Life of Charles G. Finney

By Aaron Hills

Chapter 11


The students left their comfortable quarters at Lane Seminary, in Cincinnati, and went to Oberlin to be quartered in "barracks" made of the slabs of saw-logs, It was called "Slab Hall." Other students thronged from every direction when they heard that Finney was coming. There was no room in Oberlin large enough for the congregations that would gather even in the wilderness to hear Finney preach, He was informed of the fact, and he brought with him a circular tent one hundred feet in diameter, furnished with all the equipments for putting it up. At the top of the center-pole which supported the tent was a streamer, upon which was written in very large characters, "Holiness To The Lord." The tent was of great service, When the weather would permit, it was put up for every Sabbath. Several of the early Commencements were held in it, and it was used for holding protracted meetings in the regions round about.

It was understood between Finney and Mr. Tappan that the trustees should not know of his offer to help Oberlin, lest they should fail to make due efforts to collect funds. The work was being pushed rapidly in the matter of buildings when the great commercial crash of 1837 went over the country, and ruined most of the wealthy business men. Arthur Tappan, and nearly all who had subscribed for the support of the Faculty, failed. It left the Faculty without funds for their support, and the college thirty thousand dollars in debt. To human view the college enterprise was ruined, The great mass of the people were utterly opposed to the enterprise because of its Abolition character. The towns around were hostile to the movement, and in some places threats were made to come and tear down the buildings. The preachers were opposed on account of theological prejudices. A Democratic Legislature tried to abrogate their charter.

The necessities of the school were then very great, and there was a mighty crying to God. Finney was so favorably known in England on account of his revivals and revival lectures, that a committee was sent to England to represent the college. They raised about six thousand pounds sterling, $30,000, and so canceled the indebtedness. Thus it was Finney's name and fame, under God, that saved Oberlin. His friends throughout the North everywhere did what they could; but, in spite of all, they had to struggle with poverty and many trials for a course of years, sometimes from day to day not knowing how they were to be provided for. Finney then relates this touching narrative:

"At one time I saw no means of providing for my family through the winter. Thanksgiving-day came, and found us so poor that I had been obliged to sell my traveling trunk, which I had used in my evangelistic labors, to supply the place of a cow that. I had lost. I rose on the morning of Thanksgiving-day and spread our necessities before the Lord. I finally concluded by saying that, if help did not come, I should assume that it was best that it should not, and I would be entirely satisfied with any course that the Lord would see it wise to take. I went and preached, and enjoyed my own preaching as well, I think, as I ever did. I had a blessed day to my own soul; I could see that the people enjoyed it exceedingly.

"After meeting I was detained a little while in conversation with some brethren, and my wife returned home. When I reached the gate she was standing in the open door with a letter in her hand. As I approached she smilingly said, 'The answer has come, my dear;' and handed me the letter containing a check from Mr. Josiah Chapin, of Providence, for two hundred dollars. He had been here the previous summer with his wife. I said nothing about my wants at all, as I was never in the habit of mentioning them to anybody. But in the letter containing the check he said he had learned that the endowment fund had failed, and that I was in want of help. He intimated that I might expect more from time to time. He continued to send me six hundred dollars a year for several years, and on this I managed to live." (Page 338.)

Think of this prince in Israel, who had turned many times more people to God than any other man living, being so poor after fifteen years of such prodigious labors that he could not buy a cow without selling his trunk! He was a careful and accurate and wise business man. How different it would have been if he had been as pre-eminent in law or in the business world as he had been in the ministry! How free his hands must have been from the avarice that upsets so many evangelists! A great many people, and even a multitude of ministers, covet great usefulness in the kingdom and service of Jesus Christ. At least they think they do. But the careful observer will learn that all those who are pre-eminently useful pay for it in self-sacrifice, and suffering, and want, and agony, and tears. The most efficient toilers in God's kingdom do not get the most of their wages in this world. Surpassing usefulness must be paid for; and most people are not willing to pay the price.

For three years Finney spent his summers in Oberlin, and his winters with his Church in New York City. Each winter there was a blessed revival in New York; there was also a continual revival during his stay in Oberlin, But his health soon became such that he felt he must relinquish one field or the other, to lighten his load. Strange to say, the interests of that young institution in the wilderness outweighed, in his mind, the metropolitan Church! He evidently had a great yearning to make great preachers and teachers out of those earnest students, and he evidently believed that he could there do the most for the kingdom of Christ.

During the last two winters of his pastorate in Broadway Tabernacle he gave a series of lectures to Christians, which were also reported by Mr. Leavitt, and published in the Evangelist. These also were published in a volume in this country and in Europe. These lectures were the result of a searching that was going on in his own mind. The Spirit of God was dealing with him on the subject of sanctification.

Here he gives a look into his own soul-experiences. He says: "Many Christians regarded those lectures as rather an exhibition of the Law, than of the Gospel. But I do not. For me the Law and the Gospel have but one rule of life; and every violation of the spirit of the Law is also a violation of the spirit of the Gospel. But I have long been satisfied that the higher forms of Christian experience are attained only as a result of a terribly searching application of God's law to the human conscience and heart. The results of my labors had shown me the great weakness of Christians, and that the older members of the Churches, as a general thing, were making very little progress in grace. I found that they would fall back from a revival state even sooner than young converts. It had been so in the revival in which I myself had been converted. I felt it was due to the views they had been led to entertain when they were young converts.

"I was also led into a state of great dissatisfaction with my own want of stability in faith and love, To be candid and tell the truth, I must say, to the praise of God's grace, He did not suffer me to backslide to anything like the extent to which manifestly many Christians did backslide. But I often felt myself weak in the presence of temptation, and needed frequently to hold days of fasting and prayer, and to spend much time in overhauling my own religious life, in order to retain that communion with God, and that hold upon the Divine truth, that would enable me efficiently to labor for the promotion of revivals of religion.

"In looking at the state of the Christian Church as it had been revealed to me in my labors, I was led earnestly to inquire whether there was not something higher and more enduring than the Christian Church was aware of; whether there were not means provided in the gospel for the establishment of Christians in altogether a higher form of Christian life. . . . I had known somewhat of the view of sanctification entertained by our Methodist brethren. But as their idea of sanctification seemed to me to relate almost altogether to the state of the sensibility, I could not receive their teaching.* However, I gave myself earnestly to search the Scriptures, and whatever came to hand upon the subject, until my mind was satisfied than an altogether higher and more stable form of Christian life was attainable, and was the privilege of all Christians. This led me to preach two sermons on Christian perfection, which are included in the volume of lectures to Christians.

*Here was his mistake, as we shall show later in a chapter on his theology.

"That last winter in New York, God was pleased to visit my soul with a great refreshing. After a season of great searching of heart, He brought me, as He has often done, into a large place, and gave me much of that Divine sweetness in my soul of which President Edwards speaks, as attained in his own experience. That winter I had a thorough breaking up; so much so that sometimes, for a considerable period, I could not refrain from loud weeping in view of my own sins and of the love of God in Christ. Such seasons were frequent that winter, and resulted in the great renewal of my spiritual strength, and enlargement of my views in regard to the privileges of Christians and the abundance of the grace of God." (Pages 340-341)

Finney, in this same chapter on his early experiences in Oberlin, reveals the fact that when the trustees of Hudson College found that he had been called to Oberlin, they also called him to unite himself with Hudson College, twenty-seven miles south of Cleveland. A committee of that institution came to Cleveland and waited for days to meet him as he landed from the boat, and invite him to Hudson College, which already had good buildings and a good start. He decided, however, in favor of Oberlin, and for years afterward that institution was the constant and bitter opponent of Oberlin.

There was, also, a Convention called to meet at Cleveland to consider the subject of Western Education and the Support of Western Colleges. Dr. Lyman Beecher was its moving spirit, and he worked up a spirit to shut representatives from Oberlin and Oberlin sympathizers out of the Convention. The object of the Convention seemed to be to hedge in Oberlin on every side, and crush it by a public sentiment that would refuse all support.

What a strange thing human nature is, even when endowed with more than an ordinary measure of wisdom and grace, if it is unsanctified! Dr. Beecher was induced to draw his sword against Finney at New Lebanon, and the Lord vanquished him. He then left Boston, and went to Cincinnati to reach and help save the great new West. But God sent Finney out to do a much more potential work than he ever did or could do, great as he was. Apparently moved by an unworthy motive, he again attempted to crush Finney's work. Again he met with an utter failure.

Finney wrote of the Hudson opposition: "We kept about our own business, and felt that our strength was to sit still; and we were not mistaken. We felt confident that it was not God's plan to suffer such opposition to prevail." And of the Convention opposition he wrote: "We kept about our own business, and always had as many students as we knew what to do with. Our hands were always full of labor, and we were always greatly encouraged in our efforts. Our policy was to let opposition alone."

A few years after the meeting of this Convention, one of the leading ministers, who was there, came and spent a day or two at Finney's house. He said among other things: "Brother Finney, Oberlin is to us a great wonder. I have for many years been connected with a college as one of its professors. College life and principles, and the conditions upon which colleges are built up, are very familiar to me. We have always thought that colleges could not exist unless they were patronized by the ministry. We knew that young men who are about to go to college would generally consult their pastors in regard to what college they should select, and be guided by their judgment. Now," said he, "the ministers almost universally arrayed themselves against Oberlin, They were deceived by the cry of Antinomian perfectionism and in respect to your views of reform; and ecclesiastical bodies united, far and near, Congregational, and Presbyterian, and of all denominations. They warned their Churches against you; they discouraged young men universally from coming to you, and still the Lord has built you up. You have been supported with funds better than almost any college in the West; you have had by far more students, and the blessing of God has been upon you, so that your success has been wonderful. Now," said he, "this is a perfect anomaly in the history of colleges. The opposers of Oberlin have been confounded, and God has stood by you through all this opposition, so that you have hardly felt it."

How true this was may be seen from the following facts: "The attendance of students increased from two hundred at the beginning of Finney's labors in 1835 (many of those being there because he was coming), to Five hundred in 1840, to more than a thousand in 1850, and to an average of from twelve to fourteen hundred a little later.

Here we might pause to make an observation or two: First, it is futile business to fight one of God's chosen ones, who is minding his own business and faithfully doing the Lord's work, as Finney was doing. There is also a lesson here for us of Texas Holiness University. We started this school, just as Oberlin was started, for the extension of "the kingdom of God and His righteousness." They had "Holiness unto the Lord" on the streamer floating over their tent; we have it in our name and our charter, and in every aim and purpose of our school. So long as they were measurably true to their motto, they had unequaled growth, in spite of ecclesiastical or ministerial or Satanic opposition. If we, with our greater light and our more avowed purpose to spread holiness, are only unswervingly, unflinchingly true to our Divine mission, our present unparalleled growth is only a prophecy of what shall be. During this year of grace 1901, God has as signally poured out His Spirit upon us as He ever did upon Oberlin, saving or sanctifying one hundred and seventy-three people at our college altar, fifty of them during Commencement exercises; and our career is only begun. Ministers are opposing us; but God is raising up others to help us. We are passing our competitors at a canter; let us take a renewed vow of loyalty to God and holiness, and face the future with courage and hope; for it is ours.

Finney says: "There was a great number of laymen, and no inconsiderable number of ministers on the whole, in different parts of the country, who had no confidence in this opposition, who sympathized with our aims, our views, our efforts, and who stood firmly by us through thick and thin; and knowing; as they did, the straitness to which, for the time, we were reduced because of this opposition, they gave their money and their influence freely to help us forward. I have spoken of Mr. Chapin, of Providence, as having for several years sent me six hundred dollars a year, until financial difficulties rendered it inconvenient for him longer to do so. Mr. Willard Sears, of Boston, took his place, and for several years suffered me to draw on him for the same amount, annually, that Mr. Chapin had paid. In the meantime, efforts were constantly made to sustain other members of the Faculty; and, by the grace of God, we rode out the gale." What blessings must have come to those men who fed Finney, as the widow nourished Elijah!

President Mahan, Professor Cowles, the Bible Commentator, . Professor Morgan, teacher of New Testament Greek and Hebrew, and Finney, were all remarkable men in their way, prolific authors and writers and vigorous thinkers. Seldom does a young school gather such men around it and in its Faculty. They established the Oberlin Evangelist, and afterward the Oberlin Quarterly, in which they might freely discuss the great questions of the day in theology and morals. Finney being the professor in theology, most of the assaults were made upon him, But he writes:

"During these years of smoke and dust, of misapprehension and opposition from without, the Lord was blessing us richly within. We not only prospered in our own souls here as a Church, but we had a continuous revival, or were in what might be properly regarded as a revival state. Our students were converted by scores, and the Lord overshadowed us continually with the cloud of His mercy. Gales of Divine influence swept over us from year to year, producing abundantly the fruits of the Spirit.

"I have always attributed our success in this good work entirely to the grace of God, It was no wisdom or goodness of our own that has achieved this success. Nothing but continued Divine influence pervading the community sustained us under our trials, and kept us in an attitude of mind in which we could be efficient in the work we had undertaken. We have always felt that if the Lord withheld His Spirit, no outward circumstances could make us truly prosperous.

"We have had trials among ourselves. Frequent subjects of public discussion have come up; and we have sometimes spent days, and even weeks, in discussing great questions of duty and expediency, on which we have not thought alike, But these questions have none of them permanently divided us. Our principle has been to accord to each other the right of private judgment. We have generally come to a substantial agreement on subjects upon which we had differed; and when we have found ourselves unable to see alike, the minority have submitted themselves to the judgment of the majority. . . We have to a very great extent preserved 'the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.' Perhaps no community has existed for such a length of time, and passed through such trials and changes as we have, that has, on the whole, maintained a greater spirit of harmony, Christian forbearance, and brotherly love.

"When the question of sanctification first came up, we were in the midst of a powerful revival, It was in 1836. Mahan had preached; Mr. Finney made some additional remarks on the subject, when the Spirit fell upon the audience. Many dropped their heads; some groaned audibly. Many got new hopes. President Mahan himself received the baptism with the Holy Ghost. It became a great question among the students and in the Church, We had no theories on the subject, no philosophy to maintain, but simply took it up as a Bible question. It this form it existed among us as an experimental truth which we did not attempt to reduce to a theological formula; nor did we attempt to explain its philosophy until years afterward. But the discussion of this question was a great blessing to us and to a great number of our students, who are now scattered in various parts of the country, or have gone abroad as missionaries to different parts of the world." (Pages 349-351.)