Last week marked the beginning of our series on American church history. This series may or may not run chronological, it all just depends on which person or event I really want to blog about that day. Today’s focus is on someone whom I have studied in the past for a history assignment, Charles G. Finney. My favorite thing about Finney is his amazing stare. It has been suggested that his stare is one of the main reason that he was able to be so successful in instigating revivals. In fact he had a church auditorium built in a circular fashion simply so that he could look everyone in the audience in the eye directly (Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996, 162).
Finney (1792-1875) was also well-known for his role in founding Oberlin College in Ohio which was supposed to be place of “evangelism and social reform” (Noll, 176). Oberlin was the first college in America to admit women as regular students as well (Noll, 176). Besides these facts, one of Finney’s more famous contributions to revivalism is the “anxious seat.” It was a bench at the front of the congregation to which one should move up during the sermon if he or she was feeling particularly convicted and/ or called to reform their souls. These aspects of his life aside, I wanted to focus on Finney’s own words about how revivals should be understood.
Finney writes, “It [a revival] presupposes that the church is sunk down in a backslidden state, and a revival consists in the return of the church from her backslidings, and in the conversion of sinners. A revival always includes conviction of sin on the part of the church… The fountains of sin need to be broken up.” (Gaustad and Noll, 323).
This might not seem so groundbreaking. If a church needs a revival, it ought to be at least stuck in complacency at the very least. Convicting the sins of the church is a tricky business, however. I have been at churches here in Los Angeles that are too afraid to point out the sins in the church; instead, they are content to offer a vague message of “doing pretty well” for God. Finney would probably jump up on the stage of such a church and stare everyone down until someone offered up a specific sin with which the church was struggling.
Another passage from Finney: “While they [Christians] are in their backslidden state they are blind to the state of sinners. Their hearts are as hard as marble. The truths of the Bible only appear like a dream. They admit it to be all true; their conscience and their judgment assent to it; but their faith does not see it standing out in bold relief, in all the burning realities of eternity” (Gaustad and Noll, 324).
I feel like this is the most convicting part of Finney’s message. If a church is in a “backslidden state,” then they become far less effective at ministering to others. Hearts become hard and the truth of the Bible becomes elusive. Such reasoning places a large onus upon the church community to remain in a state that can only be described as “not-backslidden.” What about churches that are just stagnant? What about those that are undergoing major leadership overhauls or those whose pastors are caught in scandal? Would that be a “backslidden state?” If so, our ability to truly live out our faith is dependent on a lot of variables, most notably our corporate worship communities. I think that in such reasoning, Finney underscores the need to make sure our churches are vibrant, lively faith communities.
One final passage from Finney: “A revival breaks the power of the world and of sin over Christians. It brings them to such vantage ground that they get a fresh impulse towards heaven. They have a new foretaste of heaven, and new desires after union to God; and the charm of the world is broken, and the power of sin overcome… When the churches are thus awakened and reformed, the reformation and salvation of sinners will follow, going through the same stages of conviction, repentance, and reformation… The worst part of human society are softened, and reclaimed, and made to appear as lovely specimens of the beauty of holiness.”
Such a statement would fit with what many have called “the conference high” that Christians have when they return home after a revival, a mission trip, or a conference. They called it the “project high” in Campus Crusade for Christ (now just called Cru) when students returned from their summer project mission trips. “A new foretaste of heaven” is a great way to frame the feeling that Christians get when taking part in a revival. The final line from the passage touches on something that was also important to Finney; holiness. Living a life of holiness, for Finney, was directly tied to taking part in a revival. Revivals allow one to break free from the chains of sin and the world in order to be made holy and to take part in a reformation of sorts.
I have been to several church conferences and revival meetings over the years. I would agree that people usually return from them with a type of “high,” as they set out to attack their faith anew. I would also argue that we could look at each Sunday at church as a type of mini-revival which allows us to approach our week with renewed faith and mission. I also wonder if churches sometimes push the revival movements too much. Can “revivals” be overdone and lose their meaning? Do churches need to take part in revivals? I would welcome your thoughts on this, as I am guessing there are some church traditions that do not take part in revivals at all. Is there a danger in avoiding them? I know what Finney would say, and he would say it with his eyes.