Finney, Charles Grandison (1792-1875)

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Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875)


Clergyman and educator

Revivals for the Middle Class . Charles Grandison Finney was born the seventh of eight children to a farming family in Litchfield County, Connecticut, in 1792. His parents named him after the model of gentility in the popular novel Sir Charles Grandison (1753) by Samuel Richardson. When he was two, his family joined the tide of migration into western New York, settling in Oneida County, where he attended a district school and probably the Hamilton Oneida Academy. When he was sixteen, the family relocated to remote Jefferson County on the shores of Lake Ontario, where Charles taught district school. In 1812 he returned to Connecticut and then taught district school in New Jersey before returning to western New York in 1818 to study law. There he met the young and energetic Presbyterian minister George W. Gale, whom Finney engaged in closely argued debate until he experienced a transforming conversion in 1821. Scornful of formal theological training, Finney was licensed by the local Saint Lawrence Presbytery and began to inspire revivals in the new towns rapidly developing along the Erie Canal. Combining revival techniques of the itinerant Methodist preachers with blunt language and legalistic argument, from 1825 to 1830 Finney became a regional phenomenon. Wherever he went, he incited intense religious excitement among the entrepreneurs and wage earners along the canal, which had already become one of the most important transportation corridors of the market economy. Finney also elicited active participation by women, held informal and protracted spiritual meetings, singled out potential converts by naming names and listing their specific sins, and placed individuals on the anxious bench as objects of group prayer. Viewing sin as deep-seated self-interest one could choose to discard, he urged individuals to a life of disinterested benevolence and useful activism. Finney responded to democratic individualism, yet trimmed away revivalisms rough edges, energizing his middle-class audiences. In 1828 he was invited to bring his evangelical appeal to enlightened and Quaker Philadelphia. In 1830, at the height of his triumph, he and his followers stormed the bastion of wickedness in New York City. Two years later the wealthy merchants Arthur and Lewis Tappan financed renovation of the Chatham Street Theater to create a Broadway Tabernacle for Finneys ministry.

The Antislavery Rebels . One of Finneys early converts in Utica, New York, was a student at Hamilton College named Theodore Dwight Weld who initially resisted the revival impulse. Finneys meek response to Welds hostility, however, melted the younger man in an emotional conversion, and Weld left college to join the evangelists Holy Band. In 1827 Weld was encouraged by Charles Stuart, a Jamaican-born British officer and Utica schoolteacher, to enroll in the Oneida Institute founded by George W. Gale. Stuart was an activist in the British antislavery movement, and he converted and educated Weld, who brought his evangelical fervor to the cause. When Arthur and Lewis Tappan sought to promote evangelical higher education in the West, they sent Weld to locate a site for a manual labor seminary. Gathering a group of young men as he proceeded, in 1832 Weld selected Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, already chartered by the Ohio legislature. The Tappan brothers invited Lyman Beecher to be president of Lane, and young men converted by Finney and associated with Weld became the students. Although Beecher favored plans of the American Colonization Society to settle freed slaves outside the United States, other evangelicals simultaneously formed the New York Anti-Slavery Society, which adopted the British program of immediate emancipation and soon merged with William Lloyd Garrisons radical and secular New England group in the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Antislavery and Educational Reform. As the new national organization began its work in 1834, Lane Seminary was consumed by protracted meetings, in which the students rejected acceptance of the colonization option in favor of immediate emancipation. Turning to education of free blacks in Cincinnati, the students organized free reading rooms, lectures for adults, and Sunday schools for children. While fears of racial amalgamation rocked the city, protests reached Lyman Beecher, who was then on a fund-raising tour in the East. In Beechers absence the board of trustees moved to abolish the seminarys antislavery society, expel its president William Allen and student leader Theodore Weld, and restrict further activity by the students among free blacks. In protest fifty-three students left Lane; supported by Arthur Tappan, several of them voted to move to the Oberlin Collegiate Institute, a manual-labor school initiated by John Jay Shipherd in northeastern Ohio. Reluctantly the new schools trustees were persuaded to meet demands of the Lane rebels that their one supporter at Lane, Asa Mahan, be appointed college president and that blacks be admitted as students. Pledging their generous support, the Tappan brothers invited Finney to join the faculty. In 1835 several of the Lane rebels trained by Weld became the core of agents of the American Anti-Slavery Society, embarking with evangelical zeal to convert the Midwest to abolitionism.

Oberlin Collegiate Institute . When the expanded institution began its course of instruction in 1835, buildings were still being constructed to accommodate the thirty-two Lane rebels and other students who enrolled. Gradually both Finney and Asa Mahan separated themselves from Welds ardent abolitionism and concentrated on the cultivation of spiritual life, turning toward the doctrines of perfectionism for which the college would be known. Oberlin students were radical enough that Congregationalists and Presbyterians appointed committees in the 1840s to examine suspected beliefs of graduates, and two were rejected when they applied to become missionaries with the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions. Drawn by Finneys reputation, students flocked to the school; in 1840 there were five hundred enrolled and by 1852, one thousand. In the 1850s an imposing chapel and four-story Tappan Hall dominated the colleges quadrangle, surrounded by Oberlin Hall, Colonial Hall, and Ladies Hall, which was built to accommodate the female students. Finney served as college minister and professor of theology. Although he maintained his concern with individual souls, he also was attentive to the physical health of students. As a result he supported the manual-labor system and advocated temperance and the Graham diet. The college became known as an abolitionist stronghold and produced students and graduates who aided fugitives on the Underground Railroad and conducted schools for free blacks. In 1850 Mahan was forced to resign from the presidency of the college, and Finney replaced him, holding the position until 1866. Serving as pastor of the communitys First Congregational Church until he was almost eighty, Finney died at the age of eighty-three in 1875.


Gilbert Hobbs Barnes, The Anti-Slavery Impulse, 1830-1844 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964);

Keith J. Hardman, Charles Grandison Finney, 1792-1875, Revivalist and Reformer (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1987);

Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989);

Memoirs of Rev. Charles G. Finney (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1876).

Charles Grandison Finney

views updated May 23 2018

Charles Grandison Finney

Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875), American theologian and educator, was a famous evangelist who brought frontier religion to the urbanized East.

Charles Finney was born on Aug. 29, 1792, in Warren, Conn.; his family moved to Oneida County, N.Y., about 1794. A self-assured young man, he decided after high school not to attend college. For several years he taught school in New Jersey, but his family finally persuaded him to return to western New York to study law.

Finney's interest in religion at this time was only perfunctory, because he found orthodox Calvinism unpalatable. Thus his route to a religious "awakening" was outside the institutional church. Observing that legal decisions often quoted Scripture, he began to read the Bible. He became concerned as to how man could achieve salvation, finally concluding that, instead of waiting upon God's regenerative spirit, any man could exert himself to give up sin and accept Jesus as a redeemer. In 1821 he had a mystical experience in which he believed he stood face to face with Jesus. From this time he devoted his energies to preaching revivals. He was licensed as a Presbyterian minister in 1824.

Finney was a masterful pulpit orator. He addressed the audience as sinners and prayed for them by name. He prolonged his meetings until early morning and even carried his ministry into the factories. Only his success at winning converts persuaded more orthodox clergymen to condone his techniques.

In 1828, after a fruitful campaign in western New York, Finney visited Philadelphia, Providence, and Boston. In 1832, at the invitation of several prominent businessmen, he moved to New York City. He was plagued with illness, and his sojourn was unhappy. Three years later he accepted the chair of theology at Oberlin College.

Finney devoted much of his time to teaching and writing. Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1835) was a manual on conducting revivals. His subsequent works, Sermons on Important Subjects (1836), Views of Sanctification (1840), and Lectures on Systematic Theology (1846), elaborated his belief in the perfectability of man. He supported the temperance movement and condemned the "sin of slavery." Drawing his following from the professional and business classes, he taught the value of charitable and philanthropic enterprises.

In 1851 Finney became president of Oberlin, a position he held until the end of the Civil War. Though hampered by illness, he conducted revivals until his death on Aug. 16, 1875, in Oberlin.

Further Reading

There is no modern biography of Finney. His Memoirs of Rev. Charles G. Finney (1876) is useful for factual data. By far the liveliest sketch of Finney's life is Bernard A. Weisberger, They Gathered at the River: The Story of the Great Revivalists and Their Impact upon Religion in America (1958). Equally important are Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 (1950), and Charles C. Cole, Jr., The Social Ideas of the Northern Evangelists, 1826-1860 (1954).

Additional Sources

Drummond, Lewis A., A fresh look at the life and ministry of Charles G. Finney, Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House, 1985.

The autobiography of Charles G. Finney, Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1977.

The memoirs of Charles G. Finney: the complete restored text, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Academie Books, 1989.

Guldseth, Mark, Streams: the flow of inspiration from Dwight Moody to Frank Buchman, Homer?, Alaska: M.O. Guldseth, 1982.

Hambrick-Stowe, Charles E., Charles G. Finney and the spirit of American Evangelicalism, Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996.

Hardman, Keith, Charles Grandison Finney, 1792-1875: revivalist and reformer, Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1987. □

Finney, Charles Grandison

views updated May 09 2018


American revival preacher; b. Warren, Conn., Aug. 29, 1792; d. Oberlin, Ohio, Aug. 16, 1875. His family migrated in 1794 to Oneida County, N.Y., where he was educated in rural schools. He taught school for several years, attended a private academy in Connecticut, studied law, and practiced as an attorney. Converted in 1821, he studied for the Presbyterian ministry under a local pastor and was ordained in 1824. Finney began preaching revivals in western New York and attracted national attention by his stress on emotional appeal and new measures, such as "the anxious seat." In 1829 he accepted a pastoral charge in New York City and in 1835 published his controversial Lectures on Revivals of Religion. His insistence on freedom of the will and the ability of sinners to repent caused his separation from the Presbyterian Church in 1836 and led to divisions in the church the following year. Finney taught theology at Oberlin College and served as pastor of the Congregational Church in Oberlin until 1872. He was president of Oberlin from 1851 to 1866.

Bibliography: c. f. finney, Memoirs (New York 1876). g. f. wright, Charles Grandison Finney (New York 1891). w. r. cross, The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York 18001850 (Ithaca 1950). w. g. mcloughlin, Modern Revivalism (New York 1959).

[r. k. macmaster]

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