A Name to Remember

Every Christian interested in understanding modern Western Christianity should become acquainted with the name Charles Finney. Charles Finney (1792-1875) represents a turning point in Christianity. Up until his era, the church had been focused on refining and developing the doctrine and biblical Christian heritage it had received. Finney, though, changed all that.

Finney was educated as a lawyer, and after his conversion, became a Presbyterian minister. However, Finney came to reject central parts of the Westminster Confession of Faith, including the idea that humans have original sin. He also rejected the idea that God must sovereignly draw sinners to salvation. He believed that given the right circumstances, right atmosphere, right context, anyone could be brought to repentance and/or experience revival. Therefore, he set about to create circumstances that would, in his words, ‘produce religious excitements’. Finney’s standard for judging if something were appropriate to use in this regard was very simple: its effectiveness.

Finney was wildly successful. Hundreds of thousands were ‘converted’, and his meetings were considered mass revivals. Historians doubt how permanent the conversions of Finney’s revivals were; at any rate, they were nothing like the Awakenings of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.

However, the church could not ignore Finney. Most were enamoured of his success.  The pressure to conform in an increasingly popularised age (the steam-powered printing press had just been invented) was growing. Soon, the changes became evident.

Firstly, ministry became determined by outward results. Soul-winning, increased numbers, growing attendance figures became the yardstick of success. If your church was not experiencing mass-revivals or large numbers of converts, you were somehow in decline or ‘dead’.

Second, the techniques to achieve these results became increasingly pragmatic. Whatever worked became justified simply because it seemed “God was blessing it”. The ends not only justified the means, they demanded them. Finney’s disciples learnt well, and outdid their master. However, it was not long before the tail was wagging the dog. Once results by any means was an acceptable, unquestioned modus operandi, mass appeal became part of ministry. Once mass appeal was considered part of obedience to the Great Commission,  the church increasingly looked to the world for its methods – using the music, songs, emotional manipulation and sensual stimulation that unbelieving marketers had successfully used for decades. Put simply, the church shifted gears from biblical worship to worldly amusement.

Third, the door opened to liberalism. If Finney could revise Christian doctrine and tradition with ‘success’, why couldn’t others do the same? What is the point of conserving things, people reasoned, if the new methods work better? Theological liberalism and methodological liberalism were the tsunamis that followed the earthquake of Charles Finney.

We all live in Finney’s shadow. It is plain as day that Christian worship today is radically affected by the pragmatism popularised by Finney. It is hard to find a professing Christian ministry or church not infected with the bug of pragmatism in its practices. Indeed, it is so with us we may have great trouble recognising its presence within ourselves. Reconnecting ourselves with biblical Christian worship, with an emphasis on quality over quantity, a patient trust in God’s sovereignty and a repudiation of strange fire within the holy place is our goal.

We may find, though, it is not as easy as it sounds.

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