Charles Grandison Finney (August 29, 1792 – August 16, 1875) was a minister of the gospel originally in upstate New York and grew to become an important figure in the Second Great Awakening whose impact on the social history of the United States of America was profound.
Finney was known for his innovations in preaching and conducting religious meetings, such as having women pray in public meetings of mixed gender, development of the "anxious bench" (a place where those considering becoming Christians could come to receive prayer), and public censure of individuals by name in sermons and prayers. He was also known for his use of extemporaneous preaching.
Born in Litchfield, Connecticut, Finney was the youngest of fifteen children. His parents were farmers and Finney himself never attended college. However, his six foot three inch stature, piercing eyes, musical skill, and leadership abilities gained him recognition in his community.He studied as an apprentice to become a lawyer, but after a dramatic conversion experience and baptism into the Holy Spirit in Adams, New York, he resigned from all of his duties at his law office to attend to his calling to preach the gospel. At the age of 29 under George Washington Gale, Finney studied to become and eventually became a licensed minister in the Presbyterian Church, though he then had and would continue to have many misgivings about the fundamental doctrines taught in that denomination.
Finney moved to New York City in 1832 where he pastored the Chatham Street Chapel, and later founded and pastored the Broadway Tabernacle, known today as Broadway United Church of Christ . Finney's presentation of his Gospel message reached thousands and influenced many communities.
In addition to becoming a popular Christian evangelist, Finney was involved with the abolitionist movement and frequently denounced slavery from the pulpit. Beginning in 1821, he denied communion to slaveholders in his churches.
In 1835, he moved to Ohio where he would become a professor and later president of Oberlin College (from 1851 – 1866). Oberlin was fertile ground for the early movement to end slavery and was among the first American colleges to coeducate blacks and women with white men.
Prior to his conversion, he had been a Freemason, but became a staunch opponent of Masonry, and wrote an extensive book attacking it, entitled The Character, Claims, and Practical Workings of Freemasonry
Finney was a third degree Master Mason in Freemasonry for eight years, although he left Masonry later in life. Finney came to believe that part of his oath as a Master Mason was immoral and that Masonry was dangerous to civil government evidenced by the alleged murder of William Morgan.
Finney joined the Meridihi peoplean Sun Lodge No. 32 in Warren, New York around the age of 24. He became an Entered Apprentice on February 28, 1816 and took both degrees of Fellow Craft and Master Mason a few weeks later on March 6, 1816. At the time he thought the rituals were "silly" but did not think they were immoral, but he admitted he also did not have any religion and was not a Christian. Finney came to believe that he could no longer have any type of fellowship with Freemasons. He asked for a discharge and was honorably discharged on May 6, 1824 around the age of 32 , although his conversion experience had come several years earlier around the age of 29. He personally felt that he had been deceived into making an oath that conflicted with Christianity in that he had been promised that Freemasonry would not conflict with his religious or civil obligation. In his estimation, the oath of Master Mason did conflict with those obligations.
Finney wrote extensively about Freemasonry. There are over two hundred letters related to Masonry in his personal papers and he published a number of articles on Freemasonry that were republished in 1869 as Character, Claims, and Practical Workings of Freemasonry.
As a new nation the United States was undergoing massive social flux during the 19th century, and this period birthed quite a large number of religious movements, such as Mormonism (1830), Millerism (1830's and beyond), and the offshoots of Millerism--Jehovah's Witnesses (1878) and the Seventh-day Adventist Church (1863). The nation's westward expansion brought about untold opportunities and a readiness to dispense with old ways of thinking, an attitude that influenced people's religious understanding.
Finney was the most famous religious revivalist during this period in this particular area. While groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and Seventh-day Adventists became closed and exclusivist, Finney was widely accepted and influential amongst more mainstream groups. Finney never started his own denomination or church and never claimed any form of prophetic leadership above other evangelists and revivalists.
More flexible Christian denominations, such as the Baptists and Methodists, were able to draw many of Finney's alleged converts into their churches, while more established denominations, such as the Presbyterians, were more resistant.
Finney's theology is difficult to classify, as can be observed in his masterwork, Religious Revivals. In this work, he also states that salvation depends on a person's will to repent and not forced by God on people against their will. However, Finney affirmed salvation by grace through faith alone, not by works or by obedience. Finney also affirmed that works were the evidence of faith. The presence of sin thus evidenced that a person did not have saving faith.
In his Systematic Theology, Finney remarks that "I have felt greater hesitancy in forming and expressing my views upon this Perseverance of the saints, than upon almost any other question in theology. At the same time, he took the presence of unrepented sin in the life of a professing Christian as evidence that they must immediately repent or be lost. Finney draws support for this position from Peter's treatment of the baptized Simon (see ) and Paul's instruction of discipline to the Corinthian church (see ). This type of teaching underscores the strong emphasis on personal holiness found in Finney's writings.
Finney's understanding of the atonement was that it satisfied "public justice" and that it opened up the way for God to pardon people of their sin. This was the so-called New Divinity which was popular at that time period. In this view, Christ's death satisfied public justice rather than retributive justice. As Finney put it, it was not a "commercial transaction." This view of the atonement, typically known as the governmental view or moral government view, differs from the Calvinistic view, known as the satisfaction view where Jesus' sufferings equal the amount of suffering that Christians would experience in hell. The governmental view doesn't see the atonement as "paying" off a debt people owe, but rather as making it possible for sinners to be pardoned without weakening the effect of the Law of God against sin.