Was Finney a Lawyer?
Updated: Oct 23, 2019
There are a lot of misconceptions about Finney, which are often repeated, but not always researched, Perhaps the biggest misconception about Finney that has been printed in almost every book about of was that he was a lawyer.
One day, early in my research, I came across a letter on file at the South Jefferson Historical Society, written by the curator to the State Archives asking for information about when Finney had been admitted to the Bar. The head of research services unit replied in the letter, saying they had searched all of the available court records and had not found any mention that he had been accepted at the Bar. This surprised me. Then I came across a footnote in the "Memoirs of Charles G. Finney", edited by Richard A. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell 3., which said that Finney was not qualified to be a lawyer. They quoted his pastor's memoirs as the source for the statement.
What did Finney himself say about this issue? In a sermon Finney preached in 1858, it was reported that he said:
"After my conversion the whole subject of going into court to engross myself in other men's quarrels became unutterably loathsome. I saw that I had never managed a case with real honesty. All I had cared for was to get my case and do well for my client, and my soul turned away from it with loathing. Though pressed very hard to engage again, I refused. Now I do not say that no man can serve God at the bar, but I do say that if he has known God indeed, he will not wish to serve in that sphere. He will beg to be excused."1.
When Deacon Barney came into the Adam’s law office the morning after Finney had been saved, he asked, "Mr. Finney, do you recollect that my case is to be tried at ten O'clock this morning? I suppose you are ready?"
Finney relayed his now famous line,"Deacon Barney, I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead His cause, and I cannot plead yours."2.
At hearing this, and learning that Finney had just become a Christian, the Deacon dropped his head and after a few minutes of being speechless, left the office. Later Finney saw him through the window, standing in middle of the street, lost in his own thoughts. The deacon went and settled the suit with the person he was taking to court.
FINNEY HAD NOT GONE TO THE BAR
When I read the autobiography of Pastor George Gale, I learned that he did not think that Finney had been a licensed lawyer:
"When I was preaching at Adams, before my settlement, he (Finney) was in the office of Wright & Wardwell, a student at law, where he continued 'till his conversion in the fall of 1821. He was expecting at the time of his conversion, to be licensed soon in the Supreme Court. He cou1d have been licensed some two or three yearsbefore, according to the usages, or laws, of the state, in the court of `common pleas' but he did not choose to do so. He hadall the business he wanted, and that was enough to support him, in Justice's Courts. He proposed having all the time he could for study. He was a good student, it was said, and had obtained a knowledge of the law which many practitioners had not obtained in that section of country, and when meeting them as opponents in justice's courts was more than a match for them. He was a young man of clear mind, of quick perception and logic, without much training in the art. He had had but little more than a common education. He had attended an Academy where he got some knowledge of Latin, in addition to his English. He had studied some of the higher branches of English education, but nothing very extensively. I should judge, from what he told me, that his education was about what might be required to enter college, except that he had not studied Greek. His study of law, however, had given him considerable discipline of mind." 4.
To finally solve this discrepancy by going back into Finney's own memoirs and noticed that he had never referred to himself as anything but a "student of law". Here is a clear mention of this in his own words, as he explains his reason for coming to Adams, New York in 1818:
“The teacher to whom I have referred, wished me to join him in conducting an academy in one of the Southern States. I was inclined to accept his proposal, with the design of pursuing and completing my studies under his instruction. But when I informed my parents, whom I had not seen for four years, of my contemplated movement south, they both came immediately after me, and prevailed on me to go home with them to Jefferson county, New York. After making them a visit, I concluded to enter, as a student, the law office of Squire Wright, at Adams, in that county. This was in 1818.”5.
Finney’s grandson, William C. Cochran, in a Memorial address 6.he gave about Finney’s background wrote:
“In 1818, Mr. Finney settled down to the study of law at Adams, a lively little town near his paternal home. He read law diligently, became the law clerk of Judge Benjamin Wright, the most prominent lawyer and politician in that region, was admitted to practice, at the age of twenty-eight, and at once became active in the profession.”
As an apprentice he would have taken some minor cases under the supervision of his employer and would have been able to do various duties which lawyer's often do. He was such a stickler for details about titles and dates, that I cannot imagine that he would have over-looked this fact. So I feel comfortable concluding that he was never a licensed lawyer, examined by the Bar.
Even his earliest biographer and friend G. F. Wright, said that he was admitted to the bar:
"After a four years' absence from home, he returned for a visit, intending still to complete his plan of further teaching and private study at the South. But in view of his mother's ill health, he was led to remain within reach of her, and so began the study of law in the office of Benjamin Wright, in the town of Adams, a few miles away; there in due time he was admitted to the bar, and entered upon the work of his profession."
1. (Taken from the Oberlin Evangelist, September 1 1858, pg.138)
2. Taken from chapter one of Finney’s Memoirs
3. Richard A. Dupuis and Garth M. Rosell
4. The memoir of Pastor George W. Gale
5. Taken from chapter one of Finney’s Memoirs
6. William C. Cochran, in a Memorial Address