THE OBERLIN ALUMNI MAGAZINE
Finney and His Children
CHARLES GRANDISON FINNEY'S children were Helen Clarissa, born 1828; Charles Grandison junior, born 1830; Frederick Norton, born 1832; Julia Rice, born 1837; there were two younger daughters, Sarah and Delia, who died in infancy or early childhood. Helen married Jacob Dolson Cox; Charles married Angeline Atkinson, the daughter of the President's second wife; Julia became the second wife of Professor James Monroe. In the President's family letters, Frederick Norton and Jacob Dolson are called by their second names, "Ange" is Angeline, "James" is Professor Monroe, and "Emma" is his daughter. "Kenny" is Kenyon Cox.
The Chapel and the Administration Building should be known as memorials of this remarkable family group. The Chapel was the gift of Frederick Norton Finney, "that a son may honor the memory of his father." The Administration Building was given by Jacob Dolson Cox junior in memory of his father, and the beautiful Frescoes in the vestibule are the work of Kenyon Cox. It will readily be inferred that such children and such "in-laws" would have plans and determinations of their own, and would at times come into collision with the masterful personality of the head of the clan. They did, sometimes sharply, but all sources agree that the Great Preacher was affectionate and indulgent toward his family.
We may nosy admit many strictures upon his theology and his method of presenting it, but the fact remains that Charles Grandison Finney was, and is known to be, one of the few great preachers of all time. The work and influence of such a man could not be confined to any college campus, certainty not to "the college in the woods," and Oberlin did not ask it. At his coming it was agreed that he should have large liberty of absence. Often he left his church, his classroom, and the college business in other hands, while he was leading and inspiring great religious movements, sometimes in the Eastern cities of America, sometimes in England or Scotland. Nor were these the hurried week-end or vacation absences of the modern college or church functionary. His two visits to Great Britain totalled about two and a half years, and his work in our own Eastern cities meant much time away from Oberlin. The fact that he could leave things in competent hands, and could time and again resume his work without disaster here, proves, first, that Oberlin never was a one-man college, and second, that Finney never had a one-track mind.
To the President's family these long and repeated absences meant separation, and to his affectionate heart and facile pen they mean letters to the children. The college is fortunate in the possession of a considerable number of those written to his daughter Julia. Their fates range from 1849, when the little girl was twelve years old, to 1869, when the beautiful and popular young wife was in Rio de Janeiro with her husband, U. S. Consul to Brazil. The first were written from England, the last from Oberlin, after the time of wandering was over for the older generation, and it was the children who were away from home. In these loving and fatherly letters there is not a trace of the oddities of which outsiders knew so much. The religious note is of course dominant--a man cannot ignore his supreme interest if he writes naturally--but is nowhere forced. He speaks briefly but repeatedly of thronged meetings, many conversions, the interest spreading to other centers; but we need not dwell upon these facts, since they belong to every biography of the Preacher. The unique contribution of these letters is their proof that the message of the evangelist never impaired the loving care of the father.
Julia and "Ange" were together, in the home of relatives in Brooklyn. The stepfather of one and the stepmother of the other write to both girls, and always with affection for both. The main topic of the father's letters varies as letters do, but they consistently reflect three compelling interests of his life--religion, family affection and music! As happens in most families, the wise and tender letters of "mother" were more frequent than those of "father," but rather often he says, "Mother is too tired to write today, but sends her love." Mrs. Finney was not in England on a pleasure trip. She was her husband's indispensable assistant, and he often speaks of the work she is doing, especially in the women's meetings.
In London the Finneys were with Dr. John Campbell, successor of Whitefield. During this visit the English edition of his theology was published.
An undated letter, apparently written in the latter part of 1849, describes for the little girls the wonders of London. In a later letter he asks, "And how do you get along with music? And which of you makes the most progress? And what is more important, which of you is the best girl? Which of you grows most rapidly, and which can walk and run and swim the longest, the most gracefully and the fastest? I suppose you take a good deal of exercise in the open air."
Mr. and Mrs. Finney returned to America in the spring of 1851; in August of that year he was elected President of Oberlin College; upon the 25th of De cember, 1852, he writes from Syracuse, where he was beginning a winter of evangelical work.
"I wish you a happy Christmas. We yesterday received a letter from Helen, and she said she had a precious one from each of you. She says Julia's has a little dash of discouragement in it. Dear Julia, I hope you do not allow yourself to droop in despondency. What is the matter, my precious daughter? Do your eyes threaten and trouble you so much that you fear that you will not be able to finish your studies? Don't strain them at all for a year or two. Don't read any by candle light. You will get along if you favor them as you ought for a time.--As to taking more music lessons you can judge better than I can.--Practice and improve all you can without injuring your sight. If you find study hurts your eyes, drop your studies. --Dear Julia, I beg of you not to disregard this advice and trespass upon the weak state of your eyes. Rest is what they need and due attention to diet.-- But keep up your cheerfulness. Nothing will injure your eyes more than sadness or weeping. Be cheerful in God. Have you had Dr. Mathews or any other Physician examine your eyes and give you any advice? I wish you would--and write me what they say. Hobart will take you to the most skillful one on such matters." (This was before the time of specialists and before anyone would have thought of fitting a girl of fifteen with glasses. Spectacles were for old people.) "Just think, we are away from all our children, whom we used to have around us, and filling our ears and our hearts with their loved voices and their smiles. Do write us very, very often."
In February, 1854, Finney writes from Cincinnati to Julia in Oberlin. "We suppose your new piano has plenty of employment in our absence. Be careful, my dear, in practicing not to get into any bad habit." In the winter of 1855 there were letters from Rome in central New York, and in 1856 from Rochester. He was in Boston through the winter and early spring of 1857, and again in 1858. He writes from Boston to Julia, who is again in Brooklyn with the relatives. "Yours of the 13th is just at hand. I want to do the best for you that I can. Your eyes prevent book study. The cultivation of your musical talent you seem to be shut up to. If your Aunt Sarah approves and your practice will not annoy her, I think the Lord will approve that use of the $40 required. You have my consent. I will, D. V., send you some money in due time." In March he writes, "We are glad to hear from you but puzzled with what you say of your knee. Did you really dislocate the joint? If so, who set it? Why did you not give us more particulars? You have been confined to the house. How lame are you?" "We are glad to hear that your eyes have been so comfortable this winter. Also that you are making progress in music. I send you $20 now. If you need more before we come on write and let me know."
There is much testimony to Finney's practical thrift and skill. He owned an Oberlin farm as well as his house lot. We need not be surprised to find that he writes from the city of Boston, amid the absorption and intense emotions of his work, to inform himself about the homely matters of the farm. "When you receive this write us how much lard you had, how much the hog weighed, etc. Will you ask William Bryan to write me what he has done since I left and how he is getting on with matters? Ask him to write about the horses and cows and pigs and the fruit trees and whether he has plowed any and where.--By the by, how do the apples get on?--I hope you will send some to Miss R. and Mrs. W. and Mr. B., especially to those who need but are not able to buy them." In the late 50's central heating was in its trial stage, but the President is a pioneer there, as elsewhere. "Has Mr. Gerrish put the sheet iron on to the little new chimney at its top? Do you have any fire in the furnace this winter? If so, how often, and does it smoke when the fire is made in the furnace?"
President and Mrs. Finney are in Oberlin during the summer of 1858, but Julia is in Warren part of the time, staying with her sister Helen, Mrs. Cox. The President writes to his two daughters upon the same sheet.
"Have you not nearly completed your visit at Warren?--I don't know as I shall like my new Horse. He is a noble high headed high spirited animal, a good deal larger than either of the other ones. But he is skittish, I fear dangerously so and so much afraid of the whip that an unguarded motion of the hand without the whip will cause him to leap almost from under you. He is a light cream and a good horse every other way." The President was then sixty-six years old. Riding skittish horses was not customary at that age and is not even now. "Cannot Willie come down with you and little Helen? We all want to see you so much.--Give a world of love to my little sweets."
"I have only time to say that we want much to see you." "We are delighted with Jule's description of your new house. We hope you will be able to keep and pay for it and live to enjoy it.--We feel as if we must have Jule again soon. I may come after her and perhaps bring Mother. Give many kisses to the children."
The President's Oberlin life was very dear to him. Not only did it give him the family contacts for which he longed, and the homely cares in which he found his recreation, but there was his beloved First Church, his classroom lectures, his fellowship with the faculty. He was still to enjoy these only by snatches. In December of this year Mr. and Mrs. Finney again sailed for England. Mrs. Finney helps us to see why they stayed on when they longed to go home. She writes of the poverty and degradation of London--the blind beggars, the match sellers, the many women being taken to the police station, ragged, dirty, hatless, some with babies in their arms. She contrasts this with the West End--elegant carriages, liveried footmen, stately palaces. Then she tells of a young working woman who was converted during their previous visit, and who is now giving all her spare time and money to friendly efforts for the neglected folk. The Finney revivals were not mere emotional dissipation. They left results, and could be traced after many years.
There was no golden shower for the Preacher. The father greatly desired to have Julia with him, but he never saw the time when it would be practicable to do so. He writes, "We are laboring mostly with and for those in moderate circumstances. To make you comfortable here and to provide for your seeing places, etc., would be out of my power." "So far as comfort is concerned, or pecuniary consideration, and any consideration except that of doing good to others who need our labors, we should be indefinitely (sic) better off at home."
This is from a man who had in full measure the gifts that the Americans of his time most admired in their leaders, in Clay, Calhoun, Webster, Lincoln. He knew what he had sacrificed, but he never repined.
Although Finney could not afford a European trip for his daughter, he had no intention of leaving any member of his family without needed comforts. He writes, "Charles and Ange have gone to housekeeping as you probably know, and Ange thinks she must have you with her. They propose to do without a servant. But this will not do. Ange can't get on so I am sure.--I have written to them that if they will keep a good girl and allow you to pay her wages, you may go if you think best, and Helen will spare you. If you need money let me know and I will send you some."
This second visit to England was, I think, the last of his prolonged absences. It was time to rest. The following letter shows it. It is dated in the spring of 1861, from Oberlin.
"Precious Julia; -- When shall we see you home again? Helen must remember that you are all that remains to us at home of our children. She must not expect to have much of your time while we remain on earth. We are getting to be infirm, and if you remain unmarried we shall hope to enjoy your society without long interruptions. I want very much to see Helen. Just received a dear letter from Norton. He is quite well. The Lord bless you my dear child. Your affectionate father, C. G. Finney."
In a postscript he says that they will expect to see her "as soon as Dolson gets home." Dolson was in Columbus, as State Senator. But within a week Fort Sumter had been bombarded, and the Civil War was on. It is doubtful whether any Ohio State Senator "got home" that week.
The President never had the joy of Julia's continuous residence in the family home. The letters show that she was much with Helen during the lonely and anxious war years, and soon after the war ended she married and went to Brazil.
In a letter written in July, 1862, he tries to tempt her with the raspberries, now ripe and in abundance. "We hate to ask you to leave Helen in her loneliness and anxiety about Dolson, but we want much to see you.
The slow years of the War drag themselves away. Julia's beloved stepmother passes from earth. "Charley" is in the quartermaster's department of the Service, "Ange" and "little Sarah" are in the old home. In June 1864 he writes, "Do not fail to give us all the news from Dolson. Ange hears from Charles pretty regularly now.--We are glad to hear that Helen is so well.--Ange gets on very nicely and quietly with the housekeeping. Baby develops something new every day. She will take your finger and walk across the house. She is too timid to walk alone yet."
A letter dated July 15, 1864, is not too long to be
"Dear Julia, "I cannot come after you, as Brother Morgan is unable to preach. And farther, Ange is afraid of burglars. We are rejoiced to hear that we may hope to see you soon. Baby is quite well again. Ange needs your society so much. I want much to see you. Ange gets on perfectly with the housekeeping. We are greatly interested in Dolson's letters. Dear son, he is having a terrible campaign. May God preserve his life and health and habits and morals. He will ever deserve well of his country. Nothing from Charley since early in the week. I am lecturing to my class this term in the 'Bethel.' It is a new place. It w.^.s dedicated on Monday last. We ride mornings with baby. It does her a world of good. Inclosed please find $i0. If Helen needs half let her have it. If she gets out of money she must let me know. Give my love to her and to all the children. I must away to ride or I shall not get back to my lecture. God bless you all, C. G. Finney.
The nest is dated July 16, 1868, and was sent to South America.
"My dear Julia,--Sarah is with us again." "She is as pretty and as sweet as ever." "We expect Dolson here at Commencement as he is to address one of the societies. Whether Helen will come I do not know. I presume not on account of the illness of little Kenny." The artist that was to be was a frail child. The family thought he could not live, and according to some eugenists he would better not. But he was the chief inheritor of his grandfather's artistic nature, and without him it would never have reached full fruition.
"Emma is doing well. She is a nice girl and was one of the principal singers at the anniversary of the Young Ladies' Society yesterday." "Emma," after a delightful stay in Brazil, was back in Oberlin for her education.
A letter one month later reports that Sarah is still with them; that letters have lately come from Charles and Norton; that "your mother," (the third Mrs. Finney) is as usual full of cares and duties; that "we have two invalid women in the house." One of these was a poor old creature who had served them when Julia was a baby. "Mary Atkins is here and sends love to you both."
This was after Mary Atkins had done her foundation work in the California school for girls, and before she had become Mrs. John Lynch. We are glad that she sent her love. Did the "daughter of the devil" and her "father" talk over old times, I wonder!
"17th Nov., 1868. My dear Children, By this mail you will get the results of the last election. Do you see 'The Nation' published weekly in New York? I have taken it from the first number. It is of more value than any ten of our newspapers. Norton is so engrossed with his superintendency of the railroad that he has not written me of late. Sarah is with us still. She has a little dog about the size of a rat. She fondles and caresses it wonderfully. It is striking to see how it develops her affections. She let it fall from her arms a few days since and it seemed to almost break her heart. She was quite inconsolable for some time. She wanted to know whether it knew how sorry she was. It is as fond of her as she is of it and moans to be separated from her."
"14th April, 1869. Dearest Children, Julia's of the 19th March came duly to hand. We were much interested in Julia's description of your mountain home and neighborhood. I suspect that she has some of my love of mountain scenery.--To one born on the plains of Oberlin where neither hill nor valley is to be seen,--such scenery must possess an unspeakable charm. I don't know how you can ever again endure the almost dead level of Oberlin."
The same letter gives some insight into the political methods of the Finney clan. "Dolson is from principle very chary of interfering in behalf of a relative. I suppose James would be the same. I should be." He adds that a nephew came to him, asking him to recommend him to "Dolson" for an office, "but I declined saying that I could not recommend a relative or any one else unless I was satisfied that the government needed his services." "Sarah is with us still. She is as sweet as ever and as happy as a bird."
We are now approaching the Preacher's last years, but he was not yet ready to close the book of life. "I am preparing for the press a volume of revival sermons. This work I must hasten as the publisher wishes to get them into market in April." "My ---- book has gone to the printer and will soon be out I suppose. It will make some squirming I doubt not."
The last letter which has been preserved for us is dated May 15, 1869. News had come from Washington of Mr. Monroe's reappointment to the consulship, but thev did not know whether he would accept., He did not, and so the prolonged separations from his beloved youngest chill! were over, though much of her time was spent in Washington during her husband's ten years' service in Congress. This letter is very cheerful in tone, full of news items about family and friends. He was far more optimistic about Grant's administration and reconstruction in the South than he is today, if he knows how it turned out. "Charles was here three days since, returning from Washington. He took Sarah home with him. She had been here nearly a year. So Ange would have the great pleasure of receiving Charles and Sarah at the same time." "Norton and Willie came up from Erie last evening and expect to spend the Sabbath in Oberlin." "Norton thinks his business prospects good." They were good. Norton had much business acumen and came honestly by it. "James and Louise Atkinson are quite wrapped up in each other and in their new baby." "Willy is now on his last term of college life. He is a good boy, a good scholar and seems to be much loved and respected.--His uncle, Samuel Cochran, is now president of the new college at Kidder, Missouri. Henry Fairchild has gone to be president of the college at Berea, Kentucky. Emma is frequently with us. She is a noble girl. She says that she does not want to return to Rio."
I think it must have been shortly after the return of the Monroe family to Oberlin, when they were settling in their new home, that "Emma" overheard Mr. Finney and Mr. Monroe in conversation about the living room carpet. The father might disapprove of his daughter's pink roses, but he knew well how an inharmonious object in the home would disturb the peace of the fastidious nature which she had inherited from him.
"James, Julia doesn't like that carpet. Julia musn't live with a carpet she doesn't like. We must change it." And "we" did.
Poor "little Sarah" also had occasion to teach her grandfather that she was his by blood kinship. Like most "sweet and happy" children, she had her seasons of being neither, and then she startled and scandalized the family by her outbursts of temper. Prayer for the children by name, with mention of their specific failings, was no new thing in the Finney family. In fact, when Finney's eldest daughter was still "little Helen," she once wished "that father wouldn't tell God everything they did!" Now when "little Sarah" of the next generation was kneeling at his side, the President felt it quite suitable to bring the matter of her temper before the Lord. But he used a phrase which was common then but now happily discarded. He asked that He would "break her will." The child sprang to her feet and, pounding the rush-bottomed chair with her little fists, she cried out, "He can't! He can't! He can't!" One version has it, "He won't! He won't! He can't!" Mrs. Mary Harrison Manley reports this anecdote, told her by Miss Mary Monroe.
I wonder what Grandfather thought! Did he go back to that supreme struggle of his own life, when the Spirit led him into the wilderness, there to face that ultimate problem of human and divine will?
I know of no other incident which would mar the pleasure that the President had with his grandchildren during his later years. There are those who still recall the old man playing with the children on the Finney lawn. Miss Carrie Wright says that she once saw him with a tiny granddaughter walking out with a doll in its little carriage. Presently the vehicle left the track, struck a soft shoulder and capsized. Miss Wright's special memory is of the Great Preacher holding the doll, while its little mother righted the carriage!
His last day was Sunday, August 16, 1875. The Preacher had not been ill, but his strength was failing, and perhaps the family feared that the end was drawing near, for all the Monroes came in the early evening for an hour in the old homestead. Of course any assemblage with Finney as its center would include music, and they sang hymn after hymn, "mother leading us," says Mrs. Fitch, "with her beautiful soprano." Finally the President sat down at the instrument and played and sang. Then he walked the floor, singing "in a full strong voice." When they had gone Mrs. Finney asked young Charles Creegan, a student in the Theological Seminary, to walk out with the President. Dr. Creegan never knew whether Mrs. Finney had learned that the First Church was to sing the Hallelujah Chorus. However this may be, the President heard it through the windows, opened to the summer night. Soon after his return home he was seized with terrible pain.
The parallels between his life and that of St. Paul can hardly have escaped the view of Charles Grandison Finney--the youthful ambitions--the spectacular conversion--the utter renunciation--the devotion to the Master--the journeyings often-the care of all the churches. He may have prayed that he too might be able to say, when the time of his departure was at hand, that he had fought a good fight. As he lay struggling with mortal suffering, he gasped his last words,
"I have kept the Faith! Wife, I have kept the Faith!"
Then he passed through the veil.