Charles Finney – Learning the Basics

Charles Finney

Strong-headed, rough as a broken rock, Charles Finney was converted and filled with the Holy Spirit.

Early difficulties
He soon realised that he was never going to be a lawyer, but had to be a preacher. He began discussions with his Pastor, George Gale, about ordination and applied to three seminaries, but was rejected (partly because he also applied for financial assistance, partly because he was already in his thirties).

It was agreed by the local presbytery that he should begin personal studies under the guidance of Gale and they would review his application for ordination. Six months into this agreement Gale became ill and advised them to ordain Finney so he could take over pastoral responsibilities at the church in Adams.

Unfortunately, it didn’t go well. While it is true he was ordained more quickly than expected, it was clear that his somewhat severe style was not going to suit a pastoral mode of ministry. Once again, Gale (whom Finney unfairly criticises in his Memoirs) stepped in to help by suggesting he be commissioned as a ‘missionary’ to evangelise.

This slightly unusual course proved to be providential for Finney. It gave him a pattern for evangelistic ministry and he began to mature as a Christian and a leader as he learnt to preach the gospel.

His reaction to criticism
Although his insecurities and defensiveness are very evident in his Memoirs (and presumably helped define the change from a Reformed to a strong Arminian position in his later theology[i]), he was clearly and wonderfully used by God.

His early meetings were not wildly successful, but he faithfully persevered. He became aware of two primary needs: firstly that the non-believer needed to hear the gospel clearly and respond to it personally, i.e., the command to repent and believe was a command that could be obeyed. Secondly, he became aware of the necessity of the Holy Spirit in working upon the hearts and minds of those who heard, in order that they repent and believe.

At times, in his writings, he flip-flops from one emphasis to the other. But the criticism he received from pastors, theologians and evangelists over his direct and personal methods to ensure responses to the gospel resulted in a decided anti-Reformed position in his thinking.

In fact, his biographer, Keith Hardman, asserts that, in connection with his recollections in his Memoirs, ‘Finney interjected his later theological position into it, as he did with all of these incidents.’[ii]

Prayer and Preaching
Throughout the 1820s Finney continued itinerating, trying to secure conversions to Christ. He was accompanied by a praying minister, Daniel Nash. Nash was no great preacher but recognised a preaching gift in Finney and committed himself to prayer for him and for the meetings. They travelled together in partnership, with Nash sometimes ‘shouting’ in prayer and even calling out the names of individuals whom they considered needed converting! This proved controversial, of course, but the praying/preaching partnership began to bear much fruit – as we will see next time in a post entitled, ‘Demonstrations of the Spirit’s power!’

To read the first part in the Charles Finney story click here

© 2012 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog


[i] ‘His peculiar views, adopted since he has been at Oberlin, were no part of his theology at that time…Of the doctrine of election Mr Finney in his preaching said very little. His reason for it was that he was dealing with the impenitent chiefly, and he thought it was adapted to converted, or the mature Christian, rather than to the impenitent. This I always thought in some degree a wrong judgement…Had Mr Finney taken a different view of it, and dwelt upon it more, his faith would have been more firmly anchored, and he would have been saved from the position in which he has found himself…When he was licensed and first laboured as a missionary, he was very firm and faithful in bringing out this doctrine.’ George Gale, quoted in Keith J Hardman, Charles Grandison Finney, Revivalist and Reformer (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1987)

[ii] Hardman, p.53

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