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Charles Grandison Finney was born again on the tenth of October, 1821.
In a wooded grove just over a hill outside the northern New York State village of Adams, he resolved, "I will give my heart to God before I ever come down again." Agitated and, as he recalled, "verging fast to despair," Finney sank to his knees convicted that "my heart is dead to God, and will not pray." Perhaps it was too late. Was he past hope? He looked up with every sound, jittery that someone might be watching. What pride, he thought, that he should be ashamed to be seen in prayer. "The sin appeared awful, infinite. It broke me down before the Lord." As if atoning for his secrecy, he cried aloud, "What! Such a degraded sinner!" A verse of Scripture (Jer. 29:12-13) came to him: "Then shall ye go and pray unto me, and I will answer you. Then shall ye seek me and shall find me, when you search for me with all your heart." Embracing what he later would call faith as "voluntary trust," Finney at last mustererd the courage to pray. He said to God, "If I am ever converted, I will preach the gospel."
He was twenty-nine years old. Finney was still single, although his relationship with Lydia Root Andrews had developed beyond simply being old family friends. He would see her whenever she came north to visit her sister, and Lydia had perhaps let him know she was praying for the salvation of his soul. Having spent his young adulthood completing the equivalent of a high school education, working on the farms of family members, teaching school, and for the last three years apprenticing as a lawyer, Finney knew that this spiritual crisis was also a vocational turning point. Looking back, he attributed his avoidance of religious commitment to fear that God was calling him not to be a schoolmaster or a lawyer but a preacher. The problem was that he had never met a minister he thought he could emulate. He had assumed a posture of intellectual superiority over both the "ignorant" ranting of Baptist zealots and the theological sophistry of seminary-educated Calvinists, with their "humdrum way of reading" sermons. But for "a long time I had a secret conviction that I should be a minister, though my heart repelled it. In fact, my conversion turned very much upon my giving up this contest with God, and subduing this repellency of feeling against God's call."
Charles had grown up with a confident sense of upward mobility about himself. He was an athletic, handsome youth with high cheekbones and a strong nose and chin, sandy hair, and light complexion. His sharp blue eyes always commanded attention. He was endowed with a pleasing voice which he cultivated through musical training, and from an early age he was admired for his powerful, direct speech. At six feet two inches tall, on the ball field or in the classroom he was the natural leader. The engraved portraits and photographs of Finney as a middle-aged and older adult all reveal the prominent forehead and penetrating eyes but suggest a forbidding sternness that fails to account for his early popularity. In two separate oil portraits of the evangelist, both painted in 1834 at the height of his career in New York City, something of young Finney shines through. One can imagine laughter and words of friendship from the pleasantly smiling man in these likenesses.
Young Finney did not despise farming and always did his share of the work, but he had other career plans. The Finneys were a solid Yankee family with roots in the earliest settlements of Plymouth Colony and western Connecticut. Charles's parents, Sylvester Finney and Rebecca Rice (herself from an established Connecticut family), like his grandparents before them, were modest landowners who made their living from farming. They shared something of the cultural aspirations of their generation, however, as they decided to call their seventh son Charles Grandison. They were following a trend here. Ironically, many parents after the Revolution opted for aristocratic-sounding names from English literature or European society instead of ones from religious or family tradition. Among the most popular sources were the novels of Samuel Richardson — Pamela, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison — all of them published in American editions in the 1780s. Charles Grandison Finney in that culture was the equivalent of something like Bruce Springsteen Finney or Michael Jordan Finney in our own. Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison was in essence a handbook on genteel living in an otherwise rude and vulgar world; the name sparkled with virtue and success.
From birth, therefore, Charles Grandison Finney carried with him that expressed desire for an upscale shift in manners and culture in the young Republic that has been termed "the refinement of America." Charles, with his natural gifts and personal ambition, never doubted that he was destined for one of the professions. Among medicine, ministry, teaching, and law, it was the last two that seemed both to afford abundant opportunities and suit him best. At least until October 10, 1821.
In addition to the prospect of turning thirty, at least two other forces were at work in Finney's conversion. One was his study of the Bible. The other was the upsurge of evangelical revivalism in and around Adams.
Several times in his life Finney wrote that "I bought my first Bible as a law-book, and laid it by the side of my Blackstone." He conveyed the impression that he could not trace his knowledge of Scripture back any farther than this. But this surely was not completely so. His recollection of home life as a child does not include much religious instruction ("My parents were neither of them professors of religion"), but the family did attend church with some regularity. Sylvester and Rebecca Finney had migrated with their seven children from Warren, Connecticut, to Oneida County, New York, in 1794, when Charles was two. Itinerant preachers often held evangelistic services in the vicinity. Moreover, in 1805 a meetinghouse was constructed near the Finney farm in Hanover, in the town of Kirkland. Charles heard weekly preaching there from a Presbyterian settled minister during his early teenage years until 1808, when the family moved to the North Country. Garth M. Rosell and Richard A. G. Dupuis show in their recent critical edition of Finney's Memoirs how the widely read original published edition established a very wrong impression: it has Finney asserting that in his early years, "I seldom heard a sermon." What Finney actually wrote was, "I seldom heard a Gospel sermon from any person, unless it was an occasional one from some travelling minister." He heard plenty of sermons but considered most of them dry, intellectual, and doctrinal — spiritually and emotionally unsatisfying. After his conversion and after his own theological perspective had taken shape, Finney put a label on this (to his mind) unevangelical preaching: Old Schoolism. Even when a pastor identified himself with revival-and reform-oriented New School Presbyterianism, if he did not preach a straightforward evangelistic message with fiery zeal, Finney lumped him with the Old School which rigidly adhered to the Westminster Confession.
Settling on a farm outside the village of Henderson near Lake Ontario, the Finneys attended the First Baptist Church, where Elder Emory Osgood had begun a long-term ministry. Finney listened to Osgood's brash, revivalistic sermons from age sixteen until he was twenty. Although the cynical youth used to chuckle at Osgood's rustic language, it is certain that there was a lot of Bible in his preaching.
Finney next returned to his birthplace in Connecticut and enrolled at Warren Academy. During two years of formal schooling there, Finney sat weekly under the preaching of the venerable and well-loved Congregationalist pastor the Rev. Peter Starr. More precisely, he sat over Starr's ministry — in the balcony, where he could watch the old minister's tedious progress through sermon notes stuck in the pages of his Bible. Finney also may have felt more anonymous, or psychologically aloof, in the gallery.
Between 1814 and 1818, while he was teaching school in New Jersey, Finney claimed, "I do not think I heard half a dozen sermons in English," as "the preaching in the neighborhood was at that time almost altogether in German." Presumably he still attended worship and followed as best he could the Bible reading and the sermons preached in German.
At age twenty-six, Finney returned home to Jefferson County, in part because his mother had taken ill, but also to make a fresh start as a clerk for attorney Benjamin Wright in Adams. In his Memoirs Finney claims that, having "paid very little regard to the Sabbath," he was at this point "almost as ignorant of religion as a heathen" and had "no definite knowledge of religious truth whatever." Apparently no pastor had given him a Bible, and he had not purchased one on his own. But it cannot be said that he was unfamiliar with the Scriptures and Christian beliefs. He had heard a great deal of biblical preaching as a teenager and young adult. His ignorance was not intellectual but spiritual; the knowledge he lacked was saving knowledge. When he attached himself to the ministry of Presbyterian pastor George Washington Gale in Adams, he listened to his sermons with a religiously astute, critical mind, demanding proof for the Calvinist doctrines Gale held forth as gospel.
Charles Finney may not have owned a personal copy of the Bible as a young man but he had certainly read it in school and probably even taught from it. The Bible was the single most widely used textbook in the common schools and academies of the early Republic, used for reading and oral recitation as well as for devotional exercises. Education, both public and private, was an overwhelmingly evangelical enterprise, and Finney was not unschooled. His childhood was not spent on some desolate frontier but in and around rural villages. "The new settlers being mostly from New England," Finney wrote, they "almost immediately established common schools." As a youth Finney was eager for an education, and classmates remembered him as being tops in his class. In addition to his academic ability, young Charles's skill at sports and enthusiasm for rough-and-tumble playground activities stood him in good stead when he himself began keeping school. "I enjoyed the privileges of a common school summer and winter, until I was fifteen or sixteen years old; and advanced so far as to be supposed capable of teaching a common school myself, as common schools were then conducted."
There is some evidence to suggest that Finney may have spent the last two years of his early schooling, prior to the family move north, at Hamilton-Oneida Academy in nearby Clinton, before it was rechartered in 1812 as Hamilton College. His daughter and grandson believed this to have been the case. Although he fails to mention it in his writings, this would partly explain Finney's proficiency in music — especially voice, violin, and cello. The cello or bass viol was customarily used in the early nineteenth century to accompany religious singing — this before the introduction of church organs. Seth Norton, who was both a linguist and a musician, headed the Academy during Finney's student years. Such training and personal references from the Presbyterian-sponsored Academy faculty, together with his experience teaching singing a few years later in Connecticut, would have opened the door for Finney to become George Gale's music director at the church in Adams, a part-time job Finney undertook while clerking for Wright. And enrollment at Hamilton-Oneida Academy would be consistent with the warm friendship apparent in Finney's correspondence with college trustees, students, and faculty in the mid-1820s. Charles Cushman Sears (who had taught school in Adams and was a special friend of Finney's) wrote from the College that "the name Finney possesses some peculiar influence, which whenever it falls on my ear produces within me a strange sensation." Orrin Gridley, a local trustee, wrote in 1826 that "the Lord appears to be searching the Church at College in a most wonderful manner" and asked Charles to "please remember me to Mrs. Finney, your Father and Mother, and all old friends." On the other hand, scores of people wrote Finney with similar affection from many places around central and northern New York State, and no record of his enrollment exists at Hamilton. If Finney did attend the Academy, he would have encountered instruction and worship from the Bible, the singing of music based on Scripture, and courses in moral philosophy, along with reading and writing, composition, rhetoric, mathematics, natural philosophy, introductory Latin, and so on.
He certainly took courses involving the Bible and Christian thought at Warren Academy in Connecticut. Finney at that time "meditated going to Yale College," a plan that would have been far-fetched without his already having completed such training. Not because Finney was ill-prepared but probably because of his age, his preceptor, himself a Yale graduate, advised against it. "He said it would be a loss of time, as I could easily accomplish, at the rate I was then progressing, the whole curriculum of study pursued at that institution in two years, whereas it would cost me four years to graduate." After he became a professor at Oberlin Collegiate Institute, Finney came to regret that he was "never a classical scholar," but for a twenty-two-year-old teaching school, or even a twenty-six-year-old training to practice law, he was well enough educated. One only has to think of Abraham Lincoln, born sixteen years after Charles Finney and with less formal education, who became the most successful lawyer in Illinois in the 1840s and '50s.
Finney's schooling, along with his exposure to more than fifteen years of biblical and doctrinal sermons, had prepared him remarkably well for the religious crisis of his twenty-ninth year. He recorded in the Memoirs that in the study of "elementary law I found the old authors frequently quoting Scripture," citing Mosaic law as foundational for "the great principles of common law." This is not strictly true if he was referring to William Blackstone's fundamental work on the common law, Commentaries on the Laws of England. These four volumes dominated legal training in the days of Charles Finney and Abe Lincoln. Blackstone seldom cites the Bible even when treating such crimes as heresy and blasphemy.
Finney did not need a Bible for his legal education: lawyers typically used the book only as a talisman for oath-taking. Rather, Finney the student felt his mind, and perhaps his heart, stimulated by the idea of the law. If Blackstone did not often invoke the authority of Moses, Finney could not help but trace the connections between civil law and God's Law. "This excited my curiosity so much that I went and purchased a Bible, the first one I had ever owned." As Finney eagerly looked up Scripture passages that corresponded with legal topics, "this soon led to my taking a new interest in the Bible." He had read the Bible as a textbook in school, and as a young teacher he had surely used it with his students. But now, hunched over a desk in Benjamin Wright's law office, "I read and meditated on it much more than I had ever done before in my life."
Charles Finney's search for direction in his life involved not only personal study of Scripture but active involvement in the style of corporate religious life that had come to dominate early American society — evangelical revivalism. Finney left generations of readers of his Memoirs with the impression that revivalism began with his ministry. His purpose in writing was to tell the story of "the revivals that occurred in central New York and elsewhere, from 1821, and onward for several years." Finney downplayed the effectiveness of the itinerant preachers who worked the villages of Oneida County and the North Country during his youth. And the revivals associated with the onset of the Second Great Awakening — camp meetings like the powerful one in 1801 at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, and New England revivals about the same time growing out of the efforts of Jonathan Edwards's New Divinity heirs and sparked by the preaching of Timothy Dwight at Yale — may have seemed distant both spiritually and geographically. Finney was about to do a new thing, using new methods, in a new phase of the Second Great Awakening.
Excerpted from Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism by Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe Copyright © 1996 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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