“Mr. Finney does not pretend to teach a slightly modified form of old doctrine. He is far from claiming substantial agreement with the wise and good among the orthodox of the past and present generation. On the contrary, there is a very peculiar self-isolation about him. Through all his writings there is found an ill-concealed claim to be considered as one called and anointed of God, to do a singular and great work. There is scarcely a recognition of any fellow-labourers in the same field with him. One might suppose indeed, that he considered himself the residuary legatee of all the prophetic and apostolic authority that has ever been in the world, so arrogant does he assume all knowledge to himself, so loftily does he arraign and rebuke all other ministers of the gospel. He stands alone in the midst of abounding degeneracy, the only one who has not bowed the knee to Baal. The whole world is wrong, and he proposes to set them right. Ministers and professors of religion have hitherto been ignorant what truths should be taught to promote revivals of religion, and he offers to impart to them infallible information.”
As I have been studying the theology and influence of Charles G. Finney in recent months, one of the most astonishing observations I have come to discern about him is his hypocrisy. In this article, I want make three points: Finney the Controversialist, Finney the Hypocrite, and Finney’s Legacy for today. On an administrative note, this will be my last article for the time being on the SBC and the controversy of Calvinism. So Let’s begin with Finney the Controversalist.
Finney’s Mission to Demolish
Finney detested the Old School doctrines of divine sovereignty and unconditional election. Moreover, he denied the total depravity or inability of man. Iain Murray points out that “the Memoirs-which deal most fully with the early period of his ministry-portrays him as continually waging a crusade to change the doctrinal standards of the churches.” For instance, “In 1828, he sought to hunt out people ‘from under those peculiar views of orthodoxy in which I found them entrenched.” Finney’s mission, in his own words, was, “Wherever I found that any class of person were hidden behind these dogmas, I did not hesitate to demolish them, to the best of my ability.” In the same vane, Finney writes in his Lectures, “When I began ministering, so much has been said about God’s election and sovereignty that I found it was a universal hiding place for both sinners and the church. They couldn’t do a thing; they couldn’t obey the Gospel. Wherever I went I had to demolish these refuges of lies.” Such a mission in his early ministry dominated him to the point that he confessed, “Much of my labor in the ministry has consisted in correcting these views.” Generations who succeeded Finney would soon realize this major component of Finney’s life, as G. Frederick Wright notes, “Finney has left in literature a permanent record not only of his life, but also of his struggles to adjust the truths of Christianity into such a harmonious system of thought that no violence should be done to the dictates of reason. This, as he often said, was (after that of the actual conversion of souls), the great aim of his life.”
As a controversialist and polemicist, Finney was bold and unapologetic, calling the Old School doctrines “twisted” and a “refuge of lies.” Consider these attacks in his Lectures:
“What results from such a teaching (of God’s sovereignty in salvation)? Generations and generations, millions of souls, go to hell while the church dreams and waits for God to save the world without our using the tools He has given us. This doctrine has been the devil’s most successful tool for destroying souls.”
“No wonder the Gospel takes so little effect when it is encumbered with dogmas (Old School). For hundreds of years little of the true Gospel has been preached to the world without being clogged with fraudulent theology. People are told they must repent and in the same breath told they can’t repent. The truth itself has been so mixed up with error that it produces the same effect as error; the Gospel has been warped into another gospel or no gospel at all.”
The Calvinism that had fueled the Protestant Reformation, Puritan movement, and the First Great Awakening was responsible for sending “millions of souls to hell” because it was “another gospel.” Clearly, Finney was well on his way in his demolition derby across the churches of America. Surely a man who made his presence by attacking orthodoxy both past and present would be able to withstand and weather the criticism of the opponents to the “New Measures” and the theology supporting them. However, Finney was quick to call the Old School responses as “ridiculous” and “groundless” while at the same time telling them that they “must repent and pray to God for forgiveness.” As a controversialist, Finney purposed to flush out Calvinism; yet as a revivalist, Finney purposed to fortify his methods by disarming his opponents and accusing them of grieving the Holy Spirit and hindering the work of revival.
Finney’s Appeal for Revival
This leads us to understand why Finney the Controversialist is also Finney the Hypocrite. A hypocrite, as well all know, is one who says, “Do as I say, not as I do,” and this is precisely how Finney operates as a revivalist. Perhaps the prior work as a controversialist would serve as a self-engineered precursor for justifying the need for revival. Finney writes, “When there is a spirit of controversy in the church or in the land, a revival is needed. The spirit of true faith is not the spirit of controversy. Christianity cannot prosper where arguments prevail.” Get Finney’s logic. When controversy reigns, revival is needed; ergo, start controversy and later appeal for the need of revival. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Consider how Finney advises those who would desire to experience revival. He writes, “If a pastor or evangelist means to stir revival, he should take care not to introduce controversy, or he will grieve the Spirit of God.” In other words, do not question or be critical of revivalism, especially if you are a minister, because, as he argues, “If I had time to review church history from the days of the apostles, I could show that all the controversies that took place and all the great schisms were caused by ministers.” Incidentally enough, it is on this very page that some of Finney’s most controversial statements and inflammatory attacks are made against the Old School (and that, by a minister!). Eventually, Finney makes his case more explicit regarding the measures and the men behind them. He writes, “Revival is halted by controversies over new measures. Nothing is more certain to overthrow a move of God.” Furthermore, regarding the men behind the new measures, he adds, “Another spirit that destroys revival is faultfinding, especially in those who have been fostering awakening.”
What are we to make of Finney’s warnings against controversy, especially in light of his own personal mission of igniting controversy everywhere he went earlier in his career? Either all the statements against controversy must be written off with incredulity or insincerity, or we conclude that Finney is a hypocrite, plain and simple. Either way, a close examination between his ways and his words places his legacy and his influence in question. Do revivalists and evangelists really want to follow a man who is so duplicitous, let alone guilty of such unbiblical teachings on conversion and revival?
Finney’s Relevance to Today
What Charles Finney was able to do was on the one hand, unapologetically and unashamedly assault the core doctrines of orthodoxy (Old School), and on the other hand charge anyone who would dare question or criticize his methods or own doctrines as anti-evangelistic and guilty of attempting to overthrow the work of God. Murray notes, “To oppose [the new measures] . . . is to destroy evangelistic preaching. The ministers who disagreed with him, be constantly tells his readers, were useless as evangelists. . . . If preachers will only do the right thing they will not only secure the conversion of individuals but they will also secure revivals.” Yet, Murray also reveals that Finney’s method of destruction did not cease during his ascendancy in the years of revivalism. Murray writes, “Finney was himself often responsible for the division of congregations, not only because of his general criticism of ministers, but because of the very nature of his teaching on revival. If, as he taught, all faithful men were able to secure revivals, only one conclusion could be drawn on preachers who failed to do so.” There were many ministers who could not work up the excitement among the people, even though they bought into the new measures. Finney guaranteed that the right use of means would bring about the desired end of revival, that revival had a more cause-and-effect relation than anything else, and yet many churches were being left without the fruit of the harvest. To these Finney would often argue, they just didn’t break up the fallow ground. As a result, not only were his critics among those who knew that his doctrine and practices were unbiblical, but also those who believed Finney only to find that his methods were not all that he had promised them to be. In the end, ministers were disillusioned, churches divided, and false converts assimilated back into the worldliness that fitted their nature.
In the 21st century, especially among Southern Baptists, Charles Finney’s legacy looms large. On theological confessionalism, Finney was an ordained minister, meaning he publicly subscribed to the Westminster Confession. Shortly afterwards, however, churches came to find his theological positions quite contrary to stated orthodox beliefs. Could a similar argument be made for Southern Baptists today who subscribe to the BF&M (2000) but are found to teach contrary to it? Nevertheless, while Southern Baptists would reject Finney’s semi-Pelagianism, many have uncritically embraced his methods. Among the 20th century evangelistic practices, I would argue that no other individual had more influence upon Southern Baptists than Charles Finney, especially after they had been popularized under the ministries of Billy Sunday and Billy Graham. Moreover, Southern Baptists have also adapted Finney’s stance on controversy. While controversy has always been a part of Southern Baptist life, anyone who would dare challenge or criticize the evangelistic methods and practices (such as altar calls and revival services) would be charged with “doing the work of the devil,” and as Finney commanded, “must repent and pray to God for forgiveness.” On the other hand, we are finding more and more Southern Baptists have and continue to carry the mantle of Finney’s mission to “demolish” and “destroy” the doctrines of divine sovereignty and election in salvation. Like Finney, some matters of religion must go unfettered, namely those which bring the desired results and success (pragmatism). Other matters such as Calvinism, it is incumbent to see that such “twisted” doctrines and “refuge of lies” become the very thing we crusade against. Consequently, whether it is Southern Baptist revivalism or contemporary controversy, the fingerprints of Finney’s works are still making great impressions on the contemporary landscape of ecclesiological life.
If one were to pose the doctrines of semi-Pelagianism, and in particular Charles Finney, to the average Southern Baptist minister, they would reject them entirely. However, the methods and measures derived from those doctrines must go unfettered today. I simply ask, then: Why are we willing to denounce Finney’s theology and yet at the same time uncritically embrace his methods? In the end, if we cannot answer such a question, then the one we will inevitably face is why we are just as hypocritical when we know better.
Albert B. Dod, “On Revivals of Religion” in Princeton Versus the New Divinity (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2001), 173-74.
Iain H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1994), 256.
Charles G. Finney, The Memoirs of Charles G. Finney: The Complete Restored Text (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 59.
Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revival (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1988), 133.
Charles G. Finney, The Memoirs of Charles G. Finney, 257.
G. Frederick Wright, Charles Grandison Finney (Boston: Houghton, 1891), 314.
Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revival, 14.
Iain H. Murray, Pentecost-Today? The Biblical Basis for Understanding Revival (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1998), 43.
Idem., Revival and Revivalism, 264.