I chose to write about Charles Finney because he was successful, due to his passion, abilities to execute and the circumstances he was granted to make it possible for his passion to come to fruition. This spells a person who made an impact on this world.
There is no doubt Charles Finney was a man of deep passion for his Savior, Jesus Christ, and Him alone. It’s said of him “He gave allegiance to no man, except Jesus Christ.” He was so firmly rooted in Christ that he was always able to be himself, never inauthentic. He had no allegiance to a theological or practical system either. He even refused to attend Princeton Theological Seminary – “as a good nineteenth-century Presbyterian ministerial candidate should never do.” The only thing that mattered to him was Jesus. He needed not conform to anything else.
He was so passionate, the day after his conversion, he quit his law career with these words “Deacon, I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause, and I cannot plead yours.” And his law career ended and ministry career began just like that. He never looked back. Lewis A. Drummond said it this way “…his main motivation in ministry was to perform God’s perfect will.”
Finney had God-given abilities that made his passion come to fruition. As I mentioned, he quit his law career the next day after his conversion, with no formal training and wasted no time in sharing the Gospel. He wasted no time being effective either, because he was a naturally gifted communicator. This is a description of the day after his conversion:
“It seemed to Finney that every person with whom he spoke but a few words was struck with immediate conviction. It was as if every word he uttered was driven home to the heart with great spiritual power. People were beginning to be saved all over town.”
He only sharpened those skills later in life and added more to his presentation skills overall.
“His words were like an artillery barrage, felling multitudes to the floor. His piercing eyes seemed to search out people, boring into their very souls, confronting them with the demands of the Savior. His plain, pungent, colloquial preaching arrested people in frozen and rapt attention.”
Not only was he a gifted communicator, but he was also innovative. He invented what was called “new measures” early in his ministry, which were new methods of evangelism he used to promote revivals. It’s said, “with these he popularized, developed and legitimatised the entire modern approach to contemporary evangelism.”
Finney was a great thinker as well. He believed a rock-hard theological groundwork is what attributed to revivalism having any long-term effect. He shined at theology and the bible. His Lectures on Systematic Theology, and their longevity are proof of that. Dr. John Hannah mentions most evangelists never write systematic theology either, so Finney was something special.
As great as his God-given abilities were, it may not have mattered had the circumstances not been ordained by God to bring his passion and abilities to fruitfulness.
As early as his early childhood education, God began using his circumstances. His family eventually settled in Hanover, New York. This area was embryonic at the time, and it showed in the local schools. There were no comforts found in more developed Boston or Charleston. Drummond says, “the teachers [were] usually college students on vacation…It was a Spartan upbringing designed to mould a man out of a boy in short order.” Finney’s stubbornness, self-control and stamina could be attributed to this early education.
Even as a young man, his circumstances played a major role. As a successful young teacher, he began to travel south and continue his educational career. Yet God, had a different plan in mind. His mother’s health began to tremendously worsen, so he returned to Jefferson County, New York, where his parents lived. He ended up staying in New York to be close to family, because of his mother’s health. From there Finney decided to get a job at the law offices of Squire Benjamin Wright in Adams, New York. Writers he was reading at the time repeatedly quoted the Bible, so he purchased one and began to study it.
At the same time he was developing as a lawyer, he also happened to be the choir director under the pastor of his church, Rev. George W. Gale. Drummond writes “It was probably Charles’ love of music more than religion that brought this about, but he thus found himself in church every Sunday.” Here he intensely begins to criticize his pastor and congregation. Not yet a believer, he was relentlessly searching for the meaning of salvation and instinctively thought with certainty that it was more than an intellectual belief in the Gospel. He was searching for both righteousness and experience. Eventually he got what he was looking for. In the same day, he understood his righteousness was not of his own good works, but of Christ’s finished work; and he experienced God in the woods. From what started as studying the Bible for his law practice and becoming involved in the church for his love of music, ended with his conversion to Christianity and what he described as a baptism of the Spirit in the same night. The next day he ended his law career and began his career in ministry.
Even though his law career was behind him, the circumstances of studying law was still of outstanding use to him as an evangelist. Especially since he decided to forego formal theological training, his proficiency at reason, oratory, logical argument, morals and the authority of investigation gave him influence before an audience. Dr. Hannah states in a lecture “This guy could get a decision. Okay? In other words, the assumption behind this theory is that man– the reason man decides not to come to Christ is they have not been made willing to come to Christ. And it is the job of the preacher to make them willing.”
Though he denied going to Princeton, his local presbytery assigned him to Presbyterian pastors to train him informally. As Finney was being trained by the two chosen pastors, he often intensely and sincerely argued their Calvinistic views. The times he was facing the gravest conflict with them, an elder of the church would meet with him to pray and restore his spirit. Yet another circumstance that carried Finney forward to success.
Even the style of his preaching was aided by the circumstances of the day. Drummond writes “Finney’s approach may appear rather legalistic and restrictive today, but this was a time when religious emotions ran high and the evangelist determined not to let matters get out of hand. As a result of this wise approach, no serious ‘burnt district’ problems developed…” Had it not been for the drastic contrast of his preaching and what was happening emotionally in the culture at the time, he may not have been as successful as he was.
Furthermore, as he began preaching the Second Awakening was heating up again. So much so that some scholars call it the Third Awakening. This is the way Drummond puts it:
“In the second decade of the nineteenth century, the warmth of the Second Awakening began to cool…Then about 1820-5, another fresh movement of the Spirit began. It reached its zenith approximately ten years later in 1831…This was the time in which Charles Finney found Christ and began to preach.”
Could you imagine a better set of circumstances? When “another fresh movement of the Spirit began” and “reached its zenith”. I would think nearly anyone with Finney’s abilities would be successful in these circumstances.
Even favorable circumstances such as people who came across his path came to aide his ministry were contributing factors. People such as Rev. Gale, who helped him understand his own theology and sharpened him; his wife Lydia, who was extremely understanding of his travels and calling; Father Nash and others who fervently prayed for his ministry and the people he preached to; and even Arthur Tappan and Anson Phelps, who provided financial assistance. Dr. Hannah explains he even had a professional song leader to help with his appeal. His name was William Hasting, and he wrote Rock of Ages, which became Finney’s theme song.
As you can see, the success of Finney was much more than the man himself, or his efforts. Finney’s success in evangelism can be attributed to his deep passion for the Savior Jesus Christ alone, his God-given abilities and his favorable circumstances.
I am one of those people who can’t seem to nail down a clearly defined and targeted passion. I suspect it might be because I’m still young and inexperienced. My first passion was sports. Then my passion became success. Now my passion is very broadly loving Jesus, learning more about Him and finding someway to allow Him to use me best for His glory. I think my God-given abilities are effective communication, persuasion, coaching, teaching, influencing, initiative, forward thinking and work ethic. At this point in my life, I’m not sure what circumstances God is going to bring forth to bring my passion and giftedness to fruitfulness. I come from a secular sales background where I did very well, and I find myself in a fundraising role for a ministry currently. At first, I wondered if God will use my abilities and circumstances to have me continue down the fundraising path and continue raising money for ministries, but I’ve realized this is not my passion. A big part of my faith story is evangelizing my now fiance when she had serious doubts about the faith and considered herself agnostic. Now she is a beautiful follower of Christ, early on her journey, but pressing forward with sincerity. With that in mind, and working for an evangelist, I often wonder if God will use my abilities and circumstances for evangelism and apologetics. Although I’m still only being exposed to apologetics, it seems to be an early developing passion of mine. All that said, I’m trying to prayerfully and faithfully move forward without knowing the result and being open to where He leads me.
Drummond Lewis. A Fresh Look at the Life and Ministry of Charles G. Finney. 6820 Auto Club Road, Minneapolis, MN: 1985
Walters Ronald. American Reformers. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 1978