29 Mar

Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1835)

Finney was a Presbyterian preacher during the Second Great Awakening in New York. He is famous for inducing conversion experiences with his sermons and revival techniques, called “New Measures,” in the 1820s and 1830s. Finney published Lectures on Revivals of Religion in 1835. These lectures had been delivered to his own congregation in previous years, and edited and published by the New York Evangelist. Finney was relatively unknown in evangelical circles until the publication of these lectures in book form. The lectures criticized New England Calvinism and lauded methods of evangelicals, particularly Methodists. The publication of Lectures on Revivals of Religion was meant to resuscitate revivalism amidst controversy, debates, and the decline of revivalism in churches. Two of Finney’s most famous published lectures were “Methods to Promote Revivals” and “Instruction to Young Converts.”

“Methods to Promote Revivals”

“Methods to Promote Revivals” argued that under the Gospel dispensation God had not established any particular measures, or no particular system, for promoting revivals of religion. Finney argued that if one looked to history, one could see that there had been a succession of New Measures. New Measures had changed with traditions and time. People usually had a hard time accepting New Measures because they believed the old ones had come from God. Eventually New Measures became old ones and the cycle continued. To see this truth, one only had to look to examples in church history. Finney reminded readers that: 1) pastors’ clothing had changed over time and that different articles of clothing marked pastors’ status; 2) the books, songs, and materials of worship changed over time; and 3) the participation of laymen had also change (in particular, Finney noted that at one time women’s prayer meetings were opposed in all churches).

Finney lauded the great revivalists in Christian history who had instituted such changes, including the apostles, Luther and the Reformers, Wesley and his coadjutors, and President Edwards. These men served as models for Finney’s promotion of his own New Measures. Finney’s New Measures included anxious meetings, protracted meetings, and the anxious bench. Anxious meetings allowed pastors to converse with individuals and groups about religion in order to “lead them immediately to Christ.” These meetings were not new. They were practiced in New England as means to induce conversions. Protracted meetings were camp meetings or revivals of religion that lasted multiple days. Again, these were not new. Baptists, Methodists, and Episcopalians hosted these meetings. But by the 1830s, Presbyterian ministers and laymen questioned the efficacy of revivals. People who converted at these meetings usually slid backwards shortly after their conversions to Christ. Moreover, many people complained that these meetings interfered with their business work. They grumbled about having to take time off to attend these meetings. This upset Finney. He argued they needed to realize they were doing God’s work at these meetings. Finney also suggested that these meetings should not be about spending money and entertaining travelling guests. Moreover, these meetings should avoid sectarianism and employ only 1 or 2 preachers. Finney also argued that people should stop think about these meetings as the only measure to promote the revivals of religion. Just as effective, Finney suggested, was the anxious seat. This seat put individuals in the spotlight at meetings and forced them to make a decision for Christ. Finney thought the individual and psychological nature of the anxious seat would only bring those who were truly ready for conversion before the congregation. The anxious seat provided some liability against mass conversions at protracted meetings.

Finney concluded by reminding readers that congregations needed new measures, particularly more entertaining ways of preaching (like the Methodists). Finney criticized Presbyterians for lauding education in ministers over their abilities to preach and draw crowds. “Many ministers are finding it out already, that a Methodist preacher, without the advantages of a liberal education, will draw a congregation around him which a Presbyterian minister, with perhaps ten times as much learning, cannot equal, because he has not the earnest manner of the other, and does not pour out fire upon his hearers when he preaches.” Finney argued for a shift away from older forms of Calvinism to New Measures that were more effective for the times. According to Finney, it was “the right and duty of ministers to adopt new measures for promoting revivals.” Holding on too tightly to the old measures “savors strongly of fanaticism.”

“Instruction to Young Converts” explains why and how ministers and churches should educate new converts. Educating new converts did not include teaching them doctrinal knowledge, or that religion is a substance that is part of the mind. Religion was not just about raptures and ecstasies, or “high flights of feelings.” Religion was “obedience to God, the voluntary submission of the soul to the will of God.” Religion did not consist of religious duties alone, like reading the Bible, praying, or going to meetings. These were part of religion, but not converts’ sole duties. Obedience to God included “A LIFE OF PIETY,” not just duties. Religion did not include “desires to do good.” This was “practical Atheism.” Religion consisted of choosing to do duties in everyday life. Religion required selfless, voluntary action undertaken to please God alone. Religion also consisted of self-denial and sanctification. Sanctification did not precede obedience and it was not a change in one’s nature or soul. Sanctification was obeying God “more and more perfectly.” Religion was perseverance, practicing piety in everything, and temperance in all things (particularly, temperance in overeating, and abstaining from tobacco and coffee and tea, which were not nutritious). Religion should pervade a young convert’s business life. Young converts should try to be just a holy as ministers. Young converts should aim at being perfect and to exhibit their light. Religion also consisted of winning souls for Christ. The church should allow young converts to be active in the church and the church should watch over them. The church should be tender in reproving them, but also point out their faults. It was important for the church to educate young converts and not leave them to their own devices after revivals and conversion experiences. The church should train young converts as soldiers of the churches for missions. The hope of the church was young converts. If they had truly converted, then young converts could be harnessed by the church and made energetic and thorough Christians.

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