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ON THE LIFE AND INFLUENCE OF PRESIDENT
CHARLES G. FINNEY.
BY THE REV. JAMES BRAND, D. D.
IT is not the design of this address to follow the details of President Finney's history. His autobiography and his life, by Professor Wright, are before the public. To those not familiar with these books, however, the following condensed outline may be of service:
Mr. Finney was born August 29, 1792, in Warren, Conn.; studied and practiced law in Adams, New York; was converted in 1821, and entered at once upon his life work as an evangelist. In 1830 was called to New York City as a pastor. In 1835 was called from there to Oberlin as Professor of Systematic Theology. In 1851 was elected President of Oberlin College; resigned that office in 1866. In addition to evangelistic labors in this country- and England, and in connection with all his official duties, he was pastor of the First Church of Oberlin from 1835 to 1872. After resigning the pastorate, he still lectured in the Seminary till 1875 when lie died at the age of 83.
His published works are: Systematic Theology, Lectures on Revivals, Lectures to Professing Christians, three volumes of sermons, his Autobiography, and a multitude of articles in the Oberlin Evangelist.
If we should say that one hundred years ago there was a man sent from God whose name was Finney, it would be no mere flippant use of a Scriptural phrase. A man with such an experience, raised up at such a time, to do such a work, must have been sent from God. The social and religious condition of the country in 1792 needed such a man. When Mr. Finney was born, this nation, with a population of about four millions, was sixteen years old, with George Washington, still in his first term, at its head, and Philadelphia the seat of government. John Adams was clearly in sight of the Presidency, and Thomas Jefferson, with his sandy complexion, red hair and awkward demeanor, but with a splendid intellectual force, was looming up on the horizon as a candidate for 1801. The foundations of Washington, D. C., were laid, but the region was a fever-stricken swamp, and the road to it from Baltimore was through a dense forest. The habits of thought and customs of society were all of the eighteenth century. The political struggles of the time were between Federalists and Democrats. The currency of the country was that of the Old World, "reckoned in shillings or pistareens." The mails went from Boston to New York three times a week. Letter postage was eight cents, and for more than one hundred miles, twelve and a half cents. In 1800, Boston had 25,000 people. Cincinnati 15,000. Cleveland had a few log cabins. Buffalo was not yet laid out. "Fifty miles from the coast, nearly half the homes were in log houses." The mode of life among the common people was very primitive. The evils of modern luxury had not yet crept in. Manners were simple and salaries small. The Rev. Abijah Weld "brought up eleven children, besides keeping a hospitable house, and maintaining charity for the poor, on $200.00 a year." In the North, President Dwight, of Yale, maintained that college commencements and sleigh-riding, were amusements enough for the people. In some parts of the South a favorite pastime with many men, was called the "rough and tumble fight." "In this exercise," says Mr. Adams, "neither kicking, biting, nor gouging was forbidden."
The last twenty years of the eighteenth century were marked by a very low state of public morals. The drinking habit was universal. The great temperance movements did not begin till twenty-five or thirty years later. As late as 1812, when Lyman Beecher was in Litchfield, Conn., he says a consociation of ministers assembled, upon the occasion of an ordination, and drank so deeply of the liquor provided, that the society complained bitterly of the amount consumed. Ministers and lawyers controlled the politics of the country, and physicians bled their patients for consumption and old age. Mr. Beecher further says that on election days, all the clergy used to "go in procession, smoke pipes, and drink." This was one of the steady habits of Connecticut. The anti-slavery struggle had not yet begun. Garrison began his great work in 1831. England did not emancipate her slaves till 1834.
Education also was at a low ebb. Webster's spelling book was the chief book of the New England schools, which were kept only two months in summer and two in winter. Noah Webster claimed that with Theology, Law and Politics, New England had some acquaintance, but with Classics, History and Science they had none at all. "Want of books," he said, "made it impossible to investigate subjects of interest." "In 1800, 800, all the public libraries in the United States, of every sort," says Mr. Adams, "contained not more than 50,000 volumes, one-third of which were Theological." When Mr. Finney was eight years old, Harvard had a faculty of three professors and four tutors, and graduated annually about thirty-nine men. Yale, more orthodox than Harvard even at that early date, graduated about the same number, one fourth of whom became ministers. Lyman Beecher entered Yale the year after Mr. Finney's birth. As to Yale's equipment, he says, "there was a four foot telescope, all rusty. Nobody ever looked through it, or if they did, not to edification. There was an air pump, so out of order that a mouse under the receiver would live as long as Methusaleh." Princeton, though then forty-six years old, was also small and poorly equipped.
Religiously, the last two decades of the eighteenth century have been called the worst in the history of American Christianity. "Paine's Age of Reason" was published in 1793, and was being eagerly devoured. Clergymen of Connecticut said "Religion has gradually declined among us. The doctrines of Christ grow more and more unpopular. Modern infidelity is making alarming progress." A pastor in Massachusetts, speaking of his church, said, "Not a single young person has been received into it for sixteen years." The general assembly of the Presbyterian church in its pastoral letter in 1798, said, "A dissolution of religious society seems to be threatened, by the supineness and inattention of many ministers and professors of Christianity." Down to 1800 no foreign missionary work had been attempted. No theological seminaries had been founded. The separation of church and state had not yet come. The Methodist denomination had just held their first general conference, in Baltimore in 1792. Theologically, the greater part of the country was Calvinistic, in the Old School sense. The younger Edwards was in New Haven fighting the "half way Covenant" and the incipient symptoms of Unitarianism, when Mr. Finney was born. Samuel Hopkins had elaborated his theological system, which with certain modifications, became the foundation of the New School. His system was published in 1793, but he could not claim more than one hundred ministers in the United States who had accepted his views. "The orthodox clergy were extremely conservative. Jedediah Morse, the "father of American Geography," while preaching an election sermon in 1803, said: "Let us guard against the insidious encroachments of innovation--innovation, that evil and beguiling spirit which is now stalking to and fro through the earth, seeking whom it may destroy." Even many years later, when Lyman Beecher School views, he said: My first business was went to Boston, speaking of the Old "All was locked up and frozen from eternity, and the bottom of accountability had fallen out to put it in again."
The opening of the new century, however, witnessed a tremendous intellectual awakening in every department of thought. The two hundred newspapers of 1801, doubled in ten years. This awakening along all social, political, industrial and theological lines began with a great revival of religion called "the revival of 1800," which extended over nearly the whole country. Dr. Bennett Tyler, said that, one hundred and fifty churches of New England were visited with a refreshing from the presence of the Lord. The same was true in Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina. Dr. Ebenezer Porter affirms that the day dawned which was to succeed a night of sixty years. This great spiritual arousement gave rise to nearly all the religious institutions which we now possess. There sprang from it first of all, the "plan of union" of 1801, to evangelise New Connecticut. In 1808 808 Andover Seminary was founded, on the basis of theological compromise, to provide ministers. Two years later the American Board was organized to express the new evangelistic spirit of missions to the heathen. In 1815 the American Education Society was instituted to assist in the preparation of ministers and missionaries. In 1826, the American Temperance Society was organized, to express the spirit of moral reform. In 1822, Yale Theological department was instituted with Dr. N. W. Taylor at its head. In 1830, began the American Home Missionary Society. Meantime, the great controversy, which lasted till 1838 between old and new school, waxed so hot that East Windsor Seminary was established in 1833, as a "barrier against new school error."
Alongside of this greatest movement of American thought in the realm of theology, there had sprung up that greatest movement in the moral and political realm which, after more than thirty years, ended at Appomatox. The Presbyterian body, so closely allied to the Congregational in doctrinal views, became the storm center of the theological struggle, after it was largely over in New England. The new school men maintained that their opponents, denying the freedom of the will, held a theology which logically stood in the way of the conversion of souls. The old school men charged the new with holding views which would result in the ruin of souls and the dissolution of the church. This struggle was ended by the division of the Presbyterian body in 1838.
Now, into this seething ocean of theological thought, in which the giants of those days, Tyler, Taylor, Nettleton, Baird, Beecher, Barnes were struggling, each rowing hard to reach his own desired haven, the early life of Mr. Finney was launched. His conversion was a great event in the history of the church of Christ. In that rural town in the state of New York, on that quiet autumnal evening when the young lawyer made up his mind to "settle the question of his soul's salvation," God was marshalling forces which have affected, not only the conflict of the schools, but also the destiny of myriads of souls. The greatest events are often unheralded. Almost thief like, they steal into the his tory of the race, and are past before we are aware. It is a fact of importance, bearing upon his influence, and revealing, in part, his independence of mind, that Mr. Finney was not educated in any of the theological schools. He was what the Romans would have called a novus homo. He was not the product of a long line of ancestors prominent in religious leadership or theological debates. He inherited but little from the past. He came to the Bible, simply to solve the destiny of his own spirit. He was "taken from the world, not from the church." He was brought up with very little association with religious institutions. His Christian life began in contact with men of the extreme High Calvinistic type of training; men who held doctrines which his logical mind could not preach. His native independence and masterly analytical powers made it impossible for him to move in the ruts of any existing system. He could not go to the battle in Saul's armor. His religious influence was, under God, all his own.
Now, if we look for an explanation of Mr. Finney's own system of thought, we shall not find it in any formal discussion of the questions which were then agitating the public mind. He was not naturally a controversialist. Although at first a member of a very conservative presbytery, from which he differed boldly and radically, he was never tried for heresy as were Albert Barnes and other leading men. The reason seems to lie in the fact that his manifest life purpose was not to gain a victory for any school but simply to bring all men to Christ.
The key to his theological system is found in his conception of God. That conception he seems to have received directly from the Bible. What strivings and leadings of the Holy Spirit, what soul-travail on the part of Christ, prepared him for such views can never be known. But it appears certain that it was this conception of the nature of the Divine Being that moulded his theology, and made him what he was. While rejecting several of the inferences of Calvinism, as untrue and unpreachable, the peculiarly Pauline type of Mr. Finney's mind, led him to that view of God which is the glory of the Calvinistic system. "God is a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth." His idea combined the two great concepts o the Supreme Being, found in the Bible, and which have been too often separated--the majesterial and the paternal. God, to him was a great King, and also a great Father. Men are subjects of [?] Mr. Finney saw the evil of separating these two truths and building our systems on one to the exclusion of the other. The majesterial conception is the predominent one in Calvinism. True, sublime, awful, but still, by itself, defective. The paternal is the controlling thought of the theology of to-day. True, beautiful, tender, but by itself defective. Each needs the other as its complement. To cast off either one and take the other is partial and narrow. The Bible contains them both in combination. This age, peculiarly needs the majesterial, as the age of the Westminister divines needed the paternal. We cannot reject the former without rejecting the Epistle to the Romans. We cannot reject the latter without repudiating the Lord's prayer. Underthe majesterial, Air. Finney was thrilled and awed by the stupendous fact, that every man is a subject, as well as a child. He felt himself to be the subject of a divine law,--the subject of a broken law,--the subject of a broken law to whom pardon was offered. He caught the spirit of the Psalmist--"The Lord reigneth, let the people tremble! The Lord reigneth, let the earth rejoice! "
It was the importance of this conception that led Mr. Finney to devote so large a part of his theological system to a discussion of the Divine Government. The character of the Supreme Being was so holy, so adorable, that the most desirable thing conceivable was that God should reign, absolutely, and forever. God's sovereignty was simply infinite love, guided by infinite wisdom, securing its ends of good, by infinite power. God was bringing to pass in this government under which we live, exactly what ought to be. If a man comes into blessed harmony with God, he will infallibly have all the good that this eternal government is fitted to secure to him. If he does not, he will have the best that a holy government can secure to an incorrigible subject,--eternal justice. Moreover, God was using with free the great motives of rational hope and fear--the peace of righteousness, the woe of sin. All this Mr. Finney would say, is inferable directly from the nature and perfections of God. Hence the sinner has nothing to fear, and everything to hope from coming into harmony with God's government; and everything to fear, and nothing to hope, from any other course. This forms the substance of his evangelistic preaching. But as we have seen the majesterial conception was never divorced from the paternal. All Biblical theology includes both. The divine government includes the atonement of Christ as an expression of God's Fatherhood. God was suffering in Christ for the sins of his children. His government could not be sustained and sinners saved without his endurance of the cross. This view comes out in Mr. Finney's sermons more directly- than in his systematic theology. That which awakened his own great emotional nature and put the force and pathos into his tremendous appeals, was the fact that sin was not simply rebellion against a holy law but also the blow of the child at the infinitely merciful face of the Father.
I. The results of this conception of God, appear first, in Mr. Finney's own personal relation to his Maker. To be a rebel against this immutable government of Avisdom and love, to disobey this long-suffering Heavenly Father, would involve the wreck of man's immortality. To be at one with Him, to love what He loves, to hate what He hates, to walk and work with Him, is the supreme good. Therefore to subdue his own spirit absolutely to the will of God, was his first duty. Milton's explanation of Cromwell's power in the State and on the field of battle, may be justly applied to Mr. Finney:--"From his thorough exercise in the art of self-knowledge he subdued his domestic foes, his idle hopes, his fears, his ambitions, and his desires. Having thus learned to engage and subdue and triumph over himself, he took the field against his outward enemies-a soldier practiced in all the discipline of war."
2. His conception of God gave shape to his conception of the Scriptures. The discussions as to the authority of Revelation which now agitate the Christian world, had not arisen in his day, but his position is one which modern, critical investigation cannot shake. God is infinitely holy, wise, compassionate. Man is a moral wreck. The proof that the Bible is divine is that it meets the requirements of God's holy compassion on the one hand, and actually saves wrecked humanity when tested by experiment, on the other. President Finney found the authority of the Scriptures in the experience of his own soul. He admitted that logically, the Bible assumes many things, but the things it assumes are the intuitive affirmations of man's moral nature. There is an inner as well as an outward revelation, and these two agree. The final test, is this,--that when any man follows absolutely the directions of the Bible, he inevitably overcomes sin, and becomes a righteous man. That being true, the Bible is an infallible rule of life for the purpose for which it was given. Mr. Finney believed in the Gospel as he believed in the light of the sun. On his knees before God, he fed upon, and literally devoured it. His soul was fascinated with its marvelous simplicity, directness, and force,--but especially with the fact that it so found him, and so revealed God.
3. It was from the same starting point, that Mr. Finney reached his views of sin. He felt that no adequate idea of what sin is, can be obtained simply from a study of Moral Philosophy, or from the consequences of sin. The true estimate of its guilt can come only from an apprehension of the character and attributes of God, in connection with moral freedom. Probably no man since the days of Paul has ever portrayed the consequences of sin as has Mr. Finney, and yet to his mind, the consequences of sin to man never appeared so appalling, as the nature and guilt of it. When a free soul yields itself up to commit a wrong, it is not an accident. The whole rational being is involved in the act. It is not simply a movement of some inferior passion or some subordinate desire, acting like an outlaw in some remote territory of the soul--no, the thing is done in the capitol, by the president of the realm, the entire, executive man. Moreover, every sin is not simply an attack on the personality of God, and the existence of his government, but it is the setting up of a rival government--the organizing of life on a principle antagonistic to the moral law and destructive to the universe. President Finney saw that the tendency of men was to dwell upon the consequences of sin rather than the nature and guilt of it. They looked upon the world, and found it full of injustice, suffering and tears, and they said, "Oh how terrible a thing sin is? How men suffer! How hearts bleed!" All very true. We cannot exaggerate the consequences of sin. But there is a profounder argument than that. It is "the sinfulness of sin"--the guilt of it, as against God. It is not the consequences of sin, but the guilt of it, that constitutes our lost condition. It is not the consequences of sin, but the guilt of it, that requires the atonement of Christ. It is not the removal of the consequences, but the removal of the love and the guilt of it, that constitutes salvation.
4. It was his conception of God that gave to his whole theological system its peculiar cast. In his revolt against what he felt to be the untrue and unpreachable dogmas of high Calvinism, he was led to adopt, with some modifications, the views of Drs. Hopkins and Taylor, apparently, before he had ever read them. He held with Hopkins, that all virtue consists in disinterested benevolence--that all sin consists in selfishness, though he distinguished, as Hopkins did not, between self-love and selfishness. He agreed with Hopkins that man is accountable for no sin but his own; that the inability of a sinner to obey God is not natural but moral--he can, but will not; that neither sin nor righteousness is transferable. But he distinguished between purpose and pre-knowledge, as Hopkins failed to do, and therefore rejected the statement that God had " purposed" the existence of sin in the moral system, and denied that sin is " on the whole for the general good." These views were to Mr. Finney a logical necessity when he proposed to appeal to men to repent. Nevertheless, his theological system, as a whole, like that of the Hopkinsians, is strongly Calvinistic in its fundamental elements. His philosophy was, in the main, the Calvinistic philosophy. Instead of rejecting that system as such, as some in both England and America are foolishly doing to-day, he modified Calvinism, as the New England theologians have done. He took the great fundamental propositions of Calvin, the sovereignty of God, the doctrines of election and reprobation, and made them rational and practical. He enforced them with a cogency, equal to that of Calvin himself, but with Calvin's inferential errors eliminated, because he had reached a truer conception of the freedom of the will. The great value of his theological work consists in his clearer elaboration of three points, none of which were absolutely original with him, but which he made of immense practical value because they were wrought out by him, not as a Controversialist, but preached to the millions, as the way of salvation. The three points on which he dwelt were the Nature of the Divine Government, the Foundation of Moral Obligation, and the Natural Ability of a Sinner to Obey God. On the last point he has displayed an intellectual acumen, a grasp of the subject, a clearness of analysis, which I do not find in any other writer. An illustration of this is found in his exposure of the fallacy of President Edwards, that "The human will is always as the greatest apparent good." Edwards started with the true assumption that every effect must have a cause, and that human volitions are an effect, and must have a cause. So far Mr. Finney agreed. But Edwards, denying the self-determining power of the will, was compelled to look for the cause in outward circumstances. Finney shows that there lies the source of the fallacy, and that the sovereign power of the moral agent himself is the cause of his own action, that this is the affirmation of consciousness; and that to deny the self-determining power of the will is not only a begging of the question but leads to a false definition of freedom, which would ultimately deny the fact of sin altogether,--a conclusion which Edwards himself would repudiate. A remarkable instance of his power of condensed statement is found in connection with the famous "atheistic dilemma" of Epicurus, as to the existence of moral evil. Epicurus said, "God has either the will, but not the power, to prevent evil, or the power, but not the will, If he has the will but not the power, he is impotent, which cannot be true of God. If he has the power, but not the will, he is malignant. If he has neither the will nor the power he is both impotent and malignant; therefore there is no righteous God." The answer to this dilemma which Dr. Taylor, one of the keenest minds of New England, wrought out laboriously, Finney threw into the title of a single sermon--"Where sin occurs God cannot wisely prevent it." Mr. Finney's remarkable perspicacity was equalled only by his perspicuity. As a theologian, he stood for the progressive nature of Christian doctrine. He would not stereotype his own conclusions. The theology of the Reformation or of the Westminster Confession was not the goal of theological thought. Neither, would he say, in all probability, that the Oberlin Theology is the final goal.
Mr. Finney did not claim to solve the relation of Divine sovereignty to human accountability. But his modified Calvinism which held firmly to the fundamental truths of that system--truths imbedded in the nature of God and the constitution of the universe--while yet it repudiated Calvin's conception of original sin, predestination, limited atonement, and natural inability, seems to me to be peculiarly fitted to meet the needs of the world.
5. It is easy to trace to the source I have mentioned, Mr. Finney's idea of the Church and the Christian life. We are accustomed to regard him, primarily, as the great evangelist, and the idea of an evangelist, in these days, is that of a man who gathers great numbers into the church from the world. But in addition to that, Mr. Finney's equally important work consisted in raising the standard of Christian living. It is this that makes his influence as an evangelist unique. It was by no means the vast numbers of young people who were converted under his preaching that gave Oberlin its spiritual power. It was the type of conversion he required, the kind of a Christian which he insisted upon, the sanctity of the new life which he never ceased to preach that characterized the spiritual life here. The motto that floated over the old tent, here in the wilderness, "Holiness to the Lord," explains the history of the place. From Mr. Finney's conception of God, there was but a single step to the conclusion that a redeemed soul must be holy. He was profoundly impressed with the idea that the want of spiritual power in the churches, was the result of a dominating practical materialism. Hence his perpetual efforts to secure revivals of religion among professing Christians. Indeed, his fundamental idea of a revival was that of a revival--a renewal of life in the Church. And only as he secured that did he feel that anything was accomplished. He was painfully conscious that in the wear and tear of life, that holy sensitiveness of heart, that self-crucifying heroism which marked the life of Jesus, is liable to be lost. Hence he realized the need of repeated "overhaulings" of his own life. His wonderful experience while in Boston in 1843, is an example of this kind. Meditating on the "want of power in the churches," he was led to re-examine his own relation to God, when, after a new struggle of self-surrender to the Divine will, he came into that exalted and peaceful state of communion with his Savior, in which he says he found himself "as it were smiling in God's face, and saying, he 'did not want anything.'" In many points of intellect, character, and experience Mr. Finney's life was similar to that of President Edwards, and in none, more than in this sympathy with God, this vision of the Divine excellency, and this yearning that God might be glorified. It was this that subdued his heart, and made him glad to live a life of poverty if need be, here in Oberlin, while men of smaller powers were making fortunes. That which Pope Pius the IV. said of John Calvin might be said of Charles G. Finney,--"The strength of that heretic consisted in this fact: money never had the slightest charm for him. If I had such servants, my dominions would extend from sea to sea." I will only add that it would be a great mistake to infer that President Finney's view of life and of the Church, made him gloomy or austere. That is not the effect of communion with God. Such communion makes a man a prophet of hope. As a preacher of Divine truth, he was a very serious man. No one who takes in the situation of humanity, who looks at the tragic side of human life, the moral drift of the nations, and especially the world's devil spirit toward Christ, can be otherwise than serious. And yet Mr. Finney's life was full of tender, child-like simplicity, hope, courage, and affection. He abounded in exalted joy and Christian good cheer.
6. It is not a little surprising that, so far as I can learn, President Finney attended almost no reform conventions and delivered no lectures or addresses exclusively devoted to the promotion of moral reform. Let no one infer from this, however, that his influence was not potent in all such reforms. If all Christian ministers preached as he did, there would be but little need of special organizations for the promotion of reform. He was not a temperance or antislavery lecturer in the ordinary sense, yet the world knew him as one of the most pronounced and powerful advocates of these causes. His life illustrates the fact that a man can be a great reformer by simply preaching the Gospel. He did, of course, speak hundreds of times directly against the sins of Sabbath desecration, intemperance, and slavery, with tremendous emphasis. He said the Church was guilty in its indifference to the drink traffic--that a man's hands were red with blood who stood aloof from the temperance cause. The church that did not take sides with God and array itself against all moral evils, was not a true church. A church member who tampered and compromised with either organized or individual wrongs, after light had been thrown upon them, was not a true Christian. Every Christian is born a reformer when he is born again. To make men true reformers is simply to make them true Christians. In this way, by simply devoting his life to the winning of men to Christ and illuminating the great truths of the Gospel in their application to practical life. Mr. Finney became one of the most radical and powerful abolitionists of his time. No one of all the multitudes of his converts could go out into the world anything less than a moral reformer. It must not be inferred, however, that he did not favor special, organized efforts in the line of reform. He himself was an evangelist, called of God to do a more funnamental work than lecturing on slavery, but his heart was with all those engaged in that undertaking. He saw that mere outward reform would not avail. The abolition of slavery and of the saloon "must be brought about by promoting union among Christians and extending correct views of Christian responsibility." "Anything that will unite the Church and consolidate her efforts, and wisely direct them," he said, "will correct the national morals, and nothing else can." Mr. Finney's "Philosophy of Emancipation" explains his relations to other great reformers. He cannot be said to have stood either with the conservative or the extreme radical wing of Abolitionists, in the anti-slavery struggle. He did not occupy exactly either the position of Wm. Lloyd Garrison or of Dr. Leonard Bacon. While agreeing with Garrison that immediate emancipation was a duty,--that justice to God and man could accept nothing less, he did not sympathize with that great Abolitionist in losing heart in the reformation of the Church, as the agent of the reform. He knew that the anti-slavery principle was itself the child of Christian faith. To abandon the Church was to abandon the last hope of the world. Let the Church be reformed, he said. Let her eyes be open to the true spirit of the Gospel, as applied to human life, and she will sweep slavery out of existence. I do not mean to imply that Mr. Garrison lost faith in a true Christian Church, but according to his friend, Oliver Johnson, he held that a slave-holding church, or a church indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, could not be, in the nature of things, a church of Christ. I understand that Mr. Finney, radical as he was, took issue with Garrison on that point. He would admit the utter failure of such a church, for want of proper instruction, but still hold that it might, in other respects, have the elements of a Christian church which only needed enlightening and awakening to its duty on that subject. To say, as I do, that I believe that Mr. Finney was right in this matter, is not saying that the two men were very wide apart, or that Garrison was to be condemned for denouncing pro-slavery churches. It is only saying that Mr. Finney made a larger allowance than did Garrison for that blindness of mind which obscures the sense of ethical justice in a given direction while yet the general purpose may be to do the will of God. Both men held the same conception of what the Church ought to be. Both denounced pro-slavery churches. The one believed in pouring into pro-slavery minds the light and love of Christ, thus correcting the defective judgment and awakening the conscience in regard to the slave. The other believed that an Abolitionist should come out from such a church, and denounce it as utterly reprobate. It is indeed conceivable that had Mr. Finney made more direct antislavery and temperance addresses, and attended more political and reformatory conventions with his brethren, he might have widened his influence for good in those directions. And yet the wisdom of his course seems to be justified by its fruits. He, more than any other single man, breathed into Oberlin the spirit of radical moral reform. I have not learned that any of the multitudes that went out from under his influence here have been specially lacking in that direction. True Christian teachers of youth, always stand nearer to the sources of power than any other class of men. The country has certainly been profoundly affected by Mr. Finney and his co-laborers and pupils who caught the hot spirit of reform, not so much from his outward attitude as from the contagion of his spiritual life.
7. I shall not dwell here on Mr. Finney as a preacher, except to say that his conception of God, here as elsewhere, made' him set the ministry at the head of all other callings. He was a great Theological teacher, but his real prominence, as he stands before the world, was in the pulpit. His pulpit was his throne of power. To stand before a great audience persuading men to be reconciled to God, was so much the habit of his mind, and so alluring to his imagination, that even his "Systematic Theology," as it appeared in the first edition, abounded with powerful hortatory passages, which a stricter literary and scientific taste required to be stricken out of the second edition. I have listened to some of the greatest preachers of our own time and read the sermons of many others, but nothing in that line has ever thrown such a light upon certain texts, by clear analysis; nothing has controlled my judgment by simple definition, or awakened my conscience, or touched my heart as some of Mr. Finney's sermons. Each sermon reminds me at times of a great breaker on the Atlantic coast. It begins with a gradual heaving and swelling, away out in the deep water, and then, with the weight of the whole Atlantic behind it, begins to roll in, gaining in height, and force, and volume, and intensity, as it advances, till it reaches its climax, when the crest whitens and breaks and the mighty mass is dashed in shuddering foam on the shore; drenching for the thousandth time everything that lies in its way. Comparing the preaching of the two great evangelists, Nettleton and Finney, Lyman Beecher says," the one was reverential, timid, secretive; the other bold, striking, demonstrative. Nettleton set snares for sinners; Finney, rode then down with a cavalry charge." Professor Park once said to his class in theology, with that peculiar lift of his shoulders and emphasis of his arm which his pupils remember so well, "The greatest sermon--yes, the greatest sermon I ever heard was in the Old South Meeting House, here in Andover. It was preached by Rev. Charles G. Finney. He never exhorted men to feel, but he so preached that they could not help feeling."
In any attempt to sum up the influence of Mr. Finney on religious thought and life, we must bear in mind that unlike most great men he had two thrones of power, the pulpit and the theological chair. From the one he touched great masses of people, from the other he moulded the teachers of the future.
(I) In general, it may be said that he gave a larger place in the investigation of Scripture to reason than most men of his time were accustomed to do. His great aim was to make a reasonable Theology. He could accept nothing either from the Bible or from tradition that was not logically consistent. He held that "the Bible was made for the mind, not the mind for the Bible." He took the liberty, perhaps, at times, with unnecessary violence, to reject the dogmas of the past, especially as he found them in the Presbyterian body to which he at first belonged. He says that some of the Old School positions so embarrassed him at every step that he often said to himself, "If these things are taught in the Bible, I must be an infidel." But he did not find them taught in the Bible "on any principle of interpretation that could be admitted in a court of justice." In the early part of the century, preachers of the Princetonian type took little pains to speak to their age. They preferred to avoid the ethical, that they might secure what they called the evangelical development of truth. All doctrines were stated from the extreme Calvinistic point of view. They had a habit of dragooning into the service of certain theological statements, whole platoons of Scripture texts, many of which were evidently designed to be in better business. Sam Lawson's description of the Old Town minister was not so far from the truth: "He was gret on texts, the Doctor was. When he had a pint to prove, he'd jest go through the Bible and drive all the texts ahead on him, like a flock o' sheep. And then if there was a text that seemed agin him, why, he'd come out with his Greek and Hebrew, and kind o' chase it round a spell, jest as ye see a fellar chase a contrary bellwether and make it jump the fence ater the rest. I tell you there warn't no text in the Bible that could stand agin the Doctor when his blood was up."
Mr. Finney not only made reasonable but popularized Theology. Being set down in early life in a theological "valley of dry bones," "he passed round about, and behold, they were very many in the open valley." They were represented in the one extreme by Princeton and at the opposite extreme by Harvard. "And lo, they were very dry. And he prophesied upon them, and behold there was a noise and a shaking, and the bones came together, and flesh came up upon them, and skin covered them above, and breath came into them and they lived, and stood upon their feet an exceeding great army." Thus a rational Theology was brought alive to living men. It cannot be denied, however, that great revivals of religion have often sprung up under the Old School doctrine of inability to repent; because, I suppose, God is not controlled by men's want of logic. He uses, but does not depend upon "the foolishness of preaching." Beyond all reasonable doubt, however, all consistently logical presentations of the truth, which appeal to reason and conscience, with a view to convict of sin, must use substantially the New School position. It is probable, therefore, that Mr. Finney, though engaged but little in doctrinal controversy, did at least as much to advance the New School cause in the Presbyterian body as any other single man. On the other hand, while always maintaining the constitutional freedom of the will, he also held that every man is morally enslaved, and needs divine help not to make him able to repent, but to make him willing. Mr. Finney did not elaborate this side of the truth with the same frequency and force that he did the fact of freedom. His generation needed the emphasis on the latter. Ours needs it on the former. The boast and conceit of our time has come to be. that, the existence of which the men of fifty years ago denied. It is a pity that the human mind can not carry along the two Biblical ideas in combination--cannot avoid Scylla without falling into Charybdis.
(2) Another part of the legacy which Mr. Finney has left us, lies in his vigorous war on rationalism. In the last analysis there are but two views of man--the one holds that he is only defective, unfortunate, finite, and needs only educational development, which is possible without supernatural aid. The other holds that man's moral nature is depraved, that he is guilty and needs spiritual regeneration; that he cannot be saved without supernatural interposition. Mr. Finney, like the Apostle Paul, with an emphasis drawn, from his own experience and from his views of the moral law, declared that the latter was the only true view of man. The logical acumen and spiritual intensity with which he defended the supernatural, not only from the Word of God but also from man's moral nature, have left no standing ground for the infidel rationalist, who understands the facts in the case.
(3) Few men have left their mark more indelibly on the spiritual life and Christian education of the country than Mr. Finney. The fact that he made the vicarious suffering of the God-man the one true type of benevolence, the fact that he made doctrinal preaching both practical and popular, by touching so deftly the springs of human sympathy and probing so deeply the recesses of the conscience, the fact that his own record of his life has come to thousands and thousands as that of a man who saw and felt more of God than they themselves have done, must make him a spiritual force in the nation for generations to come. To be sure, he was maligned by the extreme Calvinists for his New School views, and cast out by the New School men of New England because of alleged errors as to the doctrine of personal righteousness, and yet, like that of Oliver Cromwell, whom it required one hundred and fifty years to vindicate,. Mr. Finney's influence will go on increasing in proportion as he becomes better understood. Some may have thought that when he left the metropolis and came to this place, then in the woods, he was throwing away his prospects and burying his great abilities, but it was probably a great providential advantage to his influence that he left New York and entered upon the struggles and self-denials of Oberlin. This field, combining church, college and theological seminary, was peculiarly fitted to the bent of his mind and the development of his powers, and to be the medium of his life forces to the world. Probably through no other channel could he have wielded a greater power. As teacher, preacher and pastor to an immense number of wide-awake plastic minds, he had an advantage which but few even in a college community ever possessed. The church in Yale College, for example, organized for good reasons fifty-seven years after the college itself, and vast as has been its influence for good upon the country, has always had to labor under certain confessed disadvantages incident to a church separated from the community and made up entirely of men. It has been admitted that it is against nature to expect young men to enjoy attending a sanctuary "where the sexes do not exist in something like natural proportions." This accounts for the proverbial bad behavior of students in many of our older college churches, and the difficulties with which their pastors have to struggle. Mr. Finney had the advantage in this respect from the start. He not only had the college and community combined in one church, but also among the students themselves he had the sexes together "in their natural proportions," according to God's own arrangement. These circumstances had much to do with the fact that such multitudes went out from here to all parts of the country during Mr. Finney's forty years of service, so impressed with his views and with his evangelistic spirit. Through Oberlin, moreover, his influence upon the education was hardly less marked than upon the religion of the country. Some years ago, a statement was made of the religious and educational influence of Yale College Church upon other schools of learning. It cannot be immodest to make a similar reference here to Mr. Finney's influence through this college. So far as he was influential in moulding Oberlin, to that extent he has left his mark on a score or more of higher institutions of learning in the South and West which in principle and spirit are the children of Oberlin. Many of these institutions have been organized and manned by persons who felt the power of Mr. Finney's religious life. Ten years ago, three hundred and thirty-three professors and teachers had gone out from here to other colleges and schools of higher education, several of them as presidents of colleges. Nearly three hundred men had graduated from the Theological Department during Mr. Finney's term of labor, and it is not too much to say that of the twenty-five to thirty thousand persons who have been connected with the college down to the present day, but few have gone forth without carrying, consciously or unconsciously, some influence from his life. Adding to this the tens of thousands who have been led to Christ in this country and England by his revival labors and the reading of his works, we are surely justified in repeating that a hundred years ago this man must have been sent from God. Mr. Finney's monument is not that block of granite, appropriate as it is, which now marks his grave. The real monument to his greatness is Oberlin, with its college and its churches and the renewed lives of the vast multitudes now on both sides of the river of death, whose immortality has been brightened by the words he uttered and the life he lived.
In conclusion the question arises, does this generation need and should we emphasize this Calvinistic system of thought as Mr. Finney held it? To my view there can be but one answer. For it is generally conceded that a decay of the sense of guilt for sin has set in as a phenomenon of modern Christian experience. Now, the lowering of the sense of guilt for sin inevitably lowers the significance of almost every Gospel truth. Diminish that, and you diminish the sense of the need of redemption. Faith loses its importance. The penalties of the Divine Law lose their wholesome terrors. "The wrath to come" becomes a mere figure of speech. The Divine government ceases to have any objective reality. The atonement becomes superfluous. Human responsibility is narrowed down to the limits of statute law. That obligation to be holy which so dignifies a free immortal soul, is obscured, just in proportion as the sense of the sinfulness of sin is lost. These results, in some measure, already appear in our latest religious thought and experience. The silent, subtle conviction is apparently spreading, that to be a sinner is not the supreme calamity after all. This change has come about, I believe, by a ceasing, on the part of the pulpit and the pew to dwell sufficiently upon the nature and attributes of God. In speaking of the relation of man to his Maker, in recent years, "governmental analogies" have been largely discarded and "vital analogies" now monopolize the field. The Biblical emblems of retribution have also been avoided. Those Scripture topics which merely tend to cultivate the affections without profoundly awakening the conscience have been specially brought to the front. This is the drift of the age.
Now, as we have seen, Mr. Finney's tremendous sense of the guilt of sin sprang from his conception of God What then, was the influence of this theological system upon himself? I reply, it affected him just as the same views affected Paul. It crucified his pride and selfish ambition. It smote down his spirit of self-indulgence. It flooded his soul with a sense of God's love. It gave him a quenchless yearning for souls. It made him the messenger of hope. What has been the influence of this type of theology on society and civilization? I know it has been called austere yet it has awakened in man the most heroic endeavors and promoted the sweetest amenities of life. It has been called a creed of intellectual servitude, yet, wherever it prevails, it crushes tyrants and breaks the chain of the slave. It has made the noblest heroes of history: William the Silent, Luther, Calvin, Knox, Cromwell, Milton, Bunyan, the Pilgrims who made America, the Puritans who put their feet upon the necks of kings. This system of theology is the natural foe of that soft-handed self-indulgence from which our civilization is suffering to-day. Even Mr. Froude, speaking of this system, before it had received its modern modifications, says, "The Calvinists attracted to their ranks almost every man in western Europe who hated a lie. Whatever exists at this moment, in England and Scotland of conscience, of fear of doing evil, is the remnant of convictions which were burned by the Calvinists into the hearts of the people." Put now Mr. Finney's exalted view of God, his profound conception of sin, and his idea of the consequent glory of redemption, along side of the vague incipient rationalism which is beginning to work to-day in all denominations, and judge which of the two human nature needs. The one encourages the pride of intellect, the other humbles it to the dust. The one says to men, you need better environment; the other, you need a new heart. The one says if you would have peace of mind contemplate your fine mental endowment; the other says, if you would have peace, you must be in league with the righteous God. The one says, what is called sin, is a misfortune; the other, "it is exceedingly sinful." The one says society must realize its hope in the line of natural progress; the other, says it must come in the line of supernatural regeneration. The one tells me, I must be trained; the other, I must be forgiven. The verdict of history is, that the result of the former is cultured selfishness; that of the latter, an unselfish and purified soul.
As I understand Mr. Finney, his doctrinal views are exactly those of Paul, and the churches which Paul established among men were never mere academies for ignorant souls, but the birthplaces for a new life. His creed guarded man at once against two fatal extremes--presumption and despair. Pressing the appalling fact of sin, as measured by the character of God, it precluded presumption. Proclaiming an infinite atonement it precluded despair.
I suggest, then, that what our time, with its flaring civilization, and its frenzied rush for money and for power, especially needs, is that system of truth which, like the Epistle to the Romans, is loyal both to the rights of God and the actual condition of man. These august truths, with all their beneficent severity, with all their measurless tenderness, must be burned into the hearts of men. Professor Austin Phelps, speaking of the necessity of retaining the "Biblical emblems of retribution" in our preaching, says that the effect of the abandonment of them "may not discover itself in a sudden departure from the ancient faith. More naturally it appears in a slow insidious subsidence of the vitality of faith as a power of control over the character and life. Beliefs remaining, faith expires. The popular theology takes on a soft molluscan subsistence which is a melancholy travesty on the Pauline system of ideas. A vertebrate theology has been the power of the pulpit in all ages. In all things that concern the administration of God's moral government, human nature is fatally decrepit. Guilt has taken moral stamina out of us. Morally, we are a race of paralytics. In the conflict for eternal life we are limp. The sinews of our strength are flabby. 'There is no health in us."' Dr. Bushnell says, "One of the things most needed, in the recovery of men to God, is this very thing--a more decisive manifestation of the "wrath principle." Intimidation is the first means of grace. No bad mind is arrested by love and beauty till such time as it is balked in evil, and put on ways of thoughtfulness; and nothing can be so effectual for this, as a distinct apprehension of the "wrath to come."
It is equally important to a symmetrical presentation of the truth and the preservation of a "vertebrate theology" that we preserve, as Mr. Finney always did, the Biblical distinction between saved and unsaved men. Professor Drummond has nobly expressed himself on this point. He says, " It is an old fashioned theology which divides the world in this way, which speaks of men as living and dead, lost and saved,--a stern theology, all but fallen into disuse. This difference between the living and the dead in souls, is so unproved by casual observance, so impalpable in itself, so startling as a doctrine, that schools of culture have ridiculed or denied the grim distinction. Nevertheless the grim distinction must be retained. It is a scientific distinction 'He that bath the Son hath life. He that bath not the Son of God hath not life.'"
It is impossible to justly estimate the legacy left to Oberlin College, Oberlin students, and to the Oberlin Churches by the life and work of President Finney. The best evidence of its reality, however, lies in the affectionate devotion of his own people who sat under his preaching and communed with him for nearly forty years. His unique combination of radically opposite qualities of mind; his doctrinal severity combined with the tenderest sympathy; his metaphysical type of thought combined with the most practical concrete application; his rigid logic combined with a profoundly emotional nature; his commanding and even dictatorial authority combined with the most child-like humility--these, balancing the forces of his life, compelled the respect of all. But I believe it was the absolute transparency of his character that gave him the permanent place in the affections of his people, and that brings back so many, year after year to speak reverently of his name and drop a tear over his grave. Probably no man ever lived forty years in one community, with his heart of hearts so plainly on his sleeve, with so little to conceal and so much to express,--no man was ever known through and through, In every trait, every virtue, every fault, as was Mr. Finney in Oberlin, and yet was so trusted and loved, increasingly as the years went on. Let me now read to you the exquisite letter of the First Church upon accepting his resignation of the pastoral office in 1872:
Dearly Beloved Pastor:--
At your repeated and earnest request to be relieved of the pastoral care of this church, on account of your advanced age and feebleness of body, we have finally agreed to accept your resignation.
We cannot, therefore, forbear expressing to you our sense of the priceless service which, without any adequate pecuniary reward or even support from us, you have freely rendered to the Church:
I. In your consistent and blameless Christian life--a delightful and ever-shining example of the grace of our blessed Lord Jesus Christ.
2. In your tender sympathy with every individual member of the church, especially with the sick and the afflicted--and your intense interest in the welfare of us all.
3. In your ceaseless, zealous, and effectual efforts for the salvation of sinners, your wise conversation with enquirers after Christ, and your thorough organization of the Church for tile prosecution of this work.
4. In your fervid and pungent sermons wrought out through much believing prayer and faithful, intelligent study of God's word and most truly accepted of God, as the marvellous accompanying power of his spirit so frequently witnessed by us, clearly proves.
5. In your labors and prayers for the church universal, your revival efforts abroad, your published letters and books, all breathing the same spirit of love and power which have characterized your Christian activity at home.
It is our most earnest desire that you will spend the remnant of your days in loving Christian fellowship among us, and that as God gives you strength we may often see your face and hear your voice in the pulpit, in the prayer meetings and in friendly social greeting.
And may the blessing of Israel's God be upon you, that your last days may be unclouded and happy, that your soul may rest in the infinite peace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, until an entrance shall be administered unto you abundantly into his everlasting kingdom.
For myself, I thank God for the privilege of working where he wrought and reaping where he had sown. Although knowing him personally less than two years, he stands before my mind to-day as one of the three kingly men, Theodore D. Woolsey, Edwards A. Park, Charles G. Finney, who have helped my life, and to whom I owe an immeasurable debt.
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