Oberlin College opened its doors in 1835, Charles agreed to teach as a professor of theology. He was later asked to serve as college president, which he did from 1851-1866.His lectures during that time were published in book form. In 1835, Lectures On Revivals of Religion was released, followed in 1837 by Lectures to Professing Christians. His volumes of Lectures on Systematic Theology came out in 1846 and 1847.
Some of Charles’ quotes from his books include the following:
“A revival is nothing else than a new beginning of obedience to God.”
“Being in Christ implies that we commit ourselves to him, to be pardoned by his
blood, quickened by his grace, controlled by his will.”
“A state of mind that sees God in everything is evidence of growth in grace and a thankful heart.”
“They who neglect their duty to God never really fulfill any duty to man.”
Believing that Christianity should improve not only the individual, but society, Charles spoke strongly against slavery and in favor of the temperance movement.He made preaching trips to Europe. Charles saw lives dramatically changed in England and Scotland . There were also always those who questioned his theological partings from Calvinism. However, he was welcomed by Congregationalists, Methodists, and Baptists. Some of Charles’ methods were more closely linked to those used by the latter two groups.
In his latter years he admitted to a fresh baptism in the Holy Spirit and continued to preach sanctification and to welcome emotional responses in his meetings. Charles’ ministry became a bridge to the growing holiness movement and to Pentecostalism.
After retiring as president of Oberlin College Charles continued to teach, and pastored until 1872. On Monday morning, August 16, 1875, two weeks short of his 83rd birthday, Charles quietly passed away in his home in Oberlin.
LET ME KNOW: How has Charles’ story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.
- Askew, Thomas A. and Peter W. Spellman. The Churches and the American Experience. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1984.
- Finney, Charles G., The Autobiography of Charles G. Finney (1876), http://www.gospeltruth.net/1868Memoirs/memoirsindex.htm.
- Larsen, Timothy, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
- Woodbridge, John D., ed. Great Leaders of the Christian Church. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1988.
- Here are books by and about Charles Finney at CBD: http://www.christianbook.com/Christian/Books/search?author=Charles%20Finney&detailed_search=1&action=Search.
- Here are books by and about Charles Finney at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_sabc?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&pageMinusResults=1&suo=1377615353150#/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_17?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=charles%20g.%20finney&sprefix=Charles+G.+Finney%2Cstripbooks%2C275&rh=i%3Astripbooks%2Ck%3Acharles%20g.%20finney.
Similar to his lifetime, Charles Finney has critics on YouTube. Here are a couple of the shorter videos that favorably examine the man and his ministry.
- “Charles G. Finney- Servant of God” YouTube video, 5:50. Posted by cgvtv oin April 21, 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxJNk5xrrbc.
- “How to Preach Without Converting Anybody, Charles Finney” YouTube video, 8:43. Posted by parisreidhead on Dec 19, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uetmVN_oLn4.
There are longer videos featuring readings of his sermons and books.