The GOSPEL TRUTH
CHARLES G. FINNEY
To the Editor of The British Banner
15 August 1850
[Published in The British Banner (London), 21 August 1850, p. 572.]
In The British Banner for 14 August 1850, p. 539, the editor, Rev. John Campbell, published an article under the heading "Rev. C. G. Finney." in which he reported on Finney's labours for the revival of religion during the previous three months at the Tabernacle in London. He then added the following:
Something rather curious and interesting, perhaps instructive, has come to be mixed up with this business. Just as we penned the last notice of Mr. Finney and his labours, a few weeks ago, we received from a young Englishman, now resident in Oberlin College, of which Mr. Finney is Theological Professor, but with which our Correspondent has become connected since the departure of Mr. Finney for England, so that he has not seen Mr. Finney, and was wholly unacquainted with the fact that he was living under our roof, and occupying our pulpit. He was, also, personally unknown to us, but we have had correspondence with his brother, at present a student in the Lancashire Independent College. The letter is one of a very interesting description, and not the least interesting portion of it is that which speaks of the official character and public labours of Mr. Finney the general strain of which is in perfect harmony with our own convictions, from constant personal intercourse. The letter is the following:--
Oberlin, Lorain Co. Ohio, June 6th, 1850.
Sir,--After being absent from England for 19 months, I feel disposed to send you a few lines, which I will endeavour to make as interesting as possible. ...
Professor Finney is in England. I have never seen him. We all want him to return. I do not know how many students there are here, but suppose there may be nearly 500, some studying one thing, some another, and, alas! but few studying for the ministry.
There is one thing which I wish to observe with regard to men who visit England, and the accounts, which they give, either in their letters or on their return. They seem to try to degrade England in the eyes of Americans, and they succeed, which makes it very hard for English people here. I have actually heard such monstrous absurdities, false statements, and unkind expressions, made use of by men who have visited England, that I have been disgusted at their lack of sense, and small regard for truth. I heard before I left Galesburg, that Professor Finney, in one of his letters, which was published in the Oberlin Evangelist, remarked that the ministers in England are "fifty years behind the times." Now, Sir, I do not understand what he means; if he means to say, that they are so much behind the American ministers in intellectual strength, I repudiate that charge as a slander. If he means to say, that there is that difference in religious attainments, I agree with him, and more too, for they are not fifty, but, I had almost said they are 500 years behind the times; but, if he means by "the times" American times of piety, I would pray to God that they might always remain behind such times. Professor Finney is by no means a sample of American piety. He stands alone here. Yes, Sir, he stands alone, and is without exception the most powerful preacher in the United States. What I mean by powerful is, that his preaching is accompanied with power from above, and that is the power which Satan dreads most. I do not speak of Mr. Finney from personal knowledge: but his fame is in all the Churches as a man of God, and his sermons bear the impress of the most exalted piety, it rises high, and is in constant communion with heaven. He cannot, therefore, be taken as a specimen of American piety. Since I have been in this country, I have been amongst ministers a good deal, amongst Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists (Wesleyan and Protestant), Baptists (Free-Will, Close Communion, and Iron-side), and, Sir, I do candidly assure you, that low as the English ministry is in my estimation, i.e., a great part of it, I never had one fiftieth part of the reason for esteeming them so lightly as I have to undervalue the American ministers. If you take the ministers of large towns and cities, they are, so far as I have seen, as cold, formal, and aristocratic, as the Church of England clergy. If you go into the "far West," and see them there, you will see them on the Sabbath discoursing to the people on their duty, and all very orthodox; but see them during the week, they are speculating, "trading" as they call it, and it is proverbial, that the ministers are the closest shavers. One shaved me I know--(and I am sorry to say that he was educated at Oberlin)--he had some money (some few dollars) sent by him to me, and he kept every cent of it, and never said one word to me about it, yet that man is preaching every Sabbath. I do not say that all the ministers are like this, but I do say that most that I have seen are. My object is to prove, that the assertion of brother Finney is (if I understand him) unfounded; and when the American people, who know what their ministers are (for I have heard them speak of them as being anything but what they ought to be), hear such a saying coming from a man like Mr. Finney, the English ministry is in danger of suffering materially in the eyes of Christians abroad. Indeed, I heard it remarked at the time when I was told what brother Finney's letter contained, "What a dreadful condition the ministry is in in England!" I knew it, but the idea which they attached to it was, that the ministers were worse than their own, that there was less piety, and less conversions, which God knows is not the case.
* * * * * * * * * *
It is almost universally the case, that the American mind is stamped with impressions wholly inconsistent with truth, by prejudiced visitors to England, so that it is impossible for an Englishman who knows where the truth is, and tells it, to gain credence, because, say they, "Mr. So-and-So has been there, and he knows," and they will believe anything distorted and frightful before they will the solid truth. ... You are at liberty to use this letter as you please. I am prepared to defend any position which I have taken, should anything be disputed contained in it.
I am, Sir, yours truly,
This letter gives a very instructive and life-like view of that portion of the New World in which Mr. Vincent's lot is cast, showing him to be an intelligent penetrating, energetic man, full of tact, and a keen observer. He has given an extended illustration of his position relative to Revival Ministers, as exemplified in the case of an individual; but we cannot suffer an individual to be taken as a specimen of millions, and have, therefore struck out that portion of his epistle. With regard to Mr. Finney, it is proper to state that this letter was put into his hands, and he says that he remembers no such statement in any letter of his, and, moreover, that he had given charge that no communication whatever of his should be inserted in the Oberlin Evangelist. We are pleased that we have this opportunity of stating the fact, since such a letter, if it had existed, must have been written shortly after Mr. Finney's arrival in England, when perhaps he had not seen a dozen English ministers, and, therefore, knew personally very little of the British ministry, of whom, indeed, directly, he knows next to nothing up to the present hour; for, as above stated, his business has not been to make acquaintances, but converts to the Son of God. We nevertheless give with pleasure the views of our countryman, who, with the spirit of a genuine Englishman, stands up for truth and his native land; and, with a courage that deserves praise and imitation, appends his name to his statement. We are aware that there is much truth in regard to what he says of some Americans on their return from Great Britain; but we are ashamed to say that there is nothing lost between them and a portion of our own countrymen on their return from the United States. Every true Christian, and every true patriot must reprobate both classes; ...
Finney's reply was as follows:
ENGLAND AND THE UNITED STATES.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE BRITISH BANNER.
Sir,--I have just read in the Banner the letter from the young man at Oberlin, Ohio, Mr. Vincent. Will you allow me to say, in reply, the following things:--
1. I regret that he wrote that letter. It is a pity that misapprehensions should beget anything like distrust or alienation between the citizens, and especially the Christians, and more especially still, the Ministers of England and America. He has been in America but a short time, and during that time in the Far West, among the new settlements, and only a short time even as far east as Ohio. It were neither strange nor reprehensible for him to write to his friends, confidentially, how things appeared to him there. But on so short and very partial a survey of things, to say for publication such things of the ministry in America as he has said, I cannot regard as either right or wise. Doubtless there is room enough both in that country and in this to find fault with some of the ministers, but with my acquaintance in America, I could not conscientiously say of the ministers in those parts of that great country in which I am acquainted what he has said; nor can it be at all true of them, in general, unless they are greatly fallen from what they were when I laboured as an evangelist among them, which, indeed, I have continued to do, more or less, until within the last two years.
2. As to his comparison of our colleges with yours, I can say nothing, as I am not acquainted with yours. Nor can he be acquainted with those of America. He has been at Oberlin but a few weeks, and, from his letter, I suppose he has not yet entered the college department. I presume he has seen no other College in America except the infant one at Galesburg. What, then, has he a right to say about the colleges in America? What he says about the present number of theological students at Oberlin I suppose is true. My own classes in theology are not there, of course, in my absence. The number of students of theology in nearly all the seminaries in America has been much less for the few last years than it was for years before, owing to several causes, but especially to the comparative infrequency, for some years, of those glorious revivals of religion which have blessed the Churches and the land.
3. He speaks of some letter of mine as published in the Oberlin Evangelist, in which he says I had written that the ministers in this country were 50 years behind those in America. I think he is mistaken as a friend has examined the files of that paper in vain to find any such thing. But, however this may be, I would say, in regard to my correspondence with friends in America, that I know they would expect me to state, in confidence, how the religious aspect of things struck me in England. I knew too well the difficulty of forming anything like a ripe judgment upon a short acquaintance to allow myself to write anything for the public eye, and therefore have cautioned all my friends to publish nothing from my letters. I think I have said in some of them, that the state of things here, in regard to Temperance and Revivals, appeared to me much as it was in America when I began to preach there twenty-five years ago. I am opposed to saying or writing what might excite wrong feelings between this country and America. An American cannot soon judge correctly of the state of things in England, although the territory is so small; but it is twenty times more difficult for an Englishman to judge correctly of America in a short time, on account of the extent of its territory. The young man evidently wrote under the influence of much prejudice and consequent misapprehension.
I do not write this to rebuke the young man, however, but in justice to the American ministry. The young man has formed his opinion upon very partial grounds, and I am sorry to have such things published as shall still further mislead the British public in regard to the piety of the revival ministers and Churches of America. No good can result from fomenting prejudice and increasing misapprehension. There is too much of this on both sides of the Atlantic. Christians have something else to do.--Yours, &c.,
C. G. FINNEY.
London, August 15, 1850.
James Vincent (1821-1899) was born in Deal, Kent, the son of a Nonconformist minister. He left Oberlin College before graduating, to engage in the antislavery struggle. In 1853 he was sent by the American Reform Tract and Book Society to England to stir up the churches against slavery. In his book American Slavery Defeated in its attempts through the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to find a Shelter in the British Churches (London: W. Tweedie, 1854), John Campbell came under attack, and the British Banner was accused of being "the English organ of the pro-slavery party in America."
Returning to America in 1854, he settled in Tabor, Iowa, where a colony had been founded by people from Oberlin. He was a cabinet maker by trade, and later worked in the office of the Treasurer of Fremont County. Much of his life was taken up with crusading against public wrongs. In 1879 he founded the American Nonconformist, which was carried on by his son, Henry Vincent. In early life he had been crippled in an accident, and during the Civil War his work as a hospital nurse left him an invalid. But his health improved after the amputation of a leg in 1885. He was married to Mary Sheldon, who was a graduate of Oberlin College, and they had seven sons. See the obituary in The Nonconformist (Omaha, Nebraska), 14 December 1899, pp. 1 and 9; and Harold Piehler, "Henry Vincent: Kansas Populist and Radical-Reform Journalist" Kansas History, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring 1979, pp. 14-25.
"Professor Finney" in The British Banner, 24 July 1850, p. 498