The Blessing of Abraham

Finney’s Perfectionist teaching not only shook the establishment in his day, but it added fuel to the growing fires of the Holiness Movement.

REFORMED HISTORIANS IN AMERICA generally believe that Calvinism Stabilizes biblical orthodoxy while Arminianism in all its forms, especially the Wesleyan one, tends toward modernism. This may be partly true for the twentieth century. During the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, the career of Charles G. Finney demonstrates that Puritan theology was the one on the move. Many scholars, including my own research associate Thomas Umbel, are now discovering that New England religious thought was rapidly pulling away from Calvinism during the early national period, when Methodism was spreading through that section.

Others have concluded that revivalists like George Whitefield, who helped set in motion the Boston phase of the awakening that preceded the American Revolution, were “practical Arminians,” even though they were or became theoretical Calvinists. While enrolled in an academy at Litchfield, Connecticut, the youthful Finney’s attention to the preaching of Peter Starr, Lyman Beecher’s predecessor in the pastorate there, did not persuade him to believe in either predestination or imputed righteousness. The Presbyterian committee that examined Finney and licensed him to preach in 1824 was so lenient toward his rejection of major Calvinist points that many of them seem likely to have been Congregationalist migrants from New England. Certainly they shared the growing accommodation of Yankee Puritans to universal redemption, free will, and the conviction that all persons were equal before temporal laws because divine grace had made them equal heirs to eternal hopes.

Entire Sanctification

Twentieth century historians of Finney, however, still play down his doctrine of Christian perfection, or entire sanctification, as he called it. I think this is partly because secular scholars have paid chief attention to his early preaching, few going past his Lectures on Revival, and fewer still considering the Lectures to Professing Christians that Finney published after two years in the pastorate of Broadway Tabernacle in New York City.

That second volume of his lectures marked a turning point in Finney’s attitude toward the Methodist belief that all Christians should seek a “second blessing,” called heart purity or perfect love. He spelled out his new view of the sanctification believers needed in lectures seventeen through twenty-four. Most students have not understood this; they have not read his lectures printed fortnightly in the first two years’ issues of the The Oberlin Evangelist, in December 1839, after Finney had become Professor of Theology at Oberlin College and Seminary. Others have not understood it because they were personally inclined toward Calvinism and were, therefore, fascinated by the Pelagianism—the notion of salvation by good works—that seemed to lie just beneath the surface of Finney’s earliest sermons, especially the one entitled Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts.

Beginning in 1836, therefore, and with a conviction and clarity that increased until his death 40 years later, Finney’s central preoccupation was Christ’s promise to sanctify fully those who through regenerating grace had begun to love and obey him. To see this, let’s look at Finney’s major writings from 1836 on.

Seeking the Blessing

In 1837, Finney began teaching at Oberlin College for half of each year and pastoring at Broadway Tabernacle in New York City for the other half. Oberlin president Asa Mahan, a graduate of Andover Seminary in Massachusetts and a famous abolitionist evangelist, and Lewis Tappan, a wealthy importer and a member of Finney’s New York congregation, had recruited him. Mahan and Finney agreed upon the need of Christians for an experience of grace that would empower them to walk before God in righteousness. Later, they both recounted many times how, during a revival season in 1839, a student rose to ask whether a Christian might “expect to attain sanctification in the present life.” President Mahan instantly answered “yes,” and in the next few days sought and found what he believed was this blessing.

Finney had set forth his own “yes” to that question during the preceding three years. Late that fall, he began the famous lectures that the preachers of that time read avidly, but that later scholars have ignored. However, he did not receive what he seems to have thought was the experience of inward holiness until the winter of 1842–1843, which he spent in Boston, supplying the pulpit for the socially and spiritually radical congregation gathered at the Marlborough Street Chapel.

The preceding spring, Finney had published, in book form, a summary of the second year of his lectures, those of 1840–1841, under the title, Views of Sanctification. If an unidentified lay-woman’s report was accurate, the volume provoked a tantalizing response from the famous Unitarian minister of Boston, William Ellery Channing. [Finney relates in his Memoirs, pp. 356–357, that this woman claimed to have spoken with Channing who told her of his personal interest in Finney’s book and his desire to meet Finney. Unfortunately, the two men never met.]

Finney’s first year’s lectures, however, were not reported until I edited them in 1980 and titled them Promise of the Spirit. They show that Finney’s intellectual and spiritual breakthrough revolved around what he, after St. Paul, called the Blessing of Abraham. That blessing was to “come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ,” when they received by faith “the promise of the Spirit.” Six climactic lectures on the Promises defined sanctifying faith as “that act of the mind that lays hold upon” these biblical promises and “yields up the whole being” to the “influence end control” of the Holy Spirit.

Bridge to Holiness

Meanwhile, Oberlin president Asa Mahan was becoming a leader among non-Methodists who had made John Wesley’s doctrine of heart purity—or perfect love—their own. Mahan’s volume, Scripture Doctrine of Christian Perfection, appeared at Oberlin in 1839, at the high-water mark of the institution’s dedication to such social concerns as the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, public education for children of both free blacks and whites, temperance, and the American frontiersman’s obsession with land speculation. The book reappeared in Boston a few months later, issued by the Methodist firm that published Timothy Merrits new monthly The Guide to Christian Perfection, later named The Guide to Christian Holiness.

In January 1841 George Peck, editor of the Methodist Quarterly Review, printed a long essay that pronounced Mahan’s volume virtually Wesleyan, and praised especially its emphasis on grace received by faith. Thereafter, during four decades spent among Congregationalists in America and Britain, Mahan made his doctrine and experience his main concern. In 1873 he called and conducted the famous Oxford Convention for the Promotion of Christian Holiness, from which the Keswick Movement emerged. This annual summer conference, the majority of whose sponsors were Anglicans, spawned a number of satellite conferences, some of which met in cities throughout the year. No less than four monthly magazines, all independently published, were for the next 25 years nerve centers of the movement, helping to spread its influence throughout Britain and to Germany, Scandinavia, Holland, South Africa, Australia, and after 1890, to America.

Systematic Theology

Finney visited England for the first time in 1849, while he and Mahan, despite minor disagreements, were still close associates. In 1851 George Redford, a scholarly Congregationalist pastor in Worcester, England, undertook the preparation of an English edition of Finney’s two—volume Lectures on Systematic Theology, which had recently been published at Oberlin. At Redford’s prompting, Finney made extensive changes in the work’s language (to remove “objectionable phraseology”) and style, and rewrote several sections. In a new preface, however, the evangelist insisted that the numerous critics of the original edition had not convinced him to alter his views “upon any point of doctrine.” Far from being a retreat from the perfectionism Finney had adopted between 1836 and 1839, then, his Systematic Theology was an effort to sustain and extend it.

The work began with 22 trenchant lectures arguing that God’s moral government consists in persuading human beings through his love, manifested in Christ, to make moral choices in real freedom. Regenerate persons must return to obedience to God’s moral law, Finney wrote, inspired by “the indwelling spirit of Christ received by faith to reign in the heart,” that is, in the will. In “every dispensation of the divine government,” Finney said, such a return was “the unalterable condition of salvation.” He called imputed holiness an absurdity that the impenitent seize upon to avoid submitting to “the righteousness of God wrought in them.” Grace cannot save the soul except “upon condition of entire sanctification.” Finney then quoted a litany of scriptural promises from both Old and New Testaments—a list almost identical to the one Wesley had drawn together in his Plain Account of Christian Perfection.

Further discourses on the atonement, human depravity, moral ability, and six on the experience of regeneration, preceded Finney’s climactic 17 lectures on the experience of entire sanctification. An early one of these expounded the scriptural promises of it, developing only slightly Finney’s earlier articles in The Oberlin Evangelist of 1840, cited above. Another repeated, but did not refer to, John Fletcher’s argument in his book Portrait of St. Paul, rejecting interpretations of the apostle’s words that would suggest he did not profess or enjoy the experience of holiness of heart and life.

The disagreement between Paul and Barnabas over John Mark, recorded in Acts 15:36–41, Finney said, did not remotely imply sin or sinful anger in the behavior of the two men. Romans 7:7–25, he continued, could not refer to Paul’s state in grace at the time he wrote the epistle; the apostle’s object in that chapter was manifestly to describe not himself, but one who was “living in sin and every day condemned by the law,” whereas in both the preceding and the following chapters, Finney argued, Paul depicted a believer over whom sin had no dominion and who in fact had been brought by grace into the experience of entire sanctification.

Three years later in America, in what must have been a triumphant assertion of the evangelistic character of Christian theology, Finney published a volume he called Guide to the Savior. It consisted of chapters taken from the section on entire sanctification in the English edition of his Lectures on Systematic Theology. Holiness preachers sold it for many years at Methodist and interdenominational camp meetings.

Equality, Morality, and Social Hope

Here then in Finney’s life and thought is a demonstration of how and why the Holiness Movement, which before the Civil War observers equated with earnest Methodism, grew so rapidly among American Protestants—the Methodist Episcopal Church becoming the largest denomination in the country by 1850. The essentially evangelistic assertion that all persons could be saved, and the biblical assurance that a life of personal righteousness flowed from that salvation, were not simply dogmas Finney’s generation increasingly accepted. They also underlay the political principles of equality, morality, and social hope that were central to American democracy.

By Timothy L. Smith

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #20 in 1988]

Historians of American religion have been indebted to Timothy L. Smith since his important book, Revivalism and Reform in 19th century America (Abington). Dr. Smith is professor of History at Johns Hopkins University and Director of Johns Hopkins’ Program in American Religious History. His most recent book is Whitefield & Wesley on the New Birth (Zondervan, 1986).
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