(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The foremost revivalist of the nineteenth century, Charles Grandison Finney was born in Connecticut and reared in upstate New York. While studying law, he underwent a religious conversion and began to study for the ministry. Ordained a Presbyterian, he conducted numerous revivals in upstate New York and in New England before becoming a Congregationalist and president of Oberlin College in Ohio, the first coeducational college. His New Measures revivalism revolutionized American religion during the Second Great Awakening.

Jonathan Edwards described the beginning of the First Great Awakening in a book titled A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton (1737). For Edwards, a revival was a surprise, a miracle. The Puritans believed that conversion came only to the elect; all that one could do was wait to see if one would be a recipient of God’s grace.

Finney saw things differently. “Religion is something to do, not something to wait for,” he says. He himself had a sudden conversion on October 10, 1821, and he approached the ministry as he had the study of law. He approached a congregation as he would a jury; he laid out the facts and told them the choice of whether to accept God was theirs, now. He advises a minister to “preach just as he would talk, if he wishes to be fully understood. . . . The minister ought to do as the lawyer does when he wants to make a jury understand him perfectly. He uses a style perfectly colloquial.” After all, Finney writes, “human agency is just as indispensable to a revival as divine agency.”

After a very successful career holding revivals in upstate New York and then in all of the major cities of the East Coast, Finney became pastor of Chatham Chapel in New York City in 1832. The first of these twenty-two Friday-night lectures on “Revivals of Religion” was published in the New York Evangelist on December 6, 1834. They were collected in book form in May, 1835.

Finney begins by arguing that “Religion is the work of man. It is something for man to do.” A revival is not a miracle but “the result of the right use of the appropriate means.” For Finney the appropriate means were his “new measures”: protracted meetings, the anxious bench, the anxious meeting, colloquial preaching, praying for people by name, and most controversial of all, allowing women to pray in mixed assemblies.

Finney began with a strong belief in free will. Because God has commanded us to repent of our sins, that “is the highest possible evidence that we can do it . . . equivalent to an oath that we can do it. He has no right to command, unless we have power to obey.” Thus “conversion consists in the right employment of the sinner’s own agency.” In conversion the sinner apprehends the truth and wills to obey it, then turns from selfishness to benevolence, from willing his or her own self-gratification to willing the highest good for all.

Finney said that he believed in total depravity, but it certainly was not the traditional Calvinist interpretation. He defined it not as a “disease” of transmitted guilt, nor any constitutional inability to obey God, nor any inherited...

(The entire section is 1348 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Cross, Whitney R. The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006. Details the milieu in which Finney’s revivals took place and outlines their impact.

Dayton, Donald. Discovering an Evangelical Heritage. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. A series of essays analyzing Finney and his compatriots.

Finney, Charles Grandison. The Autobiography of Charles G. Finney: The Life Story of America’s Greatest Evangelist, in His Own Words. Condensed and edited by Helen Wessel. Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House, 2006. Finney’s own account of his life, also published as Memoirs.

Finney, Charles Grandison. Reflections on Revival. Compiled by Donald Dayton. Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1979. A full reprint of his Letters on Revivals. Outlines his social views.

Finney, Charles Grandison. Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. The best analysis of how revivalism fits into the American story and social history in general.

McLoughlin, William Gerald. Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham. New York: Ronald Press, 1959. Good, although dated, analysis of revivalism with major emphasis on Finney.

Perciaccante, Marianne. Calling Down Fire: Charles Grandison Finney and Revivalism in Jefferson County, New York, 1800-1840. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. Uses Finney as a prime example of how revivalism succeeded, analyzing the development of reform movements. Includes a bibliography and index.

Smith, Timothy L. Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War. 1957. With a new afterword by the author. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980. The classic treatment of the Second Great Awakening and Finney’s role in it.