Childhood & Early Life
Born on August 29, 1792, in Warren, Connecticut, Charles Grandison Finney was the youngest of nine children of his farmer parents. In 1794, his family shifted to Oneida County, New York.
Even though he never attended college, he acquired leadership qualities and music skills, which eventually gained him recognition in his community.
Born into a staunch Christian family, Finney began accompanying his family to the Baptist church in Henderson, New York, at a tender age.
In 1814, he taught in local public schools in New Jersey for a brief period. However, he soon returned to Jefferson County due to his mother's failing health.
His family persuaded him to return to western New York to study law. He pursued law studies privately. In 1821, Finney started working as an apprentice at civil engineer Benjamin Wright's law office in Adams, New York. Around the same time, Finney realized that legal judgments often used religious scriptures. He then started reading the ‘Bible.’
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Religious Reformation & Career
As he grew up, Finney grew more inclined toward religion. On October 10, 1821, he underwent a religious conversion after having a mystical experience, in which he believed he had seen Jesus. That year, he joined the religious flock of Presbyterian clergyman George Washington Gale and then became the director of the church choir. In June 1823, he began gearing up for his license as a Presbyterian minister, which 'St. Lawrence Presbytery' in Adams granted him in 1824.
He started conducting revivals in small New York towns and spreading them to large urban chapters, such as Philadelphia and Boston.
Along with Gale, Finney was commissioned to a 'Female Missionary Society' in Oneida County on March 17, 1824, for 6 months. He worked at Gale's farm in Evans Mills in exchange for instruction. The place later became Gale's 'Oneida Institute.'
His heavy involvement in church activities and his baptism led him to quit his practice as an attorney, and he started preaching the gospel as an evangelist. He also drifted from the antithetical group 'Master Mason' and headed toward Christianity. Finney was now actively involved in the Anti-Masonic Movement. On May 7, the local Masonic Chapter discharged him.
Finney served as a revivalist from 1825 to 1835, in Jefferson County. He then worked in Manhattan for a few years. In 1826, he began preaching revival in the New York area, after being transferred to the ‘Oneida Presbytery.’ In January that year, he preached the sermon “Can two Walk Together Except They Be Agreed?” in Troy, New York.
His reformatory ways of addressing congregations was heavily popularized in the villages of upstate New York. His methods were later adopted by the Congregational and Presbyterian churches of larger towns.
Finney's new ways, dubbed the "new measures," were heavily criticized. One of the prominent critics of his ways was Presbyterian clergyman Lyman Beecher, who supported the strict traditions of Eastern schools.
Finney gradually became a commanding orator. He would call his audience “sinners” and pray for them. His growing success and popularity even made many orthodox clergymen accept his way of teaching.
In July 1826, Finney attended the 'New Lebanon Convention,' which discussed the ''new measures'' and revivals.
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In 1828, Finney traveled to Philadelphia, Providence, and Boston. In 1829, his revivals continued to the 'German Reformed Church' in Philadelphia and Lancaster in Pennsylvania.
In 1830, he led a revival service in Rochester, New York. It continued for a year and inspired other revivals of the “Second Great Awakening.” The following year, he preached “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts” in the revival meetings in Auburn, Buffalo, and Boston.
In September 1832, Finney began his ministry at the 'Chatham Street Chapel,' New York (also known as the 'Second Free Church'). Unfortunately, he contracted cholera soon after.
After recovering in the spring of 1833, he began preaching at the newly formed 'Oberlin Collegiate Institute' in New York. The following year, he went on a sea voyage for health reasons.
In 1835, he started teaching systematic theology and was appointed as the chairperson of theology at 'Oberlin College.' He was also named the minister of the 'Chatham Street Chapel.' In that capacity, Finney made the ground-breaking decision of announcing that all slave owners and traders would no longer be part of the communion.
Finney devoted much of his time to teaching and writing. In December 1835, his manual on conducting revivals, 'Lectures on Revivals of Religion,' was published. Old School Presbyterian Albert Baldwin Dod rejected it, calling it theologically unsound. He also criticized Finney's view of the doctrine of total depravity.
Back then, the 'Chatham Street Chapel' was a theater, and its premises were being used as a church. In 1836 a new 'Broadway Tabernacle' was erected for Finney. It was "the largest Protestant house of worship in the country" back then.
Finney resigned as a pastor from the 'Chatham Street Chapel' on March 13, 1836, and joined the new 'Broadway Tabernacle Church' in April that year.
Continuing with his literary works, Finney published every week in the 'New York Evangelist.' His 'Sermons on Important Subjects' was also released that year.
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In April 1837, he resigned as a pastor from the 'Broadway Tabernacle Church.' That year, his 'Lectures to Professing Christians' was published as a book.
Finney left New York in 1837, to become a minister of Oberlin's first 'Congregational Church,' closely related to the 'Oberlin College,' where he served as the president from 1851 to 1866.
In 1840, his 'Views of Sanctification and Skeletons of a Course of Theological Lectures' was published in Oberlin, Ohio.
In 1842, he preached revivals in Rochester, New York; the ‘Marlborough Chapel’ in Boston; and Providence, Rhode Island.
In December 1843, Finney preached at the ‘Marlborough Chapel’ in Boston and shared his experiences, known as the “Great Enlargement.”
In 1844, he delivered his first services as a pastor at the 'First Congregational Church of Christ' in Oberlin.
His 'Lectures on Systematic Theology' (Vol. 2), which is an elaborate version of his belief in the perfectibility of man, was written and published in 1846, while the third volume was published the following year.
In 1848, Finney's 'Guide to The Savior' was published. In November 1849, he began preaching in England. Before leaving England, he published his 'One Volume of Systematic Theology.'
In August that year, Finney was elected the president of 'Oberlin College.' Till April 1852, he preached revivals at the 'Broadway Tabernacle,' Hartford, Connecticut, and the 'Brooklyn Plymouth Congregational Church.'
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Finney resigned as the president of 'Oberlin College' in August 1865. His 'The Character, Claims, and Practical Workings of Freemasonry' was published in 1869.
In November 1871, he delivered a speech at the 'National Congregational Council' in Oberlin. Finney retired as a pastor of the 'First Congregational Church' in May 1872.
In 1874, he spoke at the 'National Congregational Church.' His last pastoral theology class was held in July 1875.
Beliefs & Revival Ways
Finney abstained from alcohol throughout his life. He condemned the "sin of slavery." A major portion of his preaching focused on the value of charitable and philanthropic projects.
His innovative impromptu preachings and the revolutionary ways of conducting religious meetings popularized him among the masses. His preachings brought in some modern changes, as women started praying aloud in public meetings (along with men). He also promoted reservation of a place to perform and receive prayers (for those thinking of embracing Christianity) and public criticism of individual names in sermons and prayers.
Finney's preachings also focused on conversion. He encouraged the converts to dedicate themselves to disinterested benevolence and selfless efforts to build the kingdom of God on earth.
He believed that Christians had the capability to eradicate sins and bring in the “Millennium,” which would begin before Christ's “Second Coming.”
Finney also promoted the doctrine of perfectionism. He believed that complete faith in Christ would bring in the "second blessing of the Holy Spirit" that would help the believers in attaining a higher level of sanctification, hence reaching the true Christian perfection. Finney suggested obedience to God's law and loving God and one's neighbors as the ultimate ways to reach Christ.
However, he never believed in or taught sinless perfection. He said that even sanctified Christians were not immune to committing a sin. He believed that Christians were capable of losing their salvation.
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Finney was heavily involved with the abolitionist movement. He abolished slavery from the pulpit and regarded the practice as "great national sin." This led to his revolutionary decision to refuse Holy Communion to slaveholders.
As a New School Presbyterian and inspired by influential Protestant theologian Nathaniel William Taylor, Finney never advocated Calvinist theology. Instead, he taught people to have free will to choose salvation.
He believed in the capabilities of preachers to conduct impactful revivals.
Some of his known disciples were Theodore Weld, John Humphrey Noyes, and Andrew Leete Stone.
Family, Personal Life & Death
Finney initially married Lydia Root Andrews, in 1824, in Jefferson County. She was a prominent social reformer and an evangelical revivalist during the “Second Great Awakening.” She was also the founder of the ‘New York Female Moral Reform Society.' They had four daughters, Helen Clarissa, Julia, Sarah, and Delia, and two sons Charles Beman and Frederick Norton.
Lydia died in 1847. The following year, Finney married Elizabeth Ford Atkinson in Ohio. She died in 1863. In 1865, he married Rebecca Allen Rayl.
Finney's father, Sylvester Finney, died on June 26, 1842.
Finney breathed his last on August 16, 1875, in Oberlin, Ohio.