FINNEY IN BROWNVILLE, NEW YORK
COVERING THE WINTER OF 1823–24
General Jacob Jennings Brown (1775–1828) was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He was an American general who defeated a British attack on Sackets Harbor, New York, during the War of 1812. The next year, as the commander of the Niagara frontier, he crossed the Niagara River, took Fort Erie, and drove the British back toward York (now Toronto). On July 25, 1814, he fought in the battle of Lundy’s Lane and was wounded. From 1821 to 1828 he was General-in-Chief of the US Army––a position first held by George Washington and later by Ulysses S. Grant, who also spent time as a young soldier in the army at Sackets Harbor.1
Soon after the war, General Brown decided to remain in the area and established a mill around which the industrious village on the Black River sprang forth, not far from where he once commanded the American forces in 1812. Within a short time, more than 300 inhabitants would settle in what was to be called Brownville, making it the hub of northern New York’s industrial base. It once boasted of having two grist mills, three sawmills, a cotton factory, a nail foundry, and two distilleries. By 1880, it had a population of over 2,600 people. Around the time I began to do my research in Brownville, the only mills in operation were paper mills, which have been scaled back even more since then. Today, the population of the village is about 1,000 people, and it serves as a bedroom community for nearby Watertown, New York.
The Presbyterian Church was formed in the village on March 18, 1818, and its first pastor, Rev. Noah Wells (1782–1880), came in September 1820. Shortly after Wells arrived, they began building a stone meetinghouse, but because of the cost, shares were sold to other area congregations, causing it to become a Union Church. This arrangement happened often back then, which meant other churches shared the cost, and the pastors made up the board of trustees. The meetinghouse was used by Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, and Universalists. They had just begun using the building when Finney arrived in 1823. The building still stands as St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, (1826-2021) which is the oldest church buildings in Jefferson County. This church has closed recently and we have begun renting the building, trusting the Lord for revival again.2
According to Franklin Hough’s history of the church, these churches in Brownville clashed over the “excesses” that took place in Finney’s protracted meetings there. The 1826 Annual Report from February 23, 1824 to 1825 states only that there were “divisions among us.” The Universalist pastor at this time was Pitt Morse, who was an open critic of any kind of evangelism and scoffed at anyone claiming to have had a conversion experience. All the churches agreed to go their separate ways, with the Presbyterians building another “substantial building” of wood-frame construction on Warren Avenue. It burned down about ten years later, and another building was quickly erected on the same lot. In 1892 this, too, was replaced. Today, part of that church can be seen, but it has been modified into an interesting looking house. The congregation, which was once part of this sweeping move of God, no longer exists. For that matter, there has not been much in the way of spiritual “industry” in this village since
LONG, LONELY WINTER
Finney had just married Lydia Andrews in Whitesboro late in the fall of 1823. After being with her only “a day or two,” he came back to Jefferson County to arrange for housing for his new bride. When he arrived, he was told that a revival had started in Perch River.
A man from Perch River had ridden into the village of Evans Mills, urging Finney to come back and preach one more time. When Finney arrived, he found such a deep interest that he stayed and preached a couple more nights. Then the revival began to spread in the direction of nearby Brownville. The people from that church insisted that Finney come to labor among them. Then as winter set in, making the roads impassable, he could not return to Whitesboro to pick up his new bride as intended. It would be several months before he would be able to see his young wife again.
Today, when people read about Finney not picking up his wife, it causes some to question if Finney loved the ministry more than he loved her, but if they could only see how bleak this area is in winter, and how difficult this time of ministry was, one could only conclude that the young evangelist demonstrated a remarkable commitment to God. When G. Frederick Wright, wrote about this in his 1891 biography of Charles Grandison Finney, he noted:
It would be doing the keenest injustice to Finney to attribute this long separation from his wife, so soon after their marriage, to any indifference of feeling. It is to be taken purely as an index of the strength of his devotion to the ministerial work to which he felt himself called. For, throughout his life, he was passionately devoted to his family, and was never separated from them except upon occasion of necessity, and then with much self-sacrifice and solicitude.3
Here is what Finney remembered of that cold winter in Brownville:
The revival soon spread in the direction of Brownville, a considerable village several miles, I think, in a southwestern direction from Evans Mills. Finally, under the pressing invitation of the minister and the church at Brownville, I spent the winter, having written to my wife that such were the circumstances that I must defer coming for her until God seemed to open the way.
At Brownville there was a very interesting work. But still the church was in such a state that it was very difficult to get them into the work. I could not find much that seemed to me to be sound-hearted piety, and the policy of the minister was really such as to forbid anything like a general sweep of revival. I labored there that winter with great pain and had many serious obstacles to overcome. Sometimes I would find that the minister and his wife were away from meetings, and would learn afterward that they had stayed away to attend a party.4
Finney had faced different kinds of opposition throughout his ministry, but in Brownville, the opposition did not only come from the Universalists or from competitive barkeepers. There was something even more demoralizing, which caused Finney to remember this as being one of the most difficult places he had ever visited in Northern New York. It centered around the fact that even though the pastor had insisted Finney stay for the winter, his own personal policy forbade anything that looked like revival. The pastor and his wife stayed away from the meetings, and Finney later found out that they had gone dancing instead. There was also a lack of interest and unity among the elders:
In the Eldership of this church there were Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and I know not what. The same was true, so far as I could learn, of the membership of the church; and some of them were Universalist.5
The only thing that took place during that long, cold winter in Brownville that the evangelist thought worth mentioning in his memoirs was that Mr. Ballard, one of the elders in the church, received the baptism with the Holy Spirit:
I was the guest at that place of a Mr. Ballard, one of the elders of the church, and the most intimate and influential friend of the minister. One day as I came down from my room, and was going out to call on some inquirers, I met Mr. Ballard in the hall; and he said to me, “Mr. Finney, what should you think of a man that was praying week after week for the Holy Spirit, and could get no answer?” I replied that I should think he was praying from false motives. “But from what motives,” said he, “should a man pray? If he wants to be happy, is that a false motive?” I replied, “Satan might pray with as good a motive as that;” and then quoted the words of the Psalmist: “Uphold me with thy free spirit. Then will I teach transgressors thy ways, and sinners shall be converted unto thee.” “See!” said I, “the Psalmist did not pray for the Holy Spirit that he might be happy, but that he might be useful, and that sinners might be converted to Christ.” I said this and turned and went immediately out; and he turned very short and went back to his room.
I remained out till dinner time; and when I returned, he met me, and immediately began to confess. “Mr. Finney,” said he, “I owe you a confession. I was angry when you said that to me; and I must confess that I hoped I should never see you again. What you said,” he continued, “forced the conviction upon me, that I never had been converted, that I never had had any higher motive than a mere selfish desire for my own happiness. I went away,” said he, “after you left the house, and prayed to God to take my life. I could not endure to have it known that I had always been deceived. I have been most intimate with our minister. I have journeyed with him, and slept with him, and conversed with him, and have been more intimate with him than any other member of the church; and yet I saw that I had always been a deceived hypocrite. The mortification was intolerable; and,” said he, “I wanted to die, and prayed the Lord to take my life.” However, he was all broken down then, and from that time became a new man. That conversion did a great deal of good.6
FINDING THE BALLARD HOME
Finney said that he stayed in the home of Elder Ballard. According to church records, James Ballard became a member on March 18, 1818. With the help of Jefferson County land records and old maps, I found Ballard’s house on Washington Street in the village of Brownville. Ballard, one of the early settlers in Brownville, bought a lot from Jacob Brown. He built a small limestone house there in 1816.
Eventually, Ballard would move away, and he sold the house to John A. Cathcart, a merchant from Rochester, New York. I tried to locate this house, doing some deed research to find this transaction. Using the oldest maps of the village, I found the house, then owned by a grandson, William A. Cathcart. It was located near Jacob Brown’s mansion and just down the street from the Episcopal Church, where Finney preached. Today, you can see this house, made of local limestone, located at 114 Washington Street. It was once featured in a 1950s newspaper and book entitled Old Houses of the North Country by Earnest G. Cook. It was also known at one time as the Old Gilson Home (see Luther Gilson).7
James and his wife, Judith, left the church in 1833, eventually moving to Ohio, where he died. The old cemetery records show that James was buried in Brownville on October 7, 1839. His wife, Judith, was buried in the same cemetery many years later in 1872.
Long after Finney had moved on, Daniel Nash was holding a revival in nearby Watertown and wrote Finney the following update in August 1830, saying that he had inquired about Ballard:
During the 14 weeks I have been here, I have not seen Ballard of Brownville; but I hear he has become worldly, and carnal, is Boardmanized, & rails against me, thou’ I have not seen him for more than 3 years. I am told that his wife has become gay, & fond of dress––wears false curls, & does not know whether she should be glad to see Finney, or not.8
“Boardmanized” was a critical term Nash coined about Presbyterian Rev. George S. Boardman, a pastor of several of the churches that related to the Finney story and, at this time, had been serving in nearby Watertown. I am not sure what Nash meant by this, but somehow it was the opposite of what he and Finney were trying to accomplish.
WHAT BECAME OF THE BROWNVILLE CHURCH?
After Finney left Brownville, a division arose in which several influential families left and joined the Episcopal Church. Soon after this, the pastor, Noah Wells, left Brownville to take a church in Detroit, Michigan. The Presbyterian Church in Brownville was reorganized on May 16, 1825, which was like a restart.
According to a church pamphlet written in 1913 by their pastor, H. Fred Smith, in celebration of their church’s history,9 the congregation had grown to 180 members in 1832. He wrote that from this point until the Civil War, the church prospered, after which the church was drained of men. Sometime later, the church membership went down from 80 to as low as 19. At the end of the war, it rose again to 32 and then finally back up to 75. According to a Centennial book of the county, the little village of Brownville sent 444 men to fight in the Civil War between 1861–65.
I cannot find anything more about the church after 1913. They must not have ever recovered, as there is no Presbyterian Church in Brownville today. The wooden building was turned into a private dwelling.
Finney summed up his time in Brownville, writing:
I might relate many other interesting facts connected with this revival; but as there were so many things that pained me in regard to the relation to the pastor to it, and especially of the pastor’s wife, I will forbear.10
Today, there is a lack of vital church work in Brownville, and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church closed in 2021. We are now renting the building for the winter with the hope that the Lord allow us to start new work in this old historic building.
FINNEY IN BROWNVILLE ENDNOTES
1. The information about General Brown was taken from the Columbia Encyclopedia: Sixth Edition.
2. Franklin B. Hough, A History of Jefferson County.
3. G. Frederick Wright, Charles Grandison Finney.
4. Charles G. Finney, The Memoirs of Reverend Charles G. Finney.
5. Charles G. Finney, The Memoirs of Reverend Charles G. Finney.
6. Charles G. Finney, The Memoirs of Reverend Charles G. Finney.
7. Old Houses of the North Country by Earnest G. Cook, published in the Watertown Times.
8. This letter from Nash to Finney from Watertown on August 6, 1830, is among the Finney Papers in the Oberlin Archives.
9. Jefferson County Centennial, 1905, comp. Jere Coughlin (Hungerford-Holford, 233). Taken from Stories of the Towns found in the Brownville Library. A copy of the Presbyterian Church record can be found in the Roswell T. Flower Memorial Library Genealogy Department, in Watertown. Cemetery records are in the Brownville Library in the Jacob Brown Mansions
10. Charles G. Finney, The Memoirs of Reverend Charles G. Finney.
People are often surprised to learn that Finney did not go get his wife right away, but northern New York winters often make travel difficult, even on today’s roads.
OTHER BROWNVILLE CONNECTIONS
Another evangelist, Jedidiah Burchard, held revivals in various parts of New York State, including in Brownville. He appeared at various times in the Finney story. He lived in Adams when Finney lived there, and he began ministering with a measure of success as an evangelist long before Finney. He often preached in Brownville, where he had relatives, and he later had a measure of success in Rome and Rochester like Finney. Apparently, he did not have the same standards or integrity as Finney, which caused his ministry to be followed by controversy. When he learned that local historian, Franklin B. Hough, was writing a history of Jefferson County, he insisted on being interviewed for it, which caused Hough to characterize the old evangelist in less than stellar terms. In later years, when someone wanted to discredit Finney, they would imply that he had been the spiritual son of Burchard, but there is no evidence that the two ever spent any time together. Burchard did, however, spend time with the young men who followed Daniel Nash, which I write about in my book Finding Father Nash.
Theodotia “Dotia” Finney, one of Charles sisters, was born in Warren, Connecticut, on November 29, 1781. Dotia married Stephen Jerome, a veteran of the War of 1812. They lived in Brownville and after Stephen died in 1830, she moved to Michigan after 1855 and was living with her daughter, Narcisse, in Genesee County, Michigan, in 1860. She died sometime in the 1860’s in Burton, Genesee County, Michigan.
According to land records, Zenas Finney, Charles’s oldest brother, was born in Warren, Connecticut, on August 19, 1783. He was a farmer and married Rachel Matthews (November 18, 1784), daughter of Abner Matthews of Columbia County, New York. She died in Henderson on November 25, 1866. Zenas had been a long-time resident of Dexter, New York, and died in Brownville, New York, on November 25, 1874.
It was during that winter in Brownville that Finney first received direction from the Lord to go to Gouverneur, New York, which he did later that year, with spectacular results.
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