Charles Finney's on Revivals of Religion: Summary

This post offers a biographical sketch of Second Great Awakening revivalist Charles Finney and summary of his most important book.

Charles Grandison Finney was born in Connecticut on Aug. 29, 1792 and died Aug. 16, 1875 in Ohio.  After a brief stint teaching, Finney studied and practiced law.  In 1821 he underwent a religious conversion and dropped his law practice to become an evangelist and was licensed by the Presbyterians. Finney was most active as a revivalist between 1825-35 and was known for his innovations including having women pray in public meetings of mixed gender, development of the "anxious seat" (a place where those considering becoming Christians could come to receive prayer), extemporaneous preaching and public censure of individuals by name in sermons and prayers. His revivals achieved spectacular success in large cities, and in 1832 he began an almost continuous revival in New York City as minister of the Second Free Presbyterian Church. His disaffection with Presbyterian theology and discipline, however,
led his supporters to build for him the Broadway Tabernacle in 1834. The following year he became a professor of theology in a newly formed theological school in Oberlin, Ohio, dividing his time between that post and the tabernacle. He left New York in 1837 to become minister of Oberlin’s First Congregational Church, closely related to Oberlin College, where he was president from 1851 to 1866.  (Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia)

Lectures on Revivals of Religion is a compilation of twenty two lectures given by Finney beginning in 1834.  The excerpt below highlights two key of Finney’s key ideas, which recur throughout his Lectures.  The first is that humans are responsible for and capable to respond to God.  In this view he departed from the “total depravity” anthropology of Old School Presbyterianism.  Thus, he blames lack of willful attention for lack of religious enthusiasm noting that “No being can look at the great truths of religion, as truths, and not feel deeply concerning them.”  The second key idea in the passage below has to do with God’s way of working with humanity.  Again expressing his understanding of the nature of the human, Finney believes that God “makes use of the feelings of Christians”.

From “What a Revival of Religion Is”
Religion is the work of man. It is something for man to do. It consists in obeying God with and from the heart. It is man's duty. It is true, God induces him to do it. He influences him by his Spirit, because of his great wickedness and reluctance to obey. If it were not necessary for God to influence men--if men were disposed to obey God, there would be no occasion to pray, "O Lord, revive thy work." The ground of necessity for such a prayer is, that men are wholly indisposed to obey; and unless God interpose the influence of his Spirit, not a man on earth will ever obey the commands of God.
A "Revival of Religion" presupposes a declension [deterioration]. Almost all the religion in the world has been produced by revivals. God has found it necessary to take advantage of the excitability there is in mankind, to produce powerful excitements among them, before he can lead them to obey. Men are so spiritually sluggish, there are so many things to lead their minds off from religion, and to oppose the influence of the Gospel, that it is necessary to raise an excitement among them, till the tide rises so high as to sweep away the opposing obstacles. They must be so excited that they will break over these counteracting influences, before they will obey God. Not that excited feeling is religion, for it is not; but it is excited desire, appetite and feeling that prevents religion. The will is, in a sense, enslaved by the carnal and worldly desires. Hence it is necessary to awaken men to a sense of guilt and danger, and thus produce an excitement of counter feeling and desire which will break the power of carnal and worldly desire and leave the will free to obey God.
In this first lecture, Finney asserts that a revival is not a miracle, but rather “result of the right use of the appropriate means” with the blessing of God. A revival is the “arousing, quickening, and reclaiming of the more or less backslidden church and the more or less general awakening of all classes” which includes conviction, repentance, and reformation.  The three agents involved in conversion are God, the preacher and the sinner. “Mistaken notions concerning the sovereignty of God have greatly hindered revivals.”.  Finney closes the lecture by calling for any who learn from him regarding revivals to put in to practice what is their duty regarding them. 

On Prayer
In “How a Revival is to Be Promoted” Finney asserts that people must first prepare their hearts and minds to receive God’s word by considering their sin.  Finney calls for use of “prevailing prayer” which “effectually moves God” and is characterized by strong desire, faith and perseverance.  Finney also calls for prayer meetings for the purposes of strengthening Christian unity, developing compassion, moving God and causing conviction. 

On Evangelism Strategy

In “Means to be Used with Sinners,” Finney calls for individual Christians to testify to the truth of the Bible as witnesses who have experienced its truth.  These “experimental Christians” need no external evidence or arguments of its truth for they know it as intrinsically.  They are to testify to this truth on “every proper occasion by their lips, but mainly by their lives” for “Actions speak louder than words.”

Sinners are to be brought to conversion by individual Christians using wise strategy.  This includes choosing a good time to make “a serious impression,” such as when they are free from distractions, bored, sober, in a good mood, alone, or struck by Providence, and when the evangelist is feeling love toward them.  Furthermore, Finney instructs the one-on-one personal evangelist to be kind, solemn, respectful, clear, patient, self-aware and to speak to the conscience of “great and fundamental truths.”  Finney warns against siding with the sinner entrenched against God or validating complaints against Christians, but instead advises calling attention to particular sins, being brief, and seeking to pray with them. 

The wise preacher or would-be revival leader must “understand how to wake up the professing Christians, and thus prevent them from hindering the conversion of sinners.” 

Finney asserts that the minister should understand the philosophy of the human mind” so that “Truth, when brought to bear upon the mind, is in itself calculated to produce corresponding feelings. The minister must know what feelings he wishes to produce, and how to bring to bear
such truth as is calculated to produce those feelings.”  Otherwise, sinners might be awakened but “the ground is lost for want of wisdom in following up the blow.” This unwise preacher
may convert here and there a scattered soul; but he will not move the mass of
the congregation unless he knows how to follow up his impressions ­ so to
execute a general plan of operations as to carry on the work when it is begun. Hemust not only be able to blow the trumpet so loud as to start the sinner up from his lethargy, but when he is awakened, he must lead him by the shortest way to Jesus Christ…
Finney defends his “innovations” of form, including protracted meetings, anxious meetings and the anxious seat by suggesting continuity with the heart of previous church practices and asserting that  “Without new measures it is impossible that the Church should succeed in gaining the attention of the world to religion.” 


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