The GOSPEL TRUTH
"NO UNCERTAIN SOUND":
A VINDICATION OF THE METHODS AND RESULTS OF
CHARLES FINNEY'S MINISTRY
(Used by Permission)
In the collective consciousness of Christianity, Charles G. Finney still has a voice, he "being dead yet speaketh" through his sermons, his lectures, and his memoirs. His influence in shaping evangelicalism in the nineteenth century, and thus indirectly shaping it today, is immeasurable. But many in the church are not at all pleased about his influence. To them, the historical echo of his voice is "as a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal," and they would like it silenced forever. Being that his influence is so widespread, though, silencing it is well nigh impossible. Therefore they take another approach, trying to demonstrate that this voice is not worth heeding, that it is distorted, that it giveth "an uncertain sound."
To do this they engage in a campaign of charging Finney with ravaging the church through unorthodox theology and infecting it with gimmickry and shallow evangelistic techniques. What happens, though, is that in their campaign they give their readers a very distorted and inaccurate picture of the man. As we shall see, he is caricatured as believing that a revival has no supernatural elements in it whatsoever, and believing that he could produce one strictly by emotional excitement. He is depicted as a man who carelessly pushed people into "accepting Christ" when they were spiritually unready, a man who produced an enormous number of spurious converts, and a man who so thoroughly devastated the already "burned over district" with his so-called "revivals" that there has never been a spiritual awakening in that region again. But, as we shall also see, all of these depictions are either based on misrepresentations, faulty historical data, or are simply fabrications.
"A Revival is not a Miracle"
Finney is frequently represented as believing that a revival involved no supernatural agency at all. In his Lectures on Revival he made the oft-quoted statement: "A revival of religion is not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means--as much so as any other effect produced by the application of means."1 Recycling this sentence for the past 150 years, his opponents have insisted that he believed the power to make a revival happen depends entirely on the work of man, that a revival can occur through "the arm of the flesh"; and they blame him for contaminating the whole church with this notion. Don Strickland claims,He changed evangelicalism's understanding of revival. The Edwardian idea that revival is "prayed down" was replaced by Finney's conviction that it is "worked up" (along the lines of mass evangelism). The former views God as the agent in salvation and the latter sees man as the instrument of his own spiritual birth.2
To be sure, Finney's language is unguarded, and he unwittingly set himself up to be taken out of context. In the long run, it may not have been wise to make such a concise and terse statement without carefully qualifying it. But it must be remembered who he was arguing against. The most widely received notion of his day held that revival was a completely sovereign work of God and that Christians ought not to think that they can do anything to bring it to pass. Most of Finney's modern critics never mention this, nor explain how widespread this belief was.3 Christians everywhere held the false idea that they were to do nothing in promoting a revival. Therefore, they just sat idly by and hoped that God would sovereignly send one in His own good time. To "undeceive" them of this error, he had little choice but to make very strong statements to the contrary. Therefore, to simply quote this statement without explaining the theological ethos of the time leads to a distorted view of what he actually believed.
The same type of distortion could be performed on statements made by the apostles Paul or James. It is quite easy to find statements of Paul that, when taken out of context, give the impression that he promoted libertinism. For instance, in Galatians 2:16 he said that "a man is not justified by works." From this, some (like Zane Hodges) conclude that Paul believed a Christian's lifestyle has no bearing at all on his salvation, which is antinomianism. Or with James, we may similarly distort his affirmation that "a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone" (2:24): we can say James believed we are to earn our salvation by works, which is legalism.
But this is not the correct approach for understanding the thought of either one of these men. Obviously, we should examine their writings en toto, and understand each statement in terms of its relationship to the "big picture." Such also is the approach one should take with Finney. Yes, he made some very strong statements that, when taken alone, seem to imply that there is nothing supernatural involved in producing a revival. But that is entirely the opposite of what he actually thought. In that very same sermon, just a few paragraphs later, he clearly affirms the need for God's involvement.I said that a revival is the result of the right use of the appropriate means. The means which God has enjoined for the production of a revival, doubtless have a natural tendency to produce a revival. Otherwise God would not have enjoined them. But means will not produce a revival, we all know, without the blessing of God. No more will grain, when it is sowed, produce a crop without the blessing of God. It is impossible for us to say that there is not as direct an influence or agency from God, to produce a crop of grain, as there is to produce a revival.4
Throughout this lecture, he compares the work of producing a revival to that of sowing a field and reaping a harvest. A farmer must till the ground, and plant the seed, and then depend on God to send rain. Obviously, if he just depends on divine assistance, without turning the soil or planting the seed, he is tempting God. But the farmer also keenly knows that without God sending rain, all of his efforts will be futile. By way of analogy, then, Finney is trying to talk Christians out of the false notion that they can do nothing, supposedly depending on divine assistance alone, and still honestly hope for a revival. Therefore, his pungent sentence, "A revival is not a miracle," is not a declaration that a revival is not supernatural. It is an attention-grabbing statement jolting Christians to realize that they have no excuse to be idle.
Furthermore, regarding the use of means: from the greater context of the sermon it is clear that he was not saying that means alone, prayerlessly used, will bring revival. He was only saying that God would be faithful to send a revival, when Christians are prayerfully using the proper means in seeking it. He had a right to speak confidently about this, for they are praying for that which is clearly God's will, namely the salvation of sinners and the sanctification of saints. Therefore, the only other alternative is to say that it is not the will of God to save sinners, or, perhaps, that it is not appropriate to have faith that He will actually answer our prayers. Is Finney's confidence about God's faithfulness really unorthodox? Is this really something that should be looked upon as being so heretical? Do his critics also complain about James' confident declaration that if one who is sick and will call for the elders of the church, use the means (be anointed with oil), and pray the prayer of faith, that "the Lord will raise him up"? Here is a perfect example of confidence about the prayerful use of means, but no one would say that James is being unorthodox, or that he believed that means alone bring healing.
Also, there are other places in which Finney made it abundantly clear that he believed the supernatural agency of God is absolutely essential in order for a revival to occur. In the same series of lectures, just a few weeks later, he went into great detail about the necessity of the Holy Spirit's work in producing a revival.I have dwelt the more on this subject, because I want to have it made so plain, that you will all be careful not to grieve the Spirit. I want you to have high ideas of the Holy Ghost, and to feel that nothing good will be done without his influences. No praying or preaching will be of any avail without him. If Jesus Christ were to come down here and preach to sinners, not one would be converted without the Spirit. Be careful then not to grieve him away, by slighting or neglecting his heavenly influences when he invites you to pray. 5
Similarly, ten years later, on February 12, 1845, he wrote an article, complaining about preachers that were trying to produce revival without depending on the Holy Spirit. Here he made his position very clear: "I have thought that at least in a great many instances, stress enough has not been laid upon the necessity of divine influence upon the hearts of Christians and of sinners," he says, and then admits that he himself has not laid enough stress on this point. When preachers have adopted this practice, ithas grieved the Spirit of God. His work not being honored by being made sufficiently prominent, and not being able to get the glory to himself, of his own work, he has withheld his influences. In the mean time multitudes have been greatly excited by the means used to promote an excitement, and have obtained hopes, without ever knowing the necessity of the presence and powerful agency of the Holy Ghost. It hardly need be said that such hopes are better thrown away than kept. 6
This is no "sounding brass." His position is plain, clear, and scriptural. He believed that the use of means alone, does not produce genuine conversion, or genuine revival. In light of quotes like these, how appropriate is it for Strickland to claim that Finney believed a revival is something to be "worked up"? I fail to see how anyone can honestly say this about him. To be sure, it is a proper description of his many imitators, but it is not at all appropriate to say about Finney himself.
The Altar Call
Finney's opponents often blame him for the invention of the "altar call" and decision-based evangelism. The modern practice of asking people to walk down an aisle to "accept Christ" (with no mention of repentance), and then assume that all who do so are genuinely saved, is wrongly labeled as his creation. For instance, John MacArthur says, "Finney's influence on the American evangelical movement was profound. He was the first to ask converts to 'come forward' in evangelistic meetings to indicate their acceptance of Christ."7 Again, Monte Wilson, writing in Reformation and Revival, says,Finney's theology betrayed him. Because he believed that everyone had the ability to instantly receive Christ upon hearing the gospel, many who were spiritually unprepared decided to accept Christ, but in reality were still, at best, seekers. Finneyism, in seeking to close the sale, actually served to close hearts and minds to the biblical message of salvation, leaving people deceived as to their spiritual state, wondering why the Christian life eluded them. Tragically, Finneyan theology is still all the rage in much of Evangelicalism. 8
This is a very serious charge: Finney "believed that everyone had the ability to instantly receive Christ upon hearing the gospel." While Wilson and others are right to lament the miserable results that usually follow modern mass-evangelization crusades, which are (often) nothing more than mass-manipulation, they are terribly mistaken in laying the blame on Finney's doorstep, insisting that he is the one who invented and then popularized this type of evangelism.
First of all, his practice of using the mourner's bench (or "anxious seat") is so completely different from the modern practice of asking someone to "raise their hand" or to walk down an aisle, that the two methods should not even be compared. Finney employed the mourner's bench in order to facilitate discussion with people who were anxious about their souls.9 It was never said that a person was saved merely because they came to the front of the church and sat on the bench; rather, the people who took the mourner's bench were making a public statement that they wanted to abandon sin and obtain counsel about their souls.10 But such individuals often came away from these counseling sessions feeling even worse, because they did not "get through" to God.11 Some people simply could not find a heart to repent.
Second, this method was already in use before Finney ever utilized it. Timothy Smith explains that if anyone is to be credited with its invention, it is the Methodists.Long promotion of camp meetings had stamped Wesleyanism with a fervor which city churches expressed in yearly seasons of special religious interest called "protracted meetings." Here sinners were bidden each night to the "anxious seat," or mourner's bench, devised about 1808 in a crowded New York City chapel to enable saints to deal with seekers more conveniently. 12
So, if we are going to blame those who would later come to abuse the practice, such as Billy Sunday with his "sawdust trail," it is patently false, in more ways than one, to say that their technique originated with Finney.
Third, Finney was meticulously careful about the instruction that he gave to people who were seeking salvation. It is a complete misrepresentation to say that he induced people to "accept Christ" who were "spiritually unprepared." In the aforementioned article from the Oberlin Evangelist (Feb. 12, 1845), he criticized some revivalists who actually were practicing this belief that (recalling Monte Wilson's words) "everyone had the ability to instantly receive Christ upon hearing the gospel." This is a rather lengthy quote, but because it so thoroughly demonstrates how those of Wilson's ilk are completely in error about Finney, it is reproduced here.It is a settled point with me, that while backsliders and sinners can come to an anxious meeting and hold up their head and look you and others in the face without blushing and confusion, the work of searching is by no means performed, and they are in no state to be thoroughly broken down and converted to God. . . . When sinners and backsliders are really convicted by the Holy Ghost, they are greatly ashamed of themselves. Until they manifest deep shame, it should be known that the probe is not used sufficiently, and they do not see themselves as they ought. When I go into a meeting of inquiry and look over the multitudes, if I see them with heads up, looking at me and at each other, I have learned to understand what work I have to do. Instead of pressing them immediately to come to Christ, I must go to work to convict them of sin. Generally by looking over the room, a minister can easily tell, not only who are convicted and who are not, but who are so deeply convicted as to be prepared to receive Christ. Some are looking around and manifest no shame at all; others cannot look you in the face and yet can hold up their heads; others still cannot hold up their heads and yet are silent; others by their sobbing, and breathing, and agonizing, reveal at once the fact that the sword of the Spirit has wounded them to their very heart. . . . [There must be] that kind of genuine and deep conviction which breaks the sinner and the backslider right down, and makes him unutterably ashamed and confounded before the Lord, until he is not only stripped of every excuse, but driven to go all lengths in justifying God and condemning himself. 13
This alone shows the utter absurdity of Wilson's charge. But one more example comes from an article in The Independent, on the subject of soul winning. Finney was advising his fellow ministers against this very notion, that a person can accept Christ anytime they hear the gospel preached, without any conviction of sin from the Holy Spirit.But without this they cannot understand or appreciate the gospel method of salvation. One cannot intelligently and heartily ask or accept a pardon until he sees and feels the fact and justice of his condemnation. . . . It is absurd to suppose that a careless, unconvicted sinner can intelligently and thankfully accept the gospel offer of pardon until he accepts the righteousness of God in his condemnation. Conversion to Christ is an intelligent change. Hence the conviction of ill desert must precede the acceptance of mercy; for without this conviction the soul does not understand its need of mercy.14
Let us juxtapose that with Wilson's charge: "he believed that everyone had the ability to instantly receive Christ upon hearing the gospel." As we have said, Finney's voice still echoes; here, his own words are his best defense. They speak for themselves.
This is no "tinkling cymbal."
Another charge that is often leveled against Finney is that his revivals were spurious, and that great numbers of his converts backslid shortly after being "converted." For instance, John MacArthur, claims that Finney's revivals did not produce any lasting change. The only contribution that Finney made to the church was the adoption of shallow evangelistic methods.Finney's most enduring and far-reaching influence, unfortunately, is not from multitudes of souls saved or sinners reached with the gospel. Those effects, it seems, were almost wholly superficial, often vanishing as soon as Finney left town. Finney's real legacy is the disastrous impact he had on American evangelical theology and evangelistic methodology. The church in our generation is still seething with the leaven Finney introduced, and modern evangelical pragmatism is proof of that.15
Likewise, Bob Pyke, in Reformation and Revival, says, "The weakness that soon became apparent with Finney's revivals was that great numbers of the converts were spurious." 16 Once again, these are serious charges. Can they be justified? MacArthur and Pyke apparently think so. They produce evidence in the form of three quotations, from eyewitnesses, which apparently indicate that a great many converts did indeed fall away. Both of them use the exact same quotations, and both of them acknowledge that their ultimate source is B.B. Warfield. But what neither MacArthur, Pyke, nor Warfield do, is to disclose the unreliable nature of these citations. For when they are "weighed in the balance," when they are examined in the light of their historical context, when the biases of their sources are assessed, they are found seriously "wanting."
The Testimony of James Boyle
On page 26 of his book Perfectionism, Warfield quotes someone who is obviously antagonistic to Finney, asserting that the western revivals did little more than to further scorch the already "burned over" district. He then adds, "If any corroboration of this testimony were needed, it would be supplied by that of the workers in these revivals themselves," and goes on to quote someone else named James Boyle, who wrote a letter to Finney on Christmas day of 1834, which said,Dear brother Finney, let us look over the fields where you and others have labored as revival ministers, and what is now their moral state? What was their condition within three months after we left them? I have visited and revisited many of these fields, and groaned in spirit to see the sad, frigid, carnal, contentious state into which the churches have fallen--and fallen very soon after our first departure from them.17
Beaming with triumph, Pyke, MacArthur and Warfield thus affirm that Finney's revivals were spurious. But none of them tell us that Boyle, in this letter, was advocating John Humphrey Noyes' brand of Christianity and perfectionism (which, ten years later, developed into the free-love or "complex marriage" system of the Oneida Community).18 They fail to remind us that many perfectionists tend to always describe Christians as carnal and frigid until they have experienced the "second work of grace."19 They fail to tell us that Boyle was a biased witness, trying to make an argument about the need to preach (this kind of) perfectionism, and he was heavily stressing the faults of the churches in order to bolster his case.
Boyle had already been collaborating with Noyes in August of that year, publishing a paper called The Perfectionist, shortly after the latter "had been ejected from Yale Divinity School after announcing that he was free from sin."20 This should warn us that such a statement as this is not a report from an objective observer; it is part of an argument formulated by a fringe-perfectionist with an agenda.
Joseph Ives Foot
The next quote cited by Warfield suffers from a credibility problem of a different sort. Its author is Joseph Ives Foot, and it is, in fact, a flagrant distortion of something that Finney himself had previously said. Just as his statement that "a revival is not a miracle" is frequently taken out of context, so also is another one he made about the need for his converts to live up to the high standards that the Bible gives for Christian living. In his Lectures to Professing Christians (which were published in the New York Evangelist) he originally said,I believe they were genuine revivals of religion and outpourings of the Holy Ghost, that the church has enjoyed the last ten years. I believe the converts of the last ten years are among the best Christians in the land. Yet, after all, the great body of them are a disgrace to religion. 21
Foot took this last phrase, "The great body of them are a disgrace to religion," snipped it from its context, and ran off with it. Rehashing all of the previous assertions that numerous converts of Finney's had supposedly fallen away, he now re-contextualizes the phrase as proof that Finney himself admits this. Writing about Finney's revivals in 1838, he said,During ten years, hundreds, and perhaps thousands, were annually reported to be converted on all hands; but now it is admitted, that his real converts are comparatively few. It is declared, even by himself, that "the great body of them are a disgrace to religion''; as a consequence of these defections, practical evils, great, terrible, and innumerable, are in various quarters rushing in on the Church.22
Encapsulated by allegations that there were "comparatively few" real converts, and that practical evils would result from "these defections," Finney's statement appears to be a forced admission by himself that most of his converts had backslid or even apostasized. But this is a pathetic distortion. Only one sentence previously, Finney had said, "I believe the converts of the last ten years are among the best Christians in the land," clearly implying that they were not only genuinely saved, but that they were the best Christians in the country.
It is bad enough that this quote shows up in MacArthur, Warfield, and Pyke, since it is an obvious misrepresentation. But what makes it inexcusable is the fact that Finney clearly corrected this falsehood himself. He addressed it in the Oberlin Evangelist, on January 30, 1839.I have noticed, in several papers, a garbled extract from a remark that I made in one of my lectures, published in the N. Y. Evangelist, which I here mention simply because it is dishonorable to God, and injurious to you. In that lecture, I said, "that those converted in the great revivals in the land, although real Christians, as I believed, and the best Christians in the Church, at the present day, were nevertheless a disgrace to religion, on account of the low standard of their piety; and if I had health, again to be an Evangelist, I would labor for a revival in the churches, and for the elevation of the standard of piety among Christians." Now you perceive, that I have here asserted my full conviction, that those revivals were genuine works of God--"that the converts were real Christians"--that "they are the best Christians in the Church;" and yet that, on many accounts, they are a disgrace to religion. Now, this I fully believe, and re-assert. . . . The papers to which I allude have injuriously represented me as admitting that those revivals were spurious and the converts not Christians. I do not complain of this, on my own account; nor speak of it, if I know my own heart, because I have any regard to its bearing upon myself--but because it is a slander upon those precious revivals, and injurious to you, as in substance denying that the grace of God ever converted you.23
It is most unhappy that Foot's quote was not only used by Warfield after Finney had already set the record straight, but recycled again and again, 150 years later, by MacArthur and Pyke, giving the false impression that Finney never answered this allegation.24
The Testimony of Asa Mahan
There is one final citation that addresses the specific claim that Finney's converts were spurious. It comes from a friend of Finney's, the brilliant philosopher Asa Mahan. Warfield says,No more powerful testimony is borne, however, than that of Asa Mahan, who tells us -- to put it briefly -- that everyone who was concerned in these revivals suffered a sad subsequent lapse: the people were left like a dead coal which could not be reignited; the pastors were shorn of all their spiritual power; and the evangelists--"among them all," he says, "and I was personally acquainted with nearly every one of them--I cannot recall a single man, brother Finney and father Nash excepted, who did not after a few years lose his unction, and become equally disqualified for the office of evangelist and that of pastor."25
This quote from Mahan's own autobiography gives one the impression that the great majority of those converted in the revivals completely backslid into the world, especially when Warfield spins it with his ambiguous commentary, that everyone who was concerned in these revivals "suffered a sad subsequent lapse." While Mahan does indeed use the word "backslide" on page 227 of his autobiography, he obviously is referring to the fact that the revived churches did not maintain their deep spirituality and their zeal for revival. He complains about the fact that their protracted meetings "lost almost all their power,"26 and that the churches lost their zeal to even engage in revival activities. To be sure, he does indeed state that nearly all of the preachers involved in those revivals lost their unction, but not without reason (and he gives those reasons over the course of the next eighteen pages).27
However, while he says that many converts "groaned" from a lack of spiritual power, nowhere does he say that they, the converts, returned back to the world. But this is the impression one gets from Warfield's ambiguous commentary "that everyone who was concerned in these revivals suffered a sad subsequent lapse" (emphasis mine). In fact, he expressly says the opposite. In the same chapter from which Warfield pulled this quote, Mahan addresses this very issue, saying that the revivals that occurred under his observation were remarkable for the lack of spurious conversions.The character of the converts in those revivals demands very especial consideration. In no revival that can be designated was the number of apostasies among converts smaller than in these. . . . I feel quite safe in expressing the judgment that not five in one hundred of the converts turned back to the world. A similar judgment may safely be passed upon these converts generally in all parts of the country.28
This is clear testimony, from an eyewitness, that the "great western revivals" were probably the most legitimate of any in American history. In fact, Mahan spends page after page extolling the exemplary character of the converts, citing example after example of their sincerity and zeal. "Never in the history of the world, as I believe, were Christians more sincere, ardent, and single-hearted, than at the period to which I refer."29 How, then, can Warfield and others cite Mahan as proof that those revivals were spurious? They simply cannot, unless, of course, they take his statement out of context.
The Testimony of Josephus Brockway
One other piece of data that is produced by both Pyke and Warfield (but not MacArthur) is a statement by Josephus Brockway, a lay member of the Congregational church in Middlebury, Vermont, who apparently lived in Troy, New York, when a revival occurred there under Finney.30 While not directly saying that the revivals produced false converts, it should be discussed along with the other three quotations because he did imply that Finney was using emotional manipulation. Here are Warfield's own words including his use of Brockway:Thus, for example, Josephus Brockway tells us that it was noted by all during the revival excitement at Troy in 1826-1827, that the whole charitable work of the churches fell away and even the Sabbath Schools were neglected: all manifestations of Christian love stopped: there was nothing, he says, but "a machine put in motion by violence, and carried by power." Even the Bible was thrust aside. "For a long time, during the high state of feeling," he writes, "(when, indeed, feeling was made a substitute for every Christian duty,) the Bible must not be introduced at all, into any social meeting, from one month's end to another. And while the exhortation was often reiterated, 'come, brethren, pray now, but don't make any cold prayers,' it was evidently held, although I do not say it was publicly expressed, that reading of the Bible was too cold a business for a Revival Spirit. No time must be wasted in reading or singing, but the whole uninterruptedly devoted to praying with this faith and particularity, so vastly important." We are witnessing here a sustained effort to push excited feeling on to the breaking point.31
Brockway, however, was anything but an impartial and dispassionate witness. Before Finney had even preached in Troy, Brockway was fomenting opposition to him. He eventually attacked him (and the local Presbyterian pastor, Nathan Beman) in an anonymous pamphlet.32 This fact alone casts serious doubt on the objectivity of his witness. But what Warfield and Pyke also fail to mention is the fact that Brockway was publicly charged with falsification for distorting the truth.33 Furthermore, he apparently had a softening of heart about Finney four years later. J. P. Cushman wrote Finney a letter, in the midst of a later revival, saying, "Even Brockway told br[other] Gant two days since that he could give the hand of fellowship."34 Thus, another anti-Finney witness turns out to have little credibility. Garth Rosell aptly sums up the historian's view of testimonies like these.On the surface such reports seem overwhelming, pointing as they do to what many considered to be Finney's continued and flagrant appeal to the passions of his hearers. Such a conclusion, however, becomes less persuasive when one discovers that in virtually every instance, the reports were coming from individuals who had ample reason of their own for wishing to see Finney's work discredited. . . . [Other misinformed people] were little more than the unfortunate victims of a kind of whisper campaign launched by those who, out of vested interest, wanted Finney's demise. Such witnesses, as every historian knows, are notoriously unreliable.35
In light of all that we have just examined, a question comes to mind: If Finney's revivals were really so spurious and produced such devastation, why is the evidence for this so weak? The fact that these worn out quotes keep getting recycled indicates that this is probably the best ammunition that the anti-Finney crowd has. If there were any stronger testimony to make their case, why doesn't someone present it?
Permanently Scorching the Burned Over District
One last issue that we will deal with is the charge made by John MacArthur, that Finney so ruined the spirituality of the inhabitants of the "burned over district" that they have never recovered from their "scorching." He makes the following comprehensive statement:Before long, however, the excitement and fervor of the supposed "revival" gave way to hardened unbelief and widespread agnosticism. The "burned-over district" was scorched again and became harder than ever. In fact, since Finney's time that part of the country has never experienced another revival. 36
It is hard to pin down just what he has in mind when he says it "gave way to hardened unbelief and widespread agnosticism." These are very general terms, and it is difficult to understand if he is asserting that the majority of people became unbelieving agnostics, or if they were simply hardened against further revivals but still considered themselves Christian (and he provides no reference to justify this claim). However, there is no mistaking his meaning when he specifically says that there has never been another revival in the burned over district, and italicizes the word never to emphasize his point.
To the average uninformed reader, who has followed MacArthur's discussion this far, this litany of charges makes the case against Finney seem very strong. After all, he has just produced the three previously discussed quotes from Boyle, Foot, and Mahan, giving the impression that Finney did nothing more than induce false conversions; and now, he delivers the coup de grace to all would-be Finney supporters, producing the apparently damning historical evidence to prove, once and for all, that Finney's revivals were spurious: the region has never again experienced a revival since Finney ravaged it.
But the truth is, he is completely wrong. There have been tremendous revivals in that area since Finney's time. J. Edwin Orr tells us about a massive revival in the burned over district in 1904, starting in Schenectady and spreading throughout the region.In 1904, in Schenectady, New York, the local ministerial Association heard reports of the great revival in Wales and united all evangelical denominations in meetings for prayer and in evangelistic rallies. Before long, the interest was so extraordinary that the Rev. George Lunn of the Reformed Church emerged as the main evangelist. Baptist, Congregational, Dutch Reformed, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian churches cooperated in the movement. Emmanuel Baptist Church was packed afternoons with more than 600 women and State Street Methodist Church nightly with more than 1200 people. Between 800 and 1100 people waited for aftermeetings. By Sunday 22nd January, all the evangelical churches in town had been moved, with packed congregations in each, and the movement continued for months on end. 37
He further explains that the revival grew so intense that the "secular press of Schenectady offered a couple of columns daily to keep the public informed of progress."38 It then spread throughout the region and the state.The awakening made such an impact upon the churches of Troy, in upper New York State, that it was said that no such unanimous and spontaneous movement had been known in the city for a generation . . . Awakenings occurred also in Utica, Syracuse, and other Mohawk cities, and throughout New York State.39
Obviously, then, MacArthur's allegation is completely false.
In closing, we have seen that the way that Finney is often caricatured as believing that he could "work up" a revival by purely natural means, is a distortion by his opponents, who are not willing to admit that certain contexts call for strong language (e.g. Paul and James), nor willing to examine other places in Finney's writings where he plainly explains that without the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, no revival can be genuine.
We have seen that the modern altar call was not invented by Finney, that his method of dealing with inquirers was meticulously careful, and that he opposed decision-based evangelism. Also, we have examined in detail the most commonly adduced testimonies that are used to purportedly prove his revivals were all spurious and that large numbers of his converts quickly fell away. Finally, we briefly considered an allegation made by John MacArthur that Finney so ravaged the burned over district, that there has never been a revival in that region since. This claim is simply false, and easily disposed of.
It is very sad, but much of what is said about Finney is little more than slander. That his opponents are theologically motivated is clear since they are all strict Calvinists. These charges are being made by them, not because the historical evidence bears them out, but because (in their minds) the woes of the church must, as a matter of course, come from the fact that Calvinism is no longer the dominant theological paradigm. And no single person was more prominent in helping to bring this about than Charles G. Finney. Thus, if they can prove that Finney's theology was man-centered, his methodology was gimmickry, and his revivals were spurious, they can rest assured that history confirms that their theology is correct. But they end up warping the historical data in order to prove their point, and they end up slandering one of the finest preachers the American church has ever seen.
Finney's messages still remain a vital part of evangelical Christianity, and will for a long time to come. He still speaks, and for this we can be thankful. His voice still towers in eloquence as he thunders out the strictures of God's violated law against sinners. His voice glows with passion as he denounces slavery, intemperance, and all compromise with sin. His voice sparkles with brilliance as he unfolds the riches of systematic theology. And from the grave his voice cracks with sorrow as he ponders those who distort the truth about him and his revivals. He still speaks, and he will speak.And now, will you allow me to ask, Where have I done so much to disparage revivals? What churches have I labored in where so much evil has resulted? When have they "wept tears of blood" or any other tears, because of evils that have resulted from my labors? . . . Where, I ask, have I rent churches, introduced divisions, led the church astray, or unsettled pastors? I appeal to those who know. Let those churches and ministers who have been so injured by any fault of mine, speak.
Give us facts, names, dates, places, not hearsay. I have heard much talk; give us truth. Do not tell us what you have heard; tell us what you know, or prove what you say, not by loose report but by credible witnesses. If any such facts as are reported, have occurred under my ministry, tell us when and where. I want to know them myself, and I want others to know them. I ask not that you should speak in my praise, but speak against me and my labors, if you have aught to say. But give your name, your residence, your facts. Publish them in the face of the churches and ministers where they occurred. I will not deny them, if they are true. But I beseech my brethren slander not those glorious revivals. If there ever were genuine revivals, I believe those were such. If there is any true religion in the world, I believe it is found in the mass of those precious converts, who have ever since made up no small portion of the membership of those churches. Things may have resulted to some of those churches of which I am not informed. But I have frequently been at the place where most of them occurred, and I must say that if any churches were blessed by revivals they have been. . . . But enough. For my own sake I would not speak. But for the cause of revivals I will speak. 40
This is no sounding brass; this is no tinkling cymbal.
This is no "uncertain sound."
Speak on, Brother Finney. Speak on.
1 Charles G. Finney, Revival Lectures, (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1993), 5.
2 Don Strickland, "Charles Finney's Assault on Biblical Preaching," The Founders Journal 9 (Summer 1992): 23.
3 To his credit, John MacArthur makes this observation. "It must be noted that when Finney came on the scene many churches had drifted from true orthodoxy to a cold hyper-Calvinism." See Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 230.
4 Revival Lectures, 5; emphasis mine.
5 Ibid., 110.
6 Charles G. Finney, Reflections on Revival, ed. Donald W. Dayton. (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1979), 17-18; emphasis mine.
7 John F. MacArthur, Jr., Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 233.
8 Monte E. Wilson, "Finney: the Aftermath," Reformation and Revival 6, no. 1 (1997): 101.
9 Perhaps the closest parallel to the modern altar call are those rare times when Finney asked people to stand up to signify that they wanted to give their hearts to God and wanted the rest of the congregation to pray for them. But none of these people were told that they were now Christians. See The Memoirs of Charles G. Finney: The Complete Restored Text, eds., Garth Rosell and Richard A. G. Dupuis (Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books,1989), 280.
10 Memoirs, 307.
11 For example, see the story of the well known judge in Rochester, who sat on the court of appeals. He wanted to be converted, and tried to get his heart to respond, but simply could not. Finney never gave him any impression to make him think he was converted just because he wanted to be; Memoirs, 442.
12 Timothy L., Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1957), 46.
13 Reflections, 16-17; emphasis mine.
14 Charles G. Finney, Power from on High, A Selection of Articles on the Spirit-Filled Life. Fort (Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade,1982), 55-56.
15 MacArthur, 235; emphasis mine.
16 Bob Pyke, "Charles G. Finney and the Second Great Awakening," Reformation and Revival 6, no. 1 (1997): 42.
17 The Literary and Theological Review, March, 1838, 66; quoted in B.B. Warfield, Perfectionism (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed), 26.
18 Memoirs, 392 n. 42.
19 As recently as 1947, holiness writers were reiterating the same view. "In regeneration there is the glorious implantation of spiritual life. Yet the Scriptures affirm that there yet remains within the regenerated heart that which is called 'the flesh,' 'the old man,' 'the carnal mind,' etc. And the all-controlling power of the carnal mind is broken in regeneration, but in entire sanctification its presence is removed." See Chester Eugene Shumake, Holiness in Action (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 1947), 10.
20 Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 182; Memoirs, 393 n. 45.
21 Ibid., Lectures to Professing Christians (London: Milner and Company), 95-96.
22 The Literary and Theological Review, March, 1883, p. 39; quoted in Warfield, 23.
23 Charles G. Finney, The Promise of the Spirit, ed. Timothy L. Smith (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers,1980), 52-53
24 It is also recycled by Iain Murray. See his Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism, 1750-1858 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1994), 289.
25 Warfield, 26-27.
26 Asa Mahan, Autobiography: Intellectual, Moral, and Spiritual (London: T. Woolmer, 1882; reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1979), 228 (page citations are to the reprint edition).
27 Some of the more prominent reasons Mahan gives: doctrinal controversies, and the spirit with which such controversies were carried out; pride of doctrinal knowledge, and a resulting prejudice against doctrinal instruction; an overemphasis on the free agency of man; and an overemphasis on disciplining believers to encourage their sanctification (231-249).
28 Ibid., 216-217; emphasis mine.
29 Ibid., 223; J. Edwin Orr also explains that the crime rate in Rochester, where the revival was strongest, was dramatically cut, and this low crime rate continued for the next twenty years. See J. Edwin Orr, The Eager Feet: Evangelical Awakenings, 1790-1830 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), 134. Again, the testimony of those who say that Finney's revivals were spurious simply does not stand up to historical scrutiny.
30 Memoirs, 207 n. 19.
31 Warfield, 25.
32 It was called A Brief Account of the Origin and Progress of the Divisions in the First Presbyterian Church in the City of Troy; containing, also, Strictures upon the New Doctrines broached by the Rev. C. G. Finney and N. S. S. Beman, with a Summary relation of the Trial of the Latter before the Troy Presbytery. By a number of the late Church and Congregation. See Memoirs, 207, n.19.
33 Rosell writes, "Brockway's pamphlet caused a storm of controversy. Attention was drawn to inaccuracies in Brockway's statements about the trial in a pamphlet A Contrast of Josephus Brockway's Testimony and Statement by a Brief Remarker. See Memoirs, 207 n. 22.
35 Garth Rosell, "Charles G. Finney: His Place in the Stream of American Evangelicalism," in The Evangelical Tradition in America, ed. Leonard I. Sweet (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1984.), 136-137.
36 MacArthur, 234.
37 J. Edwin Orr, The Flaming Tongue, The Impact of Twentieth Century Revivals (Chicago: Moody Press, 1973), 71.
40 Charles G. Finney, "Shall American Revivals Enjoy the Sympathy and Confidence of Anglo Saxon Churches?" The Oberlin Evangelist, 7 May. 1851 [document on-line]. available from http://www.gospeltruth.net-/1851OE/51_lets_art/510507_let_from_london.htm; Internet; accessed 21 April 2004.
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