Charles Grandison Finney & the Second Phase of the Second Great Awakening

CHARLES FINNEY, and all of the new theology and practices associated with him, came charging upon the religious scene in the United States in late 1825. At that point the length of the Second Great Awakening was remarkable; for over a quarter-century it had blessed America, fostering the sending of missionaries abroad, the founding of schools and colleges, and the conversion of tens of thousands.

One of the foremost evangelists had been Asahel Nettleton, a quiet, scholarly Calvinist who insisted on reverence in his meetings. But it would be Finney who propelled the awakening onto center-stage in America, and gave it another fifteen years of life. The side-effects became more widespread than ever before: out of it came power for the antislavery crusade, women’s rights, prison reform, temperance, and much more.

Finney was tall and handsome, and he had penetrating, hypnotic eyes which riveted his audiences. His eyes were “large and blue, at times mild as an April sky, and at others, cold and penetrating as polished steel,” one observer stated. Along with that, he possessed a ma jestic voice, which could be immensely persuasive with crowds. In addition, he had studied to be an attorney, and he turned the legal logic he had developed, and his courtroom skills, to the use of the pulpit.

In Finney’s day preaching was often very formal. As he plunged into evangelistic work in the back woods of upper New York State in 1824, he offended some who said he destroyed the dignity of the pulpit with his direct, personal style. But Finney’s informal preaching had a rapid-fire impact on large congregations, and converts grew in number. Many warned him that being dramatic in the pulpit might turn away the educated. Just the opposite proved to be the case. Finney remarked, “They would say, ‘You will not interest the educated part of your congregation.’ But facts soon silenced them on this point. . . . Under my preaching, judges, and lawyers, and educated men were converted by scores . . . Under their methods, such a thing seldom occurred.”

By late 1825 he had left behind the rural areas, and began campaigns in the area of Utica, New York. When Finney opened evangelistic meetings in the town of Western, NY, in October 1825, he could not suspect that he was beginning seven years of the most intense evangelistic activity that the United States has seen. The results would be far reaching and crucial in modern evangelism to this day.

The revival Finney began in Western soon spread to nearby towns. When he moved to Rome, NY, 500 converts were soon made. Then he moved his work to the city of Utica; a Presbyterian pastor there said the services were made “solemn and sometimes terribly so by the presence of God which made sinners afraid and Christians humble and still.” In Utica another 500 converts were made, and 1,000 added to the rolls of churches in the surrounding area.

As Finney’s fame grew, some of his practices were condemned. Asahel Nettleton, particularly, charged that Finney introduced “New Measures” which upset the order of society and church life. These new methods included praying for persons by name, allowing women to pray and testify, encouraging people under conviction to come forward, mobilizing the entire community through groups of workers visiting homes, and displacing the routine services of the church with special services held each evening, sometimes for periods of weeks.

Yet, for every critic who found fault, Finney had supporters who praised his aggressive evangelism. The New Measures were successful and valid new evangelistic techniques, his followers urged. Still, the methods were so new and striking that they were bound to stir controversy.

A concern was raised about the possibility of fanaticism and disorder in Finney’s meetings. Rumors and exaggerations had, of course, been flying; according to these, Finney was a wild eyed ranter of the most dangerous type, who was bringing the Second Awakening into disgrace. Finney and his supporters made it clear that they were as firmly opposed to the ranting and uncontrolled physical excesses of the Kentucky frontier revivals as anyone.

A New Leader with New Ideas

Charles Finney emerged, at age thirty-six, as the leader of the campaign for awakening in America, the recognized head of the Second Great Awakening, and the heir of Timothy Dwight. Demands poured in for his preaching in the major cities of the Eastern seaboard.

Soon he clashed again with older views, for Finney’s entire concept of awakening was new. He taught that awakening was not a miraculous act of God, but a simple use of human choice. He saw revivals very differently from Stoddard, Edwards, Whitefield, or Wesley, who understood that Christians could do nothing about periods of sin and backsliding until the Holy Spirit brought about renewal. Finney put the initiative in the hands of Christians: if they did the right things, revival would come. There was nothing at all miraculous about the coming of revival. Many said then—and have since—that Finney changed American religion from God-centered to man-centered.

Whatever people’s opinions on these issues, there was no denying that Finney was winning great numbers of converts wherever he spoke. In the fall of 1830 the pinnacle of his evangelistic career was reached when he began meetings in Rochester, New York. The meetings continued until 9 March 1831, and brought him international fame. Historian Whitney R. Cross wrote:

No more impressive revival has occurred in American history. Sectarianism was forgotten and all churches gathered in their multitudes. . . . But the exceptional feature was the phenomenal dignity of this awakening. No agonizing souls fell in the aisles, no raptured ones shouted hallelujahs. Rather, despite his doses of hell—fire, the great evangelist, ‘in an unclerical suit of gray,’ acted ‘like a lawyer arguing before a court and jury,’ talking precisely, logically, but with wit, verve, and informality. Lawyers, real—estate magnates, millers, manufacturers, and commercial tycoons led the parade of the regenerated . . .

According to another leading American minister, Lyman Beecher, a hundred thousand in the nation made religious affiliations within a year, an event “unparalleled in the history of the church.”

The life of the entire area was profoundly influenced. Former enemies and critics frequently became firm supporters, acknowledging that at Rochester there was little or nothing to criticize, but much to praise. Taverns closed. The theater became a livery stable. The man who became district attorney stated that after the revival the crime rate in Rochester dropped by two-thirds, and remained that way for years.

It seems as if the nation was waiting for this, for as Western New York State was swept by the Spirit’s moving, awakening spread across the entire country. The awakening at Rochester was almost singularly responsible for a national awakening in 1831. The event was so remarkable, it became internationally known. Under the ministries of men influenced by Finney, and others, awakenings seemed to be everywhere in 1831, and they would continue for years to come. CH

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #23 in 1989]

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