Often referred to as "America's foremost revivalist", Charles Grandison Finney was a major leader of the Second Great Awakening in America and had a profound impact on evangelicals in the United States.
Born in Warren, Connecticut in 1792, as the youngest of seven children, Finney had humble beginnings. His parents were farmers, and Finney himself never attended college. However, his six foot two inch stature, musical skill, and leadership abilities gained him good standing in his community.He apprenticed to become a lawyer, but after a dramatic conversion experience in Adams, New York at age 29, Finney dedicated his life as a minister in the Presbyterian Church, a denomination he eventually left to join the Congregationalists.
In 1832, Finney moved to New York City, where he pastored the Free Presbyterian Chatham Street Chapel and later founded the Broadway Tabernacle, known today as Broadway United Church of Christ. Finney's logical, clear presentation of his Gospel message reached thousands, promising renewing power and the love of Jesus. Some estimate that his preaching led to the conversion of over 500,000 people. Many today continue to be influenced and challenged by his writings to live a life holy to God, including well-known evangelicals such as Christian singer Keith Green and evangelist Billy Graham.
Finney was known for his innovations in preaching and conducting religious meetings, such as allowing women to pray in public and the development of the "anxious bench," a place where those considering becoming Christians could come to receive prayer. Finney was also known for his use of extemporaneous preaching. In addition to being a successful Christian evangelist, Finney was involved with the abolitionist movement, frequently denouncing slavery from the pulpit. Beginning in the 1830s, he denied communion to slaveholders in his churches. Finney's involvement with the abolitionist movement ensured that the Northern states had some form of legitimate religious backing to their opposition to slavery.
The Burned-over district was a geographical area described by Finney himself as a "hotbed" of religious revivalism, and it was in this area (largely western New York State) that he had much of his success. The lack of clergy from established churches ensured that religious activity in these areas was less influenced by traditional Christian teachings. What Finney managed to achieve was to be the most successful religious revivalist during this period, and in this particular area. While groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and Seventh-day Adventists became closed and exclusivist, Finney was widely admired and influential amongst more mainstream Christians. Finney never started his own denomination or church, and never claimed any form of special prophetic leadership that elevated himself above other evangelists and revivalists.
In 1835, he moved to Ohio where he would become a professor, and later President of Oberlin College. Oberlin was a major cultivation ground for the early abolition movement. Oberlin was also the first American college to allow blacks and women into the same classrooms as white men.
Theologically, Finney drew elements of his teaching from the eighteenth century American preacher, Jonathan Edwards and the New Divinity Calvinists. His teachings also resembled those of Nathaniel William Taylor, a professor at Yale University. Many people teach that Finney was an Arminian in his theology, but he explicitly denied this. Much closer to a "New Divinity" Calvinist, his views on the atonement and original sin are much closer to those espoused by the "moral government" theory that was particularly advocated by Joseph Bellamy and Samuel Hopkins. For example, Finney's views on the atonement were much closer to the moral government system that Edwards' followers embraced because it rejected the notion that Jesus died only for Christians. Nevertheless, he bore a tremendous amount of criticism by eminent theologians such as Charles Hodge for departing from traditional high Calvinism, criticisms frequently repeated today. It has been reported that the theologian G. Frederick Wright pointed out that Hodge misrepresented Finney's views in his criticism, however.
Charles Finney passed away in 1875, but his influence, for good or ill, continues to be felt today.
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