A Short History of the Evangelistic Appeal part 3


The Evangelist Billy Graham

It may well be that the Evangelist is always in a controversial position.[i] He aims to be winsome but is sure to step on toes; tries to bring a simple message firmly, yet knows he deals with slippery objections; doesn’t want to offend, yet proclaims a message contrary to human self-sufficiency, and seeks to express certainties with humility. He mustn’t be driven by his own sense of persuasiveness, yet everyone wants results.

And it’s not only the message which can cause controversy; the changing methods employed by Evangelists can create trouble too!

As we’ve seen already, the appeal (or ‘altar call’, as it tends to be called in the US) is a method that became popular towards the end of the 18th century. After preaching for a series of meetings, those who were either converted or seeking conversion were asked to identify themselves by going to the front of a meeting and talking with a minister, or entering a separate ‘inquirer’s meeting’ for further instruction and prayer.

The reason the appeal is controversial today is because it can give a false impression of conversion, or can be used in the hope of producing conversion rather than merely connecting ‘seekers’ with a spiritual advisor.

Whether you’re a fan of Charles Finney or not you have to concede that, despite the modern critics, he was aiming at conversion through preaching and the Spirit’s work, and using the appeal as a means of either identifying those who already converted or those seeking conversion. We’ll see that in the following quotations.

Finney Beginning
In 1825 Finney preached a series of meetings in a small town called Evans’ Mills in Jefferson County, NY.

He writes, ‘The Spirit of the Lord was evidently poured out on the congregation; and at the close of the sermon I did what I do not know I had ever done before, called upon any who would give their hearts to God to come forward and take the front seats…

The moment I made the call [a] young lady was the first to arise. She burst out into the aisle, and came forward like a person in a state of desperation. She seemed to have lost all sense of the presence of anybody but God. She came rushing forward to the front seats, until she finally fell in the aisle and shrieked with agony.

A large number arose in different parts of the house and came forward; and a goodly number appreared to give their hearts to God upon the spot.’[ii]

Revival
A little later, preaching in Rome, Oneida County, NY, in the midst of what seems to be full-blown revival, he records,

‘Conversions multiplied so rapidly that we had no way of learning who they were. I therefore every evening, at the close of my sermon, requested all who had been converted that day to come forward and report themselves in front of the pulpit, that we might have a little conversation with them. We were very surprised by the numbers and class of persons that came forward.’[iii]

One observer, Catherine Huntingdon, reported, ‘I do not know the number of converts in our town; it may be four hundred. Two evenings since, when those were requested to come forward who had obtained hopes within the thirty-six hours, between twenty and thirty presented themselves. Usually every other evening the ministers made the request, that they might see who they were, and shake hands with them.’[iv]

The Missionary Herald published news of the revival stating, ‘During one week, it is said, scarcely any secular work was done, so intent were the people on the great concerns of the soul. It was a sort of sabbatical week.’ (published May 1826)[v]

The after-meeting and the appeal
While Finney began to see the importance of people being clear about conversion, he initially saw the ‘appeal’ as taking place after the meeting and not necessarily as part of the service itself. This is clear from his practice in Rome:

He writes, ‘Mr Gillett afterwards reported that during the twenty days that I spent at Rome there were five hundred conversions in that town, or an average of twenty per day. At evening when I requested that any who had been converted during the day should come forward and report themselves, the people would remain standing instead of retiring, to see who came forward to report themselves as having been converted; and the utmost astonishment was expressed by those present when they saw who came forward.’[vi]

On many occasions those who came forward took part in a further enquirer’s meeting and the benches or seats that were used at the front of the meeting halls began to be referred to as ‘the anxious seat’, where those anxious about their separation from God waited for prayer or counsel.

A settled practice
It may be worth quoting Finney’s at length here:

‘I had never, I believe except in rare circumstances, until I went to Rochester [1830] used as a means of promoting revivals, what has since been called ‘the anxious seat’.

I had sometimes asked persons in the congregation to stand up; but this I had not frequently done…

From my own experience and observation I had found, that with the higher classes especially, the greatest obstacle to be overcome was their fear of being known as anxious inquirers. They were too proud to take any position that would reveal them to others as anxious for their souls.

I had found also that something was needed more than I had practiced to make the impression on them that they were expected then and there to give up their hearts; and something that would call them to act, and act as publicly before the world as they had in their sins; something that would commit them publicly to the service of Christ; some public manifestation or demonstration that would declare to all around them that they abandoned a sinful life then and there, and committed themselves to Jesus Christ…

I had felt for sometime that something more was necessary to bring them out from among the mass of the ungodly to a public renunciation of their sinful ways, and a public committal of themselves to God.

At Rochester, if I recollect right, I first introduced this measure…I made a call…upon all that class of persons whose convictions were so ripe that they were willing then and there to renounce their sins and give themselves to God, to come forward to certain seats which I requested to be vacated, and offer themselves up to God while we made them subjects of prayer.

A much larger number came forward than I expected…’[vii]

But how necessary was it during those revivals?
Through using this rather confrontational device Finney made a number of observations. It is very clear that Finney’s concerns and convictions were being shaped primarily by his desire to help people get converted.

And it is clear that his primary perspective was not from the study to the mission but from the impact the preaching was having from the recipient’s point of view, then he developed his thinking.

Again, I am quoting Finney at length to at least allow him the opportunity of a defence.

Exposing pride and clarifying obedience
He writes, ‘I found, as I expected, that this was a great power for good. If men who were under conviction refused to come forward publicly and renounce their sins and give themselves to God, this fact disclosed to them more clearly the pride of their hearts. If, on the other hand, they broke over all those considerations that stood in the way of their doing it, it was taking a great step; and as I found continually was the very step that they needed to take. And when the truth was explained to them, and they were made intelligent…this was one of the means used by the Spirit of God to bring them to a present submission to and acceptance of Christ.

Acting rather than waiting
I had long been of the opinion that a principal reason why so few were converted…was that they were not brought to the point…

Ministers had been in the habit of preaching to sinners sermons pointing out to them their duty; but then in all probability admonishing them at the close that their nature must be changed by the Spirit of God or they could do nothing. Ministers had been so much afraid of dishonouring the Spirit of God…

Thus just at the point where the sinner needed to think of Christ, of his duty, of the thing important to be done, his attention was turned back to see whether any divine influence was going to change his nature, and let the Spirit of God act upon his nature like an electric shock while he remained passive…

Therefore the thing to be done was to set the sinner’s duty clearly before him, and depend on the Spirit’s teaching to urge him to do it; to set Christ before him, and expect the Holy Spirit to take of the things of Jesus and show them to the sinner; to set his sins before him, and expect the Holy Spirit to show him his awful wickedness, and lead him to voluntarily renounce his sins. I saw therefore clearly that to cooperate with the Spirit of God as an intelligent agent in this work, I must present the truths to be believed, the duties to be done, and the reasons for those duties.’

Cooperating with what the Spirit is doing
The non-believer, hearing the sermon, ‘should understand distinctly that the Spirit’s work is not to convert him while he is passive, while he is waiting God’s time; but that the Spirit of God converts or turns him by inducing him to turn himself; that the act of submission is his own act, and the Spirit is persuading him to do this; that faith is his own act…That he gives us faith by inducing us to believe; and that he leads us to perform every duty, to repent, to believe, to submit, to love, by presenting the truths which are calculated to lead to these acts in so clear a light as to overcome our reluctance, and induce us voluntarily, with all sincerity and with all our hearts to turn to God, to trust Him, to love Him, to obey Him.

With these views of the subject I saw clearly that just at the point where the sinner is thoroughly instructed, and while under the voice of the living preacher with the strong pressure of truth set home by the Holy Ghost upon him, something was needed to induce him to act then and there upon his convictions.

I concluded then, and have always thought since, that to call the sinner right out from the mixed multitude to take a stand for God, to be…open and frank in his renunciation of sin…to call him to change sides, to renounce the world and come over to Christ, to renounce his own righteousness and accept that of Christ – in short to do just that which constitutes a change of heart, was just what was needed. I was not disappointed in the use of this measure.’[viii]

We may not agree entirely with Finney’s rationale, but his determination to serve the non-believer, once the Spirit of God has awakened them, is admirable.

We may also disagree with Finney’s later assertions that certain practices will produce certain results. R.T. Kendall, one time Pastor of Westminster Chapel, writing of his frustration with that church’s lack of evangelistic success, said, ‘Charles Finney, the nineteenth-century American evangelist (whom I admire), taught that if we do certain things, God will do certain things; therefore any church can see true revival. It may have worked for him but I have to say it hasn’t worked for us.’ [vix]

Feel free to add your own insights. Finney said that this ministry device had not disappointed him. Was that because there was such a powerful revival happening anyway? What about Asahel Nettleton and the Reformed Evangelists who preached with similar results and power?

For my view on the use of appeals in churches now click here

For the first part on this three-part series on Evangelistic Appeals click here

For the first part of the ministry of Charles Finney click here

Over to you…

© 2012 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog


[i] See Keith Hardman, Charles Grandison Finney (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1987), p.79

[ii]Rosell & Dupuis, The Memoirs of Charles  G. Finney (Michigan: Zondervan Academie Books, 1989), p.115

[iii] ibid p.162

[iv] ibid p.162 footnote

[v] ibid p.162 footnote

[vi] ibid p.164

[vii] ibid p.306-308

[viii] For the full argument see ibid p.320-323

[vix] RT Kendall, In Pursuit of His Glory (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2002), p.255

A Short History of the Evangelistic Appeal part 2

A Kentucky Camp Meeting in the early 1800s

When the Methodists of the late 18th Century began inviting those seeking conversion to come forward at the end of church services the practice became commonplace.

The Methodist evangelist Peter Cartwright records how the preachers planned such meetings. If they were able to discern the Spirit of God moving in significant power  they should call for people to give their lives to Christ and invite them to take a seat at the front.[i]

‘Striking fire!’
Cartwright records that one of the preachers said to him, ‘If I strike fire, I will immediately call for mourners, and you must go into the assembly and exhort in every direction, and I will manage the altar. But if I fail to strike fire, you must preach; and if you strike fire, [you] call the mourners and manage the altar. I will go through the congregation and exhort with all the power God gives me.’[ii]

Soon, large numbers were responding to the invitation and the Methodists, after counseling those who responded, were recording these numbers as hopeful conversions.

Understandably, even those who did not share the Arminian theology of some of the Methodists, began to see how an evangelistic appeal could help clarify a person’s response to the gospel and the practice began to spread.

A popular way of responding to the gospel
It became such a feature of the growing revival (often referred to as the Second Great Awakening) that preachers found it happening even without their encouragement.

A Baptist preacher, Wilson Thompson, describes what happened at an open air meeting in Kentucky in December 1812:

‘I took for a text the saying of Paul: For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ…At the close of this discourse the large congregation seemed deeply affected.

I cast my eyes over them, and the general appearance was a solemn stillness, as though some unseen power was hovering over them. Every eye was set on me, and I felt must with astonishment, and stood silent for some minutes.

I believe there was not a motion nor a sound during the time until, simultaneously, some twenty or more persons arose from their seats and came forward.’[iii]

But, as we’ll see in the next post, it was Charles Finney who, arguably being the most effective Evangelist of this period, became the preacher who popularized the practice more than any other.

For the first post on Finney click here

For the first part of the history of evangelistic appeals (or ‘altar calls’) click here

© 2012 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog


[i] These reserved rows of seats began to be referred to as ‘the anxious seat’.

[ii] The Backwards Preacher: An Autobiography of Peter Cartwright (London, 1859) p.37

[iii] Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1994) p.226

A Short History of the Evangelistic Appeal part 1

Billy Graham’s final evangelistic meeting at the LA Coliseum, 1963. This meeting remains the largest ever attendance of the venue, at 134,254. An evangelistic appeal (or ‘altar call’) followed the sermon.

In terms of a qualified defence of the practice, I have written on this subject elsewhere. I certainly acknowledge the danger of presumption and of giving a false impression as to the nature of the spiritual work done in a person who has responded to the gospel message by ‘going forward’[1]

It is often asserted that Charles Finney is the dastardly inventor of this religious device, which has had both the staunchly Reformed and the weak-of-faith irritated by its popularity and reluctant to employ it at the end of their messages.

That Finney is the originator of this overwhelmingly popular form of response is apparently enough for some Reformed pastors to reject it outright. Tut tut.

But author Iain Murray, a friend of Dr Lloyd-Jones and a keen historian of revival, has unintentionally come to Finney’s rescue.

Revival and Results
In Revival and Revivalism, Murray discusses the dangers of emotionalism. Strange things happen in genuine revivals: people fall down, overcome with the power of the Holy Spirit.[2]

But, when such things take place, there begins a dynamic in which such outward displays of religious excitement can become indicators of success, and preachers eager to see a response to their preaching, or, worse, driven by an ambition to be known as powerful, can fall into the trap of encouraging such responses.

These elements, he argues, were fully at work during the Kentucky Camp Meetings in the early 19th Century, noting menacingly that some ‘went the full distance into delusion’[3]. Nevertheless he credits the Kentucky revival and the Second Great Awakening in America generally as ‘giving men the Bible as their guide instead of the goddess Reason whose reign had begun in France.’[4]

The old Calvinism under threat
In the context of these developments he raises the problem of Calvinism’s loosening hold on the prevailing theology of evangelicals. Although the late 18th century revivals had begun primarily amongst Calvinists, new opinions were gaining ground. The first American Methodist magazine was bullishly titled ‘The Arminian Magazine’.

The opinion of those Methodists who were vigourously engaged in the work of evangelisation was that the Calvinists had a tendency to slow things down and get in the way.

If the revival in Kentucky had given a boost to the Christian cause generally it was at the expense of the old Reformed doctrinal unity.

Here Murray charges the Methodists with being ‘overbalanced on an experience-centred Christianity, and too ready to exalt zeal above knowledge.’[5]

Mass Evangelism, Organized Campaigns, Lots of Singing, Presumption

An appeal at one of Billy Graham’s 1979 evangelistic meetings in Sydney

Thus several regrettable outcomes: ‘the Methodists…came to believe that the organization of mass meetings was a very effective part of evangelism. Emotion engendered by numbers and mass singing, repeated over several days, was conducive to securing a response. Results could thus be multiplied, even guaranteed.’

The Calvinists, by contrast, according to Murray, ‘using their Bibles rather than any knowledge of psychology, saw from the New Testament that no technique could produce conversions.’[6]

That the Methodists were then doing what Whitefield had done a generation before (organize mass meetings), and what all believers shall do one day (ie, sing songs of worship to Jesus Christ in a massive, massive crowd cf Rev 7:9-10) is of little consequence to Murray: he is setting the stage for the still irritatingly prevalent ‘altar call’.

How do you know what’s happening?
At first it was difficult to tell who was being actually converted. Should they count the ones who fell down as converted? Obviously not. Murray omits the fact that even Whitefield tended to consider the general weeping of one of the mass congregations as a good indicator, even explicitly mentioning the broken emotional responses of Bristol miners as a sign of their repentance.

The whole connection between Kentucky emotionalism and the evangelistic appeal is tenuous anyhow as no ‘altar calls’ happened there anyway.[7]

The first modern appeals
Nevertheless here it is: Murray has pinpointed what may well be the first instance of the evangelistic appeal (and it wasn’t Finney): ‘Before the end of the eighteenth century, in some congregations of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the innovation had been introduced of inviting ‘mourners’ to come to the front, metaphorically, ‘to the altar’.

‘Jesse Lee recorded in his journal for 31 October 1798: ‘At Paup’s Meeting House Mr Asbury preached on Eph 5:25, 26, 27…I exhorted, and the power of the Lord was among us…John Easter proclaimed aloud, “I have not a doubt but God will convert a soul today”. The preachers then requested all that were under conviction to come together. Several men and women came and fell upon their knees, and the preachers for some time kept singing and exhorting the mourners…two or three found peace.’’

Murray gives a further example: ‘In 1801 another Methodist in Delaware reported: ‘After prayer I called upon the persons in distress to come forward and look to the Lord to convert their souls. Numbers came forward.’’[8]

As a Christian who joyfully embraces Reformed theology I struggle to see the problem with that example.

What do you think?

More next time…

For the first part in the Charles Finney Story click here

© 2012 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog


[1] NB. In the US the appeal is still referred to by the archaic sounding term ‘altar call’. The term ‘evangelistic appeal’ also has problems, of course, considering that the actual appeal is contained in the message itself.

[2] ‘The phenomenon of hearers falling prostrate during a service or crying out in anguish is nor uncommon at the outset of revivals.’ Revival and Revivalism, Iain Murray, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth 1994) p.163

[3] ibid p.170

[4] ibid p.174

[5] ibid p.183

[6] ibid p.184

[7] He says later, ‘There were no ‘altar calls’ in the early great communion services and camp meetings in the Kentucky revival but, with the impetus that high emotion imparted to the immediate and the visible, it was a short step to its introduction by the Methodists.’ P. 186 Thus he reveals the weakness of his historical argument.

[8] Ibid p.185

Demonstrations of the Spirit’s Power – Charles Finney

Antwerp, Jefferson County, NY in the 1800s

The result of Charles Finney’s encounters with the Holy Spirit are well documented: when he preached multitudes came to Christ.

The Apostle Paul talked about preaching with the ‘demonstration of the Spirit’s power’ (1 Cor 2:4). While we may be convinced that such demonstrations may differ from culture to culture, the following can certainly be understood as an example of a 19th Century American revivalism.

These events took place three years after Finney received his ‘baptism of the Spirit’ in 1824 in a packed school hall in Antwerp, Jefferson County, New York, and are recounted by him.

An ‘ungodly people’
‘While I was [preaching] I observed the people looked as if they were angry.  Many of the men were in their shirt sleeves and they looked at each other and at me, as if they were ready to pitch into me and chastise me for something on the spot…their anger arose higher and higher.

As soon as I had finished the narrative I turned upon them and said, that I understood that they had never had a religious meeting in that place; and that therefore I had a right to take it for granted, and was compelled to take it for granted, that they were an ungodly people.  I pressed that home upon them with more and more energy, with my heart full to bursting.’

‘The congregation began to fall from their seats’
‘I had not spoken to them in this strain of direct application, I should think more than a quarter of an hour, when all at once and awful solemnity seemed to settle down upon them; and a some thing flashed over the congregation – a kind of shimmering – as if there was some agitation in the atmosphere itself.

The congregation began to fall from their seats; and they fell in every direction, and cried for mercy.  If I had had a sword in each hand I could not have cut them off their seats as fast as they fell.  Indeed nearly the whole congregation were either on their knees or prostrate, I should think, in less than two minutes from this first shock that fell upon them.  Every one prayed for himself who was able to speak at all.  I, of course was obliged to stop preaching, for they no longer paid any attention.

I saw the old man who had invited me there to preach sitting about in the middle of the house, and looking around with utter amazement. I raised my voice almost to a scream to make him hear, and pointing to him said, ‘Can’t you pray?’…

‘You are not in Hell yet!’
I then spake as loud as I could, and tried to make them attend to me.  I said to them, “You are not in hell yet; and now let me direct you to Christ.”  For a few moments I tried to hold forth the Gospel to them; but scarcely any of them paid any attention.

My heart was so overflowing with joy at such a scene that I could hardly contain myself.  A little way from where I stood was an open fire-place. I recollect very well that my joy was so great, that I could not help laughing in a most spasmodic manner.

I knelt down and stuck my head into that fire-place and hung my pocket handkerchief over my head, lest they should see me laugh; for I was aware that they would not understand that it was irrepressible, holy joy that made me laugh. It was with much difficulty that I refrained from shouting, and giving glory to God.’

One by one Finney spoke to individuals, leading them to Christ. Years later he had the joy of receiving funding for his ministry from some of those converted in that very meeting.

More next time…

For the first part of the Finney story click here

From The Memoirs of Charles Finney—The Complete Restored Text Edited by G.M. Rosell and R.A.G. Dupuis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1989) p.101-102

© 2012 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog

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

Baptism in the Spirit part 2

The young Charles Finney


19th Century Evangelist Charles Finney was one of the more controversial figures on the religious landscape in America.

Converted after fairly rigourous intellectual inquiry, he had an astonishing experience of God’s love and power.

He certainly wasn’t the first to speak of a ‘baptism in the Spirit’ (see Matt 3:11, Mark 1:8) nor would he be the last, but his description of the experience is helpful for those seeking God for a similar dynamic in their spiritual lives.

You can read his introduction to the experience here.

‘A mighty baptism in the Holy Ghost’
His journal records the occasion:

‘But as I returned and was about to take a seat by the fire, I received a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost. Without expecting it, without ever having the thought in my mind that there was any such thing for me, without any recollection that I had ever heard the thing mentioned by any person in the world, at a moment entirely unexpected by me, the Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me, body and soul.

I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed it seemed to come in waves and waves of liquid love for I could not express it in any other way.

And yet it did not seem like water, but rather as the breath of God. I can recollect distinctly that it seemed to fan me, like immense wings; and it seemed to me, as these waves passed over me, that they literally moved my hair like a passing breeze.

No words can express the wonderful love that was shed abroad in my heart. It seemed to me that I should burst.

‘So happy that I cannot live!’
I wept aloud with joy and love; and I do not know but I should say, I literally bellowed out the unutterable gushings of my heart. These waves came over me, and over me, and over me, one after the other, until I recollect I cried out, “I shall die if these waves continue to pass over me.” I said, “Lord, I cannot bear any more;” yet I had no fear of death.

How long I continued in this state I do not know. But it was late in the evening when a member of my choir – for I was the leader of the choir – came into the office to see me. He was a member of the church.

He found me in this state of loud weeping, and said, “Mr. Finney, what ails you?” I could make him no answer for some time. He then said, “Are you in pain?” I gathered myself up as best I could, and replied, “No, but so happy that I cannot live.

He turned and left the office, and in a few minutes returned with one of the elders of the church, whose shop was nearly across the way from our office.

The Laughing Elder
This elder was a very serious man; and in my presence had been very watchful, and I had scarcely ever seen him laugh. When he came in I was very much in the state in which I was when the young man went out to call him. He asked me how I felt, and I began to tell him.

Instead of saying anything, he fell into a most spasmodic laugh. It seemed as if it was impossible for him to keep from laughing from the very bottom of his heart. It seemed to be a spasm that was irresistible.’[i]

Further prayers were said and the fact one of the elders of the church couldn’t resist laughing when he saw Finney in a relatively helpless state made Finney doubt whether or not he had been presumptuous. Nevertheless he slept.

More power
‘…When I awoke in the morning the sun had risen, and was pouring a clear light into my room. Words cannot express the impression that this sunlight made upon me. Instantly the baptism that I had received the night before, returned upon me in the same manner.

I arose upon my knees in the bed and wept aloud with joy, and remained for some time too much overwhelmed with the baptism of the Spirit to do anything but pour out my soul to God.

It seemed as if this morning’s baptism was accompanied with a gentle reproof, as if the Spirit seemed to say to me, ‘Will you doubt? Will you doubt?’ I cried, ‘No! I will not doubt; I cannot doubt!’’ [ii]

That such experiences of God’s power are recorded throughout church history should challenge us to seek God for authentic encounters with His majesty that we might have an impact on our generation as Finney and others did on theirs.

Next time we’ll look at how Finney began to seek to minister to others…click here

For the first instalment of the Finney Story click here

© 2012 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog


[i] The Memoirs of Charles Finney, Ed. Rosell and Dupuis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1989), p.22-24

[ii] ibid p.25

Baptism in the Spirit part 1

Agostino Cerasi’s ‘Gamba Player’ (The Gamba was an earlier version of the Bass Viol Charles Finney would have played)

Spiritual Tranquillity
When the precocious legal apprentice Charles Finney was converted to Christianity in 1821 it was the fulfilment of a fairly rigourous intellectual inquiry. He was, therefore, surprised by the depth of emotion he experienced in its aftermath.

The initial feeling was one of a deep and steady peace. ‘The repose of my mind was unspeakably great…The thought of God was sweet to my mind, and the most profound spiritual tranquillity had taken full possession of me.’[i]

After returning from the woods, where he had finally surrendered his life to Christ, he went to the law office which was empty and began playing his Bass Viol. ‘But as soon as I began to play and sing those sacred words, I began to weep. It seemed as if my heart was all liquid…I wondered at this and tried to suppress my tears, but could not.

I wondered what ailed me that I felt such a disposition to weep. After trying in vain to suppress my tears, I put up my instrument and stopped singing.’[ii]

Soon Finney’s boss arrived and they spent the afternoon moving books into another office.

‘After dinner we were engaged in removing our books and furniture to another office. We were very busy in this, and had but little conversation all the afternoon. There was a great sweetness and tenderness in my thoughts and feelings. Everything appeared to be going right, and nothing seemed to ruffle or disturb me in the least.

A desire to pray
Just before evening the thought took possession of my mind, that as soon as I was left alone in the new office, I would try to pray again…

Just at evening we got the books and furniture adjusted; and I made up, in an open fireplace, a good large fire, hoping to spend the evening alone. Just as it was dark Esq. Wright, seeing that everything was adjusted, bade me goodnight and went home.

I had accompanied him to the door; and as I closed the door and turned around, my heart seemed to be liquid within me. All my inward feelings seemed to rise and pour themselves out; and the impression on my mind was, “I want to pour my whole soul out to God.”

The rising of my soul was so great that I rushed into the room behind the front office, to pray. There was no fire, and no light, in the room; nevertheless it appeared to me as if it were perfectly light.

Meeting Jesus, face to face
As I went in and shut the door after me, it seemed as if I met the Lord Jesus Christ face to face. It did not occur to me then, nor did it for sometime afterward, that it was wholly a mental state.

On the contrary it seemed to me that I met Him face to face, and saw him as I would see any other man. He said nothing, but looked at me in such a manner as to break me right down at his feet.

I have always since regarded this as a most remarkable state of mind; for it seemed that he stood before me, and I fell down at his feet and poured out my soul to him. I wept aloud like a child, and made such confessions as I could with my choked utterance…

I must have continued in this state for a good while; but my mind was too much absorbed with the interview to recollect scarcely anything that I said.

But I know, as soon as my mind became calm enough to break off from the interview, I returned to the front office, and found that the fire that I had just made of large wood was nearly burned out.

The Holy Spirit descended upon me
But as I returned and was about to take a seat by the fire, I received a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost. Without expecting it, without ever having the thought in my mind that there was any such thing for me, without any recollection that I had ever heard the thing mentioned by any person in the world, at a moment entirely unexpected by me, the Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me, body and soul.’[iii]

Next time we’ll examine Finney’s detailed description of God’s power ‘pouring’ into him. You can read it here

For the first instalment of the Finney Story click here

© 2012 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog


[i] The Memoirs of Charles Finney, Ed. Rosell and Dupuis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1989), p.22

[ii] ibid, p.22

[iii] ibid p.23

How a Reformed Pastor Converted the Arminian Charles Finney

Pastor George Gale, who led Charles Finney to Christ

Charles Finney was not destined to become a schoolteacher, even though he loved it and was loved by those he taught. It was suggested to him that a career in law might be the thing.

At that time the procedure was to study, as an apprentice, under a practicing lawyer. This Finney did in the town of Adams, NY. He was a diligent and able student and during the few court appearances he made was a very real match for any opponent.[i]

The Authority of the Bible
During his studies he noticed the repeated references to the Bible. The Scriptures were often referred to as an authority in terms of legal principles. It was impossible to ignore.

‘This,’ said Finney, ‘excited my curiosity so much that I went and purchased a Bible, the first I had ever owned…This soon led to my taking a new interest in the Bible, and I read and meditated on it much more that I had ever done before.’[ii]

Free will, conviction and personal application
As a student of Law Finney learned three things that later marked his preaching. The first was the moral responsibility of a person with regard to guilt. The exercise of their own free will to commit a certain act was critical to securing a guilty verdict. If it was an involuntary act then the question of guilt is not clear. Secondly, he learned the importance of using close, searching, legal questions to convince both the guilty person and a jury of their guilt. And thirdly, he learned that in order to persuade a jury the lawyer needed to speak directly to them, not talk in an abstract way.

Finney, attending the Presbyterian Church in Adams, began to be troubled by the preaching of the Pastor, George Gale, who although younger than Peter Starr, preached in the same style. Decidedly Calvinistic, Gale emphasised the inability of a sinner to get right with God on his own, and, according to Finney, he never directly addressed the congregation – never saying ‘you!’.

Finney later acknowledged, ‘I now think that I sometimes criticised his sermons unmercifully.’[iii] But Gale continued to pursue and encourage Finney, visiting him in the law office and seeking to find out how much understanding of the gospel Finney was gaining.

Gale’s persistence and Finney’s conviction of sin
It must be acknowledged that Finney’s conversion, humanly speaking, was in large measure due to the evangelistic efforts of this young Reformed pastor.

Numbers were being added to the church in Adams. Gale was by no means an unevangelising hyper-Calvinist. Finney began to feel a certain, unshakeable conviction of sin.

After evangelistic sermons Gale would hold ‘inquiry meetings’ for those seeking salvation. Finney finally attended one. He wrote, ‘I trembled so that my very seat shook under me.’

Gale also wrote of that meeting, ‘He looked at me with an air of solemnity I shall never forget…
“I am willing now to be a Christian! Do you think there is any hope in my case?”
I told him he might be converted, but if he were it would be something very similar to God’s exercising miraculous power: It was not teaching that he needed. It was compliance with what he already knew.’[iv]

Peace at last!
Finally Finney submitted to God. He went up into the woods determined to get right with God before returning. He knelt down and surrendered his life to Jesus Christ.

He immediately experienced a freedom in his spirit and began to pray. He prayed for hours revelling in a peace that was inconceivable only moments before. He was determined that he would now preach the gospel to others.

To read about how Finney, on the evening after his conversion, was baptised in the Holy Spirit, click here

For the first instalment of the Finney Story click here

© 2012 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog


[i] Keith J Hardman, Charles Grandison Finney, Revivalist and Reformer (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1987), p.37

[ii] ibid

[iii] ibid p.39

[iv] ibid p.41

Charles Finney’s False Starts

Lake Ontario, NY

Charles Finney grew up south of Lake Ontario in New York State. ‘My parents were neither of them professors of religion. I seldom heard a sermon unless it was an occasional one from some travelling minister.’[i]

He was a quick learner and was entrusted with some teaching responsibilities in the local school in Henderson from the age of 16 until he was 20.[ii]

Preaching that would make you laugh
Finney writes, ‘Almost the only preaching that I heard was that of an Elder Osgood, who was a man of considerable religion 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.’[iii]

Preaching that would make you cry
In 1812, aged 20, Finney moved to Connecticut and lodged with an uncle and attend an Academy there. He began attending his uncle’s Congregationalist Church, led by the much-loved but aging, Peter Starr. This was the first time he began regularly attending church services.

Finney decided that he would hear Christianity consistently presented. Biographer Keith Hardman writes,

‘Having developed some abilities in speaking and leading himself, he naturally expected to find theology preached with a certain amount of vigour and dynamic. It was not to be.

To observe Starr’s methods, Finney sat in the balcony where he could look down on the pastor’s performance and note his techniques.

To his chagrin, he found that the pastor ‘read his sermons in a manner that left no impression on my mind. He had a monotonous, humdrum way of reading what he had probably written many years before…It seemed to be always a matter of curiosity to know what he was aiming at.’[iv]

Finney’s later criticism of local pastors and preachers was, in large measure, based on these experiences.

No further formal education
Already in his twenties, Finney asked his teacher about the possibility of attending Yale University. The teacher dissuaded him however, both in light of his evident intellectual ability as well as his age.

Finney later regretted that his formal education progressed no further than high school. But in his twenties he was extremely self-confident.

If, however, Finney’s spiritual advancement was also faltering there was at least one ray of light: his brother was suddenly converted. He wrote to Charles. He was the first of the Finney family to be converted and something about his letter to the twenty-six year old hit home: ‘I actually wept for joy!’ he said.

The seeds of grace were being sown.

For the next post in this series click here

For the first part of the Charles Finney Story click here

© 2012 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog


[i] Keith J Hardman, Charles Grandison Finney, Revivalist and Reformer, (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1987), p.30

[ii] ibid p.31

[iii] The Memoirs of Charles Finney, Ed. Rosell and Dupuis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1989), p.22-24

[iv] Hardman p.33

Introducing Charles Finney

Charles Grandison Finney

“It would be impossible to estimate the influence exerted on revival movements all over the world during the past hundred years by Charles Finney’s lectures on prayer in his Revivals of Religion.” Arthur Wallis (in 1956) [i]

Generally speaking, Charles Finney (1792-1875) is not very highly respected by Reformed writers and preachers. He rarely gets a mention. But he remains one of Christianity’s most effective representatives.

A passionate and powerful Evangelist, Finney was often compared to Whitefield and Wesley by his friends. Yet he is sometimes portrayed as little more than a charlatan by those who were offended by his theology. Even as good a man as DM Lloyd-Jones spoke disparagingly of Finney’s ‘so-called’ converts!

Yet the distance of history may permit a measure of objectivity.

Finney the anti-Calvinist – not the anti-Christ!
It’s true that Finney didn’t respond well to his Calvinist critics and attacked their theology relentlessly. And it’s true he taught that if the church obeyed the Scriptural commands, prayed fervently and were filled with the Spirit, then she would see ‘revival’, significant awakenings amongst both believers and non-believers. He said, ‘I believe we can labor to promote revival with as reasonable a prospect for success as we could find in any other line of work.’ [ii]

Almost single-handedly, he shifted the emphasis of fruitful evangelism, effective mass evangelism, from God’s sovereignty to man’s responsibility.

You might not like that.

You might not like his anti-Calvinist statements. He certainly misrepresents the reformed understanding of God’s sovereignty in salvation. But he was a mighty Evangelist, saw many conversions, and we could learn from his example.

A great Evangelist but a not-so-great theologian
So my contention will be that Finney was an inspired, Spirit-filled Evangelist who was preaching the gospel during a season of ‘revival’ or ‘awakening’ similar to that of Whitefield, but that he was not a great theological thinker, nor a great teacher of theology.

He certainly ranks amongst the great Evangelists in the English speaking world, and his influence has continued into the 21st century.

So without getting too distracted by the theological controversies – except where I perceive them to be vitally important to the story, or to our current situation – I will see what we can learn from this fascinating character.

The Baptism of the Spirit, Prayer and Revival
We’ll see examples of prayer turning situations around, examples of mighty baptisms in the Spirit happening to both individuals and whole churches. We’ll enjoy accounts of the power of God invading meetings, and turning hard-hearted sceptics to Christ. We’ll note eye-witness testimony of how the presence of God broke through defences that seemed impenetrable.

This won’t merely be a story of a good, fervent man getting results – actually, Finney’s story is one of God breaking in and displaying His glory.

I think you’ll like that!
For the next post in this series click here


[i] Arthur Wallis, In the Day of Thy Power, (London: CLC, 1956), p. xiii

[ii] Charles Finney, Lectures on Revival, (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1988 edition), p.26

Portrait by Waldo and Jewett, 1834

© Lex Loizides / Church History Blog