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Charles Finney - Revivalist

Charles G. Finney

by Dennis Pollock

Any serious study of the great revivals of church history will reveal the name of the nineteenth century evangelist Charles Finney again and again. Finney was more than an evangelist; he seemed to be a lightning rod for the power of God that transformed lives, churches, and communities. He possessed one of the keenest minds since the apostle Paul, but he was no dry intellectual. Combining a burning love for Christ with his brilliant intellect, Finney’s ministry left a profound mark upon his own generation, and has been influencing the church ever since.

As a youth Finney exhibited remarkable abilities in almost every area. He was a natural athlete and could best his peers at any sport. He had a beautiful singing voice, a ready wit, loads of charisma, and obvious leadership abilities. The one thing he was lacking was the knowledge of God and the Bible. Finney’s parents had little use for spiritual things and their gifted son grew up, as he put it, “as ignorant of religion as a heathen.”

After studying law under a prominent attorney, Finney was admitted to the bar in his late twenties. A successful and distinguished career in law and perhaps politics seemed easily within his grasp. Strangely Finney was drawn toward the church, even in his “heathen” state. He began to attend a local church regularly and his musical talents quickly convinced the pastor to appoint him as leader over the choir. He attended prayer meetings, thoughtfully analyzed the pastor’s sermons, and wondered why the Christians prayed so much for the revival of their community but never seemed to have their prayers answered.

At the age of twenty-nine, the young lawyer became concerned about his soul. On a Wednesday morning he went out into the woods, determined to stay there until he had experienced the new birth. At first he seemed unable to pray, but eventually began to remember promises of the Scriptures and started claiming them one by one, for his own salvation. Finney returned home in perfect peace. His new life in Christ had begun.

Introduction to the Spirit

God was not through with Finney. That evening he was about to sit by the fire and contemplate the events of the day, when he experienced a powerful filling of the Holy Spirit. He writes: “I received a mighty baptism of the Holy Spirit. Without any expectation of it, without ever having the thought in my mind that there was any such thing for me, without any memory of ever hearing the thing mentioned by any person in the world, the Holy Spirit descended upon me, body and soul… Indeed it seemed to come in waves of liquid love… No words can express the wonderful love that was spread abroad in my heart. I wept aloud with joy and love. I literally bellowed out the unspeakable overflow of my heart. These waves came over me… until I remember crying out, “I shall die if these waves continue to pass over me… Lord, I cannot bear any more.”

The next day Finney went about the town eager to converse with people about this glorious Christ who had so transformed him. So great was the anointing of the Spirit upon him that he reported, “I cannot remember one whom I spoke with, who was not soon after converted.” Finney instinctively knew Jesus Christ had called him to preach the gospel, and when a man came up to him to ask him to represent him in court, Finney replied, “I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead His cause, and I cannot plead yours.”

Finney began to study for the ministry under his local pastor, George Gale. It didn’t take long for sharp disagreements to develop between teacher and pupil. Gale was a strict hypercalvinist who could not preach on repentance without informing his hearers that they possessed no natural ability to repent. He would never urge sinners to come to Christ immediately, believing that all must wait for God’s sovereign time to discover if they were truly one of the elect. Finney thought such ideas were nonsense, both from a practical and a Biblical standpoint. Even in non-theological aspects of ministry Finney sharply disagreed with his teacher. When Gale urged Finney to write and read his sermons from a manuscript, Finney replied, “What would be thought of a lawyer who would stand up before a jury and read an essay to them? He would lose his case!”

But while Finney had been submitting to training under Gale, he was also coming to some conclusions of his own, not at all commensurate with his teacher's views. He came to strongly reject the hypercalvinism of his day and to believe that the gospel was for “whosoever wills.” He concluded that successful evangelism included the proclamation of God’s holy laws (to convict sinners of their need for a Savior) and the lifting up of Jesus Christ and His love (to draw sinners to the Savior). Soon these truths would pour forth from his lips in a torrent of Holy Spirit power and eloquence.

Birth of a Ministry

After concluding his personal studies with his pastor, he launched out. He deliberately set out for small towns and villages, feeling he was not qualified to preach in large cities or to educated congregations. His first efforts were at a small congregational church in Evans Mills, New York. He agreed to preach as a fill-in pastor there, intending to do evangelistic work throughout the area. The small church was impressed with their eloquent young preacher, but the preacher was not so impressed with his congregation. Although they frequently complimented his sermons, very few unconverted gave any evidence of turning toward Christ.

The problem was more with their theological background than Finney’s sermons. Along with much of America at that time they had been taught that no one could simply call upon Christ for salvation and be born again. In true hypercalvinistic fashion, they believed you must wait patiently for God’s time, and He would save you “irresistibly” without any effort on your part (if you were chosen). Thus no matter how powerfully Finney preached, those who were not saved refused to budge.

This was too much for the passionate young preacher. Finney soon decided to force the issue. At the end of an evening service, he challenged all present to stand up and give their hearts to Christ. He declared that to stay seated would be an indication that they refused Christ and rejected the gospel. When Finney finished there was a stunned silence. No one stood up, which was what Finney had expected. They had never been so challenged before and the idea of receiving Christ through an act of the will seemed almost sacrilegious. Finney told the astonished audience:

Then you are committed. You have taken your stand. You have rejected Christ and His gospel and you are witnesses one against the other and God is witness against you all… You may remember as long as you live that you have publicly committed yourselves against the Savior and said, “We will not have this man, Christ Jesus, to reign over us.”

The people rose up to leave, furious at the audacity of the young preacher. Finney announced he would preach once more, the following night. The next day he and a godly friend spent the entire day in prayer, and by the time the service began the small church was packed. Talk had spread all over town about the outrageous demands of Finney, and everyone wanted to come and hear what else he might have to say. Finney went to the pulpit without any notes, trusting the Holy Spirit to give him the message the people needed. He preached under a tremendous anointing for an hour and a half, and revival erupted in Evan Mills. So strong was the power in the room that one woman fainted and could not speak for the next sixteen hours. When she regained her voice she was a new creation in Christ. More people came to Christ in the next few days than had in many years previously. The reviving work of the Holy Spirit that burst forth in that small church in the tiny hamlet of Evan Mills would eventually touch all of America and spread throughout the world. God’s instrument had been prepared and was now available for service.

There was some opposition to the revival, much of it coming in the form of criticism and mocking from one particular skeptic. Every day this man would heap contempt upon the revival movement and Finney. But his blasphemies and criticisms were cut short when he had a stroke. When a doctor was called, he told the man that he would soon be dead; if he had anything to say he should say it now. With his dying breath the man stammered, “Don’t let Finney pray over my corpse!”

Although Finney had considered himself unfit to preach before educated audiences in the larger cities, his ministry would ultimately take him to the major cities of the nation. Wherever he preached he looked for more than mere evangelism to take place – he looked for revival, an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that would transform the very fabric of the church and the region. When he had time to stay in one place and enlist a number of people to pray with him, the revival usually came. Indeed shortly after getting married, he went for a brief ministry trip and could not make it back to his bride. He experienced so much blessing and revival in the towns where he was preaching that it seemed it would be grieving the Holy Spirit to leave them. He labored several months without seeing his new bride and finally had to send someone to get her and bring her to him.

Summing Up

Throughout his long and useful life, Charles Finney had a keen awareness of the Holy Spirit and the anointing that the Spirit provided. When the Spirit did not seem to be evident he was deeply Dovetroubled. Finney writes that after his baptism in the Spirit:

I immediately found myself endued with such power from on high that a few words dropped here and there to individuals were the means of their immediate conversion. My words seemed to fasten like barbed arrows in the souls of men…Sometimes I would find myself, in a great measure, empty of this power. I would go out and visit, and find that I made no saving impression. I would exhort and pray, with the same result. I would then set apart a day for private fasting and prayer, fearing that this power had departed from me, and would inquire anxiously after the reason of this apparent emptiness. After humbling myself, and crying out for help, the power would return upon me with all its freshness. This has been the experience of my life.

As effective as Finney was as an evangelist, he is not the best source of solid Biblical theology. Nearly all who study Finney's theology conclude that in rejecting the hypercalvinism that prevailed in his day, he went considerably too far to the opposite extreme. He saw such phenomenal success in his evangelistic endeavors that he became intractable and inflexible in his views, insisting that he would only listen to men who saw results in a measure equal to his own. He failed to recognize that God's sovereign gifts and anointings do not make for a blanket endorsement of one's Biblical interpretations. Nevertheless, when Finney was preaching evangelistically he was unmatched. Not only did his preaching move people to accept Christ, but most of these converts remained true to the faith – at a rate far higher than those who make professions of faith today. Finney loved Jesus passionately and preached with a measure of the power of the Spirit that few have ever known. His life and ministry serve as a classic demonstration of the truth that God does not require perfection of life or doctrine before He uses a man or a woman for His glory.

Charles Finney has long been dead but the same Holy Spirit that empowered Him is available to all believers today. We are not all called to be evangelists or revivalists, but we are all called to be effective in our respective callings through the power of the Spirit. Finney’s ministry secrets –  prayer, lifting up Jesus Christ, dependence upon the Holy Spirit – are not outdated. May the example of Charles Finney inspire us to refuse to rest until we are satisfied that we have the power of the Holy Spirit at work in our own lives.

--- “I want you to have high ideas of the Holy Spirit and to feel that nothing good will be done without His influences. No praying or preaching will be of any avail without Him. If Jesus Christ were to come down here and preach to sinners, not one would be converted without the Spirit. Be careful, then, not to grieve Him away, by slighting or neglecting His heavenly influences when He invites you to pray.”  -- Charles G. Finney

For further study we recommend you read Autobiography of Charles G. Finney edited by Helen Wessel.

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