Whenever I think about the great revivalists of old, Charles Finney always comes to mind. It didn’t take much for Finney to get a fire burning in the hearts of God’s people. Nearly everywhere Finney preached, revival broke out. Entire communities were changed by the power of God. It was not unusual for saloons to close and evil to come to an abrupt end. Let’s take a look back in history and find out more about this great revivalist.
Charles Grandison Finney was the seventh child of Sylvester and Rebecca Finney. Charles was named after the hero of Samuel Richardson’s popular novel, Sir Charles Grandison. Charles was born in Warren, Connecticut on August 29, 1792. I’m not sure we could say Charles was raised in a real Christian family, as he himself admitted that he had never heard anyone pray in his home.
The Finney family seemed to move around a lot, as was the custom with most folks during this time. When Charles was two years old, the family moved to Oneida County in New York. A little later, they moved to Sackett’s Harbor on the shores of Lake Ontario.
At the age of fourteen, Charles entered Hamilton Oneida Academy in Clinton, New York. Charles studied at this academy for two years. This training helped Charles mature into a very mature young man.
Charles was an excellent student, and he enjoyed learning new languages. Through his studies, he became proficient in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He was also very musically inclined and purchased a musical instrument with some of his first earnings.
It is said that Charles was also a good athlete. He had a powerful physique, and excelled in everything that he attempted to do. When he was twenty, he could run faster, jump farther, leap higher, and throw a ball with greater force than all the other athletes around him.
When Charles finished school at sixteen years of age, he ended up teaching in Hamilton for three years.
In the fall of 1812, Charles moved back to the place of his birth, Warren, Connecticut. He lived with his uncle and worked on the family farm to support himself. It was during this time in Warren that Charles heard the first effective preacher of his life. The Rev. Peter Starr pastored a church in Warren and had a great effect upon young Charles.
In 1814, Charles left Warren and began teaching in New Jersey. He stayed here two years, then decided to move again and continue his own education. During this time, his mother began to have health problems and the family wanted Charles to be closer to them. So, Charles moved back to Jefferson County, New York. During his stay in Jefferson County, he decided to enter the law offices of Squire Benjamin Wright in Adams, New York.
As he continued his studies in Adams, New York, Charles realized how ignorant he was regarding the Bible and spiritual things. The writers he studied often quoted from several different passages from Moses and the Old Testament. So, he found it necessary to purchase a Bible for himself. As he began to study the Scriptures, he became quite intrigued with what he was learning. No one trained Charles. He studied on his own.
Reverend George Gale was the minister of the local Presbyterian Church in the city in which Charles lived. Charles decided to start going to church and eventually became choir director. Charles had a very difficult time with Mr. Gale’s sermons. He thought they were hard to follow and often gave the poor Reverend a hard time regarding what he had preached on Sunday.
With all of Charles’s questions came a great restlessness within. The more he read the Bible and attended prayer meetings, the more restless he became. Even though he heard many people in the church pray, he became frustrated and wondered why their prayers never got answered. At one particular prayer meeting when asked if he desired people to pray for him, he refused. He stated, “No. Because I do not see that God answers your prayers.”
Charles’s search for truth about the gospel continued. On a Sabbath evening in 1821, Charles found himself ashamed of praying and reading the Bible. He was fearful of someone seeing him or walking in on him during his times of prayer and Bible readying. His prayers were only a whisper. He would find himself covering the keyhole in the door so that no one could see him praying. During the next couple of days, he found the convicting power of the Holy Spirit coming very strongly upon him, yet he could not pray. He couldn’t even shed a tear. On a Tuesday night, Charles found himself becoming very nervous and felt like he was going to die. He decided to go early to the office. On his way, he was captivated by an inner voice speaking to him. He stood like a statue in the street as he listened to the inner voice. He began to see the reality of the atonement of Jesus Christ and the finished work of the cross. Everything began to fit into place like puzzle pieces. He found himself walking toward the woods with his mind thinking of giving his heart to God. But instead, he found the task too difficult to accomplish. His anxieties nearly overwhelmed him as he continued to kneel in the wooded area, trying to pray, but not being able to because of pride in his heart. He finally began to pray and his thoughts began to dwell on the promises of God. Something happened to Charles in the woods on this day. As he got up to leave the area, he stated, “If I am ever converted, I will preach the gospel.” Once Charles reached the road, he felt quite peaceful. Little did he realize that he had spent most of the day in the wooded area as it was now evening.
Upon his return to the office, he found that Squire Wright was gone to dinner. Charles was not at all hungry, so he got out his bass-violin and began to play some sacred songs. Charles loved to sing. As soon as he began to sing the sacred songs, he began to weep. After realizing he could not stop the flow of tears, he stopped playing the instrument and carefully laid it down.
Charles didn’t get much work done on this particular day. He found it very difficult to concentrate on anything except what God was doing in his life. He was so overcome with the desire to pray that he finally had to go to the back room of the office to pour out his heart to God. He felt as if Jesus himself were standing before him, and he was kneeling at His feet. He wept aloud like a child.
As soon as he was able to get his composure, he returned back to the office only to find the fire that was once burning brightly, was now almost burnt out. As he turned to take a seat next to the fire, he remembers receiving a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost.
Charles was finally able to pull himself together again and began to share his testimony with Squire Benjamin Wright. The judge didn’t say a word. He just stared at Charles, not knowing what to say. Then a client of Charles’s came into the room. Charles was scheduled to try a case for him in court that very day, but Charles told the man, “I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead His cause, and I cannot plead yours.”
Charles was a mighty witness for Jesus Christ. Everywhere he went, souls were saved. He was so burdened for the lost. Oh that we today would receive this burden from the Lord.
On June 25, 1823, Charles came under the tutelage of Rev. George W. Gale. Charles didn’t agree with all of Rev. Gale’s Calvinistic views, but nevertheless, he chose to submit to his leadership and learn what he could.
On July 1, 1824, the St. Lawrence Presbytery met at Evan Mills, New York to ordain Charles. After calling the meeting to order and hearing a sermon given by the Rev. J. Clinton, the elders laid hands on Charles, and he became the Rev. Charles Grandison Finney.
Charles found great contentment preaching in small out of the way places. It didn't matter to him if he preached in a barn or in the street. He just wanted to minister to people so they could receive salvation. Even though people enjoyed hearing Charles preach, he was hard on them. He basically told them he wasn't playing games with their theological thinking. His goal was for souls to be saved and lives to be changed. He wasn’t interested in just giving another sermon. He was determined to bring change to people's lives.
In October 1824, Charles went to Whitestown, New York where he married Lydia Root Andrews. After their wedding, the couple left for a brief honeymoon. Charles left Lydia in Whitestown while he rode back to Evans Mills to arrange for their move to that town. While in Evans Mills, people wanted him to stay and preach near Perch River. Since it was hard for Charles to refuse a preaching engagement, he stayed to preach. The Spirit of God moved so mightily in the meeting that Charles couldn’t leave. Revival broke out and continued to spread in the area. It wasn’t until six months later that Charles and Lydia were once again united as a couple. Can you imagine this?
In 1825, the Finney’s traveled to the small town of Western, New York. As soon as Charles started preaching, revival broke out. From Western, New York they went to Rome, New York, and the seeds of revival spread there. No matter where Charles went, he was like a burning flame of fire.
In 1830, Charles and his family went to Rochester, New York. The Finney’s traveled from Rochester to Schenectady, New York to Oberlin, and from Ohio to Southampton. They were constantly on the move.
Lydia Finney died in December of 1847. About a year later in November of 1848, Charles married a widow, Mrs. Elizabeth Ford Atkinson of Rochester, New York.
In 1851, Charles became the president of Oberlin Institute.
Finney’s second wife, Elizabeth, died on Nov. 27, 1863.
In 1864, the Lord brought Charles another wife, Miss Rebecca A. Rayl.
On August 16, 1875, Charles Grandison Finney experienced severe chest pains and went home to be with Jesus.