The Autobiography of Charles Finney

The Autobiography of Charles G. Finney: The Life Story of America's Great Evangelist-In His Own WordsThe Autobiography of Charles G. Finney: The Life Story of America's Great Evangelist-In His Own Words by Charles Grandison Finney

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"God never laid it upon thee to convert those he sends thee to. No; to publish the gospel is thy duty."
William Gurnall (1616-1679) in Puritan Theology, pg 970

Finney contradicts this at every point of his ministry, and by his own account.

Finney was against hyper-Calvinism, that only God can regenerate the heart. (This was and is standard Calvinism, not an aberrant hyper-version of Calvin.) WE should decide to obey Christ, and that will change heart. We can make a new heart for ourselves, since we do not have a sinful nature, according to Finney. “The foundation of the error of which I speak, is the dogma that human nature is sinful in itself; and that, therefore, sinners are entirely unable to become Christians” (238). “The peculiarities of hyper-Calvinism have been a great stumbling block, both of the church and of the world. A nature sinful in itself, a total inability to accept Christ, and to obey God, condemnation to eternal death for the sin of Adam, and for a sinful nature, and all the kindred and resultant dogmas of that peculiar school, have been the stumbling block of believers and the ruin of sinners” (333). Finney went beyond Arminian thought (that we have a free will to choose for or resist salvation in Christ) to Pelagius’ position, condemned by the whole church centuries ago.

New measures

Finney advocated new measures. Not just telling people to pray for a new heart and use the means of grace, but calling for people to stand up on the spot, come to a special row for those anxious for their souls, come to a separate meeting afterward. His focus was on man’s will, more than on God.
He “talked to the people as I would have talked to a jury.” He didn’t realize this direct, confrontational, do-it-now-in-front-of-everyone approach could cause short-term or false commitments. As J.I. Packer observes, these "devices... to precipitate decisions must be eschewed.... Such pressures may even be harmful... for 'when the decisions wear off those who registered them will be found 'gospel-hardened' and antagonistic.' (Puritan Theology, pg. 970).

Emotions were the bell-weather for a real movement of the soul, for Finney. “She struggled and groaned out her prayers, in a manner that immediately indicated to me that C—— must be converted.” “The burden of his soul would frequently be so great that he was unable to stand, and he would writhe and groan in agony” (272).


This got results, and Finney knew it. He often notes the effects with false modesty, comparing to the ministers who wouldn’t come, and were surprised by how many attended his revivals. “The results justify my methods,” he said.

Opposed to established churches:

Finney was ordained by the Presbyterian church, not having studied the Westminster confession. The church accepted him because he got results, with little regard for his fidelity to Scripture. They didn’t connect Calvinistic doctrine to the Bible in their churches, but just quoted the catechism as an authority in itself. This left Finney an opening to persuade the people of another perspective from the Bible.
“They had their Thirty-nine Articles in the Established church, and their Westminster Confession of faith; and these they regarded as authority. They were not at all in the habit of trying to prove the positions taken in these “standards,” as they were called; but dealt them out as dogmas. When I began to preach they were surprised that I reasoned with the people” (404).

He even gives hints that he used the buildings and ready audience of churches, while working an agenda at cross-purposes with them. “I continued to labor in the different churches, until the Second Presbyterian church was left without a pastor; after which we concentrated our meetings there in a great measure" (378).


Having never read anything by Finney before, I found him quite full of himself. Anyone opposed to him misunderstood him, poor things. Anywhere he went, revivals broke out. He was so far ahead of others spiritually, according to his own testimony. All they needed was a 5 minute interview with him to have their anxiety come to the breaking point of conversion. Finney never stopped to think that maybe his new measures were such novelties, or so manipulative, that HE was creating a phenomenon, not the Holy Spirit. He really gives this away in the last chapter of his autobiography. When he returns to headquarters at Oberlin College, Ohio, from England, revivals break out in his own bastion and home turf, among people already very much of his own revivalistic mindset. Then, revivals don’t come when others preach, but only at HIS preaching. He had become a celebrity, but doesn’t seem willing to realize or admit it. It must be the Holy Spirit at work.

For further reading, I’d recommend Finney’s “Lectures on Revivals of Religion.” This may be a more systematic laying-out of his views. And also Iain Murray’s “Revival and Revivalism” for an analysis and comparison of the first great awakening of Whitefield with Finney’s type of work.

May God revive His church by His Spirit, according to His Word, to glorify Jesus Christ in our generation.

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