Life of Charles G. Finney

By Aaron Hills

Chapter 9


In midsummer of 1830, Finney was urged to hold meetings in Columbia, N. Y. There was a large German Church there, only about ten of whom knew what it was to have a change of heart. The young pastor had studied theology under a German Doctor of Divinity. One of his fellow-students was religiously inclined, and used to pray in his closet. Their teacher suspected this, and in some way came to a knowledge of the fact. He warned the young man against it as a very dangerous practice, and said he would become insane if he persisted in it, and he should be blamed himself for allowing a student to take such a course. Mr. H____, the young pastor, said that, until recently, he had had no religion. He had joined the Church in the common way of baptism and confirmation, and had no thought that anything else was requisite, so far as piety was concerned, to become a minister. But he had a pious mother, who knew better, and was greatly distressed that a son of hers should enter the sacred ministry, who had never been converted. Her prayers and influence brought him to conviction and conversion; then his wife was converted. He then sent for Finney, and listened to his preaching with almost irrepressible joy. The congregation turned to God with one accord, and the revival spread until it reached and converted nearly all the inhabitants of the town. Galesburg, in Illinois, was settled by a colony from Columbia, who were nearly all converts of this revival. The founder of the colony and of Knox College, located there, was Mr. Gale, Mr. Finney's theological teacher.


Anson O. Phelps, of New York City, since widely known for his great benevolent gifts, hearing that Finney had not been invited to the pulpits of the city, hired a vacant church in Vandewater Street, and sent an urgent request to Finney to come and preach there. He went, and preached with such power and success that, before three months elapsed, Mr. Phelps bought a church in Prince Street, near Broadway, and there Finney preached nearly every night for a year to crowded houses. Prominent lawyers and leading business men and vast numbers of people found God. A Church was formed having free pews, out of the converts who had no relation with any other Churches. Long before the year was ended many ministers in the city would have been glad to have Finney labor in their Churches.

Mr. Arthur Tappan, the philanthropist, formed a friendship for Finney while in New York that was lifelong. His brother Lewis lived in Boston, and was a Unitarian. He had read in Unitarian papers that Finney was a half-crazed fanatic, who had declared himself to be "the brigadier-general of Jesus Christ." This and like reports were quoted by Lewis, who insisted on their truth, and offered to bet his brother Arthur five hundred dollars that he could prove them to be true. Arthur replied: "Lewis, you know I do not bet; but if you can prove by credible testimony that the reports about Finney are true, I will give you five hundred dollars. I make this offer to lead you to investigate. I want you to know that these stories are utterly unreliable."

Lewis Tappan wrote to a Unitarian minister at Trenton Falls, New York, and authorized him to expend five hundred dollars, if need be, "to collect such testimony as would stand in a court of justice." After months of the most diligent and painstaking search, the effort proved a total failure. It led to Lewis Tappan's conviction, conversion, and change from Unitarianism to the orthodox faith. All his remaining life he too was a devoted friend of Finney.


Leaving New York City, in the summer of 1831, for a little rest with Mrs. Finney's parents, he was urged to labor in the Third Presbyterian Church of Rochester, whose pulpit was vacant. There was a considerable division at the time in the Church and among the Churches, making Rochester at the time anything but a hopeful field. Finney and his wife packed their trunks, and called the saints of Utica together to pray for Divine guidance as to the choice of field in which he should labor. Many were open. Rochester was the least inviting of them all.

The brethren were unanimous in the opinion that Rochester could not be named in comparison with New York or Philadelphia as a hopeful field. This also was Finney's conviction, and they parted in the evening, he fully expecting to take the boat in the morning for New York, But before he retired to rest, when alone with God, he was impressed that it was God's leading to go to Rochester, In the morning the packet boat came along, and they embarked, and went westward instead of eastward.

Very soon the Christians began to unite. The wife of a prominent lawyer, a lady of high standing, culture, and extensive influence, was one of the first converts. She had been a gay, worldly woman, very fond of society, and deeply regretted the coming of Finney, as she was afraid that there would be a revival that would interfere with the pleasures of the coming winter. Her remarkable conversion produced much excitement among the class of people to which she belonged.


"I had never," wrote Finney, "except in rare instances, until I went to Rochester, used as a means of promoting revivals what has since been called 'the anxious seat.' I had sometimes asked persons in the congregation to stand up; but this I had not frequently done, However, in studying upon the subject, I had felt the necessity of some measure that would bring sinners to a stand. From my own experience and observation I had found that, with the higher classes especially, the greatest obstacle to be overcome was their fear of being known as anxious inquirers. They were too proud to take any position that would reveal them to others as anxious for their souls.

"I had found, also, that something was needed to make the impression on them that they were expected at once to give up their hearts; something that would call them to act, and act as publicly before the world as they had in their sins; something that would commit them publicly to the service of Christ. When I had called them simply to stand up in the public congregation, I found that this had a very good effect; and, so far as it went, it answered the purpose for which it was intended. But, after all, I had felt for some time that something was necessary to bring them out from among the mass of the ungodly to a public renunciation of their evil ways and a public committal of themselves to God. At Rochester I first introduced this measure."

A few days after the conversion of the prominent lady above referred to, he made such a call upon all who were willing to renounce their sins and give themselves to God, to come forward to certain seats, which he requested to be vacated, and offer themselves up to God, while he made them subjects of prayer. A great number came, among them Some very prominent people. "It was soon seen that the Lord was aiming at the highest classes of society. My meetings soon became thronged with that class. The lawyers, physicians, merchants, and indeed all the most intelligent people, became more and more interested, and more and more easily influenced." "A large number of the lawyers, nearly all the judges, bankers, merchants, master mechanics, and leading men and women in the city were converted." The spirit of prayer in this revival was wonderful. "The spirit of prayer was poured out so powerfully that some persons staid away from public services to pray, being unable to restrain their feelings under preaching."

A Mr. Abel Clary was converted in the same revival with Finney, and had been licensed to preach. But his spirit of prayer was such, he was so burdened with the souls of men, that he was not able to preach much, his whole time and strength being given to prayer. The burden of his soul would frequently be so great that he was unable to stand, and he would Writhe and groan in agony. He was at Rochester some days praying for Finney before Finney knew he was there. The man with whom he lived said to Finney: "He can not go to the meetings. He prays nearly all the time, night and day, and in such an agony of mind that I do not know what to make of it. Sometimes he can not even stand on his knees, but will lie prostrate on the floor, and groan and pray in a manner that quite astonishes me." Father Nash and three deacons were also, in much the same manner, giving themselves up to prayer for Finney.

Finney's mighty preaching, and all this prevailing prayer, God blessed in a wonderful way. Ministers and prominent people came into Rochester from neighboring towns and cities, and even from other States, to see this mighty work of God, and went away Carrying the revival fire with them. The work spread like waves in every direction. Finney would sally out to neighboring town and cities, and preach a few days, keeping Rochester as the center. Twelve hundred joined the Presbyterian Churches in the neighborhood, besides the vast numbers that joined other Churches.

But the greatness of the work was such that it attracted the attention of ministers and Christians in New England and other States, and the very fame of it was an efficient instrument in the hands of God of promoting the greatest revival of religion this country had ever witnessed. Dr. Beecher said of it: "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. This is unparalleled in the history of the Church and of the progress of religion. In no year during the Christian era had we any account of so great a revival of religion."

The opposition to Finney's work greatly subsided after the New Lebanon Convention, and grew less and less. At Rochester he felt none of it. Ministers, and even the most ungodly sinners, became convinced that the work was of God. He addressed the public school, and a great number of the pupils turned to God. It afterward was found that more than forty of them became ministers, The only theater of the city was converted into a livery-stable.


Finney labored at Rochester six months, He was invited by Dr. Nott, president of Union College, at Schenectady, to go and labor with his students. Finney was so worn-out with excessive revival labors that people thought he would die with consumption. But he started for Schenectady. The roads were so bad, and riding in the stage was so wearisome, that he stopped at Auburn to rest. It became known that he was in the place, and a large petition was drawn up and signed by a large number of influential men, the very people who in 1826 had opposed his work, begging him to overlook their former opposition, and beseeching him to stop and preach the gospel to them.

Finney felt that it was the call of God, and agreed to stay and preach four times a week, -all he dared to do in his precarious health. The second Sabbath he saw the solemn face of Abel Clary in the audience. He had come to pray for him, and did pray with the same mighty groaning of spirit that characterized his wrestling prayer in Rochester. One of the first men to the anxious seat was the leader of the opposition five years previous. Nearly or quite every person who signed the petition was converted, and in all five hundred persons.


From Auburn he went to Buffalo, The work there, as at Auburn and Rochester, took effect very generally among the leading classes. Rev. Dr. Lord, then a lawyer, was one of the converts. One of the wealthiest men in the city greatly opposed him, virulently denying his position that the 'sinner's can not" is simply a will not;" that "the only difficulty to be overcome was the voluntary wickedness of sinners; and that they were wholly unwilling to be Christians." This rich man greatly rebelled against such teaching, and insisted that it was false in his case, for he was conscious of being willing to be a Christian, but God did not make him one.

This man afterward was mightily convicted, and tried to pray, but found that he could not pray the Lord's Prayer, "Thy will be done." He then realized that he was at heart opposed to God, and did not want, and had never been willing to have, Jesus reign over him. He finally turned to God with all his heart, acknowledged Finney to be right, and afterward gladly co-operated with him. From there Finney went, in the autumn, to Providence.


The work of grace began at once, and went forward in a most interesting manner. But, for some reason not given, his stay of three weeks was too brief to secure such gracious results as he had witnessed in other places.

At that time, in this country, denominational lines were very tightly drawn, and the Churches of all denominations did not unite and invite an evangelist to come and work in the city, as was done during the career of Moody. The age was not ripe for such movements. When Finney went to a city, he usually had to fight his way against bigotry, sectarianism, and denominational jealousy, as well as Calvinistic theology and ritualism, Unitarianism, Universalism, and the devil. There were, however, many interesting cases of conversion, and several of the men converted became life-long leaders of the Christian work in the city. Among other converts was the most notoriously beautiful young woman in the place. She finally became so deeply convicted that she came to Finney of her own accord, and confessed to him: "Had it not been for my pride and regard for my reputation, I should have been a wicked a girl as there is in Providence. I can see clearly that my life has been restrained by pride and a regard to my reputation, and not from any regard to God or His law or gospel. I can see that God has made use of my pride and ambition to restrain me from disgraceful iniquities. I have been petted and flattered, and I stood upon my dignity, and have maintained my reputation from purely selfish motives." She thus acknowledged her fashionable, worldly wickedness, bowed to Jesus, and became a meek and humble follower of Christ. She afterward married a very wealthy man in New York City, but kept true to God.

BOSTON, 1832

While Finney was laboring in Providence, the Boston ministers sent Dr. Wisner, pastor of the Old South Church, as a spy to watch the work in Providence, and report. It led to Finney's being invited to Boston. Dr. Lyman Beecher was pastor at Bowdoin Street Congregational Church, He was the man who, only five years before, threatened to fight Finney all over New England. His talented son, Edward Beecher, was pastor at Park Street Church. Fifty-seven years afterward, November 6, 1889, he wrote: "I was pastor of Park Street Church when Finney was first invited to preach in Boston, and I invited him to preach for me. He complied with my request, and preached the most impressive and powerful sermon I ever heard. No one can form any conception of the power of his appeal. It rings in my ears even to this day. It met good results in all who heard him, and have ever honored and loved him as one as truly commissioned by God to declare His will as were Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Paul."

I stop in the story to copy this opinion of Finney's preaching, because Edward Beecher's father, Dr. Lyman Beecher, was one of the most famous and powerful preachers of his day: Edward Beecher's younger brother, Henry Ward Beecher, filled the world with his fame as one of the mightiest preachers of the centuries. Yet Dr. Edward Beecher, who had heard his illustrious father and his immortal brother preach a multitude of times, and was personally acquainted with all the other great preachers of his age, says of Finney's sermon, "It was the most impressive and powerful sermon I ever heard."

This confirms my judgment of Finney's preaching, that for matchless power to sway men for good he was easily the greatest preacher I ever heard; I think the greatest of the century.

It was this year that somebody invited Finney over from Boston to preach three days at Andover, the seat of Andover Theological Seminary. It chanced to be the time of the graduating exercises of the seminary. Forty-two orations had been prepared by the young men. Half of them, that conflicted with Finney's preaching services, had to be given up. Rev. Justin Edwards, D. D., then a favorite preacher in New England, on one evening Was to preach a sermon before the alumni of the seminary. "There was a decided opposition to Mr.. Finney among the professors and students of the seminary," says Professor Park, the most famous professor the seminary ever had. He thus describes the occasion and the preaching of Finney:

"Such was the fame of Mr. Finney that we were compelled to give up our exercises. Only thirty people gathered to hear the discourse of Dr. Edwards, and they adjourned. There were between two and three hundred preachers and students for the ministry in the audience. Mr. Finney's discourse was one which could never be printed, and could not easily be forgotten. The eloquence of it can not be appreciated by those who did not hear it. The text was I Tim. ii, 5, 'One Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.' His sermon was just one hundred minutes long. It held the unremitting attention of his hearers, even of those who had opposed his interference with our seminary exercises. It abounded with sterling argument and startling transitions, It was too earnest to be called theatrical, but, in the best sense of the word, it was called dramatic. Some of his rhetorical utterances are indescribable. I will allude to one of them, but I know that my allusion to it will give no adequate idea of it.

"He was illustrating the folly of men who expect to be saved on the ground of justice; who think that they may, perhaps, be punished after death; but, when they have endured all the penalty which they deserve, they will be admitted to heaven, He was appealing to the uniform testimony of the Bible that the men who are saved at all are saved by grace, they are pardoned; their heaven consists in glorifying the vicarious atonement by which their sins were washed away. He was describing the jar which the songs of the saints would receive if any intruder should claim that he had already endured the penalty of the Divine law. The tones of the preacher, then, became sweet and musical as he repeated the words of the 'ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands; saying with a great voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive the power, and riches, and wisdom, and might, and honor, and glory, and blessing.' No sooner had he uttered the word 'blessing' than he started back, turned his face from the mass of the audience before him, fixed his glaring eyes upon the gallery at his right hand, and gave all the signs of a man who was frightened by a sudden interruption of the Divine worship. With a stentorian voice he cried out: 'What is that I see? What means that rabble-rout of men coming up here? Hark! Hear them shout!

Hear their words: "Thanks to hell-fire! We have served out our time. Thanks! Thanks! We have served out our time. Thanks to hellfire!" Then the preacher turned his face from the side gallery, looked again upon the mass of the audience, and, after a lengthened pause, during which a fearful stillness pervaded the house, he said in gentle tones: 'Is this the spirit of the saints? Is this the music of the upper world? "And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth, and under the earth, and on the sea, and all things that are in them, heard I saying, Unto him that sitteth on the throne and unto the Lamb be the blessing, and the dominion, and the honor, and the glory, for ever and ever, And the four living creatures said, Amen.'"

"During this dramatic scene, five or six men were sitting on a board which had been extemporaneously brought into the aisle and extended from one chair to another. I was sitting with them. The board actually shook beneath us. Every one of the men was trembling with excitement. The power of the whole sermon was compressed into that vehement utterance. It is more than fifty-eight years since I listened to that discourse. I remember it well. I can recall the impression of it as distinctly as I could a half-century ago; but if every word of it were on the printed page, it would not be the identical sermon of the living preacher." (Wright's "Charles G. Finney," pp. 71-74.)

This was a terrific blow at the doctrine of Universalism as Finney found it, which then saturated New England thought and life, and still curses it, No wonder that under such preaching Universalists were driven from their refuges of lies and bowed to Jesus, or else fled from the preacher's presence in dismay, to rave at and slander Finney.

Such a preacher at last was in Boston; perhaps it never heard a greater. Whitefield is probably the only one who can be compared with him for pulpit power. And here is his comment on the work: "I began by preaching around in the different churches on the Sabbath, and on week evenings I preached in Park Street. I soon saw that the Word of God was taking effect, and that the interest was increasing from day to day. But I perceived, also, that there needed to be a great searching among professed Christians. I could not learn that there was among them anything like the spirit of prayer that had prevailed in the revivals at the West and in New York City. There seemed to be a peculiar type of religion there, not exhibiting that freedom and strength of faith which I had been in the habit of seeing in New York. I, therefore, began preaching some searching sermons to Christians. But I soon found that these sermons were not at all palatable to the Christians of Boston. This was new to me. I had never before seen professed Christians shrink back, as they did at that time in Boston, from searching sermons. But I heard again and again of speeches like these: What will the Unitarians say, if such things are true of us who are orthodox? If Mr. Finney preaches to us in this way, the Unitarians will triumph over us, and say that at least the orthodox are no better Christians than Unitarians. It was evident that they somewhat resented my plain dealing, and that my searching sermons astonished and even offended very many of them, However, as the work went forward, this state of things changed greatly; and after a few weeks they would listen to searching preaching and came to appreciate it. We had a blessed work of grace, and a large number of persons were converted in different parts of the city."

It is evident, however, that Finney's preaching at this time, or at any of the four subsequent revivals in Boston, did not result in any such general movement as in some other places. At all of his five revival efforts in Boston "extensive revivals attended his ministry, and it is the universal testimony of the members of Park Street Church surviving from that time that the conversions were characterized by greater permanence than were those brought about in connection with the labors of any other revivalist whom they have had with them." (Wright's "Finney," p. 106.)

Finney, with his subtle discernment, detected that "the type of religion in Boston was peculiar." It has been so for a century. The keen, intensely active, subtle intellect of the heart of New England must be matched by a correspondingly deep spirituality to be kept in true lines of thought and healthy religious life, If it is not, the Yankee intellect goes off, not into business and money-making only, but also into speculation in philosophy and theology. Under the excessive Calvinism of a century ago religion ebbed. Then there was a reaction, and Unitarianism and Universalism swept in like a flood. Boston and its vicinity have been the natural home and exploiting ground of every fad and fanaticism and species of infidelity ever since. Millerism, Spiritualism, Tom-Paine-ism, Christian-Science-ism, Swedenborgianism, Unitarianism, Universalism, Free-thought-ism, Free-love-ism, Agnosticism, Skepticism, are all enthroned there, and all are flourishing. A Doctor of Divinity, a son of Massachusetts, once said to me, "You can not name an ism that has cursed American thought and life that did not have its birth or home within fifty miles of Boston."

All the advocates and adherents of this swarm of "isms" have associated together and intermarried. The religious teachers lips are now sealed; he must not preach the mighty gospel of Jesus Christ in all its fullness, for if he should, he will be reflecting on Deacon A____s Unitarian son-in-law, or Deacon B____s Universalist daughter-in-law, or Deacon C____s Spiritualist sister, or rich Mr. D____'s cousins or uncles or aunts, who are all Christian Scientists. They are all such nice people, and stand so well in Boston society, it must be that they are highly pleasing to God! Whoever was born in Boston was so well born that he does not need to be born again; especially, a diploma from Harvard or "The Boston Tech.," or Wellesley, is a "sure passport to heaven." It has therefore come about that there has been developed in the intellectual capital of New England a self-satisfied, self-complacent, self-admiring, broad-gauge, free-thinking, go-as-you-please, believe-what-you-will, we-are-all-going-to-heaven-together type of religion that Finney thought was peculiar. It did not want to be "searched" and probed until professors of religion got down to the core and marrow of spiritual things, and struck the rock for the foundation of their spiritual hopes. Nothing can save Boston* thinking from skepticism, and her piety from the dry-rot of indifference, but a mighty baptism with the Holy Spirit for righteousness and true holiness.

* For Beecher's and Finney's opinions of Boston, see last part of Chapter 12.