Life of Charles G. Finney

By Aaron Hills

Chapter 10


Finney had labored ten years as an evangelist, with but a few weeks of rest during the whole period. He now had three children, and he could not well take them with him about the country. His physical strength was depleted .by his incessant labors. He had a call to resume labor in New York City as a pastor, and, after prayer, he accepted it.

Mr. Lewis Tappan, with other Christian brethren, leased the Chatham Street Theater, and fitted it up for a church. There were three rooms connected with the front part of the theater, large and long, which were fitted up for prayer-meetings and for a lecture room, They were exceedingly convenient. There were three tiers of galleries, and those rooms were connected with the galleries respectively, one above the other.

"I instructed my Church members to scatter themselves over the whole house, and to keep their eyes open in regard to any that were seriously affected under the preaching, and, if possible, to detain them after preaching for conversation and prayer. They were true to their teaching, and were on the lookout at every meeting to see with whom the Word of God was taking effect; and they had faith enough to dismiss their fears and to speak to any whom they saw to be affected by the Word. In this way the conversion of a great many souls was secured. They would invite them into those rooms, and there we would converse and pray with them, and thus gather up the results of every sermon."

Finney began his work in the spring of 1832. "The Spirit of the Lord was immediately poured out, and there was an extensive revival that spring and summer. About midsummer the cholera appeared in New York for the first time, and the worst visitation of that scourge the city ever had. At one time Finney counted from his door five hearses drawn up in sight. He remained in the city all summer, not being willing to leave his people while the mortality was so great. He finally had it himself, and the means used for his recovery gave his system a terrible shock, from which it took him a long time to recover. The next spring he was able to preach again, and had a meeting twenty nights in succession, all his strength would permit. The Spirit was immediately poured out, and there were five hundred conversions known to them. His Church became so large that a colony was sent out to form another free Church.

"The Church were a praying, working people. They were thoroughly united, were well trained in regard to labors for the conversion of sinners, and were a most devoted and efficient Church of Christ. They would go out into the highways and hedges, and bring people to hear preaching, whenever they were called upon to do so. Both men and women would undertake this work. Our ladies were not afraid to go and gather in all classes.

"When I first went to Chatham Street Chapel, I informed the brethren that I did not wish to fill up the house with Christians from other Churches, as my object was to gather from the world. I wanted to secure the conversion of the ungodly to the utmost possible extent. We therefore gave ourselves to labor for that class of persons, and, by the blessing of God, with good success."

Whenever his Church got too large from the great number of converts, he would send out another colony to form a new Church. In three years there were seven churches with free seats that had grown out of his revival work, and formed from his converts. He wrote, "A more harmonious, prayerful, and efficient people I never knew than were the members of those free Churches."

Towards the close of this period, Finney became so dissatisfied with the difficulties of administering discipline through the Presbyterian forms of procedure that his friends decided on organizing a Congregational Church, and proceeded to build the Broadway Tabernacle, with the understanding that Finney should be pastor. Finney then took his dismission from the Presbytery, and entered the Congregational ministry. He was a Presbyterian only by accident. Their Confession he never did accept, and their method of conducting discipline was cumbersome. He found his congenial home among Congregationalists. Broadway Tabernacle, under Finney, Dr. Joseph P. Thompson, and Dr. William M. Taylor, has been one of the most prominent and efficient Churches in America.

It was found that the New York Observer, the Presbyterian religious weekly of New York City, was favorable to Mr. Nettleton in his relentless opposition to Finney, and would print all articles on his side, but, with the characteristic unfairness of so many papers, both secular and religious, would print nothing on the other side in reply. The friends of Finney and the great revival movement grew tired of incessant misrepresentation and abuse. Judge Jonas Platt, of the Supreme Court, and others, met with Finney, and projected a rival paper, the New York Evangelist, through whose columns the friends of revivals and moral reforms might communicate with the public. After trial of two or three editors, Rev. Joshua Leavitt was called to the editorial chair. The paper, through Finney's influence, soon had a great circulation.

In January, 1834, Finney's health was again breaking, and he took a sea-voyage to the Mediterranean for his health. He spent some weeks at Malta and Sicily. Mr. Leavitt had espoused the cause of the slave. Mr. Finney watched the discussion with a good deal of attention and anxiety, and when embarking for his voyage he admonished him to be careful, and not go too fast in the discussion of the anti-slavery question, lest he should destroy his paper. On his homeward voyage his mind became exceedingly exercised on the question of revivals. "I feared," he wrote, "that they would decline throughout the country; I feared that the opposition that had been made to them had grieved the Holy Spirit. My own health, it appeared to me, had nearly or quite broken down, and I knew of no other evangelist that would take the field and aid pastors in revival work. This view of the subject distressed me so that one day I found myself unable to rest. My soul was in an utter agony. I spent the entire day in prayer in my stateroom. or walking the deck in intense agony, in view of the state of things. In fact, I felt crushed with the burden that was on my soul. There was no one on board to whom I could open my mind or say a word. It was the spirit of prayer that was upon me; that which I had often experienced in kind, but perhaps never before to such a degree, for so long a time. I besought the Lord to go on with His work, and to provide Himself with such instrumentalities as were necessary. It was a long summer day in the early part of July. After a day of unspeakable wrestling and agony of soul, just at midnight the subject cleared up to my mind. The Spirit led me to believe that all would come out right, and that God had yet a work for me to do; that I might be at rest; that the Lord would go forward with His work, and give me strength to take any part in it that He desired. But I had not the least idea what course His providence would take."

We shall see how strangely and amazingly the Lord answered his prayers. When he reached New York, he found that his friends and others had held a meeting on the Fourth of July, and had an address on the subject of slaveholding, It was the first of a long series of mobs got up in the interest of slavery. The story had been circulated by sons of Belial that Broadway Tabernacle was to be "an amalgamation Church," in which colored and white people were to be compelled to sit together, promiscuously, over the house. Some wretch set the Tabernacle on fire, and burned the roof off when it had gone well on toward completion. The firemen were in such a state of mind that they refused to put the fire out. Meantime Mr. Leavitt had not been as prudent as Finney had cautioned him to be, and had gone so far ahead of public intelligence and feeling on the subject of slavery that his subscription-list was falling off at the rate of fifty or sixty a day. His greeting words to Finney were: "I have ruined the Evangelist. Unless you do something at once to restore the Evangelist, it can only run till January." Finney told him his health was such that he did not know what he could do; but he would make it a subject of prayer.

The necessity of that religious paper, that agony of prayer on the ship, and the following prayer in New York, probably led to the most effective work for the kingdom of Christ that Finney ever did. After a day or two, Finney proposed to deliver a series of lectures on revivals which Mr. Leavitt might report for his paper. Mr. Leavitt announced it in his paper the next week, and it had the desired effect. New subscriptions came in daily by the armful, much faster than they had ever fallen off.

Finney began the course of lectures immediately, and continued them through the winter, preaching one each week. The lectures were wholly extemporaneous, and averaged about one hour and three-quarters in length. Mr. Leavitt could not report in shorthand; but he took notes in an abridged form, and wrote out as accurately as possible, preserving the points and spirit of the address.

Finney wrote: "These lectures were afterward published in a book, and called 'Finney's Lectures on Revivals.' Twelve thousand copies of them were sold, as fast as they could be printed; and here, for the glory of Christ, I would say that they have been reprinted in England and France; they were translated into Welsh, and on the Continent were translated into French and German, and were extensively circulated throughout Europe and the colonies of Great Britain. They were, I presume, to be found wherever the English language was spoken. After they had been printed in Welsh, the Congregational ministers of the Principality of Wales, at one of their public meetings, appointed a committee to inform me of the great revival that had resulted from the translation of those lectures into the Welsh language. This they did by letter. One publisher in London informed me that his father had published eighty thousand volumes of them. These revival lectures, meager as was the report of them, and feeble as they were in themselves, have been instrumental, as I have learned, in promoting revivals in England, and Scotland, and Wales, on the Continent, in Canada, in Nova Scotia, all over the United States, and in the islands of the sea.

"In England and Scotland I have often been refreshed by meeting with ministers and laymen, in great numbers, that have been converted, directly or indirectly, through the instrumentality of those lectures. I recollect the last time I was abroad, one evening, three very prominent ministers of the gospel introduced themselves to me after the sermon, and said that when they were in college they got hold of my revival lectures, which had resulted in their becoming ministers. I found persons in England, in all the different denominations, who had not only read those revival lectures, but had been greatly blessed in reading them, When they were first published in the New York Evangelist, the reading of them resulted in revivals of religion in multitudes of places throughout this country.

"But this was not of man's wisdom. Let the reader remember that long day of agony and prayer at sea that God would do something to forward the work of revivals, and enable me, if He desired to do it, to take such a course as to help forward the work. I felt certain then that my prayers would be answered, and I have regarded all that I have since been able to accomplish as, in a very important sense, an answer to the prayers of that day. The spirit of prayer came upon me as a sovereign grace bestowed on me, without the least merit, and despite of all my sinfulness. He pressed my soul in prayer until I was enabled to prevail, and through infinite riches of grace in Christ Jesus I have been many years witnessing the wonderful results of that day of wrestling with God. In answer to that day's agony He has continued to give me the spirit of prayer.

This book of Finney's has been to this day, for sixty-six years, the incomparable classic on the subject of revivals, and is still in circulation. The number of ministers it has instructed, and the soul-winners it has taught, and the revivals it has awakened, and the hundreds of thousands of souls that have, directly or indirectly, been brought to God through its influence, will never be known until the "books are opened" at "the great day."

On Finney's return to New York he resumed his labors in the Chatham Street Theater. The work of God immediately revived and went forward with great interest, numbers being converted at almost or quite every meeting. The Church flourished and extended its influence in every direction, until the Tabernacle in Broadway was completed. The Church then moved to their new structure, and the Spirit again came upon them, and they had a gracious revival, that lasted as long as he was pastor of that Church.

While in New York, Finney had many applications from young men to take them as students in theology. He had too much on hands to undertake such a work. .But the brethren who built the tabernacle had this in view, and prepared a room under the choir, which they expected to use for prayer-meetings; but more especially for a theological lecture-room. The number of applications had been so large that he made up his mind to deliver a course of theological lectures in that room each year, and let such students as chose attend them gratuitously.

But about this time, and before the course of theological lectures had begun, Lane Theological Seminary, in Cincinnati, to which Dr. Beecher had gone as president, broke up, on account of the prohibition by the trustees of the discussion of the question of slavery among the students.

When this occurred, Mr. Arthur Tappan proposed to Finney that if he would go to some point in Ohio and take rooms where he could gather those young men, and give them his views in theology, and prepare them for the work of preaching throughout the West, he (Mr. Tappan) would be at the entire expense of the undertaking. It touched Finney's heart, as he longed to train men to preach the gospel with power, and, besides, many of those students had been converted in the revivals led by Finney; but he did not see how he could leave the work in New York.

While this was going on, in January of 1835, Rev. John Jay Shipherd, the founder of Oberlin, and Rev. Asa Mahan, of Cincinnati, who had been chosen president of Oberlin, arrived in New York to persuade Finney to go to Oberlin to teach theology. The Lane Seminary students had agreed to go to Oberlin if Mr. Finney would be their teacher. There were already gathered one hundred students in the lower department. The New York brethren offered, if Finney would go and spend one half of the year in Oberlin, and the other half in New York with them, to endow the institution, so far as the professorships were concerned, and do it immediately.

The trustees of Lane Seminary had acted "over the heads" of the Faculty, and, in the absence of several of them, had passed the obnoxious resolutions that had caused the students to leave. Mr. Finney said he would not go at any rate unless two points were conceded by the trustees. One was, that they should never interfere with the internal regulation of the school, but should leave that entirely to the discretion of the Faculty. The other was, that they should be allowed to receive colored people on the same conditions that they did white people; that there should be no discrimination on account of color, When these conditions were forwarded to Oberlin, after a great struggle to overcome their own prejudices and the prejudices of the community, they passed resolutions complying with the conditions proposed. The friends in New York were then called together, and in an hour they had subscriptions filled for the endowment of eight professorships.

Even yet Finney hesitated to make the new venture. How could he give up that admirable place for preaching the gospel, where he gathered such crowds, and was the center of such mighty forces for good? He also knew that in the new enterprise he must face great opposition from many sources, and that it would be difficult to raise funds to put up buildings and procure apparatus for the college.

"Arthur Tappan's heart," says Finney, "was as large as all New York, and, I might say, as large as the world. When I laid the case thus before him, he said: 'Brother Finney, my own income averages about one hundred thousand dollars a year. Now if you will go to Oberlin, take hold of that work, and go on and see that the buildings are put up, and a library and everything provided, I will pledge you my entire income, except what I need to provide for my family, till you are beyond pecuniary want.'"

This decided the matter. Finney agreed to spend his winters in New York with his Church, and to spend his summers at Oberlin. He arrived there in the early summer of 1835.

Forty years afterward, one of the ablest divines of Connecticut said to me that that was the mistake of Finney's life, -- to leave that matchless work which he was doing in the heart of the Nation's metropolis, and go to a miserable hamlet in the woods of Northern Ohio to head a young college venture. We can not say. It is hard to measure such moral forces, even when taking a retrospect, It is certain that the acquisition of Finney, a man of world-wide fame and the world's greatest preacher, made Oberlin bound at once into world-wide celebrity, The twenty thousand students who sat under Finney's teaching and preaching, and then went everywhere to be leaders of men, probably did more to shape the character of the rapidly developing Northwest, and save the whole country for liberty and righteousness, than any other single force. Forty-five years afterward, President Garfield, delivering an address to the students of Oberlin, declared that no college in all the land had more effectively touched the nerve-centers of national thought and life for good than had Oberlin. Finney did more than any other man to make Oberlin a national power.

"His influence also made the attendance of students more cosmopolitan in character than that of any other institution. David Livingstone, while waiting in London in 1839 to set out upon his first missionary appointment, forwarded his first quarter's salary to a younger brother in Scotland, urging him to take the money and go to Oberlin for an education. This he did, graduating from Oberlin in 1845." (Wright, p. 158.)

We may say that the proportion of colored students was always very small, usually about four per cent of the whole. Amalgamation of the races was never thought of for a moment.