Charles Grandison Finney




Early Years and Conversion

Described by Frank G. Beardsley as “the greatest of American revivalists,” Charles Grandison Finney was born on August 29, 1792, in Warren, Connecticut. After only two years the family moved to Western New York where he was raised and, for a time, taught school. In 1818 he entered the law office of Benjamin Wright of Adams, New York, to study for the Bar to which he was admitted in 1820.

At Adams he came under the influence of Reverend George W Gale, the Presbyterian minister. Finney testified, “When I went to Adams to study law, I was almost as destitute of religion as a heathen. I had been brought up mostly in the woods. I had little regard to the Sabbath, and had no definite knowledge of religious truth.” He was later to say that he had never heard a prayer uttered in his home.

Finney bought a Bible which he read diligently coming to believe in its Divine inspiration and authority. For over two years he had long personal conversations with Gale and confessed to an intellectual belief in the Gospel. He even led the music in the church, but although he was seeking, he was not yet converted.

Then, in October of 1821, he underwent a dramatic experience of conversion to Christ which he recounts in detail in his Autobiography, and which is quoted at length by biographers and historians alike.

He recounts that while under great anguish of soul he went into woods near his place of work where he found a secluded place to spend time in prayer and Bible reading. While there, he says,

“…I think I then saw, as clearly as I ever have in my life, the reality and fullness of the atonement of Christ. I saw that his work was a finished work; and that instead of having, or needing, any righteousness of my own to recommend me to God, I had to submit myself to the righteousness of God through Christ…Salvation, it seemed to me, instead of being a thing to be wrought out, by my own works, was a thing to be found entirely in the Lord Jesus Christ, who presented himself before me as my God and my Saviour.”

He continues to describe his encounter with the Lord and although he did not realize at that point what had happened to him he says that when leaving the woods, “…as I went up, brushing through the leaves and bushes, I recollect saying with great emphasis, ‘If ever I am converted, I will preach the Gospel.’” He was as good as his word.

On the morning following his conversion, still overflowing with his experience of the previous day, Finney records,

Deacon B- came into the office and said to me,‘Mr Finney, do you recollect that my cause is to be tried at ten o’clock this morning? I suppose you are ready?’ I had been retained to attend this suit as his attorney.

I replied to him, ‘Deacon B-, I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause, and I cannot plead yours.’

He looked at me with astonishment, and said, ‘What do you mean?’

I told him in a few words, that I had enlisted in the cause of Christ; and then repeated that I had a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead His cause, and that he must go and get somebody else to attend his law-suit; I could not do it. He dropped his head, and without making any reply, went out.

A few moments later, in passing the window, I observed that Deacon B- was standing in the road, seemingly lost in deep meditation. He went away, as I afterward learned, and immediately settled his suit. He then betook himself to prayer and soon got into a much higher religious state than he had ever been in before.

I soon sallied forth from the office to converse with those whom I should meet about their souls. I had the impression, which has never left my mind, that God wanted me to preach the Gospel, and that I must begin immediately… And so I seemed to know that the Lord commissioned me to preach the Gospel.

In the year following his conversion sixty-three people were added to the Adams Presbyterian Church, and blessing flowed to other communities. Finney declined to enter Princeton Seminary preferring to study languages and theology under Gale. This training was eventually accepted by the Presbytery of Saint Lawrence and he was ordained to the ministry of the Gospel in 1824, the same year in which he married.

Evangelistic Ministry

Western New York had the reputation of being the “burned-over” district so far as spiritual awakenings were concerned.  So many revivals had taken place in that area “that spiritual fervor seemed to set the area on fire”. Finney’s meetings in town after town were attended by great blessing. According to the Christian History magazine dedicated to the study of the life of Finney,

Charles Finney, and all of the new theology and practices associated with him, came charging upon the religious scene in the United States in late 1825. At that point the length of the Second Great Awakening was remarkable. For over a quarter-century it had blessed America, fostering the sending of missionaries abroad, the founding of schools and colleges, and the conversion of tens of thousands.
One of the foremost evangelists had been Asahel Nettleton, a quiet, scholarly Calvinist who insisted on reverence in his meetings. But it would be Finney who propelled the Awakening onto center-stage in America, and gave it another fifteen years of life. The side-effects became more widespread than ever before: out of it came power for the anti-slavery crusade, women’s rights, prison reform, temperance, and much more.

According to Beardsley, in the village of Rome “nearly every one of the lawyers, physicians, merchants, and principal men were brought into the churches and it was estimated that five hundred persons were converted during Mr. Finney’s stay.”

Finney was tall and handsome with penetrating, hypnotic eyes which riveted audiences. He possessed a majestic voice which he used with the persuasive skill of a first-rate lawyer. His preaching was more informal than congregations had been accustomed to but was very direct, calling for immediate response.

One biographer, Lewis A Drummond, described Finney’s power in the pulpit: “the hearer never felt, till the close that he was listening to a …sermon, but rather that he was being personally addressed with such earnestness upon matters that were of great mutual concern”…Alfred Vance Churchill, a member of Finney’s congregation…said of him that his words were “logic on fire,” crashing through his listeners “like cannonballs through a basket of eggs.”

Finney began to draw criticism for what became known as “new measures”.
These consisted of:
· praying for persons by name;
· allowing women to pray and testify in a mixed congregation;
· visiting homes inviting the people to meetings;
· holding meetings other than regular Sunday services;
· special meetings sometimes every day and every evening;
· (and especially) the making use of an “anxious seat”.

It was not unknown for other evangelists to hold a special meeting for those who were anxious about the state of their souls, at which such “anxious seekers” might receive further instructions and even personal help. Finney went a step further and reserved a special part of the church, and seekers were exhorted to “come forward” immediately and publicly to this bench, pew, or seat.

Among those criticizing Finney were Asahel Nettleton and Lyman Beecher. In July, 1827, a conference was held between Finney and his leading critics, at New Lebanon, but with inconclusive results.

After further successful evangelistic meetings in Wilmington, Delaware; Reading and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; New York City, and elsewhere; in the Fall of 1830 Finney began what was to be his most successful crusade ever in Rochester, New York. It ran until March, 1831. In a town of only ten thousand inhabitants more than one thousand were converted.

The moral atmosphere of the city was greatly changed. Grog shops were closed. Crime decreased and for years afterwards the jail was nearly empty. The only theater in the city was converted into a livery stable and the only circus into a soap and candles factory…it was estimated that forty promising young men, who had been converted in that revival, entered the ministry.

The revival spread to the surrounding district, throughout America, and even across the Atlantic to England.

Despite his earlier criticism, years later, Lyman Beecher spoke of this revival as “the greatest work of God, and the greatest revival of religion that the world has ever seen in so short a time. One hundred thousand were reported as having connected themselves with the churches, as the result of that great revival. This, he said, is unparalleled in the history of the church, and of the progress of religion.”

J. Edwin Orr, on the other hand, sees the Rochester revival as only part of a sovereign work of God begun previously and elsewhere. Finney returned to Rochester for further campaigns in 1842 and 1855-56, also accompanied by much success.

Other Ministry

In 1832 Finney became the pastor of the Chatham Street Chapel in New York City, which church had been reconstructed from an old theater by two wealthy supporters of Finney, namely, Arthur and Lewis Tappan. Two years later he began his famous Lectures in Revivals of Religion, which ran for twenty-two Friday nights and was published in the “New York Evangelist” from May, 1835. It was also published in book form and “a revivalist classic was born.” The first edition of twelve thousand copies was sold immediately and the Lectures on Revivals of Religion, as the book was entitled, was translated into French, German, and Welsh. Edition after edition was brought out and had enormous influence wherever the book was read.

In 1835 Finney was appointed Professor of Theology of Oberlin College Institute (later Oberlin College). After a brief time as Pastor of the Broadway Tabernacle (Congregational) of New York City, he became Pastor of Oberlin Congregational Church, a position which he held until 1872. He divided his time during this period between his pastorate, his evangelistic campaigns, his college duties, and his writing.

Other publications followed his Lectures on Revivals, including, Lectures to Professing Christians, Letters on Revivals, Lectures on systematic Theology, and Memoirs of Charles Grandison Finney (published posthumously).

There were visits to England in 1849-50 and 1859-60, the latter including meetings in Scotland. Finney was the President of Oberlin College from 1851 to 1866, and he died there on August 16, 1875.


This brief survey of the teaching of Finney is restricted to those areas which have occasioned the most controversy, and those which have resulted in the most influence upon subsequent generations of evangelistic preachers, and those areas which have a direct bearing upon the study of revival.

The prevalent theology of Finney’s Presbyterian Church and most of the New England churches was a high form of Calvinism. This was the system taught at the denomination’s seminary at Princeton and was that held by most of the leading ministers of the day, for example, Lyman Beecher, and evangelists, such as Asahel Nettleton.

According to this teaching, with its stress on the sovereignty of God, salvation is a miracle of regeneration, and faith is granted to whomever God wills. Revival, likewise, is given or withheld according to the good pleasure of God and is also a miracle. It is a widely held view that some of the Calvinists of Finney’s day, if not most of them, could not offer much help to a convicted sinner lest they interfere in what was God’s prerogative alone.

Men were taught that they could do nothing to save themselves, they must wait God’s time; if he chose to save them, he would do so otherwise they would perish. If they were of the elect, in due time the Holy Spirit would convert them, but if they were of the non-elect, nothing they could do of themselves, nothing anyone else could do for them would avail for their salvation.

Finney, on the other hand, stressed man’s responsibility. To him responsibility implied ability. If God “commandeth all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30 KJV), then a man must be able to do so and will be held responsible for refusing. Therefore, in the first Lecture he says,

Revival is not a miracle according to the second definition of “miracle” something above the power of nature. There is nothing in true Christianity beyond the ordinary powers of nature. Revival consists entirely in the right exercise of the power of nature – just that and nothing else. When people become obedient to God, they are not enabled to exert themselves in ways they weren’t able to before. They only exert in a different way the powers they had before, using them now for the glory of God.

Revival is not dependent on a miracle in any sense. It is a result we can logically expect from the right use of God-given means, as much as any other effect produced by applying tools and resources…. In the Bible the word of God is compared to grain; preaching to sowing seed; and the results to sprouting and growth of the crop. The results are just as logically connected with the cause in the one case as in the other. Or more correctly, a revival as naturally results from the use of the appointed means as a crop does from the use of its appointed means. Christianity doesn’t properly belong to the category of cause and effect — yet even though response to God is not caused by means, means gives an occasion. Revival as naturally and certainly results from its occasion as a crop does from its cause.
There is a long-held belief that the task of furthering Christianity is not governed by ordinary rules of cause and effect–that there is no connection between tools and result, no tendency in the means to produce the effect. No doctrine endangers the church more than this, and nothing is more absurd. Suppose someone preaches that doctrine to farmers. He kindly explains to them that God is sovereign, and will give them a crop only when it pleases Him. Plowing and planting and laboring as if they expected to raise a crop is very wrong. It takes the work out of the hands of God, interferes with His sovereignty, and works in their own strength. He informs them that there is no dependable connection between their tools, knowledge, and resources, and the result. Now suppose the farmers believed such a doctrine. We would starve!

The same results follow from persuading the church that promoting faithful Christianity is so mysteriously a subject of God’s sovereignty that there is no natural connection between the means and the end. What results from such a teaching? Generation and generation, millions of souls, go to hell while the church dreams and waits for God to save the world without our using the tools He has given us. This doctrine has been the devil’s most successful tool for destroying souls. Yet the connection between means and result is as clear in spiritual things as it is when the farmer sows his grain.

Yet to Finney this was still the work of God because God has ordained that through these means, revival will come. He says,

The means God has assigned to bring about revival no doubt naturally tend to produce a revival — otherwise God would not have appointed them. Yet these tools won’t produce revival without God’s blessings, any more than sown grain will produce a crop without God’s blessing.

He further elaborates,

Four factors have a part in conversion – three active agents and one passive instrument. The agents are God, the truth-bringer, and the sinner. The instrument is the truth. As an agent God works in two ways: by His providence and by His Spirit.
By His providential ordering government…God arranges events in a way that brings the sinner’s mind in contact with the truth…God also works by His Holy Spirit…God uses the truth best suited for a particular person, hitting it home with divine power. He gives His message such vividness, strength, and power that the sinner cowers, throws down his weapons of rebellion and turns to the Lord.

Finney goes on to challenge the prevalent theology of his day,

For a long time the church believed a revival was a miracle – an interposition of divine power with which they had nothing to do. They had no more a part in producing a revival than they had in producing thunder, hail, or an earthquake. Only recently have Christians realized revivals should be promoted by tools and resources designed for that purpose…Mistaken ideas about God’s sovereignty have blocked revivals. Many think God’s sovereignty is something entirely different from what it really is. They think God’s sovereignty is such a whimsical ordering event – particularly His giving His Spirit – that it is impossible to use rationally understood means to promote revival. But nothing in the Bible shows that God exercises a sovereignty like that. On the contrary, everything shows that God has connected means with end in every area of His government, in nature and in grace.

There is no natural event in which He is not concerned. He hasn’t built a creation which like a vast machine will go on alone without His further care. He has not retired from the universe to let it work by itself. That view is atheism. He is rather superintendent and controller of all. And yet every natural event comes about by an understandable means. He neither orders events nor gives grace with a sovereignty that works without means, and there is no more sovereignty in grace than in nature.

Lectures on Revivals of Religion was critically reviewed by the Princeton reviewer, Professor Dod, who said that through Finney’s “experiments with the efficacy of different measures…the house of God becomes transformed into a kind of laboratory.” Agreeing that that was a fair comment William McCloughlin, Junior, goes on,

The twenty-two lectures constituted a professional handbook of revival techniques which represented the quintessence of thirteen years of extensive preaching experience and shrewd observation. The treatment of such subjects as, “How to Promote a Revival,” “How to Preach the Gospel,” “Means to be Used with Sinners,” and “What a Revival of Religion is,” provided the definitive statement of techniques and criteria for modern revivalism. Few revivalists since have failed to quote Finney’s defense of new measures in combating the enemies of revivals in their own day.
The Lectures on Revivals purported to be based as soundly upon scientific laws as any book of physics or engineering.

New Measures

To back up his new theories with new practices – and no one ever did that more vigorously than this man – Finney introduced new measures. Discussion of these probably belongs more to an extended consideration of evangelistic techniques than to a study on Revival such as was defined in the first article, What is Revival?

If it could be proved, however, that the use of Finney’s new measures always leads to revival, then they would have to be considered carefully here, but even in Finney’s own day, though a day of revival, it was not so.

Subsequent history and present-day practice where Finney’s techniques are universally used has only confirmed that they do not always bring results, and certainly not revival. This is not to say that they are in themselves wrong. That is a separate issue.

“Anxious meetings” as has been demonstrated, were used before and even by such Calvinists as Jonathan Edwards and Asahel Nettleton. The “anxious seat” was certainly an innovation although it was not original with Finney, having been employed by the Methodist Circuit evangelists and Camp Meeting preachers earlier in the century (See the article, “Frontier Frenzy…”).

Finney was not surprised at the opposition which greeted his new techniques and practices since he asserted that all innovations and breaks with traditions had been similarly opposed since apostolic days and cited the Reformers, Whitefield, Wesley, and Edwards, as examples. To him “baptism” in the early church held the same place as the “anxious meeting” in modern times.


It seems to this writer that there will always be disagreement regarding Finney as there was in his own day. Of his Godliness and zeal there can be no doubt whatsoever. Nor can there be any doubt regarding his amazing fruitfulness as an evangelist. It is impossible to know the numbers of converts brought to Christ through his ministry, but Beardsley estimates five hundred thousand.

His theology would seem at times to be almost Pelagian. Yet when all of his teaching is taken into account another aspect emerges. Writes MacCloughlin,

Despite the heavy emphasis he laid on free will Finney was not a Pelagian. He believed at bottom that an act of God or the Holy Spirit was necessary to change the human heart and guide it to perfection.

Many passages from Finney himself could be quoted to confirm this view. Some have already been cited to which may be added,

Under God’s influence the truth cuts its way like fire. He unfurls truth in a way that crushes the proudest with the weight of a mountain. If human beings were disposed to obey God, they could learn from preaching and the Bible everything they need to know. But because people are wholly disinclined to obey, God makes truth clear to their minds, pouring in on their souls a blaze of convincing light that they cannot withstand. They yield to it, obey God, and are saved.

D. Martyn Lloyd Jones, on the other hand, declares roundly,

Finney was not an Arminian, he was a Pelagian. He did not believe in original sin, and he believed that the natural man, by a process of reason, was able to grasp the truth and to put it into operation.

Finney always declared himself to be a Calvinist, and when Asa Rand attacked his sermon, “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Heart,” as heretical, Finney’s supporters countered, using numerous quotations, that his views squared with those of Edwards, Hopkins, Emmons, Bailey, Leonard Woods, and even, Calvin and Augustine. Perhaps in his more vigorous statements Finney was reacting (and maybe sometimes over-reacting) to the stifling effects of at least some theologians’ application of Calvinism.

If the doctrines surrounding the sovereignty of God are over-stressed at the expense of man’s responsibility is there not a danger that the sinner will be indifferent for there is nothing for him to do, or the awakened sinner despairing? Will not the lethargic church be more lethargic still?

On the other hand, if responsibility is stressed at the expense of divine sovereignty, is there not a danger that man takes center stage and God is removed to a remote distance, or ignored altogether. A great many farmers do not, alas, acknowledge any dependence upon God. Only when He with-holds the rain are some moved to cry to Him.

MacCloughlin writes,

In his explanation of conversion according to the laws of mind, he had made a slight obeisance to the agency of the Holy Spirit. Now he did his best to leave God some part in the production of revivals by saying, “But means will not produce a revival, we all know, without the blessing of God.” However, this brief acknowledgment of the supernatural element in revivals was buried beneath such a mass of scientific certitude in the other direction that it was forgotten. Men were, for all practical purposes, as omnipotent in this sphere as in effecting or rejecting their own conversions.

As for Finney’s “new measures” some comment has already been made concerning these. Drummond writes,

What an innovator Finney was! . . .They (the new measures), were the new evangelistic methods he employed in promoting revivals. With these he popularized, developed, and legitimized the entire modern approach to contemporary evangelism. Perhaps it was here he made his most significant and long-lasting contribution.

Says MacCloughlin,

When Charles Grandison Finney left his law office in 1821 to devote his life to saving souls, he inaugurated a new era in American revivalism. He not only developed new techniques for promoting conversions and a new style for pulpit oratory, but he transformed the whole philosophy and process of evangelism.

Drummond quotes Fairchild, “He probably led more souls to Jesus than any other man. He spear-headed a revival in America which literally altered the course of history.”

To Orr,

“as a Gospel tactician Finney was second to none; as a strategist his practice was better than his theory,” encouraging “a brash school of revivalists and evangelists who thought they could promote genuine revival by the use of means chosen by themselves,” . . . giving rise . . . “to a brand of promotional evangelism, one full of sensationalism and commercialism.”

Lloyd Jones blames Finney for the confusion between what we understand as revival, and an evangelistic campaign. He says,

Finney is the man of all men who is responsible for the current confusion with regard to this matter . . . people now, instead of thinking instinctively about turning to God and praying for revival when they see that the church is languishing, decide rather to call a committee, to organize an evangelistic campaign, and work out and plan an advertising program to “launch” it, as they say.

What then of Charles Grandison Finney? His biographer asserts what most would agree with,

Charles Finney stands as the watershed between men of awakenings like George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards of the eighteenth century, and mass evangelists like Dwight Lyman Moody of the nineteenth, thus forming the historical transition between the two approaches.

Some others would conclude, “Many said then – and have since – that Finney changed American religion from God-centered to man-centered.”


It has been shown what are the usual characteristics of revival and upon what biblical basis revivals rest. Two examples have been given from history to show that, while revival is a sovereign work of God wherein He pours out His Spirit in restoring power upon the church resulting in the conversion of countless multitudes, the blessing is given when the church is faithful in the promotion of revival by any way it can.

There are two reasons why special attention has been given to Charles Grandison Finney.

  1. He taught a theory of revival, published in his “Lectures on Revivals of Religion”, “Principles of Revival”, and “Systematic Theology”, which has had, and continues to have, a profound effect upon the church’s understanding of this subject. It would be hard to exaggerate how widespread and all-embracing has been “Finney-ism”, not only in regard to his theories, but also in regard to his “new measures.” The calling for immediate response to the message, openly declared by some physical act, such as coming forward to the front of the auditorium (“the altar call”), has become almost standard practice in evangelism.
  2.  As has been shown by lengthy quotations Finney taught that a revival may be experienced at any time by the use of appropriate means. A consideration of this teaching is germane to the purpose of this study.

Even so admiring a biographer as Drummond concedes that Finney went too far,

Finney at times seemed to imply that if the right methods were employed God would be duty bound to send a revival. Of course, that philosophy of revival is not true. God is sovereign in all awakenings. If Finney really believed otherwise, he was surely wrong.
Finney still appears to many as having been too mechanical. He did say in effect that as surely as the farmer follows the simple principles of sowing, cultivation and reaping and can hence expect nature to give him a crop, if proper revival “measures” are employed God will invariably grant a revival. To some extent he must have believed that, but he surely did not mean it in the crass way it may have sounded.

Drummond also perceptively notes, “A significant revival was afoot in Finney’s day. God was at work in such a sovereign and unusual manner that almost any method seemed to work.”

That is the key to understanding this matter. The methods always worked for Finney because it was harvest time. Says Orr, “Finney as a national evangelist was made by the revival of 1830-31, not vice-versa.” As a Gospel tactician Finney was second to none. As a strategist his practice was better than his theory.

Revival and evangelism must not be confused. Finney was an evangelist who saw not only results but revival. In studying Finney this writer has been impressed that if more evangelists followed his advice and practice more would see lasting fruit. For example, Finney stayed in one location until he felt that his work there was done even though that could have been many months. Was this not the apostolic example also? If Finney were followed in more than merely his preaching for a response, and calling sinners to the “anxious seat” perhaps God would have blessed the church with more revivals than have been enjoyed of late.

Perhaps Jonathan Edwards went too far the other way when,

he pointedly cautioned ministers and churches that in their eagerness for revival they “should not show a hasty spirit” and as it were, stir up and awake Christ before His time. Christ has appointed a time for this awakening out of sleep and His people ought to wait upon Him and not, in an impatient fit, stir Him up before His time.

Is Christ so reluctant to bless His people and advance His Kingdom? Does not the fault lie with His lukewarm people who are indifferent to His cause?

Lloyd Jones has said,

I am profoundly convinced that the greatest need in the world today is revival in the church of God. Yet, alas, the whole idea of revival seems to have become strange to so many good Christian people. There are some who even seem to resent the very idea and actually speak and write against it. Such an attitude is due to both a serious misunderstanding of the Scriptures and to a woeful ignorance of the history of the Church. Anything therefore that can instruct God’s people in this matter is very welcome.

Yes, and having instructed them let both pastor and people reform their ways in accordance with the suggestions in the next article in this series entitled, “Can anything be done to promote revival?” Then there may be seen again the power of God pouring over the land like a flood.

On Mount Carmel it was God’s fire which came down. Elijah wanted no false fire. That is why he soaked the sacrifice until the water filled the trench (1 Kings 18). There was to be no doubt but that this was God’s work.

On the other hand, Elijah did all he could. He called the people together, he challenged them with powerful words, he exposed that which was false and impotent, he rebuilt the altar of the Lord, he placed on it the sacrifice, and he called upon the Name of the Lord.

That is the way. Revival cannot be copied but it can be repeated. The earnest cry must again ascend to God to glorify His Son in an outpouring of His Spirit.



Books cited in this article:

Frank G. Beardsley,                    American Revivals
Charles G. Finney                       Autobiography of Rev. Charles G. Finney
Lewis A. Drummond                  The Life and Ministry of Finney
Charles L. Thompson                 Times of Refreshing
Christian History Magazine       Volume 8, No. 3, Issue 23
J. Edwin Orr                                  Fervent Prayer
Light of the Nations
Charles G. Finney                        Lectures on Revivals of Religion
William McCloughlin, Jr              Modern Revivalism
D. Martyn Lloyd Jones                The Puritans