MEMOIRS OF CHARLES G. FINNEY
REVIVAL AT READING
AS I found myself in Philadelphia, in the heart of the Presbyterian church, and where Princeton views were almost universally embraced, I must say still more emphatically than I have done, if possible, that the greatest difficulty I met with in promoting revivals of religion, was the false instruction given to the people, and especially to inquiring sinners. Indeed, in all my ministerial life, in every place and country where I have labored, I have found this difficulty to a greater or less extent; and I am satisfied that multitudes are living in sin, who would immediately be converted if they were truly instructed. The foundation of the error of which I speak, is the dogma that human nature is sinful in itself; and that, therefore, sinners are entirely unable to become Christians. It is admitted, either expressly or virtually, that sinners may want to be Christians, and that they really do want to be Christians, and often try to be Christians, and yet somehow fail.
It had been the practice, and still is to some extent, when ministers were preaching repentance, and urging the people to repent, to save their orthodoxy by telling them that they could not repent, any more than they could make a world. But the sinner must be set to do something; and with all their orthodoxy, they could not bear to tell him that he had nothing to do. They must therefore, set him self-righteously to pray for a new heart. They would sometimes tell him to do his duty, to press forward in duty, to read his Bible, to use the means of grace; in short, they would tell him to do anything and everything, but the very thing which God commands him to do. God commands him to repent now, to believe now, to make to him a new heart now. But they were afraid to urge God's claims in this form, because they were continually telling the sinner that he had no ability whatever to do these things.
As an illustration of what I have found in this and other countries, more or less, ever since I have been in the ministry, I will refer to a sermon that I heard from the Rev. Baptist Noel, in England, a good man, and orthodox in the common acceptation of the term. His text was: "Repent and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord." In the first place he represented repentance not as a voluntary, but as an involuntary change, as consisting in sorrow for sin, a mere state of the sensibility. He then insisted upon its being the sinner's duty to repent, and urged the claims of God upon him. But he was preaching to an orthodox congregation; and he must not, and did not, fail to remind them that they could not repent; that although God required it of them, still He knew that it was impossible for them to repent, only as He gave them repentance. "You ask, then," he said, "what you shall do. Go home," said he, in reply," and pray for repentance; and if it does not come, pray again for repentance; and still if it does not come, keep praying till it does come." Here he left them. The congregation was large, and the people very attentive; and I actually found it difficult to keep from screaming to the people, to repent, and not to think that they were doing their duty in merely praying for repentance.
Such instructions always pained me exceedingly; and much of my labor in the ministry has consisted in correcting these views, and in pressing the sinner immediately to do just what God commands him to do. When he has inquired of me, if the Spirit of God has nothing to do with it, I have said, "Yes; as a matter of fact you will not do it of yourself. But the Spirit of God is now striving with you to lead you to do just what He would have you do. He is striving to lead you to repentance, to lead you to believe; and is striving with you, not to secure the performance of mere outward acts, but to change your heart." The church, to a very great extent, have instructed sinners to begin on the outside in religion; and by what they have called an outward performance of duty, to secure an inward change of their will and affections.
But I have ever treated this as totally wrong, unorthodox, and in the highest degree dangerous. Almost innumerable instances have occurred, in which I have found the results of this teaching, of which I have complained, to be a misapprehension of duty on the part of sinners; and I think I may say I have found thousands of sinners, of all ages, who are living under this delusion, and would never think themselves called upon to do anything more than merely to pray for a new heart, live a moral life, read their Bibles, attend meeting, use the means of grace, and leave all the responsibility of their conversion and salvation with God.
From Philadelphia in the winter of 1829-30, I went to Reading, a city about forty miles west of Philadelphia. At this place an incident occurred, which I shall mention in its place, that was a striking illustration of the kind of teaching to which I have alluded, and of its natural results. In Reading there were several German churches, and one Presbyterian church. The pastor of the latter was the Rev. Dr. Greer. At his request, and that of the elders of the church, I went out to labor there for a time.
I soon found, however, that neither Dr. Greer, nor any of his people, had any just idea of what they needed, or what a revival really was. None of them had ever seen a revival, so far as I could learn. Besides, all revival efforts, for that winter, had been forestalled, by an arrangement to have a ball every alternate week, which was attended by many of the members of the church, one of the leading elders in Dr. Greer's church being one of the managers. I could not learn that Dr. Greer had ever said anything against this. They had no preaching during the week, and I believe no religious meetings of any kind.
When I found what the state of things was, I thought it my duty to tell Dr. Greer that those balls would very soon be given up, or I should not be allowed to occupy his pulpit; that those balls, attended by his church members, and headed by one of his elders, would not long consist with my preaching. But he said, "Go on; take your own course." I did so; and preached three times on the Sabbath, and four times, I think, during the week, for about three weeks, before I said anything about any other meetings. We had no prayer meetings, I believe, for the reason that the lay members had never been in the habit of taking part in such meetings.
However, on the third Sabbath, I think, I gave notice that a meeting for inquiry would be held in the lecture room, in the basement of the church, on Monday evening. I stated as clearly as possible the object of the meeting, and mentioned the class of persons that I desired to attend; inviting those, and those only, that were seriously impressed with the state of their souls, and had made up their minds to attend immediately to the subject, and desired to receive instruction on the particular question of what they should do to be saved. Dr. Greer made no objection to this, as he had left everything to my judgment. But I do not think he had an idea that many, if any, would attend such a meeting, under such an invitation; as to do so would be, to make an open acknowledgment that they were anxious for the salvation of their souls, and had made up their minds to attend to the subject at once.
Monday was rather a snowy, cold day. I think I observed that conviction was taking hold of the congregation; yet I felt doubtful how many would attend a meeting of inquirers. However, when evening came, I went to the meeting. Dr. Greer came in, and behold! the lecture room, a large one I think nearly as large as the body of the church above, was full; and on looking around Dr. Greer observed that most of the impenitent persons in his congregation were present; and among them, those who were regarded as the most respectable and influential.
He said nothing publicly. But he said to me, "I know nothing about such a meeting as this; take it into your own hands, and manage it in your own way." I opened the meeting by a short address, in which I explained to them what I wished; that is to have a few moments conversation with each of them, and to have them state to me frankly how they felt on the subject, what their convictions were, what their determinations were, what their difficulties were.
I told them that if they were sick and called a physician, he would wish to know their symptoms, and that they should tell him how they were, and how they had been. I said to them, "I cannot adapt instruction to your present state of mind, unless you reveal it to me. The thing, therefore, that I want, is that you reveal, in as few words as you can, your exact state of mind at the present time. I will now pass around among you, and give each of you an opportunity to say in the fewest words, what your state of mind is." Dr. Greer said not a word, but followed me around, and stood or sat by me and heard all that I had to say. He kept near me, for I spoke to each one in a low voice, so as not to be heard by others than those in the immediate vicinity. I found a great deal of conviction and feeling in the meeting. They were greatly pressed with conviction. Conviction had taken hold of all classes, the high and the low, the rich and the poor.
Dr. Greer was greatly moved. Though he said nothing, still it was evident to me that his interest was intense. To see his congregation in such a state as that, was what he had never had any conception of. I saw that with difficulty, at times, he controlled his emotions.
When I had spent as much time as was allowed me in personal conversation, I then went back to the desk, and gave them an address; in which, according to my custom, I summed up the results of what I had found that was interesting, in the communications that they had made to me. Avoiding all personalities, I took up the representative cases, and dissected, and corrected, and taught them. I tried to strip away their misapprehensions and mistakes, to correct the impression that they had, that they must simply use means and wait for God to convert them; and in an address of perhaps a half or three-quarters of an hour, I set before them the whole situation, as clearly as I possibly could. After praying with them I called on those that felt prepared to submit, and who were willing then and there to pledge themselves to live wholly to God, who were willing to commit themselves to the sovereign mercy of God in Christ Jesus, who were willing to give up all sin, and to renounce it forever, to kneel down, and while I prayed, to commit themselves to Christ, and inwardly to do what I exhorted them to do. I called on those only to kneel down, who were willing to do what God required of them, and what I presented before them. Dr. Greer looked very much surprised at the test I put, and the manner in which I pressed them to instant submission.
As soon as I saw that they thoroughly understood me, I called on them to kneel, and knelt myself. Dr. Greer knelt by my side, but said nothing. I presented the case in prayer to God, and held right to the point of now submitting, believing, and consecrating themselves to God. There was an awful solemnity pervading the congregation, and the stillness of death, with the exception of my own voice in prayer, and the sobs, and sighs, and weeping that were heard more or less throughout the congregation.
After spreading the case before God we rose from our knees, and without saying anything farther I pronounced the blessing and dismissed them. Dr. Greer took me cordially by the hand, and smiling said, "I will see you in the morning." He went his way, and I went to my lodgings. At about eleven o'clock, I should judge, a messenger came running over to my lodgings, and called me, and said that Dr. Greer was dead. I inquired what it meant. He said he had just retired, and was taken with a fit of apoplexy, and died immediately. He was greatly respected and beloved by his people, and I am persuaded he deserved to be. He was a man of thorough education, and I trust of earnest piety. But his theological education had not at all fitted him for the work of the ministry, that is to win souls to Christ. He was besides rather a timid man. He did not like to face his people, and resist the encroachments of sin as he needed to do. His sudden death was a great shock, and became the subject of constant conversation throughout the town.
Although I found a goodly number had, to all human appearance, submitted at the meeting on Monday evening, still the death of Dr. Greer, under such extraordinary circumstances, proved a great diversion of the public mind for a week or more. But after his funeral was over, and the usual evening services got into their proper channel, the work took on a powerful type, and went forward in a most encouraging manner.
Many very interesting incidents occurred in this revival. I recollect on one very snowy night, when the snow had already fallen deep, and was drifting in a terrible manner under a fierce gale of wind, I was called up about midnight, to go and visit a man who, they informed me, was under such awful conviction that he could not live, unless something could be done for him. The man's name was B. He was a stalwart man, very muscular, a man of great force of will and strength of nerve, physically a fine specimen of humanity. His wife was a professor of religion; but he had cared for none of these things.
He had been at the meeting that evening, and the sermon had torn him to pieces. He went home in a terrible state of mind, his convictions and distress increasing till it overcame his bodily strength; and his family feared he would die. Although it was in the midst of such a terrific storm, they dispatched a messenger for me. We had to face the storm, and walked perhaps fifty or sixty rods. I heard his moanings, or rather howlings, before I got near the house. When I entered I found him sitting on the floor, his wife, I believe, supporting his head and what a look in his face! It was indescribable. Accustomed as I was to seeing persons under great convictions, I must confess that his appearance gave me a tremendous shock. He was writhing in agony, grinding his teeth, and literally gnawing his tongue for pain. He cried out to me, "Oh, Mr. Finney! I am lost! I am a lost soul!" I was greatly shocked and exclaimed, "If this is conviction, what is hell?" However, I recovered myself as soon as I could, and sat down by his side. At first he found it difficult to attend; but I soon led his thoughts to the way of salvation through Christ. I pressed the Savior upon his attention and upon his acceptance. His burden was soon removed. He was persuaded to trust the Savior, and he came out free and joyful in hope.
Of course, from day to day, I had my hands, my head, and my heart entirely full. There was no pastor to help me, and the work spread on every hand. The elder of the church to whom I have alluded as being one of the managers of their stated balls soon broke down his heart before the Lord, and entered into the work; and, as a consequence, his family were soon converted. The revival made a thorough sweep in the families of those members of the church that entered into the work.
I said that in this place a circumstance occurred, that illustrated the influence of that old school teaching of which I have complained. Very early one morning a lawyer, belonging to one of the most respectable families in the town, called at my room, in the greatest agitation of mind. I saw he was a man of first-rate intelligence, and a gentleman; but I had nowhere seen him, to know him. He came in and introduced himself, and said he was a lost sinner--that he had made up his mind that there was no hope for him. He then informed me that when he was in Princeton College, he and two of his classmates became very anxious about their souls. They went together to Dr. Ashbel Green, who was then president of the college, and asked him what they should do to be saved. He said the doctor told them he was very glad to have them come and make the inquiry; and then told them to keep out of all bad company, to read their Bible statedly, and to pray God to give them a new heart. "Continue this," he said, "and press forward in duty; and the Spirit of God will convert you; or else He will leave you, and you will return back to your sins again." "Well, I inquired, how did it terminate?" "Oh," said he, "we did just as he told us to do. We kept out of bad company, and prayed that God would make us a new heart. But after a little while our convictions wore away, and we did not care to pray any longer. We lost all interest in the subject;" and then bursting into tears he said, "My two companions are in drunkard's graves, and if I cannot repent I shall soon be in one myself." This remark led me to observe that he had indications of being a man that made too free use of ardent spirits. However, this was early in the morning; and he was entirely free from drink, and in terrible anxiety about his soul.
I tried to instruct him, and to show him the error that he had fallen into, under such instructions as he had received, and that he had resisted and grieved the Spirit, by waiting for God to do what He had commanded him to do. I tried to show him that, in the very nature of the case, God could not do for him what He required him to do. God required him to repent, and God could not repent for him; required him to believe, but God could not believe for him; God required him to submit, but could not submit for him. I then tried to make him understand the agency that the Spirit of God has in giving the sinner repentance and a new heart; that it is a divine persuasion; that the Spirit leads him to see his sins, urges him to give them up and to flee from the wrath to come. He presents to him the Savior, the atonement, the plan of salvation, and urges him to accept it.
I asked him if he did not feel this urgency upon himself, in these truths revealed in his own mind; and a call, now to submit, to believe, to make himself a new heart. "Oh yes!" he said, "Oh yes! I see and feel all this. But am I not given up of God? Is not my day of grace past?" I said to him, "No! It is plain the Spirit of God is still calling you, still urging you to repentance; you acknowledge that you feel this urgency in your own mind." He inquired, "Is this, then, what the Spirit of God is doing, to show me all this?" I assured him that it was; and that he was to understand this as a divine call, and as evidence conclusive that he was not abandoned, and had not sinned away the day of grace, but that God was striving to save him still. I then asked him if he would respond to the call, if he would come to Jesus, if he would lay hold upon eternal life then and there.
He was an intelligent man, and the Spirit of God was upon and teaching him, and making him understand every word that I said. When I saw that the way was fully prepared, I called on him to kneel down and submit; and he did so, and to all human appearance, became a thorough convert right upon the spot. "Oh!" he afterwards said, "if Dr. Green had only told us this that you have told me, we should all have been converted immediately. But my friends and companions are lost; and what a wonder of mercy it is that I am saved!"
I recollect a very interesting incident in the case of a merchant in Reading, one branch of whose business was the making of whiskey. He had just been fitting up a very large distillery at a good deal of expense. He had constructed it with all the latest improvements, on a large scale, and was going deeply into the business. But as soon as he was converted, he gave up all thought of going any farther with that business. It was a spontaneous conclusion of his own mind. He said at once, "I shall have nothing to do with that. I shall tear my distillery down. I will neither work it, nor sell it to be worked."
His wife was a good woman, and a sister to Mr. B, whose conversion I have mentioned as occurring on that stormy night. The merchant's name was OB. The revival took a powerful hold in his family, and several of them were converted. I do not recollect now how many there were; but I think every impenitent person in his household was converted. His brother also, and his brother's wife, and, I know not how many, but quite a large circle of relatives were among the converts. But Mr. OB himself was in feeble health, and was rapidly passing away with the consumption. I visited him frequently, and found him full of joy.
We had been examining candidates for admission to the church, and a large number were to be admitted on a certain Sabbath. Among them were those members of his own family, and those relatives of his that had been converted. Sabbath morning came. It was soon found Mr. OB could not live through the day. He called his wife to his bedside and said to her, "My dear, I am going to spend the Sabbath in heaven. Let all the family go, and all the friends, and unite with the church below; and I will join the church above." Before meeting time he was dead. Friends were called in to lay him in his shroud; his family and relatives gathered around his corpse, and then turned away and came to meeting; and, as he had desired, united with the church militant, while he went to unite with the church triumphant.
Their pastor had but just gone before; and I think it was that morning, I had said to Mr. OB, "Give my love to Brother Greer, when you get to heaven." He smiled with holy joy and said to me, "Do you think I shall know him?" I said, "Yes, undoubtedly you will know him. Give him my love, and tell him the work is going on gloriously." "I will, I will," said he. His wife and family sat at the communion table, showing in their countenance mingled joy and sorrow. There was a kind of holy triumph manifested, as their attention was called to the fact that the husband, and father; and brother, and friend, was sitting that day at the table of Jesus on high, while they were gathered around His table on earth.
There was much that was moving and interesting in that revival, in a great many respects. It was among a population that had had no conception of revivals of religion. The German population supposed themselves to have been made Christians by baptism, and especially by receiving the communion. Nearly every one of them, if asked when they became Christians, would reply that they took their communion at such a time of Dr. M, or some other German divine. And when I asked them if they thought that was religion, they would say, yes, they supposed it was. Indeed that was the idea of Dr. M himself. In walking with him to the grave of Dr. Greer, on the occasion of his funeral, he told me he had made sixteen hundred Christians by baptism, and giving them the communion, since he had been pastor of that church. He seemed himself to have no other idea of becoming a Christian than simply to learn the catechism, and to be baptized and partake of the communion.
The revival had to encounter that view of things; and the influence was at first, almost altogether in that direction. It was held, as I was informed, and I have no doubt of it, that for them to begin to think of being religious, by being converted, and to establish family prayer, or to give themselves to secret prayer, was not only fanaticism, but was virtually saying that their ancestors had all gone to hell; for they had done no such thing. The German ministers would preach against all those things, as I was informed by those that heard them, and speak severely of those that forsook the ways of their fathers, and thought necessary to be converted, and to maintain family and secret prayer.
The great majorities, I think, of Dr. Greer's congregation were converted in this revival. At first I had considerable difficulty in getting rid of the influence of the daily press. I think there were two or more daily newspapers published there at the time. I learned that the editors were drinking men; and were not infrequently carried home, on public occasions, in a state of intoxication. The people were a good deal under the influence of the daily press. I mean the German population particularly. These editors began to give the people religious advice, and to speak against the revival, and the preaching. This threw the people into a state of perplexity. It went on from day to day, and from week to week, till finally the state of things became such that I thought it my duty to notice it. I therefore went into the pulpit when the house was crowded, and took for my text: "Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do." I then went on to show in what way sinners would fulfill the desires of the devil, pointing out a great many ways in which they would perform his dirty work, and do for him what he could not do for himself.
After I had got the subject well before the people, I applied it to the course pursued by the editors of those daily papers. I asked the people if they did not think that those editors were fulfilling the desires of the devil; if they did not believe the devil desired them to do just what they did? I then asked them if it was suitable and decent, for men of their character, to attempt to give religious instruction to the people? I told the people what I understood their character to be, and turned my hand upon them pretty heavily, that such men should attempt to instruct the people, in regard to their duties to God and their neighbors. I said, "If I had a family in the place I would not have such a paper in the house; I should fear to have it under my roof; I should consider it too filthy to be touched with my fingers, and would take the tongs and throw it into the street." In some way the papers got into the street the next morning, pretty plentifully, and I neither saw nor heard any more of their opposition.
I continued in Reading until late in the spring. There were many very striking conversions; and so far as I know, Dr. Greer's congregation was left entirely united, greatly encouraged and strengthened, and with large additions made to their number. I have never been in that place since.
From Reading I went to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, at that time and until his death, the home of the late President Buchanan. The Presbyterian church at Lancaster had no pastor, and I found religion in a very low state. They had never had a revival of religion, and manifestly had no just conception of what it was, or of the appropriate means of securing it. I remained at Lancaster but a very short time. However the work of God was immediately revived, the Spirit of God being poured out almost at once upon the people. I was the guest of an aged gentleman by the name of K, who was one of the elders of the church, and indeed the leading man in the church.
A fact occurred in relation to him, while I was in his family, that revealed the real state of things in a religious point of view, in that church. A former pastor of the church had invited Mr. K to join the church and hold the office of elder. I should say that the facts I am about to communicate respecting this event, were related to me by himself. One Sabbath evening after hearing a couple of very searching sermons, the old gentleman could not sleep. He was so greatly exercised in his mind, that he could not endure it until morning. He called me up in the middle of the night, stated what his convictions were, and then said that he knew he had never been converted. He said that when he was requested to join the church and become an elder, he knew that he was not a converted man. But the subject was pressed upon him till he finally consulted Rev. Dr. C, an aged minister of a Presbyterian church not far from Lancaster. He stated to him the fact that he had never been converted, and yet that he was desired to join the church that he might become an elder. Dr. C, in view of all the circumstances, advised him to join and accept the office, which he did.
His convictions at the time I speak of, were very deep. I gave him such instructions as I thought he needed, pressed him to accept the Savior; and dealt with him just as I would with any other inquiring sinner. It was a very solemn time. He professed at the time to submit and accept the Savior. Of his subsequent history I know nothing. He was certainly a gentleman of high character, and never to my knowledge did anything outwardly, to disgrace the position which he held. Those who are acquainted with the state of the church of which Dr. C was pastor, in regard to the eldership at that time, will not wonder at the advice which he gave to Mr. K.
Among the incidents that occurred, during my short stay at Lancaster, I recall the following. One evening I preached on a subject that led me to insist upon the immediate acceptance of Christ. The house was very much crowded, literally packed. At the close of my sermon I made a strong appeal to the people to decide at once; and I think I called on those whose minds were made up, and who would then accept the Savior, to rise up, that we might know who they were, and that we might make them subjects of prayer. As I learned the next day; there were two men sitting near one of the doors of the church, one of whom was very much affected under the appeal that was made, and could not avoid manifesting very strong emotion, which was observed by his neighbor. However, the man did not rise up, nor give his heart to God. I had pressed the thought upon them, that might be the last opportunity that some of them would ever have, to meet and decide this question; that in so large a congregation it was not unlikely that there were those there who would then decide their everlasting destiny, one way or the other. It was not unlikely that God would hold some of them to the decision that they then made.
After the meeting was dismissed, as I learned the next day, these two men went out together, and one said to the other, "I saw you felt very deeply under the appeals Mr. Finney made." "I did," he replied. "I never felt so before in my life; and especially when he reminded us that might be the last time we should ever have an opportunity to accept the offer of mercy." They went on conversing in this way, for some distance, and then separated, each one going to his own home. It was a dark night, and the one who had felt so deeply, and was so pressed with the conviction that he might then be rejecting his last offer, fell over the curbstone, and broke his neck. This was reported to me the next day.
I established prayer meetings in Lancaster, and insisted upon the elders of the church taking part in them. This they did at my earnest request, although, as I learned, they had never been accustomed to do it before. The interest seemed to increase from day to day, and hopeful conversions multiplied. I do not recollect now why I did not remain longer than I did; but I left at so early a period as not to be able to give anything like a detailed account of the work there.
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