Last September’s issue of Church History contained a very significant article by James E. Johnson on “Charles C. Finney and a Theology of Revivalism.” Finney became the leader in the revivalism which has been an outstanding feature in the development of most of American Protestantism. Bruce Shelley tracing the history of Evangelicalism in America went so far as to say “In the nineteenth century, revivalism was not a type of Christianity in America; it was Christianity in America” (p. 46). Consequently the Church History article which tells us of how his concern about and “successes in attaining conversions led him to adopt a pragmatic approach to the problems of theology and thus to be quite impatient with the Calvinistic theological system,” has something peculiarly fascinating to say to us, who as a Calvinistic church are becoming increasingly concerned about how we may become more effective in an evangelistic witness in America. Against a Presbyterian background in which men sometimes tended to stress the sovereignty of Cod without a correspondingly biblical emphasis on the gospel call to conversion and men’s responsibility for responding to it, Finney reacted in a way that carried him further and further away from the biblical doctrines we call Reformed. The belief in a limited atonement had to go, to make way for one that was universal; and total depravity had to make way for a stress on the ability of men. “He felt that the Calvinist doctrines were stumbling blocks to revivals.” He had little patience with the churches’ doctrines and although at first a Presbyterian preacher, “when he was licensed to preach he still had not read the Westminster Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church. When he finally did so he said, ‘I was absolutely ashamed of it.’”

Fantastically successful in obtaining conversions, his work was criticized because those converts were “in most cases, like the morning cloud and the early dew. In some places not…even a tenth part of them remain.”

“When he left the task of preventing backsliding was left to the local pastor.” In the course of time he even “began to ask himself about the permanent value of his work and to ponder the problem as to why so many Christians lost their enthusiasm after the revivals were over.”

“The more experience I have in preaching the gospel,’ said he, ‘the more ripe are my convictions, that ministers take it for granted that their hearers are much better instructed on religious subjects than most of them really are.’” With his emphasis on human action his doctrine became little more than a kind of moralism. “Warfield writing in a critical vein said, ‘It is quite clear that Finney gives us less a theology than a system of morals. Cod might be eliminated from it entirely without essentially changing its character.” “Clinging to some of the terminology of Calvinist theology while at the same time discarding the meaning of the terms, he preached a general atonement but still held to the doctrine of election.” But that election was merely God’s foreseeing what men would decide to do. Concerned about success in winning converts, “He was attempting…to fashion a theology that would suit the masses.”

In all of this one can hardly help but be impressed by the similarity between Finney’s ideas and the trends of thought and practice which increasingly prevail within our own churches. Concerned as we are, and properly so about our evangelistic outreach to people around us, are we not also under pressures to modify our doctrines and practice in ways that some think will be more effective in attaining those ends? Haven’t we also been told that such doctrines as particular atonement and total depravity must he dropped if we are going to win modern Americans and Canadians? Are we not being told that people today are tired of sermons and that we must give them methods of appeal and worship more to their taste? If they like comic strips let’s give them missionary literature tailored to that form. There is, of course, some validity to this demand that we consider the people to whom the Lord sends us. Paul did. He was ready to “become all things to all men if by any means he might win some” (I Cor. 9:23). But what seems to be all too readily overlooked, as it was too largely also by Finney and his fellows is that the word of God may never be modified so as to suit popular tastes. As soon as that is done one has lost the word of God. The same inspired apostle who was ready to go to such lengths to meet the people to whom he was commissioned was every bit as much concerned that the word of God he taught must not be in any way altered to appeal to the unregenerate tastes of his hearers. He must preach Christ “not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect” (I Cor. 1:17). “He must preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (vs. 24). That gospel must he so brought that men’s faith “should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (2:5). And the church had to be warned in the strongest of terms against giving in to the temptation, in the interests of popularity, expedience or any other considerations to “pervert the gospel of Christ.” “As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:7–9). That lesson we, concerned about faithful Christian life and witness to a part of the world whose religious history so largely fostered and reveals the weaknesses of Charles Finney and his disciples, most urgently need to learn. God’s word assures us that our futures and the future of our churches depend upon our learning it.


Dutton, Michigan