MEMOIRS OF CHARLES G. FINNEY
REVIVAL IN ROCHESTER IN 1855
IN the autumn of 1855, we were called again to the city of Rochester to labor for souls. At first I had no mind to go, but a messenger arrived with a pressing request, bearing the signatures of a large number of persons, both professors of religion and non-professors. After much deliberation and prayer I consented. We commenced our labors there, and it was very soon apparent that the Spirit of God was working among the people. Some Christians in that place, and especially the brother who came after me, had been praying most earnestly all summer for the outpouring of the Spirit there. A few souls had been wrestling with God until they felt that they were on the eve of a great revival.
When I stated my objections to going to labor in Rochester again, the brother who came after me set that all aside by saying, "The Lord is going to send you to Rochester, and you will go to Rochester this winter, and we shall have a great revival." I made up my mind with much hesitancy after all. But when I arrived there, I was soon convinced that it was of God. I began preaching in the different churches. The first Presbyterian church in that city was Old School, and they did not open their doors to our meeting. But the Congregational church, and the two other Presbyterian churches with their pastors, took hold of the work and entered into it with spirit and success. The Baptist churches also entered into the work at this time; and the Methodist churches labored in their own way, to extend the work. We held daily noon prayer meetings, which were largely attended, and in which a most excellent spirit prevailed.
Soon after I commenced my labors there, a request was sent to me, signed by the members of the bar and several judges--two judges of the court of appeals, and I believe one or two judges of the supreme court who resided there--asking me to preach again a course of lectures to lawyers, on the moral government of God. I complied with their request. I began my course to lawyers this time by preaching first on the text: "Commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God." I began by remarking that the text assumed that every man has a conscience. I then gave a definition of conscience, and proceeded to show what every man's conscience does truly affirm; that every man knows himself to be a sinner against God; that therefore he knows that God must condemn him as a sinner; and that every man knows that his own conscience condemns him as a sinner. I was aware that among the lawyers were some skeptics. Indeed one of them had a few months before declared that he would never again attend a Christian meeting, that he did not believe in the Christian religion, and he would not appear to do so; that it placed him in a false position, and his mind was made up to pay no more respect to the institutions of Christianity.
I shaped my lectures from evening to evening, with the design to convince the lawyers that, if the Bible was not true, there was no hope for them. I endeavored to show that they could not infer that God would forgive them because He was good, for His goodness might prevent His forgiving them. It might not on the whole be wise and good to pardon such a world of sinners as we know ourselves to be; that left without the Bible to throw light upon that question, it was impossible for human reason to come to the conclusion that sinners could be saved. Admitting that God was infinitely benevolent, we could not infer from that, that any sinner could be forgiven; but must infer from it, on the contrary, that impenitent sinners could not be forgiven. I endeavored to clear the way so as to shut them up to the Bible as revealing the only rational way in which they could expect salvation.
At the close of my first lecture, I heard that the lawyer to whom I have referred, who had said he would never attend another Christian meeting, remarked to a friend as he went home, that he had been mistaken, that he was satisfied there was more in Christianity than he had supposed, and he did not see any way to escape the argument to which he had listened; and furthermore that he should attend all those lectures, and make up his mind in view of the facts and arguments that should be presented.
I continued to press this point upon their attention, until I felt that they were effectually shut up to Christ, and the revelations made in the Gospel, as their only hope. But as yet, I had not presented Christ, but left them shut up under the law, condemned by their own consciences, and sentenced to eternal death. This, as I expected, effectually prepared the way for a cordial reception of the blessed Gospel. When I came to bring out the Gospel as revealing the only possible or conceivable way of salvation for sinners, they gave way, as they had done under a former course of lectures, in former years. They began to break down, and a large proportion of them were hopefully converted.
What was quite remarkable in the three revivals that I have witnessed in Rochester, they all commenced and made their first progress among the higher classes of society. This was very favorable to the general spread of the work, and to the overcoming of opposition.
There were many very striking cases of conversion in this revival, as in the revival that preceded it. The work spread and excited so much interest, that it became the general topic of conversation throughout the city and the surrounding region of country. Merchants arranged to have their clerks attend, a part of them one day, and a part the next day. The work became so general throughout the city that in all places of public resort, in stores and public houses, in banks, in the street and in public conveyances, and everywhere, the work of salvation that was going on was the absorbing topic.
Men that had stood out in the former revivals, many of them bowed to Christ in this. Some men who had been open Sabbath-breakers, others that had been openly profane, indeed, all classes of persons, from the highest to the lowest, from the richest to the poorest, were visited by the power of this revival and brought to Christ. I continued there throughout the winter, the revival increasing continually, to the last. Rev. Dr. Anderson, president of the University, engaged in the work with great cordiality, and, as I understood, a large number of the students in the University were converted at that time. The pastors of the two Baptist churches took hold of the effort, and I preached several times in their churches.
Mrs. Finney was well acquainted in Rochester, having lived there for many years, and having witnessed the two great revivals in which I had labored, that preceded this. She took an absorbing interest in this revival, and labored, as usual, with great zeal and success. As on former occasions, I found the people of Rochester, like the noble Bereans, ready to hear the Word with all readiness of mind, and to search the Scriptures daily, whether these things were so. Many of the ladies in Rochester exerted their utmost influence to bring all classes to meeting and to Christ. Some of them would visit the stores and places of business, and use all their influence to secure the attendance, at our meetings, of the persons engaged in these establishments. Many men connected with the operations of the railroad were converted, and finally, much of the Sabbath business of the roads was suspended, because of the great religious movement in the city and among those employed upon the roads.
The blessed work of grace extended and increased until it seemed as if the whole city would be converted. As in the former revivals, the work spread from this center to the surrounding towns and villages. It has been quite remarkable that revivals in Rochester have had so great an influence upon other cities and villages far and near.
The means used to promote this revival were the same as had been used in each of the preceding great revivals. The same doctrines were preached. The same measures were used, with results in all respects similar to what had been realized in the former revivals. There was manifested, as there had previously been, an earnest and candid attention to the Word preached; a most intelligent inquiry after the truth as it really is taught in the Bible. I never preached anywhere with more pleasure that in Rochester. They are a highly intelligent people, and have ever manifested a candor, an earnestness, and an appreciation of the truth excelling anything I have seen, on so large a scale, in any other place. I have labored in other cities where the people were even more highly educated than in Rochester. But in those cities the views and habits of the people were more stereotyped; the people were more fastidious, more afraid of measures than in Rochester. In New England I have found a high degree of general education, but a timidity, a stiffness, a formality, and a stereotyped way of doing things, that has rendered it impossible for the Holy Spirit to work with freedom and power.
When I was laboring in Hartford I was visited by a minister from central New York who had witnessed the glorious revivals in that region. He attended our meetings and observed the type and progress of the work there. I said nothing to him of the formality of our prayer meetings, or of the timidity of the people in the use of measures, but he remarked to me, "Why, Brother Finney, your hands are tied, you are hedged in by their fears and by the stereotyped way of doing everything. They have even put the Holy Ghost into a strait jacket." This was strong, and to some may appear irreverent and profane, but he intended no such thing. He was a godly, earnest, humble minister of Jesus Christ, and expressed just what he saw and felt, and just what I saw and felt, that the Holy Spirit was restrained greatly in His work by the fears and the self-wisdom of the people. Indeed I must say, I do not think the people of New England can at all appreciate the restraints which they impose on the Holy Spirit, in working out the salvation of souls. Nor can they appreciate the power and purity of the revivals in those places where these fears, prejudices, restraints, and self-wisdom do not exist.
In an intelligent, educated community, great freedom may be given in the use of means, without danger of disorder.
Indeed wrong ideas of what constitutes disorder, are very prevalent. Most churches call anything disorder to which they have not been accustomed. Their stereotyped ways are God's order in their view, and whatever differs from these is disorder and shocks their ideas of propriety. But in fact nothing is disorder that simply meets the necessities of the people. In religion as in everything else, good sense and a sound discretion will, from time to time, judiciously adapt means to ends. The measures needed will be naturally suggested to those who witness the state of things, and if prayerfully and cautiously used, let great freedom be given to the influences of the Holy Spirit in all hearts.
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