MEMOIRS OF CHARLES G. FINNEY
WORK AT HOME
WE had had very little rest in England for a year and a half; and those who are used to sea voyages will not wonder that I did not rest much during our voyage home. Indeed we arrived a good deal exhausted. I was myself hardly able to preach at all. However the state of things was such, and the time of year such, that I could not, as I supposed, afford to rest. There were many new students here, and strangers had been moving into the place; so that there was a large number of impenitent persons residing here at that time. The brethren were of opinion that an effort must be made immediately to revive religion in the churches, and to secure the conversion of the unconverted students. During my absence in England the congregation had become so large that the house could not, with any comfort, contain them; and after considering the matter, the church concluded to divide and form a second Congregational church. They did so; the new church worshipping in the College chapel, and the First church continuing to occupy their usual place of worship. The Second church invited me to preach a part of the time to them, in the College chapel. But that would hold scarcely more than half as many as the church; and I could not think it my duty to divide my labors, and preach part of the time to one congregation and part of the time to the other; and therefore took measures immediately to secure a revival of religion, holding our meetings at the large church. The Second church people came in, and labored as best they could; but the preaching devolved almost altogether upon myself.
We held daily prayer meetings in the church, which were largely attended. The body of the church would generally be full. At these meetings I labored hard, to secure the legitimate results of a prayer meeting judiciously managed. Besides preaching twice on Sabbath, and holding a meeting of inquiry in the evening of every Sabbath, I preached several evenings during the week. In addition to these labors I was obliged to use up my strength in conversing with inquirers, who were almost constantly visiting me when I was out of meeting. These labors increased in intensity and pressure, from week to week. The revival became very general throughout the place, and seemed to bid fair to make a clean sweep of the unconverted in the place. But after continuing these labors for four months, until I had very little rest day or night, I came home one Sabbath afternoon, from one of the most powerful and interesting meetings I ever witnessed, and was taken with a severe chill; and from that time I was confined to my bed between two and three months.
It was found in this case, as it always has been so far as my experience has gone, that the change of preaching soon let down the tone of the revival; and not suddenly, but gradually it ceased. There was not, that I am aware of, any reaction. But the conversions grew less frequent, and from week to week, the weekday meetings gradually fell off in their attendance; so that by the time I was able to preach again, I found the state of religion interesting, but not what we here call a revival of religion. However, the next summer, as has been almost universally the case, a goodly number of our students were converted, and there was a very interesting state of religion during the season.
During the summer months there is a great pressure upon the people here. The students are engaged in preparing for the anniversaries of their various college societies, for their examinations, and for commencement; and of course during the summer term there is a great deal of excitement unfavorable to the progress of a revival of religion. We have much more of this excitement in later years than we had when we first commenced here. College societies have increased in number, and the class exhibitions and other interesting occasions have been multiplied; so that it has become more and more difficult to secure a powerful revival during the summer term. This ought not to be.
Before I went to England the last time, I saw that an impression seemed to be growing in Oberlin, that during term time we could not expect to have a revival; and that our revivals must be expected to occur during the long vacations in the winter. This was not deliberately avowed by anyone; and yet it was plain that that was coming to be the impression. But I had come to Oberlin, and resided here, for the sake of the students, to secure their conversion and sanctification; and it was only because there was so great a number of them here, which gave me so good an opportunity to work upon so many young minds in the process of education, that I had remained here from year to year. I had, frequently, almost made up my mind to leave, and give myself wholly to the work of an evangelist. But the plea always used with me had been, that we could not do so much in this country in promoting revivals anywhere, except at that season of the year when we have our long vacation; furthermore, that my health would not enable me to sustain revival labor the year round; and that, therefore, I could do more good here during the term time that is, in the spring, summer, and early autumn than I could anywhere else. This I myself believed to be true; and therefore had continued to labor here during term time, for many years after my heart strongly urged me to give up my whole time in laboring as an evangelist.
While I was last in England, and was receiving urgent letters to return, I spoke of the impression to which I have alluded, that we could not expect revivals in term time; and said, that if that was going to be the prevalent idea, it was not the place for me; for during our long vacation our students were gone, of course, and it was for their salvation principally that I remained. I had been greatly afflicted too, by finding, when an effort was made to secure the conversion of the students during term time, that the first I would know some excursion would be planned, some amusement or entertainment that would counteract all that we could do to secure the conversion of the students. I never supposed that was the design; but such was the result, in so much that previous to going to England the last time, I had become almost discouraged in making efforts to secure revivals of religion during term time. In my replies to letters received while I was in England, I was very free and full upon this point, in saying that, unless there could be a change, Oberlin was not my field of labor any longer.
Our fall term is properly our harvest here. It begins about the first of September, when we have a large number of new students, and many of these unconverted ones. I have always felt, as a good many others have, and I believe the faculty generally, that during that term was the time to secure the conversion of our new students. This was secured to a very great extent, the year that we returned. The idea that during term time we could not expect a revival of religion, seemed to be exploded, the people took hold of the work and we had a powerful revival.
Since then we have been much less hindered in our revival efforts in term time, by counteracting influences, than we had been for a few years before. Our revival efforts have taken effect among the students from year to year, because they were aimed to secure the conversion especially of the students. Our general population is a changing one, and we very frequently need a sweeping revival through the whole town, among the householders as well as the students, to keep up a healthy tone of piety. A goodly number of our students learn to work themselves in promoting revivals, and are very efficient in laboring for the conversion of their fellow students. The young men's prayer meetings have been greatly blessed. The young peoples meetings, where all meet for a general prayer meeting, have also been blessed. The efforts of brethren and sisters in the church, have been increasingly blessed from year to year. We have had more or less of a revival continually, summer and winter.
Since 1860, although continually pressed by churches, East and West, to come and labor as an evangelist, I have not dared to comply with their request. I have been able, by the blessing of God, to perform a good deal of labor here; but I have felt inadequate to the exposure and labor of attempting to secure revivals abroad.
Last winter, 1866 and 67, the revival was more powerful among the inhabitants than it had been since 1860. However, as heretofore, I broke down in the midst, and was unable to attend any more meetings. The brethren, however, went forward with the work, and it continued with great interest until spring. Thus I have brought my revival narrative down to this time, the 13th of January, 1868. Yesterday, Sabbath, we had a very solemn day in the First church. I preached all day upon resisting the Holy Ghost. At the close of the afternoon service I called first, upon all professors of religion who were willing to commit themselves against all resistance offered to the teachings of the Holy Spirit, to rise up and unite with us in prayer, under the solemnity of this promise. Nearly all the professors of religion rose up without hesitation. I then called upon those that were not converted to rise up, and take the same stand. I had been endeavoring to show that they were stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, and had always resisted the Holy Ghost. I asked those of them who were willing to pledge themselves to do this no more, and to accept the teachings of the Holy Spirit and give themselves to Christ, also to rise up, and we would make them subjects of prayer. So far as I could see from the pulpit, nearly every person in the house stood up under these calls. We then had a very solemn season of prayer, and dismissed the meeting.
THOSE who have read the preceding pages, will naturally inquire in reference to the closing years of a life so full of labor and of usefulness. The narrative, completed with the beginning of 1868, leaves Mr. Finney still pastor of the First church in Oberlin, and lecturer in the seminary. The responsibilities of pastor he continued to sustain, with the help of his associate, some four or five years longer, preaching, as his health would admit, usually once each Sabbath. At the same time, as professor of Pastoral Theology, he gave a course of lectures each summer term, on the pastoral work, on Christian experience, or on revivals. He resigned the pastorate in 1872, but still retained his connection with the seminary, and completed his last course of lectures in July 1875, only a few days before his death. He preached, from time to time, as his strength permitted; and during the last month of his life, he preached one Sabbath morning in the First church, and another in the Second.
Notwithstanding the abundant and exhausting labors of his long public life, the burden of years seemed to rest lightly upon him. He still stood erect, as a young man, retained his faculties to a remarkable degree, and exhibited to the end the quickness of thought, and feeling, and imagination, which always characterized him. His life and character perhaps never seemed richer in the traits and the beauty of goodness, than in these closing years and months. His public labors were of course very limited, but the quiet power of his life was felt as a benediction upon the community, which, during forty years, he had done so much to guide and mold and bless.
His last day on earth was a quiet Sabbath, which he enjoyed in the midst of his family, walking out with his wife at sunset, to listen to the music, at the opening of the evening service in the church near by. Upon retiring he was seized with pains which seemed to indicate some affection of the heart; and after a few hours of suffering, as the morning dawned, he died, August 16th, 1875, lacking two weeks of having completed his eighty-third year.
The foregoing narrative gives him chiefly in one line of his work, and one view of his character. It presents him in the ruling purpose, and even passion of his life, as an evangelist, a preacher of righteousness. His work as a theologian, a leader of thought, in the development and expression of a true Christian philosophy, and as an instructor, in quickening and forming the thought of others, has been less conspicuous, and in his own view doubtless entirely subordinate; but in the view of many, scarcely less fruitful of good to the church and the world. To set forth the results of his life in these respects, would require another volume, which will probably never be written; but other generations will reap the benefits, without knowing the source whence they have sprung.
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