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The Original Memoirs of Charles G. Finney
ZondervanCopyright © 2002 Zondervan
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Chapter OneMy Birth and Early Education
It has pleased God in some measure to connect my name and labors with an extensive movement of the church of Christ, regarded by some as a new era in its progress. Especially has this been supposed to be true in respect to revivals of religion. As this movement involved, to a considerable extent, the development of some modified views of Christian doctrine, which had not been common, and was brought about by some changes in the means of carrying forward the work of evangelization, it was very natural that some misapprehension should prevail in regard to these modified statements of doctrine, and the use of these measures; and consequently that to some extent even good men might call in question the wisdom of these measures and the soundness of these theological statements, and that ungodly men should be irritated, and for a time should strenuously oppose these great movements.
I have spoken of my name as connected with these movements, but only as one of the many ministers of Christ, and others, who have shared prominently in promoting them. I am aware that by a certain portion of the church I have been considered an innovator, both in regard to doctrine and measures; and that many have looked upon me as rather prominent, especially in assailing some of the old forms of theological thought and expression, and in stating the doctrines of the Gospel in many respects in new language, and introducing other forms of thought.
I have been particularly importuned, for a number of years, by the friends of those revivals with which my name and labors have been connected, to write a history of them. As so much misapprehension has prevailed respecting them, it is thought that the truth of history demands a statement from myself of the doctrines that were preached, so far as I was concerned, of the measures used, and of the results of preaching those doctrines and the use of those measures, as they have been manifest to myself and others for many years.
My mind seems instinctively to recoil from saying so much of myself as I shall be obliged to do, if I speak honestly of those revivals and of my relation to them. For this reason I have declined, up to this time, to undertake such a work. Of late the trustees of Oberlin College have laid the matter before me, and urged me to undertake the work. They, together with numerous other friends in this country and in England, have urged that it was due to the cause of Christ, that a better understanding should exist in the church, than has hitherto existed, in regard especially to the revivals that occurred in central New York and elsewhere, from 1821 and onward for several years, because those revivals have been most misrepresented and opposed. I approach the subject, I must say, with reluctance, for many reasons. First, I have kept no diary, and consequently must depend on my memory. It is true that my memory is naturally very tenacious, and the events that I have witnessed in revivals of religion made a very deep impression on my mind, and therefore I remember with great distinctness many of them, many more than I shall have time to communicate in what I shall write. Everyone who has ever witnessed powerful revivals of religion is aware that many cases of conviction and conversion are daily occurring, of the greatest interest to the people in the midst of whom they occur. Where these persons are known and the facts and circumstances are known, they often produce a thrilling effect, and are frequently so numerous that if all the highly interesting facts of even one extended revival, in one locality, should be narrated, it would fill a large volume.
I do not propose to pursue this course at all in what I am about to write. I shall only sketch such an outline as will, upon the whole, give a tolerably clear idea of the type which these revivals took on, and shall only relate a few of the particular instances of conversion which occurred in different places. Should I do otherwise my narrative would swell to many volumes; whereas I propose, if possible, to condense what I have to say into one volume of moderate size. However interesting may have been the particular cases of conversion that occurred in different places, to persons in their immediate neighborhood, I fear that to persons at a distance it would appear prolix and tiresome to enter, with any considerable detail, into the statement of individual cases of conversion.
But I shall also endeavor to give such an account of the doctrines which were preached, and of the measures which were used, and in short shall mention such facts in brief as will give so much information in respect to them, as to enable the church hereafter, partially at least, to estimate the power and purity of those great works of God. Purer and more powerful revivals of religion I never saw than those that have been most spoken against.
I hesitate on another account to write a narrative of those revivals. I have been not infrequently surprised to find how much my own remembrance of facts that occurred years ago, differs from the recollection of other persons who had almost equal facilities for knowing what those facts were at the time. My statements, therefore, are very liable to conflict with the recollections of some persons who, at the time, must have understood the facts very nearly as I did myself. Of course I must state facts as I remember them. A great many of those events have been often referred to by myself in preaching as illustrative of the truths that I was presenting to the people. I have been so often reminded of these facts, and have so often referred to them in all the years of my ministry since their occurrence, that I cannot but have strong confidence that I remember them substantially as they occurred. If I shall in any case misremember in anything that I state, or if in any case my recollections differ widely from those of others who were present in those revivals, I trust that the church will believe that my statements are in entire accordance with my present remembrance of those facts. I am now seventy-five years old. I of course remember things that transpired many years ago more definitely than I do things of recent occurrence. In regard to the doctrines preached, so far as I was concerned, and the means used to promote them, I think I cannot misremember.
To give any intelligible account of the part which I was called to act in those scenes, it is necessary that I should give a little history of the manner in which I came to adopt the doctrinal views which I have long held and preached, and which have been regarded as in some measure involving a new statement of some of the doctrines of the Gospel, and by many persons have been considered as objectionable. In order, therefore, to render my narrative intelligible, I must commence by giving a very brief account of my birth, and early location and education, my conversion to Christ, my study of theology, and the circumstances of my entering upon the work of the ministry. I am not about to write an autobiography, let it be remembered, and shall enter no farther into a relation of the events of my own private life than shall seem necessary to give an intelligible account of the manner in which I was directed, in so far as I have been related to these great movements of the church in this and in other countries in pushing forward reform.
I was born in Warren, in Litchfield County, Connecticut, in 1792. When I was about two years old my father removed to central New York, Oneida County, which was at that time to a great extent a wilderness. No religious privileges were enjoyed by the people. No Sabbath Schools had been established. Very few religious books were to be had. The new settlers being mostly from New England, almost immediately established common schools, but they had among them very little intelligent preaching of the Gospel. I enjoyed the privileges of a common school summer and winter until I was fifteen or sixteen years old, I believe, and advanced so far as to be supposed capable of teaching a common school myself, as common schools were then conducted.
My parents were neither of them professors of religion, and I believe among our neighbors there were very few that professed religion. I seldom heard a Gospel sermon from any person, unless it was an occasional one from some travelling minister, or some miserable holding forth of an ignorant preacher that would sometimes be found in that country. I recollect very well that the ignorance of the preachers that I heard, when I heard any at all, was so great that the people would return from meeting and spend a considerable time in irrepressible laughter, in view of the strange mistakes which had been made and absurdities which had been advanced. In the neighborhood of my father's residence we had just erected a meetinghouse and settled a minister, where I had begun to attend upon a stated ministry, when my father was induced to remove again into the wilderness skirting the southern shore of Lake Ontario, a little south of Sackett's Harbor. Here again I lived for several years, enjoying no better religious privileges than I had in Oneida County. Almost the only preaching that I heard was that of an Elder Osgood, who was a man of considerable religious zeal, but of very little education. His ignorance of language was so great as to divert the attention of the people from his thoughts to the very comical form of expressing them. For example, instead of saying, "I am," he would say, "I are," and in the use of the pronouns thee and thou, etc., he would mix them up in such a strange and incongruous manner, as to render it very difficult indeed to keep from laughing while he was either preaching or praying. Of course I received no religious instruction from such teaching.
When about twenty years old I returned to Connecticut, and from thence went to New Jersey, near New York City, and engaged in teaching. I taught and studied as best I could, and twice returned to New England and attended a high school for a season. While attending the high school I meditated going to Yale College. My preceptor was a graduate of Yale College. But he advised me not to go. 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. He presented such considerations as prevailed with me, and as it resulted, I failed to pursue my school education any further at that time. However, afterwards I acquired some knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. But I was never a classical scholar and never possessed so much knowledge of the dead languages as to think myself capable of independently criticizing our English translation of the Bible. I have seldom ventured to attempt it when I was not sustained by the most respectable authority.
My last teacher wished me to join him in conducting an academy in one of the southern states. I was inclined to accept his proposal, with the design of pursuing and completing my studies under his instruction during the intervals of teaching. But when I informed my parents, whom I had not seen for four years, of my contemplated movement south, they both came immediately after me, and prevailed on me to go home with them to Jefferson County, N.Y. After making them a visit I concluded to enter a law office as a student at Adams in that county.
Up to this time I had never enjoyed what might be called religious privileges. I had never lived in a praying community, except during the periods when I was attending the high school in New England, and the religion in that place was of a type not at all calculated to arrest my attention. The preaching where I attended school was by an aged clergyman, an excellent man, and greatly beloved and venerated by his people, but he read his sermons in a manner that left no impression whatever on my mind. He had a monotonous, humdrum way of reading what he had probably written many years before.
But to give some idea of his preaching, let me say that his manuscript sermons were just large enough to put into a duodecimo Bible. I sat in the gallery and observed that the parson placed his manuscript in about the middle of his Bible, and inserted the four fingers of each hand at the places where were to be found the passages of Scripture to be quoted in the reading of his sermon. This made it necessary for him to hold his Bible before him in both hands, and rendered all gesticulation with his hands impossible. As he proceeded he would read the passages of Scripture where his fingers were inserted, and thus liberate one finger after another until the fingers of both hands were read out of their places. I observed that when his fingers were all read out, he was near the close of his sermon. His reading was altogether unimpassioned and monotonous. And although the people attended very closely and reverentially to his reading, yet to me, I must confess, it was not much like preaching, or to say the least not much like that which I thought preaching ought to be.
When we retired from meeting I often heard the people speak well of his sermons, and not infrequently they would wonder whether he made any allusion, in what he said, to what was transpiring there. It seemed to be always a matter of curiosity to know what he was aiming at, especially if there was anything more in his sermon than a dry discussion of doctrine. And this was really quite as good preaching as I had ever listened to in any place. But any one may judge whether such preaching was calculated to instruct or interest a young man who neither knew or cared anything about religion.
When I was teaching school in New Jersey, the preaching in the neighborhood was at that time almost altogether in German. I do not think I heard half a dozen sermons in English during my whole stay in New Jersey, which was about three years. Altogether I was, when I went to Adams to study law, almost as ignorant of religion as a heathen. I had been very much brought up in the woods. I had paid very little regard to the Sabbath and had no definite knowledge of religious truth whatever. At Adams, for the first time, I sat statedly for a length of time under an educated ministry. Rev. George W. Gale, from Princeton, N.J., became, soon after I went there, pastor of the Presbyterian church in that place. His preaching was of the Old School type, that is, it was thoroughly Calvinistic; and whenever he came out with the doctrines as he believed them, he would preach what is now called hyper-Calvinism. This, however, he seldom did. He was of course regarded as highly orthodox, but I was not able to gain very much instruction from his preaching. As I sometimes told him, he seemed to me to begin in the middle of his discourse and to assume many things, which to my mind needed to be proved.
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