Life of Charles G. Finney

By Aaron Hills

Chapter 1


Some nineteen hundred years ago, as the greatest Book tells us, "there was a man sent from God, whose name was John." He had a priestly line of ancestors, reaching back fifteen hundred years. His immediate parents, Zacharias and Elizabeth, were remarkably devout; for the record says, "They were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless;" and, furthermore, they were both "filled with the Holy Ghost." An angel was sent to foretell the birth of their child, and to give to him the name of John. The angel also declared that the child too "should be filled with the Holy Ghost from birth," and should "be great in the sight of the Lord." It is a wonderful story, and yet is natural, after all, and quite the thing to be expected. Such parents ought to have had a remarkable child; for blood and ancestry will tell.

But here is a more wonderful story still, illustrating in a more striking way God's ample resources to produce great men. About eighteen hundred years later, August 29, 1792, in Warren, Litchfield County, Connecticut, there was another man sent from God. No angel foretold his birth, nor named him; for he was called "Charles Grandison" Finney, after a character in a novel written by Richardson, with which his parents were better acquainted than with their Bible. But this man, also, was destined to be "filled with the Holy Ghost," and to become "the great preacher of righteousness."

To be sure, one of his ancestors, seven generations back, came over in the Mayflower, which makes an illustrious pedigree in Massachusetts; but, to speak as men usually speak, he had no priestly or famous ancestry, none lifted above the common level of humanity. Moreover, his immediate parents, so far from being "righteous" and "blameless" and "filled with the Holy Ghost," were utterly godless. When Finney was twenty-nine years old, he had never heard a word of prayer in his father's house! Evidently no Christian lullabies nor psalms of David ever greeted his childish ears, or soothed to infant slumbers; for he tells us he had never owned a Bible till he bought one to hunt up the passages referred to in his law books. Strange origin this for "the prince of evangelists!" One of God's great surprises -- like Martin Luther, the famous Reformer, coming from a peasant-miner's home; and Abraham Lincoln, the greatest President of the world's greatest Republic, coming from a pioneer's log-cabin! Evidently when God wants a really great man, He knows how to produce him and where to find him.

Nor, viewed from a religious standpoint, were his surroundings any more propitious than his home. When Charles was but two years old, his parents moved into the wilderness of Central New York in Oneida County. "There," he says, "I seldom heard a sermon, unless from some traveling minister, or some miserable holding forth of an ignorant preacher. I remember well how the people would return from meeting, and spend a considerable time in irrepressible laughter at the strange mistakes made and the absurdities which had been advanced."

When Charles reached the age of sixteen, a meeting-house was erected in his neighborhood; but his parents, as if afraid of a sanctuary and Christian civilization, took their family, and made another plunge into the wilderness, going to the extreme eastern end of Lake Ontario, and far to the north, approaching the line of Canada. Here again his life was unblessed by religious privileges.

But the New England emigrants, true to their native instincts, planted their common schools even in the wilderness; and these the boy Charles attended until he was himself able to teach a country school. When he was twenty years old, he returned to Connecticut. He then went to New Jersey, to teach in a German community, returning twice to his native State to continue his studies under a graduate of Yale. He thus taught and studied for six years as best he could, until his teacher informed him that in two years more of private study he could complete the course of study then pursued at Yale.

His teacher invited the earnest young student to go with him to some Southern State and open an academy. He was inclined to accept the proposal; but his parents, hearing of it, immediately came after him and persuaded him to go home with them to Jefferson County, New York. This was in 1818, when Finney was twenty-six. After making his parents a visit, he concluded to enter, as a student, the law office of Mr. Wright, in the town of Adams, of that county.

He afterward wrote: "Up to this time I had never enjoyed what might be called religious privileges. I had never lived in a praying community, except during the periods when I was attending the high school in New England; and the religion in that place was of a type not at all calculated to arrest my attention. The preaching was by an aged clergyman, an excellent man, and greatly beloved and venerated by his people; but he read his sermons, written probably many years before, in a manner that left no impression on my mind. His reading was altogether unimpassioned and monotonous; and, although the people attended very closely and reverentially to his reading, it seemed to be always a matter of curiosity what he was aiming at, especially if there was anything more in his sermon than a dry discussion of doctrine. Any one can judge whether such preaching was calculated to instruct or interest a young man who neither knew nor cared anything about religion.

"When I was in New Jersey, the preaching in the neighborhood was chiefly in German. I do not think I heard half a dozen sermons in English during my whole stay in New Jersey, which was about three years. Thus, when I went to Adams to study law, I was almost as ignorant of religion as a heathen. I had been brought up mostly in the woods. I had very little regard for the Sabbath, and had no definite knowledge of religious truth. At Adams, for the first time, I sat statedly for a length of time under an educated ministry... I had never, until this time, lived where I could attend a stated prayer-meeting. As one was held by the Church near our office every week, I used to attend and listen to the prayers as often as I could be excused from business at that hour."

He found the old authors in his law books frequently quoting from the Scriptures. This excited his curiosity so much that he purchased a Bible, the first that he had ever owned, and hunted up every passage referred to. This led to careful reading and much meditation upon the Sacred Word. Here follow two facts that are profoundly important to all Churches and Christians, and especially to all who would ever be successful soul-winners. His pastor's name was Rev.

George W. Gale, a graduate of Princeton College and Theological Seminary. His theology was hyper-Calvinistic -- the genuine Calvinism taught at that time in Princeton, and, we might add, so much of the time since. He believed that man's nature was so totally sinful that he was utterly incapable of any good; the will was incapable of a right choice: the soul was utterly passive in regeneration; "there was no adaptation in the gospel to change his nature, and consequently no connection in religion between means and ends."

"This Brother Gale sternly held; and consequently, in his preaching, he never seemed to expect, nor did he even aim at converting anybody by any sermon that I ever heard him preach. And yet he was an able preacher, as preaching was then estimated. The fact is, these dogmas were a perfect strait-jacket to him. If he preached repentance, he must be sure, before he sat down, to leave the impression on his people that they could not repent. If he called them to believe, he must be sure to inform them that, until their nature was changed by the Holy Spirit, faith was impossible to them. And so his orthodoxy was a perfect snare to himself and to his hearers." (Memoirs of C. G. Finney, pp. 59, 60.)

The pastor was in the habit of dropping into the young lawyer's office to see what impression his sermons had made on the lawyer's mind. Finney was at this time leader of his choir, and of course their relations were familiar. With the keen, subtle, intellectual acumen which characterized him and a frankness bordering on impolite bluntness, and probably with a touch of cynical irreverence, the lawyer satisfied the minister's curiosity completely; for fifty years afterward he wrote: "I now think that I criticized his sermons unmercifully... Indeed, I found it impossible to attach any meaning to the terms which he used with great formality and frequency. What did he mean by repentance? Was it a mere feeling of sorrow for sin? Was it altogether a passive state of mind, or did it involve a voluntary element? If it was a change of mind, in what sense was it a change of mind? What did he mean by the term 'regeneration?' What did such language mean when applied to a spiritual change? What did he mean by faith? Was it merely an intellectual state? Was it merely a conviction or persuasion that the things stated in the gospel were true? What did he mean by sanctification? Did it involve any physical change in the subject, or any physical influence on the part of God? I could not tell; neither did he seem to know himself. I sometimes told him that he seemed to begin in the middle of his discourse, and to assume many things which, to my mind, needed to be proved. I must say, I was rather perplexed than edified by his preaching. (Memoirs, pp. 7, 8.)

As one reads such words, one can not help wondering how many ministers now are as vague and misty as was Rev. Gale, and how many multitudes are still sitting in the pews and wondering what the ministers are talking about. Neither can one help reflecting that, with such a theology prevailing, it is little wonder that infidelity was widespread at the beginning of the century, and revivals were few, with seldom a conversion, and that only one in fourteen of the population of this country was even a professor of religion! Everybody was told that they were absolutely helpless, and could do nothing to secure their own repentance or conversion; and they generally believed it. With one accord they were idly waiting, in imaginary helplessness, for a sovereign God to enable them to repent and believe; and thus whole generations were sweeping into hell. What appalling results can flow from a false theology!

The other striking fact was this: Finney read a great deal in his Bible about prayer and answers to prayer and prayer promises; and yet he continually heard people pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and as often confess that they did not receive what they asked for. He heard them exhort each other to wake up and be engaged and pray earnestly for a revival of religion, professing that, if they were in earnest, they would have a revival, and the impenitent would be converted; but they would as continually bemoan their coldness and complain that they were making no progress. He says: "This inconsistency, the fact that they prayed so much and were not answered, was a sad stumbling-block to me." "On one occasion, when I was in one of the prayer-meetings, I was asked if I did not desire that they should pray for me. I told them, 'No,' because I did not see that God answered their prayers. I said: 'I suppose that I need to be prayed for -- for I am conscious that I am a sinner -- but I do not see that it will do any good for you to pray for me; for you are continually asking, but do not receive. You have been praying for a revival of religion ever since I have been in Adams [three years], and yet you have it not. You have prayed enough since I have attended these meetings to have prayed the devil out of Adams, if there is any virtue in your prayers. But here you are, praying on and complaining still.'" (Memoirs, p. 10.)

Some young people proposed to pray for Finney, among them the noble young woman who afterward became his wife. But the hopeless pastor remarked that it would do no good; he did not believe that Finney would ever be converted, since he had already sinned against so much light that his heart was hopelessly hardened! And what was the more, the choir was so much under Finney's influence that it was doubtful if they would ever be converted while their leader remained in Adams. Fortunately for the kingdom of God, someone had more faith than the pastor, and laid hold of God for Finney's conversion. To use his own words, he became "very restless." A little reflection showed him that he was by no means in a state of mind to go to heaven, if he should die. He began to feel that there was something in religion of infinite importance, and that, if the soul was immortal, he needed a great change to be prepared for happiness in heaven. The great soul was approaching his Bethel: he was standing face to face with God, and confronting the decisive question whether he would accept Christ as presented in the gospel, or pursue a worldly course of life. Prayers were being answered at last; for God had his hook in Finney's jaw, and was pulling with the mighty cord of Infinite Love.