Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) was a Presbyterian evangelist and perhaps the most influential figure in a wave of revival known as America’s Second Great Awakening. For his systematic approach to facilitating conversions, he is commonly called the “father of modern revivalism.”
Reacting to Protestant (chiefly Calvinist) orthodoxy, which he felt put stumbling blocks in the way of conversion, Finney still receives criticism for his distortion of the doctrines of the atonement and justification. While his orthodoxy remains in many ways questionable, there is no doubting Finney’s profound influence in shaping the history and character of American Protestantism.
By the 1840s revivalism had begun to wane, but its impact continued in the various social and political movements aimed at reforming American society, such as temperance, women’s rights, and especially abolitionism. Like many leaders of this Second Awakening (1790-1840), Finney was an ardent and outspoken opponent of slavery. So passionately did he believe in the cause that, immediately upon their conversion, he would sign new believers up for the abolitionist movement.
In 1851 Finney became President of Oberlin College, the first to admit both women and blacks along with white men. In the following year he gave a series of lectures or sermons. In one of them (“Guilt Modified by Ignorance”), he takes as his text Acts 17:30 (Paul’s speech at the Areopagus): that God frequently overlooks sin where there is ignorance, but with increasing light comes greater guilt and responsibility. To illustrate his point, he applies the principle to some of the great moral movements of his day, most particularly the institution of slavery in the United States.
In 1850 Congress had passed a series of legislation regarding the future status of new territories (whether they were to be free or slaveholding). Called the Compromise of 1850, the legislation was designed to diffuse growing tensions between North and South and to avoid Southern secession. Part of this compromise was the notorious Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which put teeth in an earlier law by requiring law enforcement in all the States to arrest suspected runaway slaves. Even private citizens in free States could be forced to participate in a slave’s apprehension or detention. Northerners were outraged at such an unjust and flagrantly pro-slavery law, and several free States passed their own legislation enabling judges to ignore the claims of slaveholders. The Act and its abuses did more to inflame abolitionist passions in the North, and the free States’ laws more to enrage the South, than any other single cause of the Civil War.
In his sermon Finney states,
For a long time this subject was scarcely discussed at all. Slavery was abolished so quietly and gradually in the Northern States, that but little general discussion was excited…they did not notice the gradual encroachments of the slave power upon the general government…Now men generally understand the relations of slavery to the national government. The startling fact is but too apparent that our Union is virtually a slaveholding state, and that Congress have seriously undertaken to make the entire domain of our country a slaveholding land. They enact their Fugitive Slave Bill into so-called law, and then send their commissioned agents into the free states, upon free soil, to compel free men, whose souls abhor slavery, to become slave-catchers, and to deliver up unto their masters or claimants, the servant that has escaped — in the very face of God’s own command to the contrary, not to say also in the very face of every dictate of humanity.
For Finney the dire situation raised new and important issues regarding “political action, the pulpit, and the duty of Christian men.”
…[T]he question what we, as Christian men shall do under this monstrous oppression is really momentous. The question now has taken this form; shall we individually and personally aid in making men slaves? …We did not expect when we entered into this Union, that we were to be dragooned into the business of slave-hunting. We did not calculate then to become the tools of the slave power, to help make men found on free soil slaves….Before and during the American revolution, there was much more political discussion in the pulpit than there is now…Indeed the great questions of the revolution were all discussed in the pulpit…”The pulpit thundered and lightened on the subject of liberty.” The consequence was the true ideas of liberty were understood, and came to have a living development in the public mind…Who needs be told that ministers then met their responsibilities to the state and to the public weal, fearlessly and boldly? Who does not know that all these questions were then blended with prayer…
But ministers in our day have become afraid to stand forth and speak as honest, fearless men on this subject, and political men have become fearful and sensitive lest the pulpit should utter its voice for freedom. But why this sensitiveness of politicians? And why this timidity in the heralds of the gospel? Have not all Christian men political duties to perform? Ought they not to search out these duties, and settle in the fear of God all the great questions they involve, and then meet their political responsibilities in the fear of God and for the welfare of the nation?
Finney believed America’s two-party system, which had hitherto been a blessing for its inherent balance, had ultimately failed to offer any solution to slavery and instead had effectively delivered the nation over to the slave powers. It was now up to the church:
It is not generally considered that neither of the two great political parties can manage this question of slavery at their option…the thing I would say is, that neither of them can control the subject of slavery. Both parties therefore concede to the South all they ask. For example, they both accede to the Compromise acts, Fugitive law included, and affirm this law to be “a finality.” This done, they cry…Drop the question of slavery, and no longer make it in any degree a political issue…Shall the Christian church accede to this? Shall we let this entire subject alone, and go in for contention of the other issues as if they had any importance worth naming in the comparison?
Until matters assumed their present form, a multitude of Christians acted conscientiously with one or the other of these great parties…Many conscientious men thought that they could do most good in that course… But now it is not so much as pretended that any good results will ensue from acting with either of the great parties…Nobody contends that under the control of either of these great parties, there is, at present, the faintest hope of repealing or even modifying the Fugitive Slave Bill, or getting one good thing for truth or righteousness. Therefore, I ask, can any good man hold on to either of those parties– for no good object whatever — not even the promise of any good to the cause of the slave being held out as an inducement?
… Do you ask, What ought Christian men to do? Doubtless they ought to use all their legitimate influence against the Fugitive Slave Bill, and against all the political aggressions of slavery upon our free land and government. Doubtless they ought to vote for freedom as against slavery, and speak out in no mistakable words and tones, till the nation shall hear and shall purge itself from all national patronage of this horrible system.
…As soon as light prevails on this subject, men can no longer go on in the same course of sustaining the system, without the greatest guilt. It will not answer to substitute evasions, and dodging and side issues in place of real repentance and true reform. To evade the claims of truth thus serves not to acquit the soul before God or man, but only to strengthen depravity and harden the heart.
The solution, Finney believes, lies in awakening the sleeping giant, the church:
…Refusal to repent when light reveals sin and duty, must hasten the destruction of any nation or people under heaven…The governments of the earth, if they resist the light that breaks in upon them, are sure to be destroyed…No Christian nation since the world began has been able to stand against the united prayers and testimony of God’s church. No one has had strength to resist any reform which God’s people have unitedly demanded…
This principle applies to all organizations, benevolent or ecclesiastical. If they resist reform when growing light demands it, God will be against them, and His chariot will grind them to powder! What does He want of a church or a benevolent society that resists reform when light and truth demand it, and sets itself in array against the progress of His cause? He knows how to use them for beacons of warning if they refuse to be used as instruments of progress in doing good. Therefore if any people or associate body will not receive and obey the light, their ruin is sure…
…What then shall we do with offending nations, and with our own government when they impose upon us fugitive laws? Of course we are to set about their reformation. Do you ask, how? The way is open. The Christian church has it in her power to reform this nation. She has long held the balance of political power, and she holds it still. Let all Christian men say, “We will not sustain slavery; the men who are in league with it cannot have our votes.” — and the thing would be done. Let all Christian voters be united in this, and they could just as certainly elect the man of their choice as there should be another election. Let them try it. They have the consciences of men on their side, and they would find strength and help rising up where they did not expect it. If they did not succeed in the next election, they surely would succeed soon. Ere another election came round, politicians would say, “We must honor and please the church,” just as they now say, “We must honor the South.”
In exercising this power, Christians must act firmly, yet with gentleness and respect:
But the way to do this is not to turn slaveholders ourselves, and force our opinions down men’s throats, and cast them from the church if they do not vote our ticket. The right way is to enlightenment on the subject — to treat them kindly and yet with great fidelity, and to try to bring them over to the truth and the right by reasoning and persuasion. Substantially we should pursue the same methods of labor and influence that we adopt when we would change men’s position on any moral question, the same as when we would convert sinners from sin to God.
…But again the question returns, what shall be done by the church to abolish slavery? I answer, Let all her organizations speak out with decision and firmness …Who does not believe that it is in the power of the great Christian organizations of our country to reform that society?
…Uncharitable measures never succeed. If even the Apostles, with all their miracles and tongues, had gone out with a bad spirit, they must have labored in vain. God suffers His own cause to experience a temporary defeat, rather than give success to men of a bad spirit. I have no doubt that in many cases the anti-slavery cause has been thrown aback by the bad spirit of its advocates. If we have erred in this matter, we must repent. We can never hope for the blessing of God until we do.
…If, now, our General Government needs reform, (of which I have no doubt,) then let us forthwith employ all constitutional means and measures for its reform. Of the wisdom of doing all this no one can for a moment doubt.
…As for voting for either of the two great party candidates, on a strongly pro-slavery platform, that question is in my mind easily settled. I can do no such thing. Sooner shall I cut off my own right hand than suffer it to drop a vote for such men, standing on such platforms.
…In some respects I am sorry, and in some respects I am not sorry to be called on to say so much on this subject of slavery — its issues, and the duties of Christians in regard to it. There is the greatest need that these things should be investigated and well considered. The public mind will and must act on these questions, and the action taken is continually affecting the honor of Christianity and the welfare of the church and of souls, most fundamentally. It cannot, therefore, be amiss to bring this subject into the pulpit. Let it engage your serious attention, and more your hearts to seek divine wisdom in prayer.
It makes one grieve to consider that if the American church had taken to heart Finney’s call to repentance and been able to unite around this issue, a million lives might have been spared and the holocaust of civil war averted. Yet if he is guilty of anything, it is perhaps in naively underestimating the spiritual stranglehold slavery, greed, and racism had on the nation, and on much of the church; that a tipping point had already been reached, and further Northern agitation would only inflame an already alienated and recalcitrant South.
Nevertheless, in hindsight we ought not to blame Finney for being hopeful, even as he prophetically paints a bloody picture of God’s impending judgment. His words and vision, too, ought still to find resonance in our hearts today, as our nation struggles under the tyranny of old injustices and new masters. Can the church disenthrall herself? Can the sleeping giant awaken?