Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Charles Grandison the third (and final)

Re-viv-al: restoration to life, consciousness, vigour or strength… an awakening, in a church or community, of interest in and care for matters relating to personal religion… an evangelistic service or a series of services for the purpose of effecting a religious awakening. Revival is part of personal experience. In Charles Finney’s time, the revival of individuals spread into the communities until large numbers of people were affected. It occurred so often after Finney’s preaching that he began to hold these meetings with the clear expectation that revival would begin.

Just as this image is many layered (thanks to Hanwen), so REVIVAL is a many layered concept.

It’s hard to find comprehensive descriptions of what these revivals looked like. The witnesses seem to expect people to know and understand. As far as I can gather, Finney and some friends would book a meeting place and Finney would preach. He would do so for prolonged periods, for nights in a row. People come in droves to listen to him, be overcome with emotion, “the conviction of sin upon them.” Sometimes people would shake and fall down. Sometimes they broke into uncontrolled laughter. Finney himself records in great detail the occurrences he witnessed at his revival meetings.

Finney would not prepare his sermons. He would pray and ask God to show him what bit of the Bible to preach on. Then he would stand up and talk to the people for hours.

Many complained about Finney’s measures. The Unitarians complained that his ‘anxious seat’ (a place where people who were concerned about their salvation could sit during the meetings) created an emotionally driven response, indeed the beginning of religious melancholy as a social problem has been traced to these kinds of meetings. The Deists believed that by calling people out by name he placed undue pressure on them to change their lives. The Calvinists complained that in urging people to make an immediate decision for Christ, Finney offended against God’s sovereignty.

Finney defended himself, claiming that his exhortations were not emotionally based, but grounded in appeals to reason. He defended his ‘new measures’ claiming that it was appropriate to use means at his disposal to bring a message he believed was urgent to his hearers. Finney believed that he needed to use his new measures to jolt people out of the apathy they lived in. He claimed this apathy was a result of the popular Calvinist view taught in most Presbyterian Churches at the time. Finney believed that such people were not ‘real’ Christians.

Interestingly, the conversion experiences that would ‘change people’s lives’ at Finney’s revivals seem to have done just that. Records show that church membership did not drop off, and eighty percent of recorded converts remained active church members years after the revivals. No one can say how much goodness was introduced into lives and communities through his influence.

In his popular but controversial ‘Lectures on revivals of religion’, Finney says, “Revival is a renewed conviction of sin and repentance, followed by an intense desire to live in obedience to God. It is giving up one's will to God in deep humility.” I think it would be interesting to live in such times and too see the changes taking effect. It may also be frightening. I may have been someone who would have criticised Finney and his measures.

I really don’t know how to interpret Finney’s character and life in the light of today. In images, he seems an intense character. Our records of his sermons on ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God’ seem to represent all that is wrong about evangelical Christianity. However, I can’t help respecting his passion. He took risks to right the wrongs he was so obviously disturbed by. He was loved and respected by those who knew him, family and friends. He was deeply committed to serving God and believed he knew how best to do that.

I think Charles Grandison Finney presents us with the same challenge that Jesus’ does in his life among the people, and eventually in his challenge to the authorities that resulted in death: these men spent their daily lives helping those they encountered to re-think God, to not be complacent about connecting with the creator of the universe. They jolted people out of their ordinary, everyday contexts and brought them to a point of confrontation with a larger, spiritual world where Good and Evil are locked in a cosmic battle.

Perhaps as God’s messengers in our own context, we need to be imaginative and cooperate with his Spirit in discovering how we can do the same thing for those around us.

Unitarians believed that Jesus was not truly human.
Deists believed that though God created the world, he would not interfere with the events of history.
Calvinists believed utterly in the sovereignty of God and taught that humans could have no impact upon his decisions through prayer or action.

Finney, CG (1875) Lectures on revivals found at

Harvey, BC (1989) Charles Finney: The great revivalist, Barbour publishing, Uhrichsville, Ohio
Liardon, R (2008) God’s Generals: the revivalists, Whitaker House, New Kensington
Rubin, JH (1994) Religious melancholy and the protestant experience, Oxford University Press.
Shelley, BL (1995) Church History in Plain language, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville

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