1858 was the year of revivals. In that year alone, 50,000 converts were made. Charles Finney was the originator of and chief instrument in the revivals which swept like wild fire through the state of New York and which also reached Philadelphia and Boston. He was involved in revival preaching from 1824-1860. His efforts were so effective because of the teaching and methods which he embraced.
Finney was raised by non-Christian parents on the frontier in the state of New York where there were no churches. Because of this he had very little Christian influence for the first twenty years of his life. It was while he was getting his high school education in another city that he first began to attend church, but he considered the services monotonous and humdrum, and the preaching nothing more than a dry discussion of doctrine.
While studying law in Adams, New York, he had his curiosity aroused by references in his textbooks to the Old Testament law of Israel. He bought a Bible and began regularly to attend church. The preaching he heard was by a Presbyterian, Rev. G. Gale, and was Calvinistic. During this time, he had many discussions with Rev. Gale about the doctrines he heard in the preaching. He had a dramatic conversion experience in 1821, and giving up his pursuit of a career in law, he began to be trained by Rev. Gale for the ministry.
While studying for the ministry he became more and more dissatisfied with the doctrines of Calvinism. He became convinced that the doctrines of total depravity and original sin were stifling and discouraged people from trying to live the Christian life. He was convinced that the inevitable result of teaching and believing these doctrines was dead orthodoxy.
In reaction, Finney began to teach that to be converted the sinner himself had to act. The Holy Spirit helped the sinner along by presenting the truth clearly and persuasively through the preaching, but it was the sinner himself who had to believe and, in Finney’s own words, “make himself a new heart.” He denied that regeneration is accomplished by the Holy Spirit.
Finney then, as a preacher, merely had to persuade the sinner to believe, and he resorted to almost any method to accomplish this end. Finney wanted immediate results to his preaching, and he wanted to see the results. He very seldom prepared a sermon, and often did not even have a text, but relied on the Spirit to “move” him once he was in the pulpit.
Finney also came up with the idea of the “anxious seat.” In his preaching he would impress on the minds of his audience the urgency of making a decision for Christ. Then he would urge those who made the decision to show publicly that they had done so by standing or by coming to the front pew or “anxious seat.” (As you probably have guessed, this practice has led to the modern day “altar call.”)
In these practices Finney denied the nature of the Holy Spirit’s work.
We know the Scriptures teach that the Spirit does not come to preachers in some mystical way in order to move them to speak the truth, but He works through them only in connection with their careful preparation and study of the Word. The Spirit does not announce His work with trumpets blaring and His work is not mighty as men define might. It is not seen in hundreds standing and proclaiming their decision for Christ. The Spirit’s work, as Elijah had to learn, is not as an earthquake or fire. Rather, it is a still, small voice, quietly (albeit powerfully and irresistibly) turning sinners to Jesus Christ (II Kings 19:11-13). And the Spirit continues to work in the hearts of God’s people so that they more and more see the awfulness of their sin and the depth of their depravity. He causes them more and more to flee to the cross for strength and more and more to do works of thankfulness.
The denial of the true nature of the Spirit’s work was seen in the months and years following the revivals. The leaders of the revivals claimed to have made many converts. But it should be noted that after the revival meetings were finished and the converts had been counted, there often was a general falling away again and a backsliding on the part of the people into their old ways of sin.
Finney himself saw this. As a result, and to try to counteract this problem, he developed and began to teach the idea of complete sanctification or perfectionism. He taught that all Christians, by using the right means, could attain to perfection and no longer commit any known sins in this life. Finney could hold to this belief only in the context of his denial of total depravity and original sin. Sin was merely in the deed and not rooted in a nature which is prone to hate God and the neighbor.
Many of the false practices and ideas of the charismatic movements of today reflect Finney’s wrong ideas concerning the work of the Spirit. Like the charismatics today, Finney spoke of direct revelation through the Spirit. He records in his autobiography that he experienced several special baptisms by the Holy Spirit which took the form of visions and special revelation. Also, in one instance he claims that his intense prayer caused a woman near death to recover.
The nature of Christ’s work was also denied by Finney. He denied that Christ died for a certain number of people chosen by God—the elect. And he denied that Christ’s death actually accomplished their salvation. He taught, rather, that Christ’s death merely made salvation available for all men. It is up to the sinner to decide for Christ and actually to apply His work to himself.
We can see, therefore, that Finney rejected the whole truth of the Reformed Faith, the truth which we hold dear. Finney developed most of his beliefs and methods of preaching in reaction to Calvinism and labelled Calvinism as hyper-Calvinism. He was not satisfied with God’s means, but developed his own means to gain the results he wanted. He was a heretic indeed.
Sharon is a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.