My first introduction to Charles G. Finney took place in 1978 while I was browsing in a Christian bookstore in Oakville, Ontario. I had just become a believer and I was hungry for any inspiration I could find that would help me to become an effective minister. I noticed Finney’s autobiography, by Helen S. Wessel which had been newly released after a re-editing. For some reason I knew I had to have this book. The trouble was, I hardly had enough money to buy my wife a birthday present, much less a new book for myself. I rationalized that she would love this book even though she was a new believer herself and had not yet developed much of an interest in the Bible, let alone books on theology or great Christian themes like revival. I watched as Heather unwrapped the book and quickly set it aside. I could see the disappointment on her face. I began to understand how some wives feel when their husbands buy them a new fishing pole for “their” birthday. This lesson was not lost on me and I have never done anything like it again. You could even say this was one of the first things I learned from Finney.
Some months later, when Heather finally got around to reading the book, she was aghast to find that Finney had left his wife the day after their wedding to go preach somewhere. She never did like him much after that. I read the book and was greatly encouraged by what I found. I immediately related to Finney on a number of levels. We had both been given a revelation of the overwhelming love of God. We had both left our businesses to enter the ministry. I seemed to be on a similar course of training to his, and I also related to his being opposed by the ministers in his life who saw his inability to conform to religious norms as being a bit too radical. Like him, I also wanted to bring reform to the church and salvation to the world. I was thrilled by everything I read in his amazing memoir. Though Heather and I didn’t realize it at the time, Finney would become a significant part of both of our lives.
After reading about the revivals that took place in connection with Finney’s ministry, I remember thinking that those places were somewhere down in the States, far away from my native Canada. However, a few years later, I ended up moving to Lowville, New York, to serve as a pastor for a new church that was being planted there. When I read the book again, I was surprised to find that I had moved into the very region Finney had written about. I had a desire to see all the buildings and landmarks that related to this fascinating piece of Church history, but when I asked around, nobody seemed to know much about Finney or what had happened there. I was surprised to find that the places where these great revivals had taken place––perhaps the greatest revivals ever held on American soil––were just as hard and cold today as they had been before revival. Perhaps colder. The villages seemed depressed and showed very few signs of spiritual life. Often the local churches evoked pity within me, rather than admiration. For some reason, I had expected to find these places flourishing with a deeper spirituality than average because of the revivals that had swept through them. As I thought about it, I realized that I would be just as disappointed if I went looking for a fresh move of the Holy Spirit at Azusa Street today. This upset one of the many misconceptions I had about the patterns and purposes of revival and helped me realize they are not intended to be permanent and are just for that generation.
Many years later, while planning a year-long sabbatical I had been given from the church I pastored, a gift they gave me every seven years, I decided to do some further research on the towns and churches mentioned in Finney’s memoirs. I wanted to find out what they were like before, during, and after the revivals. I found the oldest county maps available to help locate many of the homes and churches Finney mentioned. I learned how to search through old deeds to confirm the authenticity of certain buildings. Beyond this, I relied heavily upon local libraries and historical societies, which proved to be the best resources for this kind of study. On one of the first days of my research I happened to come across a volume of the 1989 Rosell and Dupuis edition of Finney’s memoirs, which had just been published. What a find it proved to be. It contained invaluable clues in the footnotes, which served to guide me. This edition of Finney’s memoirs was especially useful because it preserved the names of people that the first editor removed to protect the dignity of those Finney had mentioned in the narrative.
I spent almost 25 years, on and off, studying about Charles Finney and his co-laborer, Daniel Nash. I was able to visit the places where they had been born and buried, and most of the significant places in between. In the process I learned about revivals and reforms, and the men God chose to use in this remarkable way.
REVISITING THE REVIVALS
Finney’s ministry in New York had made him a household name. Then he left for the wilderness of Ohio from where he said that he watched “narrowly” the development of various revivals over the next twenty years. He would occasionally read remarks in some of the Christian newspapers who assumed that since he had moved to Oberlin to teach at the college there, he had ceased to see powerful revivals in his ministry.
People often define revival differently. Perhaps Finney and the Christian press were using different measuring sticks. The same thing happens today.
Finney stated that one of the reasons he reluctantly agreed to write his autobiography, which would describe the revivals he had seen was because they had become so misrepresented and opposed. In a way, I guess I have written this book for largely the same reason. Both Finney and true revival are often misrepresented. I have become aware of how Finney inspires mixed reactions among people, even today, two-hundred years after he first began to preach. I have met those who use Finney as an excuse for their extreme beliefs and crass behavior. I have also sensed a kind of idolatry in some as they give embellished accounts of what took place back then. In contrast, I have even found those who truly hate Finney. One time while attending a wedding in New York City, I was introduced as being from near Rochester, New York. One of the guests began railing against Finney. Others joined in, heaping scorn on him. They were part of a Calvinistic church that had opposed everything Finney believed, wrote, and preached. I just happened to live near one of the cities where he once ministered, so long ago.
As for my own feelings about Finney, I’ve liked him since the first time I read his memoirs in 1978, and now, after all these years of research, I respect him even more. I hope this comes through in my writing, and that you will be inspired by what has inspired me about a man who was filled with passion, zeal, and integrity. One who finished the race well.
With every blessing, Penn