Life of Charles G. Finney

By Aaron Hills

Chapter 7


The devil hates true religion and all Scriptural revivals with a perfect hatred, He is never at a loss to find means and agencies. to oppose them. One of his most subtle and Satanic methods is to arouse prominent and eminent leaders in the Church to oppose their brethren who are successful in winning souls. Paul's worst-enemies were his own brethren, the Jews, and members of the Sanhedrin. The dignitaries of the Roman Catholic Church thirsted for the blood of Luther. Men prominent in the Church, to their abiding disgrace, rolled up a mighty opposition against John Wesley. The holiness preachers are opposed in the same way today by dead Churches and barren preachers. Finney did not escape.

It is with great sorrow that we must record things that dim the fame of two or more names honorable in the history of the American Churches. When Finney went, to Auburn he was not fully aware of the amount of opposition he was destined to meet from the ministry; not the ministry in the region where he labored, but from those where he had not labored, and who knew personally nothing of him, but were influenced by the false reports which they heard. But in that center of learning he found, from various sources, that a system of espionage was being carried on that was destined to result, and intended to result, in an extensive union of ministers and Churches to hedge in and prevent the spread of revivals in connection with his labors.

Asahel Nettleton, the evangelist, and Dr. Lyman Beecher, of Boston, were the leaders in this unseemly opposition. Nettleton boasted that Finney should go no farther east than Central New York. Finney said nothing to anybody publicly or privately, but gave himself incessantly to prayer. "I looked to God with great earnestness day after day to be directed, asking Him to show me the path of duty, and give me grace to ride out the storm. I shall never forget what a scene I passed through one day in my room at Dr. Lansing's, of Auburn, The Lord showed me, as in a vision, what was before me. He drew so near to me while I engaged in prayer that my flesh literally trembled on my bones. I shook from head to foot under a full Sense of the presence of God. At first, and for some time, it seemed more like being on the top of Sinai, amidst its full thunderings, than in the presence of the cross of Christ. Never in my life was I so awed and humbled before God as then. Nevertheless, instead of feeling like fleeing, I seemed drawn nearer and nearer to God, to that Presence that filled me with such unutterable awe and trembling. After a Season of great humiliation before Him, there came a great lifting up. God assured me that He would be with me and uphold me; that no opposition should prevail against me; that I had nothing to do in regard to all this matter but to keep about my work, and wait for the salvation of God, The sense of God's presence, and all that passed between my soul and God at that time, I can never describe. It led me to be perfectly trustful, perfectly calm, and to have nothing but the most kindly feelings toward all the brethren that were misled, and were arraying themselves against me. I felt assured that all would come out right; that my true course was to leave everything to God, and to keep about my work; and as the storm gathered and the opposition increased, I never for one moment doubted how it would result. I was never disturbed by it; I never spent a waking hour in thinking about it, when, to all outward appearances, it seemed as if all the Churches of the land, except where I had labored, would unite to shut me out of their pulpits. This was the avowed determination, as I understood, of the men that led in the opposition, They were so deceived that they thought there was no effectual way but to unite, and, as they expressed it 'put him down.' But God assured me that they could not put me down.

"The Lord did not allow me to lay the opposition to heart, and I can truly say, so far as I can recollect, I never had an unkind feeling toward Mr. Nettleton or Dr. Beecher or any leading opposer of the work during the whole of their opposition."

It seems .that Rev. William R. Weeks, an extreme Calvinist of a community where Finney labored, opposed him on theological grounds. He "held that both sin and holiness were produced in the mind by a direct act of Almighty Power; that God made men sinners or holy at His sovereign discretion, but in both cases by a direct act of Almighty Power, an act as irresistible as that of creation itself; that, in fact, God was the only proper agent in the universe, and that all creatures acted, only as they were moved and compelled to act, by His irresistible power; that every sin in the universe, both of men and of devils, was the result of a direct, irresistible act on the part of God."

Such an insane theology is certainly a blasphemous libel on God. Of course, a man holding such doctrines, and the philosophy and methods that would naturally follow, would be led to oppose Finney. He, and others like him, wrote letters abroad, misrepresenting the work and poisoning the minds of prominent leaders in Massachusetts and Connecticut, A great cry and excitement was raised against "New Measures." He wrote a pamphlet, and so also did a Unitarian. Evil reports spread far and near, until, at last, in the summer of 1827, a Convention was called to meet at New Lebanon to inquire into the nature and evils of the late revivals in Central New York. Finney was, there, and the pastors with whom he had labored.

The clergymen present from the East were Dr. Lyman Beecher, then the leading revival pastor of Boston and Massachusetts; Dr. Herman Humphrey, president of Amherst College; Dr. Justin Edwards, of Andover, Mass.; Caleb J. Tenney, of Wethersfield; and Dr. Joel Hawes, of Hartford, Conn. Upon Dr. Beecher and Asahel Nettleton was thrown the responsibility of endeavoring to check the evils that were supposed to be fostered by Finney's work.

Two lives of Finney and the "Memoir of Nettleton" are before me. I may be wrong, but I can not help feeling that Nettleton was moved by jealousy of the rising fame and unparalleled success of Finney to a greater extent than he himself realized. He was nine years older than Finney, at this time forty-four years-old. He had been, up to Finney's advent, the -most successful evangelist the East, or, for that matter, the country had produced. Dr. Beecher wrote of him in 1827: "Mr. Nettleton has served God and his generation with more self-denial, and constancy, and wisdom, and success than any man living. . . Considering the extent of his influence, I regard him as beyond comparison the greatest benefactor which God has given to this Nation, and, through his influence in promoting pure and powerful revivals of religion, as destined to be one of the greatest benefactors of the world."

He had certainly made a good name for himself in Zion. But at the age of forty-two to forty-four he began to be agitated and excited over exaggerated and hostile and untruthful reports of the revivals under Finney. He fell utterly into Satan's trap, and went so far in bitter opposition to Finney that God seemed to set him aside. His biography shows only four hundred conversions in the next ten years. He never recovered himself.

Dr. Beecher sent Nettleton to Albany in the autumn of 1826, to hold a meeting and make a stand against the revivals under Finney, and keep them from spreading. They might as well have tried to sweep back the ocean tides with a broom; for God was with him. Finney had the profoundest esteem and confidence in Nettleton, a real reverence for him as an honored servant of God. He had such a longing desire to see him and learn by sitting at his feet, that he often dreamed of visiting him.

Finney went to Albany and had an interview with him, and talked briefly on theology. When Finney told him that he intended to remain in Albany and hear him preach in the evening, he manifested great uneasiness, and remarked that he "must not be seen with him." So Finney went and sat in the gallery with a judge, and saw enough to satisfy him that he could expect no advice or instruction from Nettleton. "It was plain that Nettleton was unwilling to be in his company, and was holding him at arm's length, and would not say anything to him with regard to revivals."

The author of "Memoir of Nettleton," on page 238, represents him as having two interviews with Finney, and expostulating with him about his "calamitous measures," and trying to reform him, so that they could co-operate together. This is manifestly incorrect in every particular. Nettleton saw Finney but once, did not mention revival work, and was so far from wanting to co-operate with him that he would not be seen in his company. It is a sad comment on the life of a good man, and shows how guarded and careful even the leaders in Israel need to be.

Thomas W. Seward, in an address upon the history of the city of Utica, said of the revival under Finney: "The scene in the church was solemn beyond description. No accessories to heighten the interest or deepen the impression were ever employed. Beyond some unaffected yet striking peculiarities of voice and manner in the speaker, there was nothing to attract curiosity or to offend the most fastidious or carping sense of propriety, It is an inadequate tribute of praise to say of his preaching that, whether it was distinguished most for intellectual subtlety, strong denunciation of sin, or fearful portrayal of the wrath to come, it had its reward in uncounted accessions to the Christian ranks and renewed vigor of religious life, As a pulpit orator his place among the foremost of his time was long ago assured." (C. G. Finney, by Wright, page 60.)

Rev. Mr. Cross says of Finney's preaching in his community: "His style was dignified, his manner urbane, his spirit childlike; the transforming effect of the revival was marked, and so deeply was the place penetrated by religious feeling that it was impossible for six years to organize a dancing party, and it was unprofitable to have a circus." (C. G. Finney, by Wright, page 61.)

Dr. Charles P. Bush, in his "Reminiscences of Finney," says "that the whole character of the city of Rochester was changed by the preaching of Finney, and the elevated moral tone was felt for forty years.

Yet such a beloved and efficient servant of God had practically to be put on trial by his brethren for "calamitous measures." Thus his Master was tried before him.

From the various accounts of this Convention before me, it is manifest that Beecher and Nettleton came to the Convention committed against the revivals, and felt that their reputation was at stake, and that they must be justified in their opposition to Finney by the Convention, When the question was raised about the sources of their information, Dr. Beecher replied: "We have not come here to be catechized, and our spiritual dignity forbids us to answer any such questions." When the question came up as to the truth of the wild reports about the revivals, Dr. Beecher and Mr. Nettleton took the position that "the testimony of Finney and all the ministers who had labored with him was not to be received, because they were the objects of the censure, and it would be testifying in their own case; they were not admissible as witnesses, and the facts should not be received from them." Dr. Humphrey very firmly remarked that they were the very actors in the case, and knew what they had done, and their statements were to be received by the Convention without hesitation. To this all agreed but Beecher and Nettleton.

The Convention sat for several days, and as the facts came out in regard to the revivals, Mr. Nettleton became so agitated and nervous that he was unable to attend several of the sessions. "He plainly saw that he was losing ground, and that nothing could he ascertained that -could justify the course that he was taking. Dr. Beecher also felt it keenly. All the brethren declared that the evil reports circulated about the revivals were untrue, so far as Finney was concerned." But their report was not believed by Dr. Beecher. In a letter to Dr. Taylor, of New Haven, he wrote that the spirit of lying was so predominant in those revivals that the brethren engaged in them could not, be at all believed. (Memoirs of Finney, p. 191.)

In Beecher's biography (Vol. II, p. 101) he is represented as saying to Finney at the Convention: "Finney, I know your plan, and you know I do; you mean to come to Connecticut, and carry a streak of fire to Boston, But if you attempt it, as the Lord liveth, I'll meet you at the State line and call out the artillerymen, and fight every inch of the way to Boston, and then I'll fight you there." We make this brief comment on this brave threat, that in a little time Finney was in Boston preaching in Beecher's church.

The reader doubtless by this time is curious to know what were these "new measures," these "calamitous measures" about which some of the leaders in Zion had worked themselves up into such a heat. Here they are as copied from the "Memoir of Nettleton:"

"Connected with this excitement, various measures were introduced, similar to those which, in former times, had been the great instrument of marring the purity of revivals and promoting fanaticism; such as praying for persons by name; encouraging females to pray and exhort in promiscuous assemblies; calling upon persons who come to the anxious-seat, or to rise up in the public assembly to signify that they had given their hearts to God, or had made up their mind to attend to religion." (Page 237.)

To us of today all this sounds like an invention of fiction, an idle dream of what might have been in the past. During our college vacation this summer (1901) I did revival work in five States -- Texas, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts -- and I saw all these things done in each State, and no one protested or thought of making objection. Here in Texas Holiness University, Greenville, Texas, in whose chapel I am writing these lines, December 20, 1901, we see all these things constantly. We have had seventy-seven persons saved or sanctified at our altars since September 24th, and one hundred and seventy-three since January 1st of this year; and if genuine Christian characters are made anywhere, they are being made here. Such a worked-up excitement over such things that God has so used and blessed, re-minds me of the phrase "much ado about nothing." Yet it was once a painful fact and living history. But it did not stop the work of Finney, or check it for an hour. We shall see that God gave him more power and a wider sweep of influence than ever before, while Mr. Nettleton -was set aside, and Dr. Beecher was utterly impotent to hurt the work. He afterward went from Boston to be the president of Lane Theological Seminary, in Cincinnati, Ohio. I once visited that seminary, and was there shown Dr. Beecher's lecture-room and the very chair in which he used to sit, back of which on the wall was his portrait. "But," said the professor, who was showing me around, "we now quote Finney oftener than we do Beecher in these lecture-rooms."

Finney wrote: "As I have since labored extensively in this country and in Great Britain, and no exceptions have been taken to my measures, it has been assumed and asserted that; since the opposition made by Mr. Nettleton and Dr. Beecher, I have been reformed, and have given up the measures they complained of. This is an entire mistake. I have always and everywhere used all the measures I used in those revivals, and I have often added other measures whenever I have deemed it expedient. I have never seen the necessity of reformation in this respect. Were I to live my life over again, I think that, with the experience of more than forty years in revival labors, I should, under the same circumstances, use substantially the same measures that I did then.

"And let me not be understood to take credit to myself. No, indeed, it was no wisdom of my own that directed me. I was made to feel my ignorance and dependence, and led to look continually to God for His guidance. I had no doubt then, nor have I ever had, that God led me by His Spirit to take the course I did. So clearly did He lead me from day to day, that I never did or could doubt that I was Divinely directed.

"That the brethren who opposed those revivals were good men I do not doubt; that they were misled and most grossly and injuriously deceived, I have just as little doubt. If they died under the belief that they had just reasons for what they did, and wrote, and said, and that they corrected the evils of which they complained, they died grossly deceived in this respect. It is not for the safety of the Church, the honor of revivals, or the glory of Christ that posterity should believe that those evils existed, and were corrected by such a spirit and in such a manner as has been represented. I should have remained silent had not so marked an effort been made to perpetuate and confirm the delusion that the opposition to those revivals was justifiable and successful.

"I have no doubt that Dr. Beecher was led by somebody to believe that his opposition was called for.

Had not Dr. Beecher's biography reopened this subject, with the manifest design to justify the course that he took, and rivet the impression upon the public mind that, in making that opposition to those revivals, he performed a great and good work, I should not feel called upon say what I can not now be justified in withholding. In reading his biography I stand amazed in view of the suspicions and delusions under which his mind was laboring. I was as ignorant as a child of all this management revealed in the biography. I shared none of the terrors and distractions that Seem to have so much distressed Dr. Beecher and Mr. Nettleton.

"The truthful record of my labors up to the time of the Convention, and from that time onward, will show how little I knew or cared what Dr. Beecher and Mr. Nettleton were saying or doing about me. I bless the Lord that I was kept from being diverted from my work by their opposition, and that I never gave myself any uneasiness about it. At Auburn, God had given me the assurance that He would overrule all opposition, without my turning aside to answer my opposers. This I never forgot. Under this Divine assurance I went forward with a single eye and a trustful spirit; and now, when I read what agitations, suspicions, and misapprehensions possessed the minds of these brethren, I stand amazed at their delusion and consequent anxiety respecting myself and my labors.

At the very time that Dr. Beecher was in Philadelphia (in 1828), managing with members of the General Assembly, as related in his biography, I was laboring in that city, and had been for several months, in different Churches, in the midst of a powerful revival of religion, perfectly ignorant of Dr. Beecher's errand there. I can not be too thankful that God kept me from being agitated, and changed in my spirit or views of labor, by all the opposition of those days." (Memoirs of Finney, Chapter 16.)