Charles Finney – the fount of all our ills


Charles Finney is rightly targeted as the most illustrative figure of the American revivalist tradition — at least, in its most crass form. In certain respects, he was a fount for the ills that plague the church of today. His theology is terrible, but he at least knew theology and what he was rejecting, which is something that cannot be said for his current heirs. In fact, he actually wrote a systematic theology. Yet, given his anthropocentric focus, it is inevitable that doctrinal concerns (you know, God) would be sidelined in a short time, and the pietist form of faith is not exactly known for its theological interests.

A good concentration of his thinking can be found in the sermon, “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts.” The title pretty much says it all. Here are some excerpts, illustrating his rejection of Reformation theology:

All holiness, in God, angels, or men, must be voluntary, or it is not holiness. …Holiness is virtue; it is something that is praiseworthy; it cannot therefore be a part of the created substance of body or mind, but must consist in voluntary obedience to the principles of eternal righteousness.

…moral character cannot be a subject of creation, but attaches to voluntary action.

[After discussing Adam’s “voluntary dedication of all his powers” before the Fall, he turns to God’s own holiness:] Indeed the continued holiness of God depends upon the same cause, and flows from the same fountain. His holiness does not consist in the substance of his nature, but in his preference of right.

[On the Fall:] It was not a change in the powers of moral agency themselves, but simply in the use of them; in consecrating their energies to a different end.

[After discussing the necessary “influence” of the Holy Spirit:] The fact is, that the actual turning, or change, is the sinner’s own act. The agent who induces him, is the Spirit of God.

…Now, in speaking of this change, it is perfectly proper to say, that the Spirit turned him, just as you would say of a man, who had persuaded another to change his mind on the subject of politics, that he had converted him, and brought him over.

(Charles G. Finney, “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts,” in Issues in American Protestantism, ed. Robert L. Firm, pp. 158-166. Underlining is mine.)

The underlined portion is my favorite part! Finney then continues to specifically reject the Reformed doctrine of “physical depravity,” as he terms it. In its place, he upholds the “inconceivably great importance” of understanding that “God rightly converts souls by motives.” Interesting stuff. Luther and Calvin would barely recognize this as Christian.



  1. I’ve not read Finney except through excerpts on the history of the era, but it’s always disturbing. My favorite parts are always how religion is man’s affair and its whole purpose is to excite the emotions towards a certain judgement. Not just adhoc revivalist religion, but even in Ancient Israel.

    That sort of belief is the seed bed for everything from the Fascists to the hip-trendy whatever of today. The whole course of human affairs is showmanship.

    Finney was absolutely correct on what he observed, but he called good which was certainly evil.

    • Finney was absolutely correct on what he observed, but he called good which was certainly evil.

      That sums it up well. He knew human nature — he knew it well. Something had to give: either his anthropology or his Protestant theology. He chose the former. It is no wonder that modernism swept-in on the heals of Finney’s revivalism.

  2. He was also ordained as a Presbyterian minister. While a fountain of good (I’m a Presbyterian minister myself) Presbyterianism in America is the fount of a lot of weirdness and calamity too.

    • Yes, I was saddened to read that he was ordained a Presbyterian — but he consciously rejected the tenets he was taught. I don’t know the extent to which he was actually under Presbyterian jurisdiction as a frontier missionary first and then as pastor of “Second Free Presbyterian Church” in NYC (later becoming “Broadway Tabernacle”) — does the “free” indicate independence from the mainline Presbyterian Church? Anyway, it appears that once he left for Oberlin, he had fully severed his connection with the Presbyterian Church.

  3. Yeah, he left the Presbyterian Church in 1835, or so, and became Congregational after that. But he was under care and ordained in his presbytery (with quite a bit of oversight according to Hambrick-Stowe’s biography), self-consciously shaped by the New Haven theology, and was pretty involved in opposing “Old School” presbyterians.

    The “free” in “Free Presbyterian” meant that the church had a free seating policy, as opposed to charging annual pew rent. (cf. Hambrick-Stowe, 95). Yeah, I had to look that up.:-)

    • Ah, the New Haven influence makes sense. Thanks for the info on the “free” designation — I had no idea.

  4. Is revivalistic pietism really America’s greatest theological error? What about racism and slavery? I imagine a black or Indian pastor in the 19th century would have seen Finney as a sideshow to horrible ethical errors.

    Now of course, I realize that many theologians and devout believers were against these things. But it was thanks in part to various theologies that these things became so deeply embedded in American culture, and in some ways we’re arguably still feeling their effects today. So is Finney (or his influences) really the root of America’s theological ills?

    • None of this is to defend Finney. “His holiness does not consist in the substance of his nature, but in his preference of right” is kind of disturbing – doesn’t that make him an awful lot like a Greek God?

    • True, the “fount of all our ills” is intentional hyperbole, and it is narrowly focused on the particular trend of consumer-oriented worship and preaching. In that respect, the revivals share a great deal of culpability. In other respects (slavery), the more orthodox and conservatives have a great deal of culpability. There’s plenty of sin to go around.

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