A great revivalist of the nineteenth century? I feel suspicious already, though I'm not sure why. Perhaps I am having flashbacks to the frauds I vaguely remember people like Mark Twain used to write about, tent revivals and false healings and an emotional fever or a spiritual high... wasn't there a movie about this kind of thing with Robert Duvall? I remember feeling confused because I liked Christianity, but I didn't like this sort of thing...
Pete Vol says that he thinks Finney was a man who made himself fully available to God; he risked saying 'yes' to the universe against what may have seemed the acceptable thing to do. Perhaps Finney was listening to the Spirit of God?
Maybe my confusion could be helped by looking at the context of these revivals in the religious life of the USA?
At the birth of the United States, only five to ten percent of citizens were church members. The Christianising of America has been put down to two factors: the influence of voluntary societies and revivals.
Although the official separation between faith and politics underpinning the American constitution saw to it that the USA would not become a church controlled state, voluntary societies in imitation of those pioneered by William Carey became significant influencers on American life. The American Bible society, the Sunday School Union; groups such as these, made up of voluntary members, made contributions to American society. And that’s the volunteer’s influence.
But what of revivals? Supported by the preaching of George Whitefield, Jonathon Edwards’ Great Awakening of the eighteenth century had seen the beginning of revivals that saw thousands brought to faith in Christ and radical changes in the personal and moral lives of those converted. At the same time, similar revivals were being witnessed in England through the work of Whitefield and John Wesley’s Methodists.
Finney’s revivals came after a period of dropping church membership and lost interest in ‘religion’. The Calvinism of the day taught that salvation was only available to God’s elect, pre-ordained from the beginning of time. No one could know for sure if they were part of the elect, so the deal was to live as good a life as possible and hope for the best. This tended to produce lifeless churches, where people prayed but without belief that their prayers could have any effect. Finney revolutionised that thinking by bringing people to make a decision for Christ. He encouraged them to believe that they had a part in forging their own destiny. Finney preached strongly, exhorting his hearers to act now to avoid punishment later. Different signs and wonders happened among the people attending Finney’s revivals.
Pre-civil war America. Finney was a man with Abolitionist sympathies. As president of Oberlin college, he held anti-slavery rallies in a tent, one hundred feet in diameter. Finney’s preaching helped pave the way for the abolitionist movement in America.
After the civil war there seems to have been a split between Christian groups in America, responding to the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species and the new emphasis on criticism in Biblical scholarship. One group embraced the new ideas, emphasising a social gospel and developing a liberal theology. Pastors such as Walter Rauschenbusch were concerned with people’s eternal destiny. However, they also recognised the importance of caring for earthly needs.
The other group responded by focusing on the individual's need for salvation. They believed that the most important thing to do was to prepare people for the day of Jesus' return. And it is this group that continued the tradition of revivals, camp meetings and getting people's souls right with God. DL Moody was to become a proponent of this branch of Christianity. As the years lengthened the polarisation of the two groups became more extreme.
My personal sympathies lie in many ways with the former group. And I suppose I have been suspicious of ‘revivalist’ traditions, feeling that even when they aren’t phoney they tend to overlook some of the pressing needs of those in front of them, offering one dimensional solutions to complex problems.
So from my own context now I need to work hard to remember that Finney preached at a time before this kind of polarisation became entrenched.
Finney seems to have expected that receiving the gospel would ready the individual for relationship with the one true God through Jesus Christ. He also seems to have expected that the individual's life would be transformed by such a relationship in such a way that they would become more outward in their focus, caring for the needs of others.
So popular images of revivalist preachers like this one must be separated from my view of who Finney is if I am to do him justice. But just what is a revival anyway? That’s my next post.
Harvey, BC (1989) Charles Finney: The great revivalist, Barbour publishing, Uhrichsville, Ohio
Liardon, R (2008) God’s Generals: the revivalists, Whitaker House, New Kensington
Reynolds, DS (2005) John Brown: abolitionist, Vintage books, New York
Shelley, BL (1995) Church History in Plain language, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville