Charles Finney: Father of American Revivalism

From an article in Christianity Today, a few reasons why the Calvinists and Reformists have such a hard time with Charles Finney and his approach to evanglism in the US.

Charles Finney
Father of American revivalism

“I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause, and cannot plead yours.”

The 29-year-old lawyer Charles Grandison Finney had decided he must settle the question of his soul’s salvation. So on October 10, 1821, he headed out into the woods near his Adams, New York, home to find God. “I will give my heart to God, or I never will come down from there,” he said. After several hours, he returned to his office, where he experienced such forceful emotion that he questioned those who could not testify to a similar encounter.

“The Holy Spirit … seemed to go through me, body and soul,” he later wrote. “I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed it seemed to come in waves of liquid love, for I could not express it in any other way.”

The next morning, Finney returned to his law office to meet with a client whose case he was about to argue. “I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause,” he told the man, “and cannot plead yours.

And so began the new career of the man who would become the leading revivalist in the nineteenth century.

Inside the burned-over district

Born in Connecticut, Finney was raised in Oneida County, New York. After a couple years teaching in New Jersey, he returned to New York to help his mother, who had become seriously ill. Meanwhile, he began studying law and became an apprentice to a judge in Adams.

After his conversion, Finney prepared for ministry in the Presbyterian church and was ordained in 1824. Hired by the Female Missionary Society of the Western District, he began his missionary labors in the frontier communities of upper New York. A rigid Calvinism dominated the theological landscape, but Finney urged his listeners to accept Christ openly and publicly. His style differed too; his messages were more like a lawyer’s argument than a pastor’s sermon.

At Evans Mills, he was troubled that the congregations continuously said they were “pleased” with his sermons. He set about to make his message less pleasing and more productive. At the end of his sermon, which stressed the need for conversion, he took a bold step: “You who have made up your minds to become Christians, and will give your pledge to make your peace with God immediately, should rise up.”

The entire congregation, having never heard such a challenge, remained in their seats.

“You have taken your stand,” he said. “You have rejected Christ and his gospel.” The congregation was dismissed, and many left angry.

The next evening, Finney preached on wickedness, his voice like “a fire … a hammer … [and] a sword.” But he offered no chance to respond. The next night, the entire town turned out, including a man so angry with Finney that he brought a gun and intending to kill the evangelist. But that night, Finney again offered congregants a chance to publicly declare their faith. The church erupted—dozens stood up to give their pledge, while others fell down, groaned, and bellowed. The evangelist continued to speak for several nights, visiting the new converts at their homes and on the streets.

He rode from town to town over what was known as the “burned-over district,” a reference to the fact that the area had experienced so much religious enthusiasm that it was thought to have burned out. Newspapers, revivalists, and clergy took notice of the increasingly rowdy meetings—meetings unlike those of reserved Calvinists.

Identifying Finney’s revivals with those a few decades earlier in places like Cane Ridge, Kentucky, many were ecstatic about prospects for “awakening” in the northeast. But others were opposed to the “plain and pointed preacher.” The Old School Presbyterians resented Finney’s modifications to Calvinist theology. Traditional Calvinists taught that a person would only come to believe the gospel if God had elected them to salvation. Finney stated that unbelief was a “will not,” instead of a “cannot,” and could be remedied if a person willed to become a Christian.

Such rigid Calvinism, he said, “had not been born again, was insufficient, and an abomination to God.”

The revivalistic Congregationalists, led by Lyman Beecher, feared that Finney was opening the door to fanaticism by allowing too much expression of human emotion. Unitarians opposed Finney for using scare tactics to gain converts. Across the board, many thought that his habitual use of the words you and hell “let down the dignity of the pulpit.”

“New Measures”

During this time, Finney developed what came to be known as “New Measures.” He allowed women to pray in mixed public meetings. He adopted the Methodists’ “anxious bench”: he put a pew at the front of the church, where those who felt a special urgency about their salvation could sit. He prayed in colloquial, common, and “vulgar” language. Most of these New Measures were actually many decades old, but Finney popularized them and was attacked for doing so.

In July 1827, the New Lebanon Convention was held to examine these practices, as well as some false reports of excesses. Vote after vote ended in stalemate. When a last attempt was made at a resolution condemning questionable revivalistic practices, Finney countered by proposing a condemnation to “lukewarmness in religion.” Neither proposal passed.

The zenith of Finney’s evangelistic career was reached at Rochester, New York, where he preached 98 sermons between September 10, 1830, and March 6, 1831. Shopkeepers closed their businesses, posting notices urging people to attend Finney’s meetings. Reportedly, the population of the town increased by two-thirds during the revival, but crime dropped by two-thirds over the same period.

From Rochester, he began an almost continuous revival in New York City as minister of the Second Free Presbyterian Church. He soon became disenchanted with Presbyterianism, however (due largely to his growing belief that people could, with God, perfect themselves). In 1834, he moved into the huge Broadway Tabernacle his followers had built for him.

He stayed there for only a year, leaving to pastor Oberlin Congregation Church and teach theology at Oberlin College. In 1851, he was appointed president, which gave him a new forum to advocate social reforms he championed, especially abolition of slavery.

Finney produced a variety of books and articles. His Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1835), a manual on how to lead revivals, inspired thousands of preachers to more consciously manage (critics said “manipulate”) their revival meetings. His Lectures on Systematic Theology (1846) teach his special brand of “arminianized Calvinism.”

Finney is called the “father of modern revivalism” by some historians, and he paved the way for later mass-evangelists like Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham.

40 thoughts on “Charles Finney: Father of American Revivalism

  1. Goodness, that was quick, margot. The fasted cut’n’paste in SP02 history!

    Horton of course is, like Spurgeon, a Calvinist, so the most disturbing thing for Reformists and Calvinists is that Finney denied much of their stiff-necked doctrine and got on with getting out to people and preaching the gospel out in the community with incredible results.

    So when Horton uses the term ‘disturbing’ he doesn’t mean disturbing for those who follow Biblical Christian doctrine, but for those who follow hyper-calvinism.

    Another cut’n’paste:

    Princeton Theological Seminary Professor Albert Baldwin Dod reviewed Finney’s 1835 book Lectures on Revivals of Religion and rejected it as theologically unsound from a Calvinistic perspective, not necessarily from a Christian perspective. Dod was a defender of Old School Calvinist orthodoxy and was especially critical of Finney’s view of the doctrine of total depravity.

  2. Here you have a classic example of ‘two-tier’ Christianity in action.

    The article in the post declares a man’s work as a revivalist. The Calvinists protest because the way he works affects their doctrine and is contrary to it, therefore he, not they, must be wrong, and therefore they must find doctrinal ways to discredit his work, even though his preaching is undoubtedly affecting many souls into the Kingdom of God.

    They create an us and them approach to doctrine, and a two-tier system because they declare themselves to be right in all aspects, despite the evidence of change in the candidates for salvation at Finney’s meetings.

    It is, I admit, a dilemma for the Calvinists, but I think they have gone about their work with entirely the wrong motives.

    Finney did not set out to prove the Westminster Confession wrong, but to prove God right.

    There is a difference, even if that isn’t always clear to Calvinists.

  3. Of course it was quick, almost as quick as you putting up the post. I love Michael Horton, he’s an outstanding theologian. If you like I could post some Sam Storms (well known Pentecostal) – at least he gives due honour to men like Dr Horton etc

  4. Of course, what the article doesn’t mention was the fact that Finney spend hours and days in prayer before meetings, and would not start a meeting unless he knew the Presence of the Holy Spirit to convict sinners. He also had a team-member who went ahead of him into a community to pray for days before Finney arrived.

    It reminds me of some of the Bonnke evangelistic rallies which were precede and accompanied by a huge amount of prayer and intercession, led by Suzette Hattinge for years, which always opened the ay for the Holy Spirit to move during the preaching.

    This would also conflict with the reformist doctrine of the elect of course for some reformists, because it means that believers have a part to play in bringing change and the candidates for change can have their will reversed by the power of the preaching of the Word of Christ, which, along with the goodness of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the power of the gospel of Christ, brings about repentance.

    I’d prefer not to have to wade through reams of reformist dogma to reach your point. Please indicate what it is that is relevant to what is being said here, or I will have to bypass your information.

  5. Naturally, I quite like Finney … but then I am not a calvinist.

    However, both arminianists and calvinists would like to ignore those texts that argue the counter-point.

    Ultimately, I tend to agree with the total-depravity of man with respect to man’s position before God. However, the Father did not send the Son to die for a subset of humanity. He has made it possible for everyone to come to faith.

    We have to co-operate with Him as the Holy Spirit brings conviction. But I believe that God has given human beings the dignity and respect to allow them to say “no”.


  6. Bull,
    both arminianists and calvinists would like to ignore those texts that argue the counter-point.

    True. I think sticking to the texts is the best way. I love heaps of what calvinism teaches, including Spurgeon, and Jonathan Edwards famous message is an awesome read, everyone should wade through. But I am closer to Wesley in doctrine.

    I love the way Wesley and Whitfield got on despite their differences. What upsets me most is when one side attempts to eliminate the thoughts of the other.

    The only truth is that contained in the Word and defined by the Spirit.

  7. Interesting debates going on around the place over this ‘Elephant Room’ deal. From a distance quite hilarious. Some people really take their contribution seriously, don’t they?

    I haven’t really got into the nitty gritty of the argument, but it has something to do with people having to understand the doctrine of the Trinity before they are bona fide believers.

    I wish I understood the doctrine of the Godhead so that I could adequately articulate to potential converts. Does that mean I’m not actually saved?

  8. Steve, thanks for putting this article up. It’s a long time since I read about Finney, and this was an interesting and easy to read summary.

    Every preacher is a product of their times, and Finney did some good things, as well as some questionable things, and what those things were, we might all list differently.

    Re the Arminian/Calvinist debate – in real life, I’ve only ever known one or two people who have called themselves either (both were Calvinists); most Christians I’ve known have never thought about whether they are one or the other, though many have found discussions about pre-destination and fore-knowledge etc interesting debates. Most Christians wouldn’t feel defensive about reading articles supporting either view, as they don’t necessarily realise how heated the debate is, or else, they’ve realised and prefer not to participate.

    I really don’t believe anyone has to understand the doctrine of the Trinity before becoming a believer. Accepting Christ into our hearts is far simpler. Discussions about the Trinity come later for most people, and most people will believe whatever it is that they are first taught, because they believe the authority of those who’ve come to faith before they did. When everything is new, you don’t know what to be critical of.

    So issues re the Trinity probably come later down the track for most people. Unless they are taught that they must understand it for salvation. Which sounds a bit cult-like.

  9. Well, exactly, RP. Salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ of Nazareth, not knowing the Trinity. The bible doesn’t even mention the Trinity, although it points to the doctrine. It uses the term Godhead.

    Jesus is the fulness of he Godhead in bodily form.

    If we know the Son we know the Father, and receive the Spirit.

    How many good people have been cut off from the Body by zealous theologians for having a slight difference of grasp of this complex arrangement called the Trinity, which is beyond our comprehension or ability to articulate.

  10. Rev 1:6 To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, 6 and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. NKJV

    I read this passage this morning and for the first time it struck me how John refers to God as the God and Father of Jesus. There seemed a real ascending order to it. Now, I’m not trying to support modalistic interpretations, but just say that the co-equal Trinity, as traditionally accepted, can be seen through an alternative lens. In the end, Jesus is the perfect image of the Father and no-one can come to the Father except through Christ. That, to me, is sufficient for now.

  11. Interestingly it was written in response to the revivalism and triumphalism in the 1800s.

    The hymn “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” was written by John Greenleaf Whittier, composed by Frederick C. Maker, Tune “Rest;” Bible reference is Isaiah 30: 15.

    J.G. Whittier, the writer of this thoughtful sacred song “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” has often been called “America’s beloved Quaker poet,” and regarded as one of the most distinguished poets of the United States.

    Whittier wrote this hymn in 1872, to express his Quaker conviction that the way to God was through simplicity and sincerity. It was part of his larger 17-stanza poem entitled “The Brewing of Soma.” Soma is the name of an intoxicating drink used in the religious rites of a Hindu sect in India.

    He described the intoxicating effects of this drink upon those who drank it, as they imagined themselves to be in the presence of the gods, producing a “frenzy, a sacred madness, an estatic storm of drunken joy.” Then he likened the religious experiences of many people in the present day churches whose practices were just as false and harmful like the Soma rites.

    1st Stanza

    “Dear Lord and Father of mankind,

    Forgive our foolish ways!

    Reclothe us in our rightful mind;

    In purer lives Thy service find,

    In deeper reverence, praise.

    4th Stanza

    Drop thy still dews of quietness,

    Till all our strivings cease;

    Take from our souls the strain and stress,

    And let our ordered lives confess

    The beauty of Thy peace.”

  12. “The evangelist continued to speak for several nights, visiting the new converts at their homes and on the streets.”

    Those were the days..

  13. I was watching the “Wretched” show the other night and Todd Friel presented a bulleted list of all that was unbilbical concerning Charles Finney and how he truly was the father of modern-evangelism.

    It began with the unbilbical altar call and a show of numbers —-“decisions for Christ”—–very disturbing but eye-opening. He said to steer clear of anyone who promotes him.
    I think the main reason is that any doctrine that exalts man’s freewill over God’s sovereign “freewill” is very unbiblical. Rom. 9 explains why.

  14. @godlee4life

    Romans 9 is talking about Israel, not us. You might just want to do a little bit more study there godlee. You will find that your position is the one that’s unbiblical, and not Finney’s.

  15. @godlee

    You are stating that mankind having a freewill is somehow exalting man over God, which is preposterous. Freewill is God-given, therefore we are not exalting ourselves when we exercise that gift. To call freewill unbiblical is simply incorrect, and an erroneous interpretation of a few scriptures, that when studied properly will blow away the ridiculous predestination doctrine that permeates many denominations in the church.

  16. I never said we didn’t have freewill. We definitely do. We have freewill to reject God—- but only “freegrace” can enable us to choose God.
    The exalting man over God part comes in when one believes they don’t need God’s grace —–only their freewill, which is definitely unbiblical. And Rom. 9:16 applies to us—- for it is God who works in us to will and to do of His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13).
    Why?—-because He’s God, we’re not.

  17. @ Roundhouse – would you line yourself up with Finney on these points?

    “Does Finney deserve the term “evangelical” if it is defined in its classical sense as a believer in sola fide (justification by faith alone?

    Finney denies “forensic” (legal) justification, a key teaching of the reformers in their dispute with Roman Catholicism. Finney denied both the imputation of Adam’s sin to the human race and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer.

    Finney wrote:……

    “The doctrine of a literal imputation of Adam’s sin to all his posterity, of the literal imputation of all the sins of the elect to Christ, and of His suffering for them the exact amount due to the transgressors, of the literal imputation of Christ’s righteousness or obedience to the elect, and the consequent perpetual justification of all that are converted from the first exercise of faith, whatever their subsequent life may be I say I regard these dogmas as fabulous, and better befitting a romance than a system of theology.”

    The Roman Catholic Council of Trent in its condemnation of the Reformation, called forensic justification “legal fiction.” Finney evidently agreed.

    Another one of Charles Finney’s famous deviations from Christian orthodoxy concerned the substitutionary atonement.

    He rejected the definitions of the Westminster Confession on the topic of the substitutionary atonement, though as an ordained Presbyterian minister he was supposed to believe it.

    Finney reasoned that Christ could not have satisfied “exact justice” in that the penalty for sin was eternal damnation, and Jesus did not suffer eternal damnation. Therefore, he could not have satisfied the demands of the law in this regard. Finney, holding to a moral government theory, reasoned that Christ’s death satisfied “public justice” by showing God’s hatred toward sin and providing for the “well-being of the universe.”

    We see an insightful and accurate description of Finney’s unorthodox view of the atonement.

    R.C. Sproul answers Finney’s charge that Christ’s sufferings were insufficient to satisfy the legal demands of “retributive justice” as follows:

    “The satisfaction view of the atonement does not see the law, in and of itself, as being satisfied, but rather the Father whose law it is that is satisfied. It is God who is both Just and Justifier. His justice is propitiated by Christ, and his demands are satisfied.”

    Finney, trained as a lawyer, used legal theory as he understood it to produce his own version of Christian theology. No important Christian doctrine seemed immune from his tampering.”

  18. @godlee

    “I never said we didn’t have freewill. We definitely do. We have freewill to reject God—- but only “freegrace” can enable us to choose God.
    The exalting man over God part comes in when one believes they don’t need God’s grace —–only their freewill, which is definitely unbiblical. ”

    Ok, I think I see what you are saying – people who live under the law through their own freewill instead of by God’s grace are living an unbiblical life. Is that a correct reading of what you were saying?

  19. I suppose so, for isn’t it true that we can’t fulfill the law unless God enables us? Because the law failed. Jesus came to fulfill the law, imputing His righteousness to His sheep and their sins were imputed to Him on the cross…..paying our fine in His life’s blood.
    That is substitutionary atonement. He was our substitute, taking our punishment upon Himself, but His people reaping the benefits.

    The question is, could we have ever had any part in this work of God on Calvary? Of course not. The same way we cannot save ourselves by anything we do Eph 2:8.
    It’s all of grace from start to finish. Jesus being the “author and finisher of our faith” Heb. 10. Amen?!

  20. @godlee

    Yep, I think you and I are on the same page.


    I’m having trouble getting my head around the stuff on that link you posted. I’ve always thought that freewill is simply exercising our own choice in deciding whether to follow Jesus or reject him. Now it appears there are different types of freewill. It’s all so confusing! Why does religion like to label things, and make them infinitely more complicated than they need to be?

  21. @ Roundhouse – it’s challenging isn’t it? Especially if you (that “you” being me) have espoused one view for 22 years! It takes time and study and a willingness to be wrong? 🙂

    We can only look to the Bible, and let scripture interpret scripture.

    This is a pretty good explanation…….

    “If “free will” means that God gives humans the opportunity to make choices that genuinely affect their destiny, then yes, human beings do have a free will. The world’s current sinful state is directly linked to choices made by Adam and Eve. God created mankind in His own image, and that included the ability to choose.

    However, free will does not mean that mankind can do anything he pleases. Our choices are limited to what is in keeping with our nature. For example, a man may choose to walk across a bridge or not to walk across it; what he may not choose is to fly over the bridge—his nature prevents him from flying. In a similar way, a man cannot choose to make himself righteous—his (sin) nature prevents him from canceling his guilt (Romans 3:23). So, free will is limited by nature.

    This limitation does not mitigate our accountability. The Bible is clear that we not only have the ability to choose, we also have the responsibility to choose wisely. In the Old Testament, God chose a nation (Israel), but individuals within that nation still bore an obligation to choose obedience to God. And individuals outside of Israel were able to choose to believe and follow God as well (e.g., Ruth and Rahab).

    In the New Testament, sinners are commanded over and over to “repent” and “believe” (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; Acts 3:19; 1 John 3:23). Every call to repent is a call to choose. The command to believe assumes that the hearer can choose to obey the command.

    Jesus identified the problem of some unbelievers when He told them, “You refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:40). Clearly, they could have come if they wanted to; their problem was they chose not to. “A man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7), and those who are outside of salvation are “without excuse” (Romans 1:20-21).

    But how can man, limited by a sin nature, ever choose what is good? It is only through the grace and power of God that free will truly becomes “free” in the sense of being able to choose salvation (John 15:16). It is the Holy Spirit who works in and through a person’s will to regenerate that person (John 1:12-13) and give him/her a new nature “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). Salvation is God’s work. At the same time, our motives, desires, and actions are voluntary, and we are rightly held responsible for them.”

  22. freewill vs. the sovereignty of God——something we may never completely comprehend this side of heaven— yet God uses these two truths like a pair of vice grips to our conscience. Though they seem paradoxical, they are in perfect harmony. Fascinating!

  23. True, our will always acts in harmony with our fallen nature and since this is due to sin, we are held responsible for it.
    That’s the glory of God’s “freegrace” to such fallen creatures that don’t deserve forgiveness, but in His love and “freewill” to choose whom to have mercy upon—-there are those who make it to heaven. Realizing this, humbles us and makes us more grateful than ever and in awe that we are counted worthy to be in that number! For God could have chosen not to save any!

  24. Hey all. I’ve only just started studying Charles Finney. My study started when I was wondering why there seemed to be a divide between churches that preached ‘Full Gospel’ messages. (By this I mean they talk about: mans sin, Christ’s atoning work on the cross, salvation and justification by faith in christ, etc.) And churches that preach more ‘life style’ messages. (7 Steps to financial freedom, 5 S’s of success, etc.) In my search for the answer, I came across Finney.
    I don’t care if you label your self a Calvinist, or Armenian. Charles Finny was neither. Although armenians can more easily overlook his heresy, no true armenian, or christian for that matter, could believe what he believed.

    Here are three beliefs of his that really shocked me.
    1. He didn’t believe that men were sinful by default. (Which is something BOTH calvinists and armenians believe)
    2. He didn’t believe in salvation by faith alone. (He was a big believer in work’s based salvation)
    3. He didn’t believe that Christ died for our sins. (He believed that Jesus lived as an example, and that if we follow his example we’ll be saved.)
    If he did anything right it was that he shamed the ‘reformed’ believers for not being proactive enough…. but in my opinion that’s about all the good he did.

    His legacy is legalistic, moralistic, pragmatic, and emotionally persuasive, evangelism. The guy didn’t preach the Gospel, he preached works.

    I’d encourage anyone who looks to Finney as a role model, to rethink their approach to evangelism.

  25. Wow Nnd; are you saying I’m not saved because I don’t believe we have a sin nature? I’m glad my salvation is not resting on your judgement! 🙂 Physical death (and judgment on the Earth) is what Adam’s sin brought us see Romans-not all sinned after the similtude of Adam, yet all died-this was physical death. A careful word study on “nature” in the New Testament should clarify that for you. “Sinful nature” is not even a biblical term. There is no indication of anyone having a “dead spirit” in the Scripture, and there are only two uses of “regeneration”, one which is clearly of us getting our glorified bodies. To impute sin to God (since He created us) is an abomination. Teaching that we are born into sin is what keeps many from rejecting Christ all together. A tragedy!! What a great argument for lost people. God is a tyrant. He made me this way and wants me to feel sorry about it. If being born brunette was a sin, should I feel repent and feel worry for being born with black hair?

    To know your Bible is the only way to know error; not through websites or commentaries; even Augustine who believed we were sinful because God created us from nothing and not “begot” us? Strange stuff. You could read all of Augustine’s, Calvin’s, Luther’s, Finney’s works, etc. (if you had the time) and would find error with each one, just some are ingrained in the church more convincingly (or unquestionably) than others.

    Your only choice is to be a Bible believer. Believe what it says, even when in your limitations (and mine) it may seem to contradict itself (it doesn’t). If you label yourself a Bible believer instead of a Calvinist, or Arminian or whatever, you put the explanation of the truth squarely back in God’s hands, which is where it always has been. “They word is truth.” (and reliance on the Holy Spirit as your only discerner.)

  26. I don’t like labels either, especially not those of man. But even the Bible contains “labels” so to speak. For instance, there’s “the lost” and the “saved,…….” the “saints” and the “aints,” etc. etc.

    However, what you seem to be mainly refuting is the thought of being so corrupt that we need a Savior. That my friend is dangerous ground!!

    Have you never read Eph. 2:3 for instance, that we are “by nature children of wrath” ??

    As for the “dead spirit”—-have you never read Eph.2:1,5 4:18 ,Col.2:13, etc. What do you think is “quickened” and “regenerated” by the Holy Spirit? Our flesh?

  27. Hi Amy2.
    Let me clarify the intent of my post. I come from a charismatic pentecostal church background. In many churches like mine, people see Charles Finney as a hero, which I think is astounding. Considering that (from my point of view) not many bible believing Christians would agree with his pelagianistic views.

    I’m not saying that you’re not saved. You don’t need to believe in total depravity to be saved.

    Also I only used the labels Calvinist and Arminian, because in the context of the discussion they seemed relevant. Jesus wasn’t Calvinist or Armenian, neither am
    I… But I do respect John Calvin as a theologian.

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