The GOSPEL TRUTH
CHARLES G. FINNEY
Revival at Western
I have spoken of my turning aside to Western, as I was returning from the Synod at Utica. At this place commenced that series of revivals afterwards called the western revivals. So far as I know these revivals first attracted the notice and excited the opposition of Mr. Nettleton and Dr. Beecher and raised the cry of "New Measures." Those of us who labored in those revivals have never been able to learn the true source of this opposition. That those brethren were grossly deceived by information that they received from some source, we were sure. We regarded them as good men, and true, but we knew that somebody was giving them most unreliable information. I shall not mention in this place the efforts that we made to acquaint ourselves with the authors of those reports, or letters, or whatever they may have been, by which those brethren were led to publicly oppose those revivals. But we failed to get at the source of this opposition. The churches in that region were mostly Presbyterian. There were in that county, however, three Congregational ministers who called themselves "The Oneida Association," who at the time published a pamphlet against those revivals. Thus much we knew, but as the pamphlet made no public impression that we could learn, no notice, so far as I know, was ever taken of it in public. We thought it likely that that association had much to do with the opposition that was raised in the east.
The leader of them, Rev. William R. Weeks, as was well-known, was a man that embraced and propagated the peculiar doctrines of Dr. Emmons, and insisted very much upon what he called "The divine efficiency scheme." His peculiar views on this subject we could see naturally led him to be suspicious of whatever was not connected with those peculiar views in preaching and in the means that were used to promote a revival. He seemed to have little or no confidence in any conversions that did not bring men to embrace his peculiar views of divine efficiency and divine sovereignty; and as those of us who labored in those revivals had no sympathy with his peculiar views in that respect, it was very natural for him to have but little confidence in the genuineness of those revivals. But we never supposed that the whole of the opposition of Brother Nettleton and Dr. Beecher could have originated in representations made by any of the members of that association.
No public replies were made to the letters of Dr. Beecher that found their way into the public prints, nor to anything that was published in opposition to the revivals at the time. Those of us who were engaged in them had our hands too full, and our hearts too full, to turn aside to reply to letters, or reports, or publications that so manifestly misrepresented the character of the work. The fact that no answers were made at the time, left the public abroad and without the range of those revivals, and where the facts were not known, to misapprehend their character. So much misapprehension came to exist that it had been common for good men in referring to those revivals to assume, that although they were upon the whole revivals of religion, yet that they were so conducted that great disorders were manifest in them, and that there was much to deplore in their results.
Now all this is an entire mistake. I shall relate as fairly as I can the characteristics of those revivals, the measures that were used in promoting them, and disclose to my best ability their real character and results; understanding well, as I do, that there are multitudes of living witnesses who can attest the truth of what I say, or if in anything I am mistaken can correct me.
And now I will turn to Western, where these revivals first commenced in Oneida County. I have said that Brother Gale had moved onto a farm in Western, and was employing some young men in helping to cultivate the farm, and was engaged in teaching them, and endeavoring to regain his health. I went directly to his house, and for several weeks was his guest. We arrived there on Thursday, I think, and on that afternoon there was a stated prayer meeting in the schoolhouse near the church. They had no settled minister, and Brother Gale was unable to preach--indeed, he did not go there to preach, but simply for his health. I believe they never had a minister for more than a part of the time; and for some time previous to my going there I think they had had no stated preaching in the Presbyterian church at all. There were three elders in the Presbyterian church, and a few members; but the church was very small, and religion was at low water mark. There seemed to be no life, or courage, or enterprise on the part of Christians, and nothing was doing to secure the conversion of sinners or the sanctification of the church.
In the afternoon Brother Gale invited me to go to the prayer meeting, and I went. They asked me to take the lead of the meeting; but I declined, expecting only to be there for that afternoon, and preferring to hear them pray and talk than to take part in the meeting myself. The meeting was opened by one of the elders reading a chapter in the Bible, then a hymn, which they sung. After this he made a long prayer, or perhaps I should say an exhortation, or gave a narrative--I hardly know what to call it. He told the Lord how many years they had been holding that prayer meeting weekly, and that no answer had been given to their prayers. He made such statements and confessions as greatly shocked me. After he was done, another elder took up the same thing. He read a hymn, and after singing engaged in a long prayer, in which he went over very nearly the same ground, making such additions and statements as the first one had omitted. Then followed the third elder in the same strain. By this time I could say with Paul that my spirit was stirred within me. They had got through and were about to dismiss the meeting. But one of the elders asked me if I would not make a remark before they dismissed. I arose and took their statements and confessions for a text, and it seemed to me at the time as if God inspired me to give them a terrible searching.
When I arose I had no idea what I should say; but the Spirit of God came upon me with such power, that I took up their prayers, and statements, and confessions, and dissected them. I showed them up, and asked if it had been understood that that prayer meeting was a mock prayer meeting--whether they had come together professedly to mock God by implying that all the blame of what had been passing all this time was to be ascribed to His sovereignty. At first I observed that they all looked angry. Some of them afterwards said that they were on the point of getting up and going out. But I followed them up on the track of their prayers and confessions until the elder, who was the principal man among them, and opened the meeting, bursting into tears exclaimed, "Brother Finney, it is all true!" He fell upon his knees and wept aloud. This was the signal for a general breaking down. Every man and woman present went down upon their knees. There were probably not more than a dozen present, but they were the leading influences in the church. They all wept, and confessed, and broke their hearts before God. This scene continued, I presume, for an hour; and a more thorough breaking down and confession I have seldom ever witnessed.
As soon as they recovered themselves enough, they besought me to remain and preach to them on the Sabbath. I regarded it as the voice of the Lord, and consented to do so. This was on Thursday at night. On Friday my mind was greatly exercised. I went off frequently into the church to engage in secret prayer, and had a mighty hold upon God. The news was circulated, and on Sabbath I had the church full of hearers. I preached all day, and God came down with great power upon the people. It was manifest to everybody that the work of grace had begun. I made appointments to preach in different parts of the town in schoolhouses, and at the center, during the week; and the work increased from day to day.
In the meantime my own mind was much exercised in prayer, and I found that the Spirit of prayer was prevailing, especially among the female members of the church. Mrs. Brayton and Mrs. Harris, the wives of two of the elders of the church, I found almost immediately were greatly exercised in prayer. Each of them had families of unconverted children, and they laid hold in prayer with an earnestness that to me gave promise that their families must be converted. Mrs. Harris, however, was a woman of very feeble health, and had not ventured out much to any meeting for a long time. However, as the day was pleasant, she was out at the prayer meeting to which I have alluded, and seemed to catch the inspiration of that meeting, and took it home with her.
It was on the next week, I think, that I called in at Mr. Harris', and found him pale and agitated. He said to me, "Brother Finney, I think my wife will die. She is so exercised in her mind that she cannot rest day or night, but is given up entirely to prayer. She has been all the morning," said he, "in her room groaning and struggling in prayer, and I am afraid it will entirely overcome her strength." Hearing my voice in the sitting room she came out from her bedroom, and upon her face was a most unearthly, heavenly glow. Her countenance was lighted up with a hope and a joy that were plainly from heaven. She exclaimed, "Brother Finney, the Lord has come! This work will spread over all this region! A cloud of mercy overhangs us all, and we shall see such a work of grace as we have never yet seen." Her husband looked surprised, confounded, and knew not what to say. It was new to him, but not to me. I had seen such scenes before, and believed that prayer had prevailed, nay, I felt sure of it in my own soul. The work went on, spread, and prevailed, until it began to exhibit unmistakable indications of the direction in which the Spirit of God was leading from that place. From that place to Rome was about nine miles. I believe. About half way was a small village called Elmer's Hill. There was a large schoolhouse where I held a weekly lecture, and it soon became manifest that the work was spreading in the direction of Rome and Utica. There was a settlement northeast of Rome, about three miles, called Wright's Settlement. Large numbers of persons came down to attend the meetings at Elmer's Hill from Rome and from Wright's Settlement; and the work soon began to manifest itself as taking effect among them.
But I must relate a few of the incidents that occurred in the revival at Western. Mrs. Brayton, the wife of one of the elders, to whom I have already alluded, had a large family of unconverted children. One of the sons was, I believe, a professor of religion, and lived at Utica; the rest of the family were at home. They were a very amiable family, and the eldest daughter especially had been manifestly regarded by the family as almost perfect. I went in several times to converse with her, but I found that the family were so tender of her feelings that I could not strip away her self-righteousness, for she had evidently been made to believe that she was almost, if not quite, a Christian. Her life had been so irreproachable that it was very difficult to convict her of sin. The second daughter was also a very amiable girl, but she did not so regard herself as to be compared with the eldest in respect to amiability and morality of character. One day when I was talking with Sarah, the eldest, and trying to make her see herself as a great sinner notwithstanding her morality, Cynthia, the second daughter, said to me, "Mr. Finney I think that you are too hard upon Sarah. If you should talk so to me, I should feel that I deserved it, but I don't think that she does." After being defeated several times in my attempts to secure the conviction and conversion of Sarah, I made up my mind to bide my time, and improve some opportunity when I should find her away from home, or alone. It was not long before I had an opportunity to find her away from home. I entered into conversation with her, and by God's help stripped the covering from her heart, and she was brought under powerful conviction for sin. The Spirit pursued her with mighty power. The family were surprised and greatly distressed for Sarah; but God pushed the question home till, after a struggle of a few days she broke thoroughly down, and came out into the kingdom as beautiful a convert as perhaps I have ever seen. Her convictions were so thorough that when she came out she was strong in faith, clear in her apprehension of duty and of truth, and immediately became a host in her power for good among her friends and acquaintances.
In the meantime, Cynthia, the second daughter, became very much alarmed about herself and very anxious for the salvation of her own soul. The mother, Mrs. Brayton, seemed to be in real travail of soul day and night. I called in to see the family almost daily, and sometimes two or three times a day. One of the children after another was converted, and we were expecting every day to see Cynthia come out a bright convert. But for some reason she lingered. It was plain the Spirit was resisted, and one day I called to see her and found her in the sitting room alone. I asked her how she was getting on, and she replied, "Mr. Finney, I am losing my conviction. I do not feel nearly as much concerned about myself as I have done." Just at this moment a door was opened and Mrs. Brayton came into the room, and I told her what Cynthia had just said. It shocked her so that she groaned aloud, and fell prostrate on the floor. She was unable to rise, and struggled and groaned out her prayers in a manner that immediately indicated to me that Cynthia must be converted. She was unable to say much in words, but her groans and tears witnessed the extreme agony of her mind. As soon as this scene had occurred the Spirit of God manifestly came upon Cynthia afresh. She fell upon her knees, and before she arose she broke down, and became to all appearance as thorough a convert as Sarah was. The Brayton children, sons and daughters, were all converted at that time, I believe, except the youngest, a little child, who was afterwards converted. One of the sons has preached the Gospel for many years.
Among other incidents, I recollect that of a young lady in a distant part of the town who came to the meeting at the center almost every day; and I had conversed with her several times and found her deeply convicted, and indeed almost in despair. I was expecting to hear from day to day that she had been converted, but she remained stationary, or rather despair increased upon her day after day. This led me to suspect that something was wrong at home. I asked her if her parents were Christians. She said they were members of the church. I asked her if they attended meetings. She said, "Yes, on the Sabbath." "Do not your parents attend meetings at other times?" "No," was the reply. "Do you have family prayers at home?" "No Sir," she said. "We used to have, but we have not had family prayers for a long time." This revealed to me the stumbling block at once. I inquired when I could probably find her father and mother at home. She said almost any time, as they were seldom away from home. Feeling that it was infinitely dangerous to leave this case as it was, I went the next morning to see the family.
The young lady was, I think, an only child; at any rate she was the only child at home. I found her bowed down, dejected, and sunken in despair. I said to the mother, "The Spirit of the Lord is striving with your daughter." "Yes:' she said, "she didn't know but He was." I asked her if she was praying for her. She gave me an answer that led me to understand that she did not know what it was to pray for her. I inquired for her husband. She said that he was in the field at work. I asked her to call him in. He came, and as he came in I said to him, "Do you see the state that your daughter is in?" He replied that he thought she felt very bad. "And are you awake, and engaged in prayer for her?" His answer revealed the fact that if he was ever converted he was a miserable backslider, and had no hold upon God whatever. "And," said I, "you do not have family prayers." "No Sir." "Now," said I, "I have seen your daughter day after day bowed down with conviction, and I have learned that the difficulty is here at home. You have shut up the kingdom of heaven against your daughter. You neither enter yourself, nor will you suffer her to enter. Your unbelief and worldly mindedness prevent the conversion of your daughter, and will ruin your own soul. Now you must repent. I do not intend to leave this house until you and your wife repent, and get out of the way of your daughter. You must establish family prayer, and build up the altar that has fallen down. Now my dear Sir, will you get down here on your knees, you and your wife, and engage in prayer? And will you promise that from this time you will do your duty, set up your family altar, and return to God?" I was so earnest with them that they both began to weep. My faith was so strong that I did not trifle when I told them that I would not leave the house until they would repent, and establish their family altar. I felt that the work must be done, and done then. I cast myself down upon my knees and began to pray, and they knelt down and wept sorely. I confessed for them as well as I could, and tried to lead them to God, and to prevail with God in their behalf. It was a moving scene. They both broke down their hearts, and confessed their sins; and before we rose from our knees the daughter got into liberty, and was manifestly converted. She arose rejoicing in Christ. Many answers to prayer, and many scenes of great interest transpired in this revival.
There was one passage of my own experience that, for the honor of God, I must not omit to relate in this connection. I had preached and prayed almost continually during the time that I had been at Mr. Gale's. As I was accustomed to use my voice in prayer, and pray aloud, for convenience' sake, that I might not be heard, I had spread a buffalo skin on the hayloft, where I used to spend much of my time when not abroad visiting, or engaged in preaching, in secret prayer to God. Brother Gale had admonished me several times that if I did not take care I would go beyond my strength and break down. But the Spirit of prayer was upon me, and I would not resist Him, and gave Him scope, and let out my strength freely in pouring my soul out to God in prayer. It was November, and the weather was becoming cold. Brother Gale and I had been out visiting inquirers with his horse and buggy. We came home and went into the barn and put out the horse. After the horse was unharnessed, instead of going into the house I crept up into the hayloft to pour out my burdened soul to God in prayer. I prayed until my burden left me. I was so far exhausted that I fell down upon the buffalo skin and lost myself in sleep. When my mind was relieved and the burden gone, I must have fallen to sleep almost instantly, I judge from the fact that I had no recollection of any time elapsing at all after the struggle in my soul was over. Brother Gale went into the house; and I remained in the barn so long that he became alarmed. The first I knew he came climbing up into the hayloft, and said, "Brother Finney, are you dead?" I awoke, and at first could give no account of why I was there asleep, and could form no idea of how long I had been there. But this I knew, that my mind was calm and my faith unwavering. The work would go on, of that I felt assured.
I have already said that I was ordained to the ministry by a presbytery. This was years before the division of the Presbyterian church into what is known as the Old and New School Assemblies. The Edwardean doctrine of moral and natural ability and inability was held by the Presbyterian church almost universally in the region where I commenced my ministry. I must here repeat also that Mr. Gale, who, by direction of the presbytery, had attended somewhat to my theological studies, held firmly to the doctrine of the sinner's inability to obey God; and the subject as he presented it in his preaching--as was the case with most of the Presbyterian ministers of that day--left the impression upon the people that they must wait God's time. If they were elect, in due time the Spirit would convert them; if they were non-elect, nothing that they would do for themselves, or that anybody else would do for them, would ever savingly benefit them.
They held the doctrine that moral depravity was constitutional, and belonged to the very nature; that the will, though free to do evil, was utterly impotent to all good; that the work of the Holy Spirit in changing the heart was a physical operation on the substance or essence of the soul; that the sinner was passive in regeneration till the Holy Spirit had implanted a new principle in his nature, and that all efforts on his part were utterly unavailing; that properly speaking there were no means of regeneration, this being a physical re-creation of the soul by the direct agency of the Holy Ghost; that the Atonement was limited to the elect, and that for the non-elect to be saved was an utter impossibility.
In my studies and controversies with Mr. Gale, I had maintained the opposite of this. I assumed that moral depravity was, and must be, a voluntary attitude of the mind; that it did and must consist in the committal of the will to the gratification of the desire, or as the Bible expresses it, of the lusts of the flesh, as opposed to that which the law of God requires. In consistency with this, I maintained that the influence of the Spirit of God upon the soul of man was moral, that is persuasive; that Christ represented him as a teacher; that his work was to convict and convert the sinner by divine teaching and moral persuasion.
I held also that there were means of regeneration, and that the truths of the Bible were in their nature calculated to lead the sinner to abandon his wickedness and turn to God. I held also that there must be an adaptation of means to the end to be secured: that is, that the intelligence must be enlightened, the unreasonableness of moral depravity must be set before the sinner, and its wickedness and ill-desert clearly revealed to him; that when this was done, the mission of Christ could be understood by him, and could be strongly presented; that taking this course with the sinner had a tendency to convert him to Christ; and that when this was faithfully and prayerfully done, we had a right to expect the Holy Spirit to cooperate with us.
Furthermore, I held that the Holy Spirit operates in the preacher clearly revealing these truths in their proper order to him, and enabling him to set them before the people in such proportion and in such order as was calculated to convert them. I understood then, as I do now, the charge and promise which Christ gave to the apostles and to the church, to be applicable in the present day: "Go and disciple all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; and lo I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world."
This I regarded as a charge committed to me, to all ministers, and to the church; with the express promise that when we go forth to this work with a single eye, and with a prayerful spirit, Christ will be with us by His Spirit, giving efficiency to our efforts to save souls. It appeared to me then, as it ever has since, that the great failure of the ministry and of the church in promoting religion consisted, in great measure, in the want of a suitable adaptation of means to that end. I had sat under Mr. Gale's preaching for years, and could never see any adaptation in his preaching to convert anybody. It did not appear to me as if that could have been his design. I found the same was true of all the sermons that I heard anywhere. I had on one occasion spoken to Mr. Gale on this subject, and said to him that of all the causes that were ever plead the cause of religion, I thought, had the fewest able advocates; and that if advocates at the bar should pursue the same course in pleading the cause of their clients that ministers do in pleading the cause of Christ with sinners, they would not gain a single case.
But at that time Mr. Gale could not see it; for what connection was there between means and end upon his view of what regeneration consists in, and the manner in which the Holy Spirit changes the heart?
As an illustration, soon after I began to preach, in the midst of a powerful revival, a young man from the theological seminary at Princeton, came into the place. The former pastor of the church where I was laboring, an elderly gentleman, lived there, and had a great curiosity to hear this young man preach. The church had no pastor at the time; I therefore had the sole charge of the pulpit, and was conducting things according to my own discretion. He said he had known the young man before he went to college, and he desired very much to see what proficiency he had made, and wanted me to let him preach. I said I was afraid to set him to preach, lest he should mar the work by not preaching that which was needed at the time. "O," said the old gentleman, "he will preach the truth; and there is no connection in religion, you know, between means and ends, and therefore there is no danger of his marring the work." I replied, "That is not my doctrine. I believe there is as much connection between means and ends in religion as in nature; and therefore I cannot consent to let him preach." I have often found it necessary to take substantially the same course in revivals of religion, and sometimes by doing so I have found that I gave offence; but I dared not do otherwise.
In the midst of a revival of religion, and when souls needed peculiar instruction, adapted to their present condition and their present wants, l dared not put A, or B, or C, into the pulpit where I had the charge, to preach any of his great sermons--and generally too, one not at all adapted to the wants of the people. For this course I have frequently been accused of supposing that I could preach better than others. And I confess I did suppose that I could meet the wants of the people better than those that knew less about their wants, or than those that would preach their old written sermons to them; and it was for this reason that I supposed that Christ had put the work into my hands in such a sense that I was under obligation to adapt means to ends, and not call upon others who knew little of the state of things to attempt, under such circumstances, to instruct the people. I did in these cases just as I would be done by. I would not allow myself to go in where another man was laboring to promote a revival, and suffer myself to be put in his place when I knew little or nothing about the state of the people.
I have said that at Western I was the guest of Mr. Gale, and that he had come to the conclusion that he was never converted. He told me the progress of his mind: that he had firmly believed, as he had so frequently urged upon me, that God would not bless my labors because I would not preach what he regarded as the truths of the Gospel. I have also said elsewhere that a short time after I was licensed I preached once in his pulpit, and gave my own views of the Gospel and the way to preach it, and that he told me after the sermon that he should be ashamed to have it known that he had had any connection with teaching me theology. He supposed, and had insisted, that I need not expect the Spirit of God to accompany my labors. But when he found that the Spirit of God did accompany my labors, it led him to the conclusion that he was wrong; and this led him to such an overhauling of his whole state of mind, and of his views as a preacher, as resulted in his coming to the conclusion that he had never been converted, and did not understand the Gospel himself. During the revival in Western, he attended nearly all the meetings; and before many weeks, he told me he had come into an entirely different state of mind in regard to his own soul, and had changed his views of the Gospel, and thought I was right. He said he thanked God that he had had no influence with me to lead me to adopt his views--that I should have been ruined as a minister if he had prevailed. From this time he became a very efficient worker, so far as his health would permit, in the revival in that region of country.
The doctrine upon which I insisted, that the command to obey God implied the power to do so, created in some places considerable opposition at first. Denying also, as I did, that moral depravity was physical, or the depravity of the nature, and maintaining, as I did, that it was altogether voluntary, and therefore that the Spirit's influences were those of teaching, persuading, convicting, and of course a moral influence--these doctrines were to a great extent new to many. Indeed as late as 1832, when I was laboring in Boston for the first time, Dr. Beecher said that he never had heard the doctrine preached before that the Spirit's influences were moral as opposed to physical. Therefore, to a considerable extent, ministers and Christians regarded that doctrine as virtually a denial of the Spirit's influence altogether; and hence, although I ever insisted very much, and incessantly, upon the divine agency in conviction and regeneration, and in every Christian exercise, yet it was a long time before the cry ceased to be heard that I denied the agency of the Holy Ghost in regeneration and conversion. It was said that I taught self-conversion, self-regeneration; and not unfrequently was I rebuked for addressing the sinner as if the blame of his impenitence all belonged to himself, and for urging him to immediate submission. However, I persisted in this course, and it was seen by ministers and Christians that God owned it as His truth, and blessed it to the salvation of thousands of souls. I shall have occasion to advert to this subject again in other places, and for the present drop it and return to my narrative.
I have spoken of the meetings at Elmer's Hill, and have said that people from Rome and Wright's Settlement began to come in large numbers, and that the manifest effect of the Word upon those that came from other places plainly indicated to me that the work was rapidly extending in that direction.
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