Rev. CHARLES G. FINNEY.
Speeches and Sketches AT THE
GATHERING OF HIS FRIENDS AND PUPILS, IN
OBERLIN, JULY 28TH,
CRITICAL ESTIMATES OF MR. FINNEY'S CHARACTER AND WORK
THE PREACHER, THE TEACHER, AND THE MAN.
Sermon By PRESIDENT FAIRCHILD
"Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost." --JOHN vi. 12.
If the abundant and satisfactory presentation of "Memorial Day" had been anticipated by my brethren of the Faculty, they would scarcely have felt that anything farther was required; and indeed the task which they have assigned me is like that of gathering up the fragments after the feast; but for such a service we have the authority of the Master.
Next to the being and the work of God Himself, the most interesting object of contemplation is human character and human life. What we commonly call nature has its charms, and natural science becomes to many an attractive and absorbing study. A microscopic plant or animal presents a field of inquiry and research to which an enthusiast may devote his life. It is to him full of interest in itself, and as an expression of the thought of God. But the humblest human life with its experiences, its purposes and achievements, is intrinsically more important than the whole range of nature, as the gem is more important than its setting; and contemplated as a work of God, an exhibition of His truth and faithfulness and gentleness, the material creation, the heavens above and the earth beneath, become of small moment in the comparison. And when such a life, wrought into great movements involving the interests of men and of the kingdom of God in the world, comes to a close, we may well turn aside to consider the lessons it has brought us.
Especially is it fit that at Oberlin, with the closing of the work of the College year, we should pause and take note of a grand career of service and of fidelity which since the year began has for this world reached its end. If Charles G. Finney had not lived, and labored, Oberlin could not have existed. Other servants of God, just as faithful, are rightly reckoned the founders of this school and of this community; but when we look farther, we must consider them as the outgrowth of a great religious movement in the land, the embodiment of certain controlling ideas of Christian labor and Christian culture. These ideas and impulses wrought through John J. Shipherd and his associates in the laying of the foundations at Oberlin; but if we trace back the impulse to its earthly source, we shall be led to the thought and the heart of Mr. Finney. This educational enterprise was the fruit, not very remote, of his work. After the foundations were laid at Oberlin, Mr. Finney came in with his personal presence and accumulated power, and impressed his thought and life upon the community and the school as few men could have done. It has been thought proper, on the first anniversary after Mr. Finney's death, to devote this hour to the contemplation of his life and work as shown in the preacher, the teacher, and the man.
Mr. Finney commenced his special work as a preacher in the character of an evangelist. His thought and aim were to rouse the churches to a higher life, and more effective activity, and to secure at once the conversion of multitudes to Christ. To this form of labor he had a call scarcely less distinct than that of an apostle. Whatever may be thought in general of the work of an evangelist among the churches, for a permanent arrangement, no one can reasonably question that this career was appointed to him by divine authority. The inward conviction and impulse and the outward signs all led in this direction. An experience in his conversion only a little less marked than that of Paul, an intensity of nature and of activity as if the truth of God were "a burning fire shut up in his bones," a yearning compassion for souls in darkness and sin, and a zeal for God that burned upon him without consuming, a power to pierce the most thoughtless heart with conviction by a word or a look, were the signs of this divine call.
Another fact may well be considered in explanation of the independent attitude he assumed, and the work he was called to do. Mr. Finney was taken from the world, and not from the Church. He was brought up with very slight association with religious institutions or churchly influences. With a nature strongly impressible to religious truth, and drawn to its contemplation as by a kind of fascination, he had stood apart from the church, in the attitude of a critic upon her doctrines and her life. He had no such association with religious people as led him to look to them for counsel, or to seek their guidance in the determination of his work. His natural independence of character doubtless led in the same direction; but if he had been brought up within the fold instead of without, with a life-long respect for the ministry and the ordinances of the Church, it is quite credible that another form of labor would have attracted him. The training he had received in his pursuit of the law, co-operated to the same result. He was not hampered by any associations from instruction in catechisms, or any forms of sound words with which the Church indoctrinates her children, and which in general are doubtless wholesome in their action. He came to the study of the Bible and the doctrines of the Gospel with the same freedom of judgment and of rational instinct with which he had apprehended and embraced the principles of law, and looked for a similar self-evident truthfulness. Thus he turned away at once from the old school dogmas of sin in the nature, of obligation beyond ability, of the literal transfer of the sinner's guilt and punishment to Christ, and of regeneration by a change of nature. These, so far as he knew, were at the time the prevalent doctrines of the Church. He found them, as he believed, in the Westminster Confession; and in discarding them, he naturally felt that he was departing from the traditions of the Church, and taking a position in a measure antagonistic to that held by the ministry in general. The outspoken boldness of his preaching, in these directions, led, on the other hand, to apprehensions and suspicions, on the part of many, as to his soundness in the faith; and thus all the influences conspired to confirm him in this somewhat independent line of labor. The strong conviction, beginning with his conversion, and abiding with him to the end, that he must look to divine rather than human guidance, naturally disposed him to mark out a path for himself; and thus, probably unconsciously at first, he entered upon the career of a reformer in the Church. The mission to which he felt himself appointed was that of saving men; and he rejected the old forms of doctrine because they were a hindrance and not a help in his work. He needed doctrines which he could preach, and which would move the consciences of men. In submitting himself to God, he had consciously yielded to the truth, and he came to depend upon the truth as the power of God unto salvation. Thus he was led to readjust and restate for his own uses as a preacher of salvation, the great doctrines of grace. He was naturally a keen analyst in the range of philosophic thought, and few men have had an intenser relish for such studies, on the ground of their own intrinsic interest; but it was not as a philosopher that he pushed his inquiries, but as a servant of Christ to whom a dispensation of the Gospel had been committed. On his knees before his open Bible, sustained by the sympathy and prayers of one good elder, he wrought out his theological system--not that he might become a reformer in theology, but that he might qualify himself as "a workman that needeth not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." Other men in the churches were at the same time working for similar modifications of the old Calvinism--men like Taylor and Beecher in New England, and Beman and Aiken and others in New York; but with these men Mr. Finney had at this time no communication. He had no opportunity to confer with "flesh and blood," but received his Gospel as the word of God communicated to his mind by the illumination of the Spirit. Thus he went forth to his work as a preacher, with the full conviction that he had a message from God for men; and this conviction was strong upon him during the fifty years of his public life and labor.
This persuasion ruled in his soul and shaped his thought and his work. Probably no sermon of his ever made the impression that he had wrought upon it as a work of art, although the spirit of his work was that of the truest art. His aim was to bring the truth home to men in such forms as to control their thoughts and move their hearts and decide their action. To this end the truth itself was put foremost; and form and embellishment were made wholly subordinate. His own clear apprehension of the truth enabled him to give his doctrine such a statement that it would be accepted as self-evidently true. Thus he taught as one having authority, who had a right to require assent to his message; and few men ever commanded a wider assent to their doctrines.
The manner of his discourse was simple, direct, conversational rather at the opening. Beginning with the simplest propositions, defining carefully the idea he was to present, telling first what it was not, and then what it was, he advanced to the profounder views of his discourse, and thus gradually paved the way to a powerful appeal to the hearts and consciences of his hearers. In the days of his full strength his principal discourse upon the Sabbath seldom fell short of an hour and a half in length, and often extended to two hours; and to the end of his days he rarely preached less than an hour.
The modern demand for short sermons found no sympathy with him. Perhaps this view sometimes prevailed in his audience. It seemed at times that the first half-hour devoted to laying the foundation might profitably have been saved, by assuming that his hearers in general apprehended and accepted the elementary truths with which he introduced his discourse. But it was probably true that he could not give us the last without the first. By these simple steps he gradually rose to the heights of his theme, and it was very rare that the view from those heights did not compensate for the patient climbing. As the great truths kindled upon his imagination and his heart, the whole intensity of his nature was aroused, and he poured out upon his audience a fervid torrent of argument, expostulation, and entreaty. The general impression of his sermons was that of intense solemnity, and earnestness, and yearning love. However stern, and awful even, the presentation of the truth might be, no one ever could mistake the compassionate love that often choked the utterance and bathed the face with tears. If at times he seemed to take his place with God, and stand almost as the herald of His indignation against sin and the sinner, he never failed to illustrate the Divine compassion which would rescue the sinner from his ruin.
He had rare power in touching the consciences of men. However plausible and comely, or concealed a worldly character might be, under his steady hand the adornments and disguises fell away, and sin, and all forgetfulness, and neglect of God appeared in their intrinsic hideousness. To him sin in its own nature was mean and vile, however amiable or graceful the form it might take; and respectable sinners as well as others felt his searching appeals.
But with all his solemnity and intensity of earnestness, his discourses were often relieved with bursts of humor which diffused themselves over the assembly in a rippling smile. Such a response seemed never to disturb him, nor to detract from the solemn impression. The next response would be breathless silence and tears.
While Mr. Finney's views of truth were in general remarkably clear and definite to his own thought, it was impossible that with so fervid and intense a nature, his statements should not often be rhetorical instead of literal and exact. The thought which he was urging seemed often to fill his vision, and you would almost think it was the only truth he apprehended. Indeed, it is probable that for the time the truth seemed to him just as he presented it. He did not consciously overstate it, or to his own thought indulge in hyperbole. But one who had not been carried on by the tide of his thought and feeling would find it necessary now and then to limit the statement by some related and modifying truth. If he were preaching on self-denial, and urging the duty of counting all things but loss for Christ and His cause, he might seem to one not familiar with his opinions and his style of discourse, to inculcate ascetic views--a renunciation of the pleasures and enjoyments of life as mischievous or wrong in themselves. If he were urging Christian economy, the duty of consecrating every faculty and possession to the service of the Master, as opposed to a self-indulgent use of God's gifts, the uninformed hearer would understand him to discard all beauty, all adornment and art, and to inculcate a bald and narrow utilitarianism. Once when exhorting the young men of his classes to a true missionary zeal, a readiness to go forth to any field without anxiety as to needed supplies, he told them that a young man was not fit for a missionary who could not take an ear of corn in his pocket and start for the Rocky Mountains; and this was forty years ago, when only here and there a hardy traveler had penetrated that distant region. Doubtless somewhat of his power as a preacher lay in such intense conceptions and expressions of the truth; but it sometimes led to misapprehension of his views; and it was not safe for a hearer to assume that he understood them until he had viewed them with the preacher from different sides. He aimed at a definite and strong impression, and that view of truth seized upon his mind and heart which was adapted to make this impression. It would have weakened the impression to attempt to define the exact limitations of the truth, and give it in harmony with other truths. It was safe to assume that the hearer would apply all needed limitations. But there was an apparent unconsciousness on the part of the preacher, that he was not presenting the truth in its exact proportions. Probably most effective preacher partake of this characteristic. The fact does not prove that a partial truth is more effective than the truth, but there are limitations in the human understanding and the human heart; and a sharp point will often penetrate when a broader stroke would be resisted.
Mr. Finney's renown as a preacher was attained during his ten years of preaching as a revivalist, before he entered upon the work at Oberlin. Although religious intelligence was very slowly diffused, and all means of communication were limited as compared with the present; yet his name and his fame were known throughout the land, and his supposed views on controverted doctrines were warmly discussed even in the rural districts and on the Western frontier. Those who received his views were often called Finneyites. His noted sermon on the text, "Can two walk together except they be agreed?" foreshadowed somewhat the divisions which followed his preaching.
Coming to Oberlin, he took up the work of teaching, but he never ceased to be a preacher. He became pastor of the church at Oberlin, and preached ordinarily one sermon on the Sabbath, and often a weekly lecture, for more than thirty-five years. His style of preaching was gradually changed in connection with his new work and field. It became less rhetorical and more didactic--the natural result of his work in the lecture-room. The entire congregation, or rather the entire people--for there was but a single congregation in the place during the first twenty years--became his theological class, and were thoroughly drilled in the great truths, and doctrines, and duties which filled his mind and heart. Under these circumstances the habit grew upon him of presenting the theme of his discourse with multitudinous and minute divisions and sub-divisions--a habit which has often been made the occasion of criticism. The logical relation of these divisions was not always carefully maintained, but it was generally clear that he had a definite aim in every new statement, even if it seemed in words little more than a restatement. A fellow-student at my side, when once we were engaged in the class-room in criticizing sermons with our instructor in homiletics, and an allusion had been made Mr. Finney's tendency to "split heads," instantly replied, "Yes, but when Mr. Finney splits a head, an armed Minerva generally leaps out."
But this didactic and lecturing method rarely characterized his entire discourse. When he had cleared his way by these formal statements of the truth, he applied it to the living, needy souls before him with the full force of his earnest and yearning soul. He did not cease to be a revival preacher in the quiet life at Oberlin. Every term and every month brought new students that needed to be converted, and the spiritual progress of his flock was to him a matter of constant and absorbing interest. He might justly address his people as Paul did the Galatians: "My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you." His familiarity with the people in the Sabbath services, was like that of a father in the midst of his family. If, in the application of his discourse, it became convenient to call by name a member of the congregation, it struck no one as an impropriety. No one could question his motive or his kindness of heart. So in the prayer before the sermon, he would bring before the Lord, in the style of familiar reverent conversation, the wants of the people in a manner so minute and particular, that each one felt that he was personally presented, and the utterance of a name sometimes removed any lingering doubt. These morning prayers were a feature of the church services at Oberlin for many years. They were conformed to no standard or model. They embraced not merely confession, thanksgiving, and supplication, according to the approved ideal of a prayer, but seemed to be free and confidential communication of pastor and people with the Lord, in which opinions and experiences, and hopes and fears were mingled with the supplications. One who heard for the first time, might be startled at the familiarity of tone--might at first even be shocked at the apparent irreverence; but listening farther, he would see it was the language of confiding love--the reverence of a soul who had "seen the King in His beauty."
It was not a rare thing with him throughout his pastorate, as in his previous labors as an evangelist, after an earnest presentation of the truth, to call upon the people to make their decision, and pledge themselves to the Lord upon the question of duty submitted. When the people had listened to an earnest appeal on the text, "Choose ye this day whom ye will serve," they were not dismissed to ponder the question at home, but were brought at once to the test, and asked to stand up before the Lord and pledge their fidelity to Him. From a weaker man such a call would have seemed an impertinence; but from him it seemed scarcely less appropriate then from Joshua or Elijah.
In coming to Oberlin, Mr. Finney did not intend to lay aside his work as an evangelist. He retained his place as a preacher in the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City, where he proposed to spend each winter in revival labors; and when this arrangement was terminated, it was his custom for twenty-five years to devote the winter to evangelistic labors, chiefly in the cities; and twice during this period he crossed the ocean, and spent a year and a half on each occasion, in most abundant and successful labors in England and Scotland. Calls for such labors were constantly urged upon him, and sometimes his health or the demands of the homework would lead him to hesitate. But as the winter came on, his spirit was stirred within him, and like a veteran warrior he hastened to the conflict. The twofold idea of the glory of God and the salvation of men, seemed to blend into one mighty impulse to press him into the field. He had no more doubt of his call to preach than any prophet ever had of his own mission, and the outward results fully justified this inward conviction.
It was somewhat remarkable that such a man, after such a career of ten years, beginning at Evans' Mills as a missionary in the new country, and ending in the Broadway Tabernacle, the center of potent influences gathered to bear upon the city, should have accepted the idea of settling down to the quiet work of teaching in a new school in the wilderness of Ohio. But to him it was not a change of his general plan, but merely a change of his base of operations. He began to feel indications of declining strength, and he was led to look about him for the agencies which were to carry forward the work which he had begun. Some of his friends, too, had begun to feel the importance of having his theological views and his ideas of Christian work impressed upon a class of young men who were about to enter the ministry. This class, providentially prepared, having dropped out of Lane Seminary, was waiting at Cincinnati for an instructor; and at the same time a place had been provided in the wilderness of northern Ohio, where teacher and pupils could be received, and the foundation laid of a theological school. So far as any human plan was involved, these three conditions were independent of each other, and thus began Mr. Finney's work as an instructor; and thus, with the aid of other co-laborers, grew up the theological school at Oberlin, and thus the whole Oberlin enterprise was reinforced and sustained. But for this accession its field would have been very limited, and even its continued existence most uncertain. The interests which had been accumulating about Mr. Finney during the preceding years, were transferred in great measure to Oberlin, and friends and foes alike began to look at this new center for something good or something bad, according to their views of Mr. Finney, and both classes saw what they expected to see.
Here he commenced his work as a teacher of theology, and prosecuted it until his death--a period of forty years. His qualification for the work were an acute, analytical mind, naturally inclined to philosophical thought, especially in its bearing upon theology, a power of clear discrimination and appreciation of differences of thought and expression, entire freedom from the trammels of traditional doctrine, with a conservative leaning to the historical faith of the Church, a disposition to adhere to the Old unless the New approved itself to him as more in harmony with Scripture and with reason. Thus he was no destructionist, with a passion to pull down rather than to build up--no negationist, satisfied with a denial of the old faith. He was a positive, and earnest, and intense believer. The truth as it is in Jesus was his life and his hope, and in his view the life and hope of the world; and all schemes for the good of mankind he judged by their relation to the Gospel system. But in doctrine nothing but the truth, as he saw it, could satisfy him. Hence in his classes he was always a learner with his pupils. His method of instruction was to draw out his pupils in inquiry and discussion, and thus establish in them the power and the habit of independent thought. All his own views as well as those of his pupils, were subjected to this ordeal; and it was no rare thing for him to readjust his doctrinal statement to meet the new light which he thus obtained. It was vain to bring against his better view some former argument or statement of his own. He would smilingly reply to any such suggestion, "Well, I don't agree with Finney on that point." It was his aim to be right rather than consistent. But his interest in philosophical truth was always subordinate to his great aim of bringing human souls to God, and thus his great anxiety in reference to his pupils always was that the Gospel should possess their hearts and shape their lives. No member of his class was in doubt that this was the burden of his soul. In certain portions of his yearly course he took special pains to give his instruction a practical turn, so that every pupil should be brought up to a higher Christian experience. Sometimes in his opening prayer with his class, he would be specially exercised in his anxiety for their spiritual enlargement; and there are those who remember instances in which the outpouring of his soul consumed the entire hour, and they will never forget those seasons in which he seemed to bear them up with himself to the very presence-chamber of the Most High.
His manner in the class was animated, cheerful, and not seldom mirthful. A burst of laughter from the class never disturbed him, and no laughter was more hearty than his own. At one time on account of feeble health he gathered his class to his own house, where they enjoyed the easy-chairs and sofas of his parlor. One member of the class betrayed a tendency to drowsiness in these very comfortable conditions, and as he always dismissed his class with a prayer, he prayed that all his pupils might be interested in their study and kept from sleeping. The next day as they gathered to the same room, they were a little disconcerted to find that the easy-chairs were all removed, and their places occupied with straight-backed chairs from the kitchen. Mr. Finney entered with a sly twinkle in his eye, and said, "Brethren, the Lord has shown me how to answer my own prayer." Such pleasantry was of frequent recurrence, and constituted one of the charms of his instruction.
His system of doctrine, when he came to Oberlin, was the New School Calvinism, in its essential features the theology of such men as Lyman Beecher, and N.W. Taylor--what has come to be recognized as the advanced New England Theology. At this time he was recognized as orthodox, according to the New School standards, as is shown by the fact that after his appointment at Oberlin he was invited to the chair of "Pastoral Theology and Sacred Eloquence" in Western Reserve College at Hudson, with the intimation that if he preferred the chair of "Didactic Theology," his preference might be considered.
This Theology he inculcated in his classes, and with a few modifications, or improvements, as Mr. Finney regarded them, it became the Oberlin Theology as it has sometimes been called.
The feature of his teaching which excited distrust, and which alienated from him many of his old friends, was the doctrine of Sanctification. A careful study of his teaching on this subject would have allayed anxiety, even if it did not produce assent; but the times were unpropitious. The suspicion of heresy was aroused in the land, and New School men were in haste to purge themselves from the suspicion. They had enough to bear without taking upon themselves any new burdens. Thus, so far as the Congregational and Presbyterian churches of the land were concerned, the responsibility of discussing and adjusting the doctrine of Sanctification fell chiefly upon Mr. Finney and his associates at Oberlin. Whether any progress was made in the undertaking, remains perhaps to be determined. Those years of thought and labor and prayer, with the hallowed experiences which attended, must yield some result to mankind. One of these results may and will be a clearer apprehension of Gospel truth, upon the great questions of Christian character and experience.
Another point elaborated by Mr. Finney in his work as an instructor, belongs rather to ethical philosophy than to practical religion--It is the problem of the nature of virtue, or as he preferred to call it, the foundation of moral obligation. The idea of reducing all virtue to benevolence, and of making the well-being of the universe, with God at its head, the grand reason or ground of all obligation, was not original with Mr. Finney. That is, others had presented this view before him. Yet he doubtless worked it out for himself. President Edwards the elder, and his friend Samuel Hopkins, of Newport, had presented this view, and had given it a footing in the New England Theology; but it had not obtained a general acceptance. The more prevalent theory was that of an abstract right or eternal fitness, in the light of which the rightness or wrongness of all actions is determined; and of this theory President Mahan, of Oberlin, was a strenuous and able advocate. In connection with prolonged and earnest discussion, in the class-room and in gatherings of the entire community, Mr. Finney wrought out his own system, making benevolence the whole of virtue, and the well-being of the sentient universe the final, absolute good in the presence of which all obligation arises. This system he elaborated in all its details, and published in its final form in the English edition of his "Systematic Theology." This treatise on the nature and foundation of obligation has not received the recognition which it merits. Its author, at the time of its publication, and many years afterward, was under the ban of suspected or doubtlful orthodoxy; and his words commanded only limited attention. Then again the volume was too formidable in its dimensions and general aspect to attract any but the most determined readers. But it will be difficult to find, in the range of philosophical literature, a more thorough and exhaustive discussion of such a theme. In masterly grasp of the subject, clearness of insight, and sharpness of discrimination, and in the conclusiveness of its logic, it will not suffer in comparison with the great efforts of President Edwards; and as a discussion of the great problem in ethics, it covers ground, and makes discriminations, and established points far in advance of Edwards' "Treatise on the Nature of Virtue," which deservedly ranks so high.
The utilitarian philosophers of the modern English school would find in this treatise a clearer statement of whatever truth they hold, and a demonstration of the errors into which they have fallen. A pupil, a disciple, who has found in this profound and luminous teaching the inspiration of his life, may be expected to speak thus of the master. But men who were not his pupils, and who were trained in different theological views, have borne similar testimony. Dr. Redford, a prominent theologian of Worcester; England, wrote a preface to the English edition of Mr. Finney's theology, in which we find these words: "As a contribution to theological science, in an age when vague speculation and philosophical theories are bewildering many among all denominations of Christians, this work will be considered by all competent judges to be both valuable and seasonable. Upon several important and difficult subjects the author has thrown clear and valuable light, which will guide many a student through perplexities and difficulties which he had long sought unsuccessfully to explain. The editor [i.e., Dr. Redford himself] frankly confesses that when a student, he would gladly have bartered half the books in his library, to have gained a single perusal of these lectures; and he can not refrain from expressing the belief that no young student of theology will ever regret the purchase or perusal of Mr. Finney's lectures."
It can not be maintained that the literary arrangement and execution of his theological writings were equal to their strength and power of thought, nor that the same thoroughness and clearness of conception always characterized the movement of his mind. Like other men, he had his bewilderments, and it seems probable that a more systematic training in early life would have given a higher value and wider acceptance of his written thought. But in view of all the facts it may be questioned whether any public preacher or teacher, during the last fifty years, has made a profounder impression upon the religious thought of the age.
But back of the preacher and the teacher, was the personal character--the man; and Mr. Finney was quite as impressive in what he was as in what he did. He was gifted with large and generous powers, and in any walk in life must have been a man of mark. Those elements, so difficult to define, which make up what we call personal power, were found in him in the largest measure; yet it can not be doubted that the field of religious thought and action gave the widest scope to his peculiar genius. No proper account of his character and his work can be given without a recognition of the grace of God which was upon him, in the gift of the Holy Ghost. This was his own view of the secret of his power. But the Spirit of God finds a limit in the nature with which He deals; and the powers and faculties of the man who receives Him are the measure of His manifestation. A child possessed of the Holy Spirit is still a child. The Divine gift adorns the weakness, but does not transform it into strength. In the preacher and teacher divinely furnished, there was still a strength of nature which was the basis of his power.
In person he was tall and commanding, and every movement was naturally easy and graceful. His stately form manifestly did not appear on its own account. The body was fully possessed and permeated by the soul, controlled and vitalized in every part of the spirit within. There was a power in his eye which none failed to feel who came within its range--a searching, penetrating power, changing at times in expression from a sternness that was almost awful, to a melting tenderness and gentleness. But the power did not seem to lie in the physical organ, but in the soul that looked through it--the intense and fervent spirit that vitalized the whole outer man.
Perhaps the most characteristic feature of the inner man was the depth and intensity of his emotional nature. This gave energy and power to every movement and every expression; every thought radiated both heat and light, and the two were to him inseparable. To see and to feel a truth were to him one and the same thing; and his hearers were, to a great extent, impressed in the same way. His range of feeling was as broad and varied as his thought. He was not only stern and solemn as a prophet, from his sympathy with God and with all righteousness and holiness, but in turn as gentle and affectionate as a child, attracting children to himself as if he were one of them. In his own family and with his friends, his manner was characterized and tempered by a genial playfulness which set aside constraint, and made all feel at home in his presence. No one was more ready with a sportive allusion or remark, and sometimes a serious admonition was conveyed under such a cover. Not long before his death a stranger called to see him, who professed what are called liberal views, and expressed his interest in Mr. Finney's teachings and his general approval of them. "But," said he, "there is one point in which I don't agree with you; I don't believe in a personal devil." "You don't!" said Mr. Finney; "don't believe in a personal devil! Well, you resist him awhile, and you will believe in him."
The intensity of his own religious affections and experiences, of course colored and modified his public instructions. For himself he never seemed to over-estimate such experiences, or to accept in himself or in others any sentimental or emotional glow, in place of genuine obedience and righteousness; but Christian experience to him involved the profoundest and loftiest emotions. He seemed at times to have been caught up to the third heaven with Paul, and to have shared in its unutterable joys. Under such an inspiration his representation of the religious emotions would transcend all ordinary experience, and the result would often be discouraging and depressing to those who walked in more quiet paths. Some of the most saintly souls, possibly even in his own home-circle, seemed to suffer at times from the reaction of his almost seraphic flights; not that he was himself unable to appreciate the lowly experience of a mere child, or would willingly disparage the feeblest effort of faith; but those who could not soar with him were sometimes left behind in discouragement, and might have welcomed the guidance of a more quiet and restful hand. Yet there were times when he seemed to walk in the valley rather than on the mountain-top, and the weakest and most self-distrustful could keep step with him.
A misconception of Mr. Finney has prevailed to a considerable extent, that his range of thought and of interest was very narrow--that he was so absorbed in the contemplation of direct Gospel-truth, and its immediate application to the wants of men, that the wider field of human interests and human life was not embraced by his sympathies. A limited acquaintance with him through his preaching or his writings, might sometimes give rise to such an impression. Those who have read only his articles on recreations and amusements, as published a few years since, have naturally fallen into this misconception. His life-long habit of presenting only that side or view of truth which at the time seemed to meet his purpose, has tended to confirm the idea. But it is an entire misapprehension of the man. The whole range of human interests, embracing science, and art, and civil and social life, had attractions for him, and he was an advocate and promoter of the widest culture. His delight in music in all its proper forms was intense, and the musical interest at Oberlin from the earliest days has grown up under his approval and encouragement. But he gave little place to what was artistic simply, and realized no end in the elevation of heart and life. The immense choir and the swelling organ gave him no satisfaction unless they distinctly articulated the praises of Jehovah; and once, after a failure in this direction, he stepped forward for the morning prayer, and said, "O Lord, we trust thou hast understood the song we have tried to sing; thou knowest that we could not understand a word of it."
Such was the breadth of his nature and of his sympathies that although his early education was comparatively limited and narrow, he did not fail to appreciate the advantages of the broadest culture; hence his influence upon the work of the College in this direction was entirely wholesome. The teachers in every department had his sympathy and support, and he never under-valued any branch of learning because he had not shared its advantages.
The great leading lines of human thought and action were familiar to him, and men who were looked up to as leaders in these various directions, were often impressed with the clearness of his views, and the wisdom of his suggestions in the direction of their own specialty. Once when summoned before the Court of Common Pleas as a witness, in a case where as pastor he had received a confidential communication, he took his stand upon the privileges of a pastor, and set forth the principles of the case, in such a way as to command the assent and admiration of the court and of the entire bar.
When such a man as Senator Chase, had thrilled the people with his words and thoughts of wisdom and inspiration on the question of the hour, Mr. Finney could follow him with words and thoughts of equal weight and wisdom--a peer among the leaders of the people.
Yet Mr. Finney must be regarded rather as a leader of thought than a leader of men. He rejoiced to find himself before the multitude; but it was that he might set the truth before them, and bring each one personally to God. The organized movements of men, in Church or State, had little attraction for him; and in such gatherings he was seen only on rare occasions. He had no ambition to be recognized as a leader, and the idea of standing as the head of a new sect or denomination was repugnant to him. There were times in his life when with a different temper he might have been betrayed into this mistake. He had the independence and self-reliance of a leader, but his mission from God was to the individual human soul--not to masses or organizations. He was certain of his own work, and he could recognize that others had theirs, but he could not turn aside to co-operate with them. Thus from the beginning to the end of his public life, he pursued his own work in his own way.
In this work, as to its power and method, he can have no successor, anymore than Elijah or Paul. The man and the work were made for each other, and no one can take up what he laid down. Others have entered into his labors and will gather the harvest of his sowing; but no one can ever stand in his place, or wield the power with which he was endowed. But others can share in the same singleness of purpose and consecration of life, and can, each in his own way, work for the same great end; and those who have witnessed such a life and felt its power, live henceforth under a higher obligation.
The outcome of that work can never be estimated except by Him to whom the secrets of all heart and the issues of all lives are known. Redeemed souls, a numerous throng, already stand upon the crystal sea within the circle of God's Glory, whose faces were turned heavenward by this herald of the everlasting Gospel; and the power of his life shall still work in the world even among those who have never heard his name, until time shall be no more.
In setting forth the power of such a life, we only magnify the grace of Christ, who calls His servants and prepares them for their work, and sends them forth with the promise, "Lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the world."
My young friends of the graduating classes: With the life and work of our departed teacher and father, you have had less direct acquaintance than most who have preceded you in the college life at Oberlin. His venerable form, still erect and stately under the weight of four-score years, has been familiar to you, and from time to time his voice has fallen upon your ears like the echo of a trumpet call. And how much his thought and prayer and faithful endeavor have had to do in shaping your thought and life, none but God can know. Some of the rills of truth from which you have refreshed your souls along your way, have flowed from the great Fountain of Truth through channels which he opened. Some of the impulses to a life of duty and of service which have inspired your hearts, have come directly or indirectly from his fervent and faithful soul. The doors of usefulness which you may enter in the years which lie before you, have in many cases been opened to you by his personal influence and effort; and thus to the end of your earthly life, and on into the life beyond, your character, your work, and your destiny will be, in a measure, shaped by what he was and what he did.
And here is our relief and satisfaction in the closing up of such a career of usefulness and power. There is to be no real loss. From that burning and shining light, in which for so long a season we were permitted to rejoice, a thousand other lights have been kindled, and thus the darkness of the world shall be more and more enlightened.
It is impossible to fall within the range of such a life, without coming under higher obligations to God and to mankind. You and we all who have felt the power must accept the responsibility. The higher ideal of consecration and of service which that life has given you, you can not lay aside. You will none of you be called to do the work he did; but in the same spirit of consecration and fidelity, you will be called to do your own work. No public career even, may open to you all, but love to God and to mankind can inspire your hearts, and fidelity to all truth and righteousness can give power and efficiency to your lives.
Be not disheartened if sometimes that fidelity shall lead to misapprehension, and shall bring you reproach instead of honor with men. With God there is no misapprehension; and in the end He shall bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your judgment shall be as the noon-day. "To them who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality," He gives, "eternal life." God grant that this may be your purpose and this your portion. Amen.
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