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Charles Finney | Pt 1

Charles G. Finney:“If religion is true, why don’t you convert Finney? If you Christians can convert Finney, I will believe in religion.” resident of Adams, New York

Charles Grandison Finney was well known for his skepticism regarding Christianity. It wasn’t the precepts in the Bible or the trueness of God’s Word that caused his doubt. It was the lives and actions of those the Word was supposed to inspire. The lives of the “converted”, he believed, were no better or different than non-Christians except the Christians, because they have no faith in what they believe, walk in a “perishing hope.” He was appalled at how the Christians would take the principles laid out in the Bible, the Word of God, and apply them, in such a compromising way, to fit their current life styles. The denominational doctrines that were sweeping New York, at that time, were as he would so elegantly call, during his evangelistic ministry, “stupid theology.”

Finney was nearly thirty years old before his skepticism turned to a wholehearted embrace of the Bible and the Lord, Jesus, his savior. He soon became the most note-worthy revivalist in the nineteenth century. Wherever he went revival would break out, even in areas considered hardened and unreceptive to the gospel. Great powerful manifestations of the Holy Spirit would precede and follow him from town to town. He would begin a sermon, speak two lines, and perverse and hardened sinners would cry out for mercy and repent. These were committed church people whose lives were, up to that time, neither converted or changed. He was the first evangelist to begin having public invitations, to place an emphasis on personal decisions to Christ, and to encourage counseling for both new converts and those seeking more of God. He had in all his meetings and "anxious seat" for those to come and sit who were desperate for more of God or needed prayer for salvation and repentance.

He went straight at the "doctrines of demons" that were infiltrating the church on a grand scale. One question that was often asked is "Why does God allow evil in the world." Finney would reply that, God did not create the world with evil in it. It was man and his own pride that allowed evil into creation and a free reign over his affairs. Another form of "Stupid Theology" was the belief that God was so good that he would not send anyone to hell. Finney's answered:

The goodness of God is no argument against the punishment of sin, but the very reverse of this. (His goodness) is the reason why sin should be punished and will be. Men say that God is too good to punish sin and may profess to hold that His goodness explodes the doctrine of future punishment. But really not one of these men is ever afraid that God would be unjust. Yet they fear Him. And the thing that they at heart fear is that he is good and too good to let sin pass unpunished. They are afraid He is good, and so good, that He cannot fail to punish sin."

Finney's travel and ministry was mostly upstate New York and a few northeastern states. It is estimated that over 250,000 souls were converted as a result of his preaching. Over eighty-five in every hundred persons professing conversion to Christ in Finney's meetings remained true to God. Whereas seventy percent of those professing Christ in meetings of even so great an evangelist as D.L. Moody afterward became backsliders. One who attended his revival meetings wrote:

"Emptied of self, he was filled with the Holy Ghost. His sermons were chained lightning, flashing conviction into the hearts of the stoutest skeptics. Simple as a child in his utterances, he sometimes startled his hearers by his unique prayers."

In the records of revival in America, Charles Finney stands as a giant. Rumors went from city to city that he was a giant indeed. Those who saw him through tear-soaked eyes and looking up, being prostrate on the ground, crying out in repentance said he stood at least seven feet tall with "beady, piercing eyes." In reality this "beady-eyed" man of God stood six feet two and weighted one hundred and eighty-five pounds. He was not your average evangelist. He would stay in some places for months and not be fazed at all when some sinner, maddened by what Finney preached, would noisily stamp out of the meeting, followed in some cases by the whole congregation. Finney knew what had to be preached to these broad road, sliding straight into hell, dying Christians and if he lost men by his strong preaching he regained them by prayer. Finney offers ministers some practical advice:

"Preaching should be direct. Preach the Gospel to people, not about them. The minister should preach to his hearers about themselves, and leave no impression he talks about someone else. To do any good he must succeed in convincing each individual that he addresses only him or her. Many pastors fear people might think they refer to someone specific, so they preach against sins and have nothing to say about the sinner. They speak as if no one in their congregation could ever be guilty of such abominations. This is anything but preaching the Gospel. Neither the prophets, Christ, nor the apostles preached indirectly, nor do pastors who consistently bring people to Christ."

Finney shares a conversation he overheard while visiting England:

"The bishop of London was asking David Garrick (a renowned actor of that time) why actors could play a fictional part and make everyone cry, while pastors could preach the most solemn realities yet hardly ever get a congregation's attention. Garrick replied well: 'It is because we represent fiction as a reality, and you represent reality as a fiction." That is why, Finney goes on to say, that, "theaters will be thronged every night...and sinners will go to hell!"

Charles G. Finney was born in Warren, Connecticut, on August 27, 1792. When he was two, his family moved to Oneida County, New York, which was mostly wilderness at that time. Even though his grandfather, Josiah Finney, was instrumental in founding a Congregational church in Connecticut, both Finney's parents were Christians. In their new location there were very few religious people among their neighbors. Finney had no spiritual upbringing and he seldom heard a sermon, unless it was from some travelling minister. Finney recollects, "the people would return from the meetings laughing at the absurdities of the preaching."

Finney studied Law from 1818 to 1821, moved to Adams, New York and worked for the law office of Squire Wright. Finney never enjoyed any opportunity for, as he called them, "religious privileges" or ever lived in a praying community. Since he was settling down he thought he would accept the invitations of the town folks to visit their church.

"The religion in that place was not at all calculated to arrest my attention. The preaching there was by an aged clergyman who read his sermons in a manner that left no impression on my mind...monotonous, humdrum...I must confess that to me it was not much like preaching."

Finney would turn to the Bible, not out of a want for salvation, but because as he studied elementary law, many of the old authors frequently quoted the Scripture as authority for many of the great principles of common law.

"I went and purchased a Bible, the first I ever owned. Whenever I found a reference by the law authors to the Bible, I turned to the passage of Scripture. This soon led to my taking a new interest in the Bible, and I read and meditated on it much more than I had ever done before in my life. However, much of it I did not understand."

Up to that time Finney had never lived where he could attend a regular prayer meeting. So he began to attend one that was held near his office every week. About this time the local Presbyterian church brought in a new pastor, Rev. George W. Gale. His way of teaching was thoroughly Calvinistic. Finney began attending the church and would later write:

"I was not able to gain very much instruction from his preaching because, as I sometimes told him, he seemed to assume many things that to my mind needed to be proved...I was more perplexed than edified by his teaching."

To Finney's delight, Rev. Gale would come by Squire Wright's law office on Mondays to discuss the previous day's sermon. Rev. Gale considered Finney as one of the "lost Sheep" and what better way to find out how his sermon was accepted by sinners. He also would use Finney as the "devils advocate" and talk to him about his upcoming sermons picking up pointers as to where to best confront the "masses of lostness." Finney did not disappoint him. Using the talent of an attorney in the courtroom, he was often "harsh and sometimes ungracious" in his criticism. Finney remarked:

"I used to converse with him freely; and I now think I criticized his sermons unmercifully. I raised such objections against his positions as forced...upon my attention."

As a result of these meetings with Rev. Gale, Finney reported that "we had a great many interesting conversations; but they seemed rather to stimulate my own mind to inquiry, than to satisfy me in respect to the truth." Which was actually what the "sly" pastor wanted him to do in the first place.

Finney noticed a growing restlessness within himself. He realized that he was in no means in a state of mind to go to heaven if he should die. But his mind was still not made up to the truth or falsehood of the gospel and of the Christian religion. It was to important to rest in uncertainty.

Another aspect of the church that concerned Finney was prayer. He noticed, in the prayer meeting, from week to week that the prayers that were being offered were not getting answered.

"I understood from their utterances in prayer, and from other remarks in their meetings, that those who offered them did not regard them as answered."

Such inconsistency in people's prayers "almost drove me into skepticism" he remarked. He knew some of the Bible's promises by that time especially what Christ said regarding prayer, "Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you; for everyone that asks receives; and he that seeks finds; and to him that knocks it shall be opened" (Matthew 7:7-8) Finney noted that the "teachings of the Bible did not at all accord with the facts which were before my eyes."

At one prayer meeting when asked if he desired people to pray for him, he quickly stepped back and refused. Looking at them with his piercing eyes and with a voice that would shake a jury awake he said:

"NO! Because I do not see that God answers your prayers. 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 you do not receive. You have been praying for revival of religion ever since I came to Adams, and yet you have it not. You have been praying for the Holy Ghost to descend upon yourselves, and yet complaining of your leanness. 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."

He came to the conclusion that the people failed to meet the conditions for prayer, especially their faith. He finally came to the realization that in spite of what he didn't understand, or the people or the pastor didn't understand, the Bible was the true Word of God. With that settled in his heart Finney "was brought face to face with the question whether I would accept Christ as presented in the gospel, or pursue a worldly course of life. At this period, my mind, as I have since known, was so much impressed by the Holy Ghost, that I could not long leave this question unsettled; nor could I long hesitate between the two courses of life presented to me."

On one Sunday night in the autumn of 1821, Finney decided that no matter what it took he would give his life to God. Over the next two days he was in constant prayer and supplication, wrestling with God over those things in his life that needed to change. On the way to his office that Wednesday, Finney had a revelation from God...stopped in his tracks he cried out, "Lord I will meet you today, or I will die in the attempt." Instead of going to his office he headed to a grove of woods, over the hill, away from all human eyes and ears. He went into the woods about a quarter of a mile. He found some trees that had fallen across each other, leaving an open place in between and at this place he knelt down to pray. Suddenly the Scripture came to his mind, "Then you will...pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:12-13). Finney cried out to God, "Lord, I take you at your Word. You know that I am searching for You with all my heart and that I have come here to pray to You, and You have promised to hear me." The blessings of God began to fill him and he remembered:

"I continued to pray in this way and to receive and take hold of promises for a long time---I do not know how long. I prayed until my mind was so full that...I was on my feet and tripping up the hill toward the road...I recollect saying with great emphasis, ‘I will preach the Gospel!" That evening while in prayer in the back room of his office Jesus revealed Himself to Finney, and without any "recollection that I had ever heard it mentioned by any person in the world, I received a mighty Baptism of the Holy Ghost."

Finney's conversion soon began to have an immediate impact on the city. Finney was prostrate on the floor travailing and weeping as the power of the Holy Spirit continued to flow through him when a member of his church came to his office to see him. "Mr Finney what ails you?" he asked, "are you in pain?" Finney replied, "No, but I am so happy that I cannot live." The man left and in a few minutes came back with an elder of the church. Elder B---- was a very serious man, and no one had ever seen him smile or laugh, as he walked into the room where Finney was the power of the Holy Spirit fell upon him and he broke out in holy spontaneous laughter from the very bottom of his heart glorifying the Lord Jesus. A young man who Rev. Gale had told not to hang around Finney because he was a bad influence, arrived at the office to hear Finney describe what had happened to him. He listened in astonishment to what had happened and in the "greatest of agony fell upon his knees" and cried "Do pray for me." They all prayed for him and then left to spread the unlikely news.

Word spread like wild-fire. The next day Finney went around the city telling as many as he could about their souls. People were convicted on the spot, falling to their knees and asking for prayer in the middle of the streets. Finney learned afterward that some time before this, some members of the church had proposed to make him a subject of prayer. The Rev. Gale had discouraged them, saying that he did not believe that Finney would ever be converted because he was very much "enlightened upon the subject of religion but very much hardened." The next day Rev. Gale humbly confessed his lack of faith.

One old lawyer, also living in Adams, heard that Finney was converted and said it was all a hoax. That night a church meeting was called. The people seemed to rush to the church. All the shakers and movers were there and the church was packed to its utmost capacity. Finney then rose and told them that he knew that "religion was from God. I went on and told such parts of my experience as it seemed important for me to tell. A Mr. C----who promised his wife that if I was converted he would believe in up, pressed through the crowd, and went home, leaving his hat." The old lawyer who said it was all a hoax, also left and went home saying Finney was crazy "Is he (Finney) in earnest, there is no mistake; but he is deranged, that is clear."

The Holy Spirit fell on everyone at the church that evening, many accepted it while others could not take the revelation and left. Revival broke out in Adams that night. Meetings continued night after night with people arriving from the surrounding areas. The work of God spread among all classes of people and flowed not only through Adams but also out into the other towns and villages as well.

Jeremiah 1:10 "See, I have this day set you over the kingdoms, to root out and to pull down, to destroy and to throw down, to build and to plant."

To be continued...

JJ (Dark) Di Pietro
Cane Creek Church