ON CERTAIN ELEMENTS OF
POWER AS A PREACHER.
BY PROFESSOR JOHN M. ELLIS.
Charles G. Finney was born in Warren, Conn., August 29, 1792. The one hundred years which have passed since that date are doubtless the most remarkable 100 years of the world's history. The influence of Mr. Finney has been one of the potent factors in producing these remarkable years. More and more his name is receiving honorable mention as his work and power are better known and appreciated. There can be no question that it is to stand among the few greatest leaders of religious thought of the century. His grave and granite block that marks it in our quite cemetery will be increasingly a shrine sought out and visited with growing interest and veneration by coming generations.
It is fitting, therefore that we observe this centennial year, and call to mind the advantages which providentially came to Oberlin in its pioneer days in the western wilderness, form the presence and labors of this wonderful man. And this all the more when we remember that almost a generation has passed since he closed his public career. Only a small number of those here to-day recall his death seventeen years ago, and fewer still ever herd his voice in the pulpit. The new generation may well improve the occasion to learn something of the character and work of one who had so commanding an influence and moulding the institutions and character of this community.
I count it one of the greatest privileges of my life to have come under this influence, and for thirty years to have heard and felt the inspiration of this great preacher and thinker. It is because of this privilege I have been asked to speak on this occasion. I propose to speak from personal recollection and reflection of some of the elements of Mr. Finney's power as a preacher--that what I say may be of the nature of personal testimony.
Such a character and life are an inexhaustible mine, which men will not cease to work and from which may be gathered endless lessons of wisdom and inspiration.
What I have to say may fall under four heads:
1. The external manner of his preaching.
2. The plan or method in the structure of his sermons.
3. The subject matter, and
4. The man himself, or the personal elements of his power--the manner, the method, the matter, the man.
I. Mr. Finney was endowed by nature with many of the qualities that make an orator. He had a commanding form, above the ordinary stature, broad-shouldered--erect as a soldier, even when he was past four score years, agile and graceful as an athlete, and easy in movement as an accomplished actor. His head was large and broad-frowed--with strong lines in the face, mouth and features wonderfully mobile and capable of every variety of expression. His voice, not striking when first heard or attracting attention to itself ever, was still of wonderful power, of great flexibility, sweeping readily from the highest to the lowest notes in a single utterance, musical in quality, so penetrating that every utterance could be heard throughout the large audience even in a wisper, and capable of tender pathos and touching entreaty, as well as of the thunderings of wrath or tones of solemn warning and stern authority. The feature most commanding your attention and never forgotten was the eye--that seemed to look through and through and hold you with its fascination under its continued scrutiny, till you felt that your very soul was being searched. And no one in a vast congregation could escape its penetrating and magnetic power. The thoughtless were sobered by it, the uninterested were attracted into attention, the scoffer quailed before it, and into every heart this piercing glance opened a way for the entrance of the truths uttered by the great soul that looked through it into your soul. Again this piercing eye would beam with tenderness and gentleness, or fill with tearful yearning and entreaty.
For the most part Mr. Finney's manner was simply conversational and direct, the same variety of intonation and expression as in common intercourse. He came into intimate relations with his hearers. It was real intercourse. He seemed to be talking with you and to you, utterly unconscious of any effort at effect or rhetorical art. There was none. He had something to explain to you or convince you of or persuade you to do, and he gave himself to do it. Everything in his manner was as natural and unconscious as the words and actions of a child. His style was strictly extempore, nothing elaborate, no highly wrought phrases or complicated sentences, but every word suggested by the exigencies of the moment and suited to set home the thought. Direct, simple, transparent, not a word was used without an obvious meaning, nor one not needed for the effect to be secured. It must not be supposed, however, that his manner was lacking in vigor. Though perfectly simple and natural, it was always impressive and often intensely impassioned. As his feelings kindled with his theme, every form of rhetorical figure and device seemed pressed into service, but as unconsciously and without art as in the quietest discourse. The soul of the preacher rose to the sublimest heights of fervid eloquence and poured itself out in overwhelming argument and vivid description and persuasive appeal. Mr. Finney possessed remarkable dramatic power. No acting could be more perfect or effective. And yet there was really no acting about it. Every movement and gesture and tone of voice were as natural and unstudied as his breath. Hence everything was graceful and appropriate. Nothing seemed out of place. He seemed able to do anything without offence--could recline upon the seat behind the pulpit to illustrate the ancient method of reclining at meals and how the weeping woman bathed the Savior's feet with her tears. The action always served to bring the scene before the eye with living effect. As he put his hand over his eyes, peered into the distance, stretching himself on tiptoe and stepping part way down the pulpit steps in his eager gaze, we all seemed to see the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, looking up the road toward a wayworn ragged traveler in the distance and discovering that it was his son. As he stood as if holding a bell rope and with steady motion tolling the great judgment bell for what seemed minutes together, we heard its solemn tones pealing the summons to the judgment day. The doom of the lost, the death knell, swept over the audience like a voice of the Eternal, and we held our breath till the scene was passed. Every form of representation was attempted with absolute fearlessness. Nothing seemed impossible, nothing too bold to be set forth in action and used to enforce the truth, and always the action was but the outworking of the inward emotion. Laughing, weeping, the shout of victory, the cry of despair, the wailing of the lost, the songs of the redeemed, were all set forth with vivid illustration. Naturalness, directness, simplicity, grace and force, dramatic action and intense earnestness were the characteristics of Mr. Finney's pulpit manner.
2. There was the same simplicity in the method of his sermons. Mr. Finney never wrote his sermons. In his early preaching he used no notes of any kind. After preaching, as he relates, he began to write an outline of the discourse to preserve it. In later years, he used a very condensed skeleton, written upon two sides of a single card or small sheet, one word standing for a head or suggesting the proposition. No effort and little if any thought was expended upon the plan of the discourse. At first thought, we are disposed to say that the success of the great preacher was in spite of his plan or lack of plan. There was no attempt at novelty or surprise in the order of thought. The simplest propositions were laid down in an order suited to define and unfold the meaning of the main thought. An example will illustrate the most common type. The text is, "Grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." I propose to show, 1st. What is grace as the term is here used. 2nd. What the injunction to grow in grace does not mean. 3rd. What it does mean. 4th. The conditions of growth. 5th. What is not a proof of growth. 6th. What is proof. 7th. How to grow in grace, and conclude with remarks.
Often under each of these heads would be a number of special divisions and subdivisions. The outline, which very commonly took a form like the foregoing, could have been anticipated by any frequent hearer, and all possible unexpectedness in the order of thought was forestalled by the uniform announcement of the heads at the beginning of the discourse. At first thought, this seems a rhetorical defect, but on reflection I am inclined to believe that this simplicity and uniformity of plan were favorable to Mr. Finney's effectiveness and power. Such a plan gave room for the logical discriminations and careful definitions which were characteristic of his mental operations. It gave opportunity for repetition and restatement of truth in varied forms which he employed to give the truth effect. It favored the concentration of the whole discourse upon the end or ends to be accomplished. There was no danger of being turned from the point by the demand of an elaborate rhetorical order and skillfully devised effort for novelty. And the "Remarks" at the close, which not infrequently constituted a large part of the discourse, gave room for every variety of effective conclusion. Here would come the applications of the truth expounded, the appeal to the conscience and emotions, the solemn warnings, the dangers of neglect, the persuasive urgency to immediate acceptance of the truth and decisive action.
Not infrequently the plan of the sermon, while entirely simple and derived directly from the text, showed great originality and skill of adaptation. The plan of one of the last sermons which I heard from Mr. Finney was so natural and yet so apt that it stamped itself indelibly upon my memory. The text was a favorite one with him. Eccl. 8: ii, "Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil." There are, he began, two important truths implied in this passage, and three directly asserted. This announcement set any thoughtful mind to inquiring, how can this be. The passage seems like a single assertion or two, at most, and yet, as soon as the different propositions are stated, you see at once that they are all clearly in the text, and the order in which they naturally come from the text is the order for their most effective presentation. The first implied truth is, Men are under sentence for their evil work. This sentence is pronounced--all are under condemnation. Then the three truths asserted: 1st. This sentence is not executed speedily--for wise reasons it is delayed. 2nd. The heart of men is fully set to do evil. 3rd. This is due to the fact that the sentence is not executed speedily. And then the second implied truth, The sentence though delayed, will be executed. It is easy to see what an opportunity this arrangement afforded for telling effect under his vivid portrayal and solemn appeal, and the pathetic warning with which the whole appeal would be left upon the hearer's mind in the last proposition. The sentence is out and execution will not be delayed forever.
3. And this suggests the third element of the great preacher's power, the truth which he presented, the doctrine of God and man and sin and salvation which he sought to hold up to his hearers. This is the theme of another on this occasion, and need not be enlarged upon by me. In general, we must notice that it was a complete Gospel, the divine truth in its double aspects which he preached. As I reflect, I am impressed with the number of contrasted or double-sided truths which were the staple of Mr. Finney's preaching, God's sovereignty and absolute power, and man's freedom and natural ability; salvation by faith and grace, and the need of entire obedience and righteousness of life for any salvation; the abounding mercy of God in the Gospel with his yearning for the sinner, and the certainty and terribleness of the punishment of the incorrigible; infinite love, and unyielding law; the absolute authority of the Scriptures and profound reverence for their teaching, and the validity of human reason and the voice of conscience in the soul of man. The deep things of God were declared to be past finding out, mysteries beyond the power of the human mind to fathom; yet religion was simple and easily comprehended by rational intelligence. At one time one side of these contrasted truths was pressed with unqualified urgency, as if it were the only side, but at another the complementary truth was set forth with equal clearness and urgency.
The entire ability of every man to repent and perform all duty at once was especially insisted upon, because it was a truth that had become obscured by current theological discussion; but his need of grace, his dependence upon God for salvation were not omitted. The duty of entire obedience, of setting right all wrong, and of righteousness of life as a condition of pardon, was constantly and prominently urged; and it was shown that no faith or gracious exercises or mercy of God would suffice without this. The high standard of duty, of honesty, of fair dealing, charity, kindness and religious faith and consecration was held up until men said, who then can be saved? Many who had long professed to be Christians gave up their hope and were stricken with conviction. The self-righteous moralist felt the foundations of his confidence dropping away, and all classes were overwhelmed with condemnation and ready to cry for mercy. Then the abundant grace of God in Christ, the complete provision for saving to the uttermost those who would come, were presented to despairing souls and they were urged simply to surrender unconditionally to Christ for deliverance.
The sufficiency of Christ, his power to deliver from all sin, and his readiness to save the chief of sinners was the crowning theme of this evangel. Salvation was not deliverance from the punishment of sin but from sin--from the power of sinful desire and tendency. Men were to aim and expect to be kept from all sin, to be made whole in Christ.
The reasonableness of the claims of God and of the Bible was a prominent feature of this preaching. Every claim was shown to be seconded and enforced by the necessary and deepest convictions of the human soul. There was no apologizing for the truth, no attempt to soften its demands, or make it palatable to the worldly taste. But it was assumed that the real convictions of men were always on the side of God's law. Appeal was made fearlessly to the common sense and common consciousness and experience of his hearers as sustaining the truth. Mr. Finney had himself come to his views of God and duty through a rational study of the Bible or through reason enlightened and guided by revelation and the Spirit of God, and his preaching sought to bring others by the same path. No man ever spoke more directly to the conscience. He tore away the subterfuges and excuses of unbelief and godlessness and laid the burning truth upon the naked soul. And he found the strongest ally in the necessary convictions of every rational mind. He carried the citadel of the human heart by creating a mutiny within and securing the co-operation of the man's own consciousness and experience.
4. But the most important element in the great preacher's power was the man himself, his own personality and divinely fashioned and inspired character.
By nature Mr. Finney was endowed with intellectual powers of the highest order. He was marked by real genius as truly as Shakespeare or Milton. Though never trained in the schools he was possessed of true culture and of wide attainments in knowledge. Like the great dramatist, he seemed to acquire the knowledge of men and of things by a kind of intuition. He knew all the workings of the human soul as if he had studied all history and literature and moved among all phases of life and society. He took in the thought of a book or a speaker before it was half expressed. He was familiar with the field of science, history, politics, as well as of philosophy and theology, and could speak upon them all as if he had made each a special study. He had quick and profound philosophical insight, and he was nowhere more at home than in discussing the great principles which underlie all thought and science. But his profundity was not obscurity. His thinking was as clear and intelligible as the thoughts of childhood. His power of analysis, of logical discrimination and definition, and accurate inference, were like the processes of a mathematical demonstration. Starting with simple self-evident principles he defined and expanded and constructed a chain of argumentation that compelled assent at every step. He saw at a glance the inconsistencies and sophistries of error and untruth, and dissected and exposed them with fearless precision. As with all greatest minds, his mental processes were performed with incredible rapidity. He saw the thought you were trying to present before you had well begun to present it. He seemed to reach his conclusion at a single leap, by direct intuition, though really going through many steps of inference.
Next to these powers of thought, I should name his imaginative power. The great orator needs to be a poet. Mr. Finney had the creative faculty of a poet and painter. He could picture ideal worlds as distinct and vivid as the world of sense. He had an eye for the unseen. The past he could bring up with all the vividness of the present, and the future came before his vision with the reality of the past. He could reproduce to his own mind the scenes of Bible history, the life of Christ, the future world, as if he had been in them--all the details stood out in distinctness, and lived in his fancy.
Hence his power of vivid portrayal, setting before others the scenes which filled his own mind. His power of description and narration made events as real as sight. Everything which he touched started into life and you saw what he saw. The ideal became real, the spiritual became sensible. Every form of figure and illustration sprung up in his fertile brain as occasion demanded.
Closely related to this imaginative power, and coloring all other mental qualities, was an intense emotional nature. With the great poet he combined the highest logical and rational powers with the most susceptible and ardent feeling. His sensibilities fused all his thought, argument, exposition and description into a burning, glowing appeal. His own heart was aflame with the truth, and it kindled the hearts of others. In his later years there was seldom a sermon in which his eyes were not suffused, and often he was entirely overcome with emotion. The sternness and majesty of law might be his theme but his heart melted in tenderness and sympathy for those who were exposed to its retribution. Dwelling upon the character of Satan and the justice of his punishment, he was overcome with pity at the thought of his sad condition,--"Poor devil, poor devil," he exclaimed and broke into violent weeping. The doom of the lost was a frequent theme, but it was presented with such an overcoming sense of pity and sorrow that everyone felt the truth of the text, "As I live, saith the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live." He could say with Paul, "I ceased not night and day to warn everyone with tears."
As resulting from these qualities and combining them all in one, I mention what may be called his spiritual vision, his power of apprehending and making real spiritual verities. The facts as to God, the future life, the lost condition of men, the power of the Spirit, which all Christians hold to in theory and profess to believe, but have so little sense of, were all realities to Mr. Finney's ardent faith. He lived as seeing the invisible. These things of the spiritual realm entered into his thought and life with as clear reality and controlling influence as the things of sense and time. From the very beginning of his Christian life he seemed to have access to the hidden things of God. The day on which he was converted he believed that he had a vision of the risen Christ, heard his voice, communed with him as he would with a real person, and often in later experiences he seemed to come into almost sensible intercourse with his Savior. And these special exaltations were only the culmination of a constant sense of the divine and the eternal which marked his whole religious life.
He believed, accepted and trusted in God, in Christ as a savior and sanctifier. He rested in the truth with absolute assurance. The truth came to possess his being. It came to seem true. The dimness and vagueness which obscure the divine and spiritual to most of us were taken away. The vail was rent. He walked in the light. Hence, he was moved, controlled, inspired by the reality. He felt the danger and guilt of the unsaved. His soul yearned over dying men. As the young people gathered in great numbers for the opening of the college year, and there seemed to be little interest or effort to bring in the unconverted, as we met them on the street, I can never forget the tearful emotion with which he exclaimed, "I shall die if these young people are not converted. I can't stand it to see them going on in sin to death."
In prayer he spoke directly to God. He seemed to stand in his immediate presence. It was no formality or empty words. He came to his Father and Savior and opened his heart as a child. To a stranger there sometimes seemed a lack of reverence, or an undue familiarity, but no man was ever more truly reverent: Those who understood his spirit were lifted, by the overflowing filial confidence and devout sense of the divine presence manifest in the prayer, into almost supernatural nearness to God; we were carried on the wings of his faith to the very holy of holies. And here was the great secret of the preacher's power over men. He moved others to believe because it was so clear that he believed himself. The enthusiasm of his own confidence was catching. It compelled assent. The intensity of his conviction and emotion set other hearts aflame. It melted away opposition and argument and indifference.
The power of his words with men, from the first day of his Christian life till the last, seems something incredible. Immediately upon his conversion he went about to call upon his associates to urge them to repent, and almost without exception they were converted. He went into the weekly prayer-meeting of the church, which, was crowded on account of the rumors of his conversion, and told them his experience, and a great revival began on the spot. He visited his home, and his father and mother were turned to Christ. He relates that so far as he could remember all of those with whom he conversed during the first weeks after his conversion started upon the Christian life, with such effectiveness did he speak and such was the contagion of his own faith and enthusiasm under the Spirit's power. And this power attended him throughout his ministry. Men felt that he spoke of what he knew; that he believed what he said. It was no theory, it was a personal experience. The divine things that were such realities to his own soul he made real to others.
Partly as a result and partly as a cause of this intensity of conviction, another feature of Mr. Finney's preaching should be noticed. It may be thought by some a defect and source of weakness rather than power. But I think it must be regarded as one of the sources of his great success in moving men. This feature is the tendency he exhibited of concentrating attention upon one phase of truth and holding it up as if it were the whole truth or the only important truth. The particular aspect or side of truth which engaged his attention, seemed for the time to occupy the entire field of his vision. It grew in importance as he contemplated it. It seemed as if it was the only consideration to be urged upon men. At another time it would be a complementary truth, as already suggested, pressed with the same energy. This tendency undoubtedly exposed him to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. It led to strong, if not exaggerated and one-sided assertions. Truths would be stated as absolute and unqualified, when they were really limited or modified by contrasted or opposing or complementary facts. To understand his real views, one needed to take his teaching all together, and qualify the seemingly extreme statements in one direction by his equally clear statements in another. He had no ambition for the appearance of consistency. But this power to see and press one thing at a time, was undoubtedly an element of effectiveness and power. It seems the only way most minds can be made to really feel the force of truth. It is the way of the great Apostle to the Gentiles, and even Christ is not careful to prune and qualify until there is no room for cavil or misinterpretation. It was Mr. Finney's power to strip off the covering of a great truth and cut off the branches which might hinder its penetrating effect, give it point and steadiness of aim, and then drive it home by the concentrated force of argument, illustration and appeal, till it was fixed ineradicably in the hearers' minds. And in this way only could he have penetrated the armor of indifference and unbelief and worldliness in which men are encased.
In all this he believed in the present supernatural power of God. He regarded himself as the ambassador of the Most High. He spoke God's message, not his own words or the word of man, but the word of God. He expected great things because he expected the fulfillment of the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. He expected that the power of the Spirit would attend his word, would touch the heart, convict and save. He looked for immediate results, and aimed at them. When the way of salvation had been clearly presented and the truth set before men's minds, he summoned them to decide, to choose at once the way of life. They were urged to make their choice manifest on the spot. In his ordinary preaching it was not uncommon for him to call those who were ready to seek for God to come forward and take special seats, and then with touching, pathetic earnestness he urged them to this step. And they came from all parts of the church, sometimes to the number of hundreds, and, after a few special words of entreaty for their immediate acceptance of Christ he lifted them in soulful supplication to the mercy and grace of God.
Only the revelations of the judgment day will declare the results of this ministry. God Honored such faith and zeal with fruits such as it has seldom fallen to one man to garner. The church of Christ throughout the world for nearly three-fourths of a century has felt the influence of this life and been lifted to a higher and diviner experience by the example and power of its God-inspired achievement. And its influence has only begun. We are hereto share in the blessings it may still bring. The great natural gifts bestowed upon this servant of God we may not hope to possess, but the consecration, the faith, the clear vision of spiritual realities, the yearning love for souls, the simplicity and directness of aim and effort, the concentration of thought and energy upon one great end, the saving of lost men, may be ours. The greatest elements of power in this life are within the reach of every earnest soul. They are the great want of the ministry and every Christian worker to-day. Wherever found, they will bring again, by the blessing and power of God, the same abundant fruitage in saving men.