CHARLES G. FINNEY: THE ARCHITECT
OF MODERN EVANGELISM
He tried methods no one else would and almost everything he tried
by Thomas R. Browning
[Part of larger work entitled "C.G.Finney: The Architect of Modern Evangelism,"
presented by the writer to the Department of Pastoral Ministries of Dallas
Theological Seminary in April 2001]
When the fireworks associated with Charles Finney began to light up
the skies of western New York in 1823, everyone noticed. Some noticed
his appearance, which was understandable, for Finney cut a striking figure.
He was tall, surprisingly tall for his times, a full six foot two inches.
He was thin and unusually refined for a self-educated New York rustic.
He had a pleasant, resonant voice and no early description of him ever
failed to note his exquisite, almost hypnotic, steel blue eyes.
Still, most people focused less on the man and more on his innovative
and often controversial methods. He tried methods no one else would and
almost everything he tried worked. Those that admired him attempted to
copy him. Those that disapproved of him pilloried him without quarter.
But two things are certain; Finney was not a man that could be ignored
and everyone, friend and foe, wanted to better understand the reasons
for his extraordinary success in promoting revivals.
The issue of Finney's success has drawn scholars since the earliest days
of his ascent. He has been posited as everything from an archetypal, Jacksonian-era,
self-made American, in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln, to the fountainhead
of all that is wrong with modern evangelicalism. The truth lies somewhere
in the middle.
The fact is that Finney was an extraordinary man. But he was not extraordinary
in the same sense as Luther or Calvin; he was extraordinary in the same
sense as Henry Ford. His genius lay in his vision for the mass-production
of revivals on command. But he was not, at first, driven by ideology;
he was driven by results and his underlying ideas were pragmatically shaped,
modified and altered to perpetuate his success. His underlying theological
conclusions were not set down permanently until after the close of his
itinerant, revivalist career and there is evidence that even he changed
his positions from time to time. It was only when Finney became a settled
educator and began to instruct others on how to promote revivals that
his theological undergirding began to be fully exposed.
In the beginning at least, Finney claimed he had been an open book. In
his Memoirs, Finney recalled once that he had left off a revival he was
conducting when he heard that Asahel Nettleton, a famous revivalist in
his own right, was at nearby Albany) New York. Finney went down to see
"I had had the greatest confidence in Mr Nettleton, though I had
never seen him. I had had the greatest desire to see him, so much so that
I had frequently dreamed of visiting him and obtaining from him information
in regard to the best means in regard to promoting a revival. I wanted
exceedingly to see him, and felt like sitting at his feet, almost as I
would at the feet of an apostle, from what I had heard of his success
in promoting revivals. At that time my confidence in him was so great
that I think he could have led me almost or quite at his discretion."
What is striking about Finney's recollection is that his focus was so
specific. He was not primarily interested in learning theology or even
in being spiritually mentored. He only wanted to learn from Nettleton
the 'best means' of conducting a revival. He was willing to be led, or
so he said, as long as the instruction was instrumental in further perfecting
his craft. But Nettleton snubbed him; he refused to spend any significant
time with Finney. He discouraged him from attending his services and he
even insisted that they not be seen together in public. Clearly, Finney
made Nettleton nervous. Most likely, Nettleton was either fearful that
his name would somehow be connected with Finney or that being seen in
his presence might somehow be taken as an approbation of all that Finney
In the end, it did not matter. Nettleton's actions clearly hurt Finney's
pride, but they did not stop him. Finney recovered with a vengeance. Later,
he even recounted his gratitude that Nettleton had not made himself readily
"He kept me at arm's length and although as I have said we conversed
on some points of theology then much discussed, it was plain that he was
unwilling to say any thing regarding revivals and would not allow me to
accompany him to meetings. This was the only time I saw him until I met
him in the convention at New Lebanon. At no time did Mr N. ever try to
correct my views in relation to revivals. After I heard more of his views
and practices in promoting revivals I was thankful to God that he never
did influence me upon that subject."
But if Finney really had been amenable to instruction in the beginning,
as he argued, subsequent success caused him to become more entrenched
in his own views. Years of acclaim and hundreds if not thousands of converts,
convinced him that he had taken the correct path. He would later justify
his methodology and whatever theology was attached to it simply on the
basis of its success. To Finney, the primary focus was always on measurable
"I used to say to ministers whenever they contended with me about
my manner of preaching, and desired me to adopt their ideas and preach
as they did, that I dared not make the change they desired. I said: 'Show
me a more excellent way. Show me the fruits of your ministry; and if the
fruits of your ministry so far exceed mine as to give me evidence that
you have found out a more excellent way than I have, I will adopt your
views. But do you expect me to abandon my own views and practices and
adopt yours, when you yourselves cannot deny that, whatever errors I may
have fallen into, or whatever imperfections there may be in my preaching
style, and in everything else, - yet the results unspeakably surpass the
results of yours?'"
Clearly then, Finney concentrated on results and so did his followers.
Because of that, they were always concerned with acquiring newer and even
more successful means. Some of his uneducated, less refined followers
wound up going too far. They laughed like idiots or barked like dogs and
in doing so became caricatures, much less like Finney and more like the
fanatics of Cane Ridge or the notorious Davenport whose excesses had earlier
harmed the work of God in the eighteenth century. It troubled Nettleton
so much that he wrote:
"Whoever has made himself acquainted with the state of things in
New England near the close of the revival days of Whitefield and Edwards
cannot but weep over its likeness to the present."
Nevertheless, even the better-educated men emulated his methods in order
to obtain his results. Nathaniel S. Beman, one of Finney's most ardent
supporters, expressed a representative attitude in an invitation to Finney
to come to his church in Troy. Beman pleaded with Finney to come over
and help him, 'I hope we look to God, but we must have means.'
It was those 'means', of course, that drew the ire of Finney's critics.
They focused on his methodology. Many were incensed by his use of radically
'new measures in the promotion of revivals. They focused on his use of
protracted meetings, his use of a radical new style of preaching, his
confrontational manner, his public condemnation of established ministers,
his permitting women to pray publicly in open meetings and especially
his use of the 'prayer of faith' and the 'anxious bench'. The extraordinary
thing is that for five years his 'new measures were the only thing on
which they focused. That can be partly explained by the fact that Finney
was slow to get into print. In fact, some of his earliest sermons were
transcribed and printed by his critics solely for the purpose of disparaging
him, which meant that some of the earlier reports concerning him have
to be taken with a large pinch of salt. But whether the criticisms levelled
against him were always fair or not, it does seem clear that opposition
toward both Finney and his methods sprang up right from the start.
Criticisms of Finney evolved as he himself evolved. At first, the criticisms
were as wild and free as Finney himself But as Finney became less enigmatic
so did the criticisms. In the end they turned where they ought to have
started; they turned toward his theology. Perhaps it is too much to expect
that they could have actually started there; his theology was, after all,
as fluid as his success required. But by 1827, the core of Finney's thought
seemed to have been sufficiently in place that some inferences could have
been made. But no such inferences were drawn. It was not until 1831 that
the men at Princeton began to whisper aloud their early suspicions.
THOMAS R. BROWNING
[For more on the reaction of the theologians of Princeton Theological
Seminary to the theology of Finney, readers should consult: "PRINCETON
V. THE NEW DIVINITY" ISBN 0 85151 801 X, 352 pp cloth-bound (£11.50/$22.99)]