FINNEY, CHARLES GRANDISON: Congregationalist, revivalist, theologian and president of Oberlin College; b. at Warren, Litchfield County, Conn., Aug. 29, 1792; d. at Oberlin, O., Aug. 16, 1875. When he was two years old his parents removed to Oneida County, N. Y., thus placing him beyond the reach of more than a common school education. When about twenty he went to New Jersey, where he attended a high school and taught. In later years he acquired some knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. In 1818 he entered a law office in Adams, N. Y. At that time, he says, he was "almost as ignorant of religion as a heathen" (Autobiography, p. 7). His curiosity was excited by quotations from the Bible in his law books, and he purchased the first copy he had ever owned, and began to attend prayer-meeting and church.
Conversion and Active Life.
His conversion in 1821 was remarkable for its suddenness, thoroughness, and the definitely marked stages of his experience. After great mental agony, in which he prayed long and fervently, suddenly, he says, "the Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me, body and soul. I could feel the impression like a wave of electricity going through and through me" (Autobiography, p. 20). Feeling an immediate call to preach, he forsook the law, was received under care of presbytery (1822), and licensed to preach (1824). He at once turned his attention to revival labors, which were continued, with few interruptions until 1860, when he was forced to give up the work of an itinerant evangelist on account of age. These labors, beginning in western and central New York, were extended to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and other cities of the East, and reached to England in 1849 and 1858. In 1832 he accepted a call to the pastorate of the Second Free Church of New York City, and in 1834 another to the recently organized Congregational Church in the same city, known as the Broadway Tabernacle. In 1835 he went to Oberlin as professor of theology, and he continued to labor till the time of his death as instructor, pastor, and college president (1852). During his residence at Oberlin he continued, as before, to hold revival meetings.
As Revivalist, Preacher, and Teacher.
As preacher Finney had rare gifts. Wherever he went extensive revivals prevailed. His manner was dramatic, direct, and personal. He used simple language and illustrations. His presentation was clear and strictly logical. He directed his appeals to the conscience, rather than to the emotions, and made it tremble and quake by his searching analysis of the motives of action. He chose for themes passages which delineate the sinner's condition as one of conscious alienation from God, and sinning against him. He dwelt upon the enmity of the carnal mind, the want of holiness, and the certain destruction of the impenitent. He called upon his hearers to come to an immediate decision and submit to God. "Instead of telling sinners," he says, "to use the means of grace, and pray for a new heart, I called on them to make themselves a new heart and spirit, and pressed the duty of immediate surrender to God" (Autobiography, p. 189). These meetings were often accompanied by violent bodily manifestations; and Finney was in the habit of calling upon the audiences to go forward to the anxious-bench, or to rise in attestation of new resolutions. These methods, his directness and calls to repentance, his departure from the doctrine of imputation and other features of the Calvinist theology early evoked criticism and strong opposition from religious associations and such church leaders as Asahel Nettleton and Lyman Beecher (qq.v.). In 1827 a convention was held at New Lebanon attended by Dr. Hawes of Hartford, Justin Edwards of Andover, Lyman Beecher of Boston, Dr. Beman of Troy, and others, to consider the matter. In course of time the opposition decreased (Autobiography, pp. 210-226). Finney's preaching reached all classes, but especially lawyers and educated men, notably in Rochester and other towns of western New York. During the first twelve years of his ministry he wrote no word of his sermons and often went into the pulpit without knowing the text from which he would preach; he ascribed his speech to the suggestion of the Holy Spirit (Autobiography, p. 95).
As a teacher at Oberlin, Finney's influence was also great. He was an original thinker and very positive in his convictions. His Lectures on Systematic Theology (2 vols., Oberlin, 1846; new ed., by J. H. Fairchild, 1878) define his theological position. He held to the plenary ability of the sinner to repent, the voluntary and total moral depravity of the unregenerate man, the necessity of a radical change of heart through the truth by the agency of the Holy Spirit, and the sufficiency of the vicarious atonement for the needs of all mankind. He regarded happiness as the chief aim, and explained regeneration (which he did not clearly distinguish from conversion) to consist of an act of the will, rather than an act of the Holy Spirit. He exerted a shaping influence over the minds of his students; and his theology, in a modified form, had a wide acceptance in his own denomination. His works, beside the Lectures on Theology already mentioned, were Lectures on Revivals (Boston, 1835; many later editions); Lectures to Professing Christians (Oberlin, 1836); and Sermons on Important Subjects (New York, 1839).
D. S. SCHAFF.