Christian people, are you figuring round and round to get a little property, yet neglecting souls? Beware lest you ruin souls that can never live again!
Charles Finney’s life spanned nearly the entire first century of U.S. presidents – from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant – and no single individual had more influence in the United States’ coming to be considered “A Christian Nation.” Finney’s revivals sparked the Second Great Awakening and unified the country around the Bible and the power of prayer, while his moral stances for social justice laid the foundations for everything from abolition to temperance to the civil rights movement. His teachings on Christian perfectionism inspired the Holiness Movement of the latter half of the nineteenth century and the Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements in the twentieth century. Finney’s evangelistic style and methods – include prayer meetings before and during the event, nightly meetings for weeks at a time, altar calls, and pushing for decisions before listeners leave the auditorium – influenced everyone from Dwight L. Moody to Billy Graham.
Charles Grandison Finney was born in Warren, Connecticut only a year after the death of John Wesley. He was the seventh child of Sylvester and Rebecca Finney. When Charles was about two years old, the family moved to Oneida County, New York, which, at the time, was a relative wilderness.
Sylvester, Sr. was a farmer who had fought in the Revolutionary War. In all the years Charles lived with his family, he had little religious education. Though Methodist circuit riders would speak in the local one-room schoolhouse from time to time, they were usually uneducated and rarely held their audience’s attention. Western New York at this time had become known as the “Burned-over District,” as it had seen so many preachers that the local population had grown immune to their preaching.
Charles the Lawyer
In 1818, Finney’s parents persuaded him to enter the law office of Judge Benjamin Wright in Adams, New York, not far from their home near Lake Ontario. Though he had never attended law school, young Finney’s mind took to the law profession with a passion.
It was in Adams that Finney met Reverend George W. Gale, the pastor of the town’s Presbyterian church. While Finney was not greatly moved by Gale’s sermons, he spent a good deal of time discussing them. Finney was determined to make sense of what he heard, but the more he talked with Gale, the more questions formed in his mind. Gale found Finney well-informed about religion but hardened to it.
At the same time, as Charles studied the law, he began to notice how writers quoted the Bible as a basis for many of the great principles of common law. This piqued Finney’s curiosity to the point that he went out and purchased his first Bible. Then, when he would come across legal texts that referred to Scripture passages, he would check the references and their biblical context. He soon found himself reading the Bible more and more, and with greater and greater interest.
Is God a Lie?
On Wednesday morning, October 10, 1821, Finney prepared himself for work, still mulling over these questions of God’s existence and the state of his eternal soul. When he set out for the law office that morning as he always did, a voice within confronted him: “What are you waiting for? Did you not promise to give your heart to God? And what are you trying to do? Are you endeavoring to work out a righteousness of your own?”1 The answer to these questions came just as suddenly:
Just at this point the whole question of Gospel salvation opened to my mind in a manner most marvelous to me at the time. I think I then saw, as clearly as I ever have in my life, the reality and fullness of the atonement of Christ. . . .
Without being distinctly aware of it, I had stopped in the street right where the inward voice seemed to arrest me. How long I remained in that position, I cannot say. But after this distinct revelation had stood for some little time before my mind, the question seemed to be put, “Will you accept it now, to-day?” I replied, “Yes; I will accept it to-day, or I will die in the attempt.” 2
Instead of going to work, he went into the woods and hiked over a small hill – he retreated to a place where some trees had fallen and formed a partially covered enclosure.
As he tried to pray, the words wouldn’t come. He was too concerned that someone would see him. When he realized what was holding him back, he said to himself, “What! . . . such a degraded sinner as I am, on my knees confessing my sins to the great and holy God; and ashamed to have any human being, and sinner like myself, find me on my knees endeavoring to make my peace with my offended God!” 3 A Scripture passage came to his mind: “Then shall ye . . . go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. [Then] ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:12–13). Charles seized this message, crying out, “Lord, I take thee at thy word. Now thou knowest that I do search for thee with all my heart, and that I have come here to pray to thee; and thou hast promised to hear me.” 4
Charles’s heart opened, and God filled it with promises from His Word. He accepted each personally, as if it had been made to him alone. Soon, Finney found himself on his way back to town with no idea how long he had been in the woods. He thought, “If I am ever converted, I will preach the Gospel.” He then realized that the despair for his soul was completely gone.
Meeting Jesus Face-to-Face
That afternoon, the law office employees were occupied with moving all of the furniture and books from one office to another. When it was dark and the move was complete, Judge Wright bade Finney good night and went home. Finney described what happened next:
As I went in and shut the door after me, it seemed as if I met the Lord Jesus Christ face to face. . . . I fell down at his feet and poured out my soul to him. I wept aloud like a child, and made such confessions as I could with my choked utterance. It seemed to me that I bathed his feet with my tears. . . .
I received a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost. . . . The Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me, body and soul. I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed it seemed to come in waves and waves of liquid love; for I could not express it in any other way. It seemed like the very breath of God. . . .
These waves came over me, and over me, and over me, one after the other, until I recollect I cried out, “I shall die if these waves continue to pass over me.” I said, “Lord, I cannot bear any more”; yet I had no fear of death. 5
Charles’s Anointing Starts to Spread
In the following months, Charles took it upon himself to undergo training to be a Presbyterian minister. It was suggested that he attend Princeton, but he opted instead to stay in Adams to be tutored by Rev. Gale and to study Gale’s library of religious books. He was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in March of 1824.
Finney did not desire to preach to an established church or regular congregation, so he took a six-month commission with a women’s missionary society in Oneida County in upstate New York, and traveled to the town of Evans Mills to begin his ministry. He traveled back and forth between there and a German settlement in Antwerp, ministering regularly at both.
At the time, Finney was engaged to Lydia Andrews of Whitestown in Oneida County, and they married in October 1824 and traveled to Adams. Two days after the wedding, Finney went back to Evans Mills with the intention of returning about one week later to move the couple’s home there. However, E2revival took off so quickly and the work was so much that Charles wouldn’t return until early the spring of 1825 – some six months later.
Meeting the Prayer Warrior
It was in Evans Mills that Charles was reacquainted with Daniel Nash, a minister he had first encountered when he was examined to be ordained. Charles soon learned that since they had last met, Nash had been infected with an eye disease that had left him lying in a dark room, unable to read or write. Because of his ailment, Nash had given himself almost entirely to prayer; eventually, he had emerged from the sickness physically healed and spiritually transformed into a man of intercessory prayer. As Finney and Nash began to pray together in meetings, Charles was deeply moved by the power of Nash’s prayers and the magnitude of his faith.
After meeting again at Evans Mills, Finney and Nash began working together. They determined to make the unchurched their primary focus. As Nash stated in a letter,
When Mr. Finney and I began our race, we had no thought of going amongst ministers. Our highest ambition was to go where there was neither minister or reformation and try to look up the lost sheep, for whom no man cared. We began and the Lord prospered. . . . We go into no man’s parish unless called. . . . We have room enough to work and work enough to do. 6
For the next seven years until his death, Nash became a key part of every meeting Charles led. Together, they learned a great deal about “praying down revival.” Nash was not timid in prayer – it was said his prayers could sometimes be heard up to half a mile away. When Father Nash died on December 20, 1831, Charles gave up his itinerant ministry within four months to take a position as a pastor.
The greatest outpouring of Charles’s life came in Rochester, New York, starting in September 1830. Lyman Beecher, one of Finney’s harshest critics in his early years, would eventually call the revival in Rochester “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.” 7 It was recorded that as many as eighty-five percent of those converted remained Christians years later.
It was a revival that touched all social classes – from civic and business leaders to schoolteachers, physicians, shopkeepers, farmers, and migrant workers. Bars closed for lack of patrons. Crime rates dropped dramatically and stayed low for years, even as the population grew. At one point, the teenagers in the local high school were so distraught about the condition of their souls that they paid no attention to their lessons, so the director invited Finney to come and speak. Nearly the entire student body was saved, including the director, who had originally thought it was a ploy by the students to get out of their work. Forty of the students went on to become ministers. One of these later wrote:
The whole community was stirred. Religion was the topic of conversation, in the house, in the shop, in the office and on the street. The only theater in the city was converted into a livery stable; the only circus into a soap and candle factory. Grog shops were closed; the Sabbath was honored; the sanctuaries were thronged with happy worshippers; a new impulse was given to every philanthropic enterprise; the fountains of benevolence where opened, and men lived to good. 8
The Rochester revival would prove to be the height of the Second Great Awakening and a spark to light the fuse of a national revival that ran like wildfire throughout the United States in 1831. A host of evangelists, including Beecher himself, took up the torch from Rochester, and the rolls of membership swelled in churches everywhere – Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Congregational, and others alike. New England churches grew by one-third in 1831 alone.
Charles Becomes a Professor
Charles soon took a pastoral position in New York City because of the toll itinerating had taken on his health. Revival continued to flow whenever Finney spoke in New York through the end of 1834 and into the winter of 1835. As a result, he was suddenly faced with a large number of young men who wanted to go into the ministry but had no proper place to be educated and ordained according to the Gospel as Finney preached it. Soon, the requests for Finney to teach theology grew numerous enough that he agreed and began a lecture series.
Around this time, there was a controversy at Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, that would soon take Finney’s career as a theology instructor a step further. The seminary was composed largely of converted young people from New York’s “Burned-over District” who firmly believed that owning slaves was a sin. Many of Lane Seminary’s trustees owned slaves themselves, however, and they tried to silence the students. Asa Mahan, a trustee, took up the students’ cause, and when the students left to start a new college in Oberlin, Ohio, Mahan left with them. He became the first president of Oberlin College, and the students requested Finney as their professor of theology. When the Tappan brothers offered to finance the professorship of Finney and seven others, Finney agreed to teach at Oberlin in the summer and return to pastor in New York City in the winter. The Finneys’ first summer in Oberlin was in 1835.
Oberlin College opened its doors to one hundred students when Finney began teaching there, and by 1840, five hundred students were enrolled. By the time Finney became the president of Oberlin in 1851, the college had more than one thousand students. After Finney’s death, U.S. President James Garfield affirmed to the student body of Oberlin “that no college in the land had more effectively touched the nerve centers of the national life and thought and ennobled them than did this institution to which Charles Finney devoted so many years of Christian service.” 9
A Deeper Baptism of the Holy Spirit
During his first years in Oberlin, Finney was troubled by the fact that some of those who had been converted during his revivals had since backslidden or fallen away from the faith. He began to think that Christians needed a deeper conversion, or “second blessing” beyond conversion, if they were going to live wholly sanctified lives on this earth. He came to believe that a further work of the Holy Spirit would allow Christians to live in holiness, thereby following Jesus’ exhortation in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:48 to “be ye perfect.” This belief would bring criticism on Oberlin, an institution that many people came to see as a den of extremists – chief among them, Finney and Mahan. The Second Blessing was a theme that Finney developed in his lectures at Oberlin, which would eventually be published as the two-volume Lectures on Systematic Theology. Finney would not experience anything along these lines in his own life, however, until the winter of 1843–1844.
During this winter, the Lord gave my own soul a very thorough overhauling, and a fresh baptism of his Spirit. . . . My mind was greatly drawn out in prayer, for a long time; as indeed it always has been, when I have labored in Boston. . . . This winter, in particular, my mind was exceedingly exercised on the question of personal holiness; and in respect to the state of the church, their want of power with God; the weakness of the orthodox churches in Boston, the weakness of their faith, and their want of power in the midst of such a community. The fact that they were making little or no progress in overcoming the errors of the city, greatly affected my mind. 10
Finney’s Deepest Setback
Back in Oberlin, Lydia Finney had grown more and more frail, something that was not helped by the pregnancy and birth of her fifth child, Sarah, in 1841. Sarah fell deathly ill early in 1843 and died on March 9. The Finneys’ sixth and final child, Delia Finney, was born in 1844 but would live only eight years, dying from illness on September 1, 1852. Lydia Finney died when Delia was only three on December 17, 1847.
The burden of work for his revivals and the busyness of his teaching schedule made it difficult – if not impossible – for Finney to remain a single parent. It was a tough decision to remarry, but on November 13, 1848, Asa Mahan, then president of Oberlin College, officiated at the marriage of Finney and Elizabeth Ford Atkinson, a widow from Rochester. Though the marriage of Finney and Elizabeth may have been more of a matter of convenience than of love, Elizabeth proved an able mother to Finney’s children, and Finney came to love and admire her over time as she became a positive influence on his ministry and family throughout their years together.
Charles’s Final Years
After many requests, Charles and Elizabeth traveled to Great Britain in the fall of 1849 to minister there. Finney again found success with the methods he had come to rely on in the United States, and Elizabeth found success holding meetings for women – a greater empowerment of women’s involvement in ministry was started under Finney’s leadership.
In 1851, Finney became the president of Oberlin College, but he continued to travel and lead revivals as his duties would allow him. Between 1851 and 1857, he would travel and preach in Boston, Massachusetts; New York City; Hartford, Connecticut; and again in Rochester. In 1859, he returned to England and pushed north to preach in Scotland. It was this last trip to the British Isles that taxed his health to its limits; after returning to the United States in 1860 at the beginning of the Civil War, Finney would not leave Oberlin again. On November 27, 1863, Elizabeth passed away. The following year, Finney married for the third time. His new wife, Rebecca Allen Rayl, was the assistant principal of Oberlin’s women’s department.
Though he continued to teach and preach in Oberlin for the rest of his days, Finney resigned from his position as college president in 1866. At the request of friends and colleagues, he would finish his Memoirs in 1868, even though they wouldn’t be published until a year after his death. Two weeks short of his eighty-third birthday, Finney passed away of natural causes as the first hints of autumn hung in the morning air of August 16, 1875.
Charles Finney, Memoirs of Charles Finney (New York: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1876), 14.
Ibid., 19- 21.
Paul Reno, Daniel Nash: Prevailing Prince of Prayer (Asheville, NC: Revival Literature, 1989), 7.
Finney, Memoirs, 300 – 301.
V. Raymond Edman, Finney Lives On (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1971), 68, quoted in Eddie L. Hyatt, 2000 Years of Charismatic Christianity: A 20th Century Look at Church History from a Pentecostal/Charismatic Perspective (Chicota, TX and Tulsa, OK: Hyatt International Ministries, Inc., 1996), 137.
Basil Miller, Charles Finney: He Prayed Down Revivals (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1951), 96–97.
Finney, Memoirs, 373 – 374, 380, 384.