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Rev. CHARLES G. FINNEY.
Speeches and Sketches
GATHERING OF HIS FRIENDS AND PUPILS, IN
OBERLIN, JULY 28TH, 1876.
MR. FINNEY IN ROCHESTER AND WESTERN NEW YORK. |
BY REV. CHARLES P. BUSH, D.D., OF NEW YORK CITY
REMARKS OF REV. R. L. STANTON, D.D., OF CINCINNATI
REMARKS OF REV. DR. PIERSON, OF DETROIT
REMARKS OF REV. JOHN P. AVERY, OF CLEVELAND, OHIO.
REMARKS OF HON. WM. E. DODGE, OF NEW YORK CITY.
SETH B. HUNT
[BY REV. CHARLES P. BUSH, D.D., OF NEW YORK CITY]
MR. FINNEY'S first labors in Rochester extended over a period of six months, in the fall and winder of 1830-31.* [*The writer was at the time a student in the Rochester Academy; joined the Third church under Mr. Finney's ministry; heard almost every sermon which he preached in that first revival; often talked of them, in after years, with others whose memory may have been more perfect than his own, and so feels confident as to the truth of statements made and incidents narrated.] The place then contained about ten thousand inhabitants; and it was estimated that eight hundred souls were converted in the revival which attended his labors. An awakening of like proportions in the same place, now, would embrace six or seven thousand converts, and in New York city eighty thousand. Mr. Finney visited Rochester again in 1842, and a thousand were converted; and again in 1856, and near another thousand submitted themselves to the Lord. Movements so remarkable are surely worthy of special mention on this occasion. We shall speak more particularly of the first.
There were then in Rochester three Presbyterian churches, one Baptist, two Methodist, and one Episcopal. Rev. Joseph Penney, an Irishman by birth and education, a ripe scholar, and a most conservative and cautious man, was pastor of the First Presbyterian church; Rev. William James, a highly educated American, but equally conservative and cautious in his way, was over the Second, now called the Brick church; while the Third had no pastor--Rev. Joel Parker, under whose ministry it had, in three years, grown from nothing to be a large and flourishing congregation, having left it but a few months before to take charge of what was then called the "First Free Church" of New York city.
Mr. Finney was invited to Rochester by the elders of the Third church, influenced especially by Josiah Bissell, one of their own number, and a man of marvelous energy and enterprise. But Mr. Finney was not at all inclined, at first, to accept the invitation, He called a council of his friends in Utica to help him consider the matter. They talked and prayed over it all one evening. The field was not regarded as inviting. There were difficulties and divisions in the churches. More promising invitations came from other directions, and his friends decided unanimously that it was his duty to go east and not west.
So, at a late hour, the conference ended and Mr. Finney retired to his room; but his own mind was not altogether satisfied. Quick as lightning, his thoughts went over the subject again, and every obstacle in the way of his going to Rochester seemed, on second thought, a good reason for visiting the place, and that at once. His plans were instantly changed, and next morning, before daylight, without stopping to communicate with one of his friends, he started west and not east.
What Rochester might have been but for that marvelous change of purpose, it is impossible now to tell; but we fear its history, even to the present time, would have been quite unlike that charming story which has been written. It seems as though the Lord must have had thoughts of special mercy for the place when He dropped those better counsels into the good man's mind, and so sent him to his night's repose.
Mr. Finney's visit to Rochester excited the greatest interest at once. Crowds attended wherever he preached. The churches were not large enough to hold the multitudes that thronged to hear him. After the pews were all filled, the aisles and areas would be supplied with chairs and benches; persons would sit as close as possible all over the pulpit stairs; and still others, men and women, and children, would stand wherever standing-room could be found, throughout a long and exhausting service.
Most of the preaching was in the Third church, although other houses of worship were almost at once thrown open, and union meetings, especially on week day evenings, were held in others. It was manifestly of the Lord that Mr. Finney was able to secure the countenance and co-operation of those very conservative and cautious pastors; as it was also to their credit that they received him as the messenger of God.
An exciting incident, which came near being an awful calamity, occurred soon after the meetings began. A vast crowd were assembled one Friday evening, in the First church. Mr. Penney was leading in the opening prayer, when suddenly there was a crash in the singers' gallery. A portion of the ceiling had fallen upon the heads of the singers, and they were enveloped in a cloud of dust.
In an instant, all was confusion, the audience evidently fearing that the building itself was falling. No one waited for another. The rush to get out the doors was fearful; and some dashed through the windows, carrying sash and glass with them, cutting and maiming themselves as they went. One lady was trodden under foot in the doorway, and would have been crushed to death, if a giant of a man had not forced the crowd back for a moment and dragged her out of her perilous position. Of course, the uproar brought Mr. Penney's prayer to a sudden conclusion, and he, too, was out of the house quicker than we can tell it; but Mr. Finney stood in the pulpit, stretched out his long arm over the surging throng, and cried at the top of his voice; "Keep still! Keep still! There is no danger."
But there was danger, and the people would not keep still. The house was emptied in a few moments; and it was found on examination that the walls had settled and separated, so as to let fall upon the plastering above the singers' seats, a loose bit of scantling left by some careless workman among the timbers of the roof; and it was thought that if the pressure had remained but a few moments longer upon the galleries, the whole structure would have been down upon our heads. It would seem as though a large part of the audience must have been killed instantly, and others mangled and maimed for life, if they had not taken the alarm as they did. It may be that He who guides the sparrow's fall allowed that bit of timber to be left as it was, on purpose to give us warning.
That church edifice was condemned, and was not used any more during the revival; but it was mercifully ordered that by this the work should not be checked, although the evening audiences were very sensitive for a time. Quite a panic was occasioned soon after, in the Third church, merely by the slamming of a pew-door. The audience were on their feet, and utter confusion reigned for a few moments. Some rushed into the street. One man dashed though a window, fell upon the stone steps of the basement of the house, and was nearly killed. But still the work went on.
Mr. Finney generally preached three times on the Sabbath and two or three evenings of each week, besides frequently visiting some neighboring town to give a sermon in the afternoon. Added to all this, he held frequent inquiry-meetings and private interviews with the anxious, often at work until near midnight and up and at it again in the early morning. The amount of hard work, for brain and muscle, performed by that man in those six months was something prodigious.
At first his preaching was addressed almost exclusively to professors of religion, with hardly a word for some time to the impenitent; but the duties and responsibilities of a Christian life were so portrayed as absolutely to amaze and frighten the cold and backslidden professor. The sins of worldliness, lukewarmness, and neglect of duty were set in startling colors. There was indeed some thing fearful in those sermons, so searching, scorching, withering; and yet no one could find fault with them, for they were drawn directly from the Word of God. He had a "Thus saith the Lord" for every statement; and the Holy Spirit was evidently attending every word spoken and carrying conviction to every mind. Indeed, the very atmosphere of the place seemed surcharged with the solemnity of eternity; and there was in the speaker the dignity and majesty of one of the old prophets. His words were like flames of fire. False hopes were consumed like tow by their touch. Backsliders were brought trembling and astonished to the feet of the Saviour to ask for mercy. Reconciliations were effected among estranged brethren. Confessions, sad and pitiable, fell from penitent lips. Forgiveness was sought and found at the mercy-seat. All were melted together in love and new consecration to the Master.
This was preliminary work, attended with groans and tears. Strong men, prominent members and officers of the churches, made public confession of their sins, their inconsistencies, and especially of their great guilt in caring so little for the prosperity of Zion, and doing so little for the salvation of sinners around them. The sermon from the text, "Am I my brother's keeper?" and that from the words, "Others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire," made a prodigious impression; and the confession, full of anguish, wrung from many an agonized heart was, "We are verily guilty concerning our brother."
The church being thus shaken as by an earthquake, and Christians aroused to pray fervently for God's blessing, Mr. Finney was prepared to preach to sinners. He began with the law, showing what its requirements are, what its penalty, and how just they are, how absolutely necessary to the order and stability of the universe; how even the law itself, as really as the Gospel, demonstrates the goodness of the divine Being; and therefore how fearful a thing it must be to sin against such a law-giver and against all the interests of the universe.
There was something fearful in those sermons also. Indeed, it almost makes one shudder, even after this lapse of years, to recall some of them--that especially from the text, "The wages of sin is death." The preacher's imagination was as vivid as his logic was inexorable. After laying down self-evident principles of human nature and divine government, then drawing out Scripture truth touching the same, making all plain and irresistible by argument and illustration, how he rung the changes on that word "wages," as he described the condition of the lost soul: "You will get your 'wages'; just what you have earned, your due; nothing more, nothing less; and as the smoke of your torment, like a thick cloud, ascends forever and ever, you will see written upon its curling folds, in great staring letters of light, this awful word, wages, wages, WAGES!"
As the preacher uttered this sentence, he stood at his full height, tall and majestic--stood as if transfixed, gazing and pointing toward the emblazoned cloud, as it seemed to roll up before him; his clear, shrill voice rising to its highest pitch, and penetrating every nook and corner of the vast assembly. People held their breath. Every heart stood still. It was almost enough to raise the dead--their were no sleepers within the sound of that clarion voice.
And yet that same mighty man, when speaking of the love of Christ or the peril of the soul in its sins, was as great in tenderness and pity as before in majesty and truth; moved himself to tears and entreaties enough to break a heart of stone. Many seem to think of him only as the stern, uncompromising preacher of righteousness. He was that, and more also--a Paul in doctrine, but touching and tender as John himself in his delineations of divine love. But he did not preach love as a mere instinct, or a weak, mawkish, and indiscriminating sentiment. His God was not all pity; but also a God of majesty and of law and of justice--His love all the more glorious because intelligent, and because it saves from wrath deserved.
We once saw a young man lying at full length upon the floor of Mr. Finney's room, his face almost black with rage, as he cursed God and cursed the day of his birth, as though possessed of the evil one; Mr. Finney meantime walking the floor, wringing his hands and groaning aloud as he fervently prayed that the enraged bull of Bashan might not break through all restraint; blaspheme the Holy Ghost, and so be cast off forever.
This youth, who was proud and skeptical, but apparently under deep conviction of sin, had come in to converse with the minister. Of course, the conversation was plain and searching. The young man found all the bulwarks of his infidelity falling flat around him; as they could not stand for a moment against the battering rams of a true logic. The poor stripling was confounded and vexed, but not subdued; and yet he had consented to kneel to be prayed for, and the minister had used some pretty plain language in this service also, telling the Lord how proud and foolish and rebellious this pretended inquirer was. When the prayer was ended, the young man was so beside himself with enmity and rage that, instead of rising from his knees, he rolled over on the floor, cursing and swearing like Peter--only more so.
But the good man's prayer prevailed; the youth did not blaspheme the Holy Ghost; he grew more calm; accepted the truth, and has been a consistent and honored member of the Church from that day to this.
It will be remembered that the year 1831 was a season of marvelous religious influences thoughout the land; but in few places, if in any, was the work so remarkable as in and around Rochester. We have already given the number of converts as eight hundred; but that figure is far too small if we include the surrounding towns, in many of which Mr. Finney preached more or less, whilst all drew much of their inspiration from what was going on there. One hundred and fifty that year were received into the First Presbyterian church of the city--ninety-two at one time. One hundred and eleven were added to the Second church; and one hundred and forty to the Third. The Baptist, Methodist, and Episcopal Churches also gathered large harvests. The Presbyterian church in the neighboring town of Penfield received thirty-nine new members. Pittsford about the same number; Bergen one hundred; Clarkson the same; Ogden one hundred and thirty; and others town in like proportion. Over twelve hundred new members were added that year to the churches of Rochester Presbytery alone, beside the great ingathering on the same field into churches of other denominations.
But the grandeur of that work is not to be estimated by numbers alone. The whole community was stirred. Religion was the one topic of conversation, in the house, in the shop, in the office, and on the street. The soul's interests were uppermost in all minds. God was near; eternity real; the judgment sure. Noise and confusion and lawlessness gave place to quiet and order and comfort. The only theatre in the city was converted into a livery stable; the only circus into a soap and candle factory. Grog shops were closed; the Sabbath was honored; the sanctuaries were thronged with happy worshipers; a new impulse was given to every philanthropic enterprise; the fountains of benevolence were opened and men lived to do good.
And it is worthy of special notice that a large number of the leading men of the place were among the converts--the lawyers, the judges, physicians, merchants, bankers, and master mechanics. These classes were more moved from the very first than any other. Tall oaks were bowed as by the blast of the hurricane. Skeptics and scoffers were brought in, and a large number of the most promising of the young men. It is said that no less than forty of them entered the ministry. We have known some of them who have not lived in vain; and some have finished their work and gone to their reward; whilst others are still bearing the heat and burden of the day.
It is not too much to say that the whole character of the city was changed by that revival. Most of the leaders of society being converted, and exerting a controlling influence in social life, in business, and in civil affairs, religion was enthroned as it has been in few other places. The city has been famous ever since for its high moral tone, its strong churches, its evangelical and earnest ministry, its frequent and powerful revivals of religion. It always has "the smell of a field which the Lord hath blest;" and those who know the place best ascribe much of all the good which has characterized it to the shaping and controlling influence of that first grand revival. Even the courts and the prisons bore witness to its blessed effects. There was a wonderful falling off of crime. The courts had little to do, and the jail was nearly empty for years afterward.
Of course, the young people of the place had before been sufficiently vain and foolish. Indeed, there were young men there who prided themselves on knowing how to do the gay and festive a little better than anybody else. They had been accustomed to open the winter's festivities with a grand ball; but this revival was likely to make their dancing an uphill business. They took the alarm and began to consider what to do to resist the rising tide. Not to be thwarted in their pleasures, they rushed around, got out their invitations post-haste, and anticipated the time of holding the ball by a month; but it was a stale and melancholy affair; and in less than another month the managers were all converted, and renounced their dancing forever. Some of them are leading members of Christian churches today and know whereof we affirm.
It will be inferred that Mr. Finney could read character. It would seem, indeed, as though no man ever knew the human heart better, or could more successfully explore its secret recesses of wrong and deceit. Able and acute men were often astonished to see how much better he knew them than they knew themselves. A single question, or even a look from his great searching eyes, would turn their very hearts inside out, and reveal to themselves depths of wickedness of which they had not dreamed before.
A conceited young infidel, attracted chiefly by curiosity, came into the inquiry-room. Mr. Finney approached him with some solemn questions touching his soul's interest. Instantly the young man bristled up for an argument against the truths of Christianity. The great preacher saw at a glance that the tyro merely wished to display himself. He had no time to witness such a silly pageant, as a hundred anxious inquirers were waiting for him; he therefore gave the fledgling just one look of mingled scorn and pity, and passed on.
No medicine ever touched the diseased spot more speedily than that look reached that man's guilty conscience. He saw in a moment that the man of God had read him through and through; that his immense conceit, and his palpable insincerity, had not so much as a gauze veil over them, and he was confounded. Instantly, his own sinfulness was revealed to him as never before. From that moment, he was struck under genuine conviction; was soon converted, and thanked Mr. Finney for that reproving glance. He spoke of the consummate wisdom of that silent rebuke, and freely acknowledged that nothing else could have touched him, or so soon have brought him to his senses.
Another youth came to him with the catechism. He had there learned that the "elect" alone are to be saved; he did not know as he was one of the elect; and he did not see any use trying to get religion until he knew that. Mr. Finney told him to put away his catechism and go to his Bible, and he would there find it written long before the catechism was made, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved"-- "that is catechism enough for you; at least for the present." The young man took the advice and had no further trouble. He has long been an able and successful pastor in the Presbyterian Church. He preaches both Scripture and catechism, and God has been pleased to use him as the instrument of many conversion.
It was in Rochester that Mr. Finney first used what was called the "anxious seat." He had already labored for six years as an Evangelist, and great numbers had been converted under his preaching. He had sometimes called upon those who were anxious, to stand up for a few moments in the congregation, as an expression of their desire for special prayer in their behalf. But he had begun to feel that that was not enough. He wanted something more demonstrative; something which should more fully commit the soul to the Lord, and help to break down its pride and the fear of man. We believe it is the general experience, that we all first want religion without letting anybody know it; ashamed to confess to our fellow-men that which they already know; ashamed publicly to ask forgiveness for sins and crimes publicly committed; and so thousands carry their load in secret, as they flatter themselves, and die with their sins upon them.
Suppose we grant that he did not always weigh his words as more cautious mortals might have done. How could he, and still be that son of thunder, that whip of scorpions which the times demanded? No milder character could have stirred all Central and Western New York as he did. He was manifestly raised up for the occasion, and clothed with power according to its need; "peculiarities" and "eccentricities" included, if any so insist. And it is not too much to say, that he introduced a new era in preaching, the era of simplicity, directness, and earnestness; looking for definite and immediate results. He discarded technical terms, and talked to the people, so that they knew that he meant them, and was talking about their interests; and that they were guilty and in danger, and had something to do to escape the wrath to come. And yet Mr. Finney's peculiarities have been greatly exaggerated. He did not say or do one-tenth part of the queer things ascribed to him. They did queer things, and he had the credit of them.
Besides, it was simply impossible even for some ministers at that time to judge Mr. Finney justly; they were so far behind him in zeal, in consecration; his life was, in fact, such a scathing rebuke to their indolence and indifference, not to say worldliness and want of adaptation to the work of the ministry. He did not say, "Come and see my zeal for the Lord of hosts;" but men did see it, and it provoked envy and detraction, from which he often suffered and by which his work was sometimes hindered.
Besides, again, Mr. Finney tried to adapt his instructions to the times, and that crossed the prejudices of many staid and excellent men. He came, like John the Baptist, preaching repentance. The churches in all that region had had a surfeit of "inability," and "election," and "divine sovereignty." Most of the religious teaching had somehow given the impression, whether intended or not, that we have little or nothing to do with our own salvation, except to "wait God's time"--if He sees fit to come and convert us He will; if not, we can't help it; we must perish.
It had also come to pass that sin was generally regarded as more a misfortune than a fault; it was inherited; it came with our blood, and we could not help it. But one of Mr. Finney's earliest sermons was from the words, "O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself;" from which he taught us that sinners are the guilty authors of their own destruction; not the innocent victims of a terrible calamity. And here he explained the nature of sin, as a transgression of the law; rebellion against divine authority; the foolish, wicked choice of our own way in preference to God's way.
And then, as to our inability, he said, "Behold, I set before you life and death; therefore choose life." You can choose life, or God would not have commanded it; you must choose life, or perish forever. Or he would say, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved." You can believe, or the command is unjust; you must believe, or be lost. And then he would tell us what true faith was, and what it was not; illustrating it in various ways, and turning it over and over, until even the blind could see that faith is a voluntary act; our own act; and that no one else, not even God Himself, could believe for us; and so also that unbelief is a voluntary act and a sin.
But no one of his sermons was at first so new and startling as that from the words, "Make you a new heart and a new spirit; for why will ye die?"--Sinners bound to make themselves new hearts! Many had supposed that they could as soon create a new world as do that. But Mr. Finney made the duty plain, and thousands found it entirely practicable.
And then as to waiting God's time, he said, You have waited too long already. "Now is the accepted time; now is the day of salvation." You need not wait for God; He is waiting for you; and "God now commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent." That is your first and absolute duty; and if so, of course you have all the powers necessary for the performance of that duty, and every moment you delay it you are rebelling against God, and doing despite to the spirit of His grace.
This preaching was like a new revelation to many. It startled them from the sleep of long and miserable years of indolent waiting and guilty inaction, It was also a gleam of hope to many who had been on the borders of despair, supposing that there was nothing for them to do, and seeing no hope that God would interpose in their behalf.
And yet Mr. Finney did not overlook or slight this other essential truth, "Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord." He constantly and emphatically taught that "the excellency of the power is of God, and not of us." He claimed nothing for himself. He was but the instrument in the Divine hand. All the arguments and entreaties possible from human lips, could not convert a single soul without the Spirit's agency. No minister ever taught this doctrine more distinctly or more emphatically. And yet he did not so hold it as to destroy man's accountability, or to excuse or palliate his sins. He did not teach that the Spirit's influences were needed to create new faculties in us, but only to lead us to use aright the powers we already have; just exactly as the great President Edwards taught long before, although he was not always consistent with himself.
Mr. Finney was a "New School" man, a moderate Calvinist, orthodox to the core on the cardinal doctrines of that system, the divinity of Christ, the atonement, man's utter sinfulness, his need of regeneration by the Holy Ghost, and his salvation by grace alone. And his converts have run well; although some did, indeed, fall off--some did in Edwards day, some in Nettleton's; but most of those converted in the great revival of which we speak have stood the test of time, and some of them have been eminent in usefulness. Indeed, they have constituted a large portion of the intelligence, the wisdom, and the efficiency of the churches of Central and Western New York from that day to this, whilst many are scattered in other parts of the country, and some even in other land, working for the Master.
When Mr. Finney visited Rochester the second time, which was in 1842, he was on his way from Providence, R.I., where he had been laboring for some time, to his home in Oberlin. He was thoroughly worn down with work, and greatly needed a season of rest. He stopped, as he supposed, for a day only, to gather a little strength before going further. As soon, however, as it was known that he was there, he was beset with invitations to stay and preach. And what was very remarkable, the first one who approached him on the subject was an unconverted lawyer, a judge of the highest court of the State. This was soon followed by a written request from leading members of the bar, that a course of lectures might be given to lawyers, particularly adapted to their modes of thought and their need. Mr. Finney gladly consented to this, and many of them were converted, the eminent judge referred to being the first to come out on the Lord's side. His conversion was very striking in its circumstances, and made a profound impression on the whole community. Other leading citizens and "chief women not a few," were brought in.
At his third and last effort in Rochester, which was in 1855-56, the lawyers again asked for a course of lectures to their profession, the request being signed by two judges of the Court of Appeals. To this Mr. Finney consented, as before, and many of the first citizens of the place who had passed through the former revivals, now embraced the great salvation.
In his Autobiography, that wonderful book which is preaching far and wide almost as the great Evangelist did while living, Mr. Finney makes this record: "What was quite remarkable in the three revivals that I have witnessed in Rochester, they all commenced and made their first progress among the higher classes of society. This," he adds, "was very favorable to the general spread of the work and the overcoming of opposition." And again he says, "I never preached anywhere with more pleasure than in Rochester. They are a highly intelligent people, and have ever manifested a candor, an earnestness, and an appreciation of the truth, excelling anything I have seen, on so large a scale, in any other place."
Mr. Finney thought well of Rochester, and he loved to talk of those revivals to the very last. Indeed, hardly anything, in his old age, would rouse him more. He would inquire affectionately after one and another of his dear children in the Lord; where they were, what they were doing, what especially was their spiritual condition, whether or not they were true to their early professions, and still laboring with their might in the Lord's vineyard. And then he would go over some of those early scenes, relating incidents with the greatest minuteness and accuracy--how one and another fought against his convictions, but was finally subdued by Divine grace.
The people of Rochester and all Western New York, ought to think well of Mr. Finney. Indeed, they owe him a debt of gratitude which they can never repay. As godliness hath promise of the life that now is, as well as of that which is to come, thousands and tens of thousands are really indebted, under God, to his blessed influence and instruction for what they are and what they possess for this world, as well as for the hope of the life everlasting.
He met them in their peril; warned them in their danger; pointed them to paths of peace and safety. Thousands gave up their unlawful pursuits and crooked ways, escaped from the snares in which their feet were already entangled, and became sober, industrious, and virtuous citizens. It is not too much to say, that thousands are indebted to that wonderful man for their success in life; for position, competence, influence, home, kindred, friends, and daily joys. What miserable shipwreck many of them might have made, both for this world and the next, if he had not so met them and moved them by his mighty influence, it is not difficult to conjecture. Is it too much to expect that some of those thus favored will show their gratitude by their works?
Although this memorial day is not intended as an occasion for raising money; yet it may not be amiss just to say in closing, that a project has been started by some of Mr. Finney's early friends outside of Oberlin, to found a professorship in this institution, to bear his honored name, to perpetuate his memory and his influence. It has seemed to them the fittest monument that could be erected to the man. And even in these troublous times some generous subscriptions have already been made to the object. Others are hoped for and confidently expected. Indeed, the project is manifestly too good an one to fail. It needs only to be stated to commend itself to every one's sympathy and approval.
But it can not, and should not, long be delayed. The institution needs it, and needs it now. Besides, Mr. Finney's early friends are passing away. What they do should be done quickly. Fervently do we hope that this memorial service may in some way favor and hasten the consummation of a project so just and so important.