Charles G. Finney: The Greatest Revivalist

by Bernard R. DeRemer

After Charles G. Finney's epochal revival at Rochester, N.Y., the district attorney declared that although population had risen three-fold, "…there are not one-third as many prosecutions for crime as there had been up to that time."

His campaign there from 1830-31 has been called the greatest year of spiritual awakening in American history, according to Charles Stanley.

Finney deserves to be remembered as America's most powerful revivalist. An estimated 500,000 persons were saved through his ministry, which helped to prepare for such later evangelists as D. L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham.

Finney was born at Warren, Connecticut, in 1792, of early New England stock; his father served in the Revolution. The family migrated westward, settling in Oneida County, New York, where young Charles grew up amid pioneer conditions and attended local schools.

Charles G. FinneyFinney began his career practicing law at Adams, New York; there he first came across references to Mosaic institutions. At that time, he did not even own a Bible! Strangely enough, he had received little religious training, and "what preaching he had heard repelled him."

However, his interest was aroused; after a period of independent Bible study, and some violent struggling, he trusted Christ as Savior on October 10, 1821, receiving a "mighty baptism of the Holy Spirit." It was a momentous decision with far-reaching results.

Immediately, law lost its appeal. He felt called to preach but refused to attend Princeton Seminary because of its "false philosophy." So he studied privately under his pastor and other clergymen, developing his theology largely on the basis of his own knowledge of the Scriptures.

The presbytery licensed him and he was ordained an evangelist in 1824. Later that year he married Lydia Andrews.

Finney's revivals in Eastern states attracted attention all over the country. Trained in the law, he used logic brilliantly to persuade many.

In 1832 he became pastor of the Second Free Presbyterian Church in New York City. However, after he grew dissatisfied with some Presbyterian practices, the Broadway Tabernacle was organized for him. It seated 2,500 people within eighty feet of the speaker (in the days before microphones). It became Congregational in polity.

Later he was associated with Oberlin [Ohio] College, serving as president from 1851-66. His first year, enrollment jumped from 571 to 1,070. From 1835-72 he also pastored the First Congregational Church of Oberlin.

His campaign at Rochester, according to Lyman Beecher, "was the greatest work of God, and the greatest revival of religion that the world has ever seen in so short a time. It brought hundreds into area churches; "taverns closed because they had so few customers."

There Finney first used in large measure the "mourner's bench," placed at the front of the gathering for anxious inquirers. Some variation of this arrangement characterizes most other evangelist crusades today.

In 1994, Reader's Digest called Rochester "Our Kindest City," and found that "the influence of Finney's powerful message is still felt[there]." While memories of the evangelist have naturally dimmed over the years, "his teaching has endured…."

Finney was "in general a New School Calvinist," but emphasized "the individual's ability to repent….He also taught that sin and holiness…cannot coexist in a person." He opposed popular amusements and other activities that might prove a hindrance to holiness. He strongly advocated temperance, and even opposed the use of tobacco, tea, and coffee.

After his first wife died, he married Elizabeth Ford Atkinson. Following her homegoing, he married Rebecca Allen Rayl, an assistant principal of the Oberlin women's department.

In 1849-50 and again in 1859-60, Finney traveled to Great Britain, where his preaching had great effect.

Finney's influence was multiplied extensively through his writings, published in the Oberlin Evangelist and other media. When I last checked, twenty-three of his books were still available. Among the most widely read are his Autobiography and Lectures on Revivals, which has been translated into several languages.

Jonathan Goforth, the outstanding pioneer missionary, attributed "the great revival in China (1906) to the application of the principles he found in [Finney's] books."

One historian said that Finney "unleashed a mighty impulse to social reform by insisting that new converts make their lives count for the Kingdom of God."

Prayer was vital in Finney's life and work. Once he advised a young preaching student:

"I am convinced that nothing in the whole Christian religion is so difficult, and so rarely attained, as a praying heart. Without this you are as weak as weakness itself. If you lose your spirit of prayer, you will do nothing, or next to nothing, though you had the intellectual endowment of an angel…. The blessed Lord deliver and preserve His dear church from the guidance and influence of men who know not what it is to pray."

Finney, who went to be with the Lord in 1875, is remembered as "one of the most conspicuous figures in the world's religious life" and the "greatest evangelist and theologian since the days of the Apostles."

His principles are so widely used he is justly acclaimed as the "Father of Modern Revivalism."