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Charles G. Finney (1792-1875)

Revivalist in the Northeast of the United States

Charles G. Finney is often called American’s greatest revivalist. It is estimated that during the year 1857-58 over a hundred thousand persons were led to Christ as the direct or indirect result of Finney's labors, while five hundred thousand persons professed conversion to Christ in the great revival which began in his meetings. Another remarkable fact is that it was found by actual research that over eighty-five in every hundred persons professing conversion to Christ in Finney's meetings remained true to God, whereas seventy per cent of those professing conversion in the meetings of even so great an evangelist as Moody eventually became backsliders. Finney seems to have had the power of impressing the consciences of men with the necessity of holy living in such a manner as to procure the most lasting results. It is said that at Governeur, New York, not a dance or theatrical play could be held in the place for six years after Finney held meetings there. He was born in Connecticut in 1792, moved with his parents to Western New York, and studied in New England and in New Jersey. After completing his studies he settled down to practice law in Western New York. It was while studying law that he began studying the Bible, Eventually he experienced a wonderful conversion and went on to serve God in wonderful ways. His books on prayer and revival are among the best written on those subjects. He strongly believed that conversion and revival were not only the work of God’s sovereign grace, but also the result of the judicious use of means. Towards the end of his life he became the president of Oberlin College. He died at the age of 83.—Dan

Why Learn About Charles Finney?

Charles Finney was an intense man who brought revival to churches in many communities of the Northeast. Even his detractors acknowledged that his efforts brought about one of the greatest revivals in history in Rochester, NY. Other individuals who either attended revivals, or read his autobiography and Lectures on Revival, and implemented what they learned, were able to achieve similar results in other places—for example Jonathan Goforth in China and Titus Coan in Hawaii.

From Finney we learn about conversion, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, how to go about promoting revival, gaining decisions, the role of prayer, restitution, working with people of all classes, personal work, dealing with opposition, etc. His Lectures on Revival is almost a textbook on revival, and his later Letters on Revival provide helpful balancing reflections.

I have personally carefully read and highlighted the unabridged Memoirs and learned much about revival—the early editions had been condensed and adjusted some by an editor after Finney's death. His Lectures on Revival should also be read. I don't agree with everything he espouses—I don't believe in the idea of eternal torment for example—but Finney provides very helpful information on conducting revivals and spirituality.

Quick Facts

He was the youngest of 15 children.

His father was a farmer.

He was, in his words, a "splendid pagan" prior to his conversion.

He studied law but never obtained a formal degree.

He taught school for a time and later practiced law prior to his conversion (similar to John Calvin and William Chalmers Burns).

He experienced conversion at the age of 29 on October 10, 1821.

He experienced conversion through (1) ongoing debates with a new "educated" pastor; (2) the conviction that the Bible must be true; (3) owning up to his shame of being known as a Christian, and (4) a remarkable visitation of the Holy Spirit.

His first testimony immediately resulted in  a revival in his town.

Immediately lost his taste for law and secular business.

He was 6'3 and known for his piercing eyes.

He was married three times and had six children by his first wife.

He mainly worked in the northeastern part of the United States. However he spent some time in England.

He did not write out his sermons ahead of time, preferring to spend all of his time studying and praying over the topic. Wrote the only two sermons he prepared ahead of time, while he was studying for the ministry.

His first meeting was conducted in Evan Mills, NY where a favorable response only came after three weeks, as a result of his call to "stay seated if you are choosing to reject Christ." This so angered the attendees that they wanted to stone him. They returned the next day,however, under great conviction and a revival began.

He frequently resorted to prayer and fasting to obtain results.

Finney was remarkably successful in witnessing to non-believers. Note the following: “I have not come to find fault, I have been in the same position myself. I may be able to help you solve some of your difficulties. I think I have found the truth. Let us talk it over and see if you are mistaken, or whether I am all wrong.” He almost NEVER failed if the man was a man of character and had no secret vices.

He never went to the pulpit without a determination to win his case. He wanted a verdict from every audience he faced and “if he did not get it, he felt his sermon was “wasted.”

His sermons averaged two hours in length and often extended to two and a half or three hours.

He insisted on confession and restitution and would promise relief on no other terms.

Spoke of sins prevalent in the communities he visited in the most direct and scathing terms, such that he was both hated and loved.

He referred to an unrepentant sinner as “a wretch, to be despised and condemned, and not a mere unfortunate, to be pitied and coddled.”

He cleaned up every community he visited, and they stayed that way for at least a generation afterwards—the courts had little to do and the jails stayed empty for years.

He often preached three sermons on Sunday, then three or four times during the week, attended prayer meetings, inquiry meetings, visited people at all hours of the day and night.

He was supported by the prayers of Daniel Nash and Brother Abel Clary who went into towns ahead of him. He stopped his revival work after Daniel Nash passed away.

Many attendees considered him the greatest preacher they ever heard.

He was opposed by other evangelists who questioned the emotional response to his preaching.

Became president of Oberlin College in 1833 on condition the college would accept African American students. He also took a strong stand on coffee, tea, spices and other aspects of healthcare reform at Oberlin, which upset some of the professors. Sutherland’s Studies in Christian Education speaks favorably of Finney’s role at Oberlin.

His Memoirs and Lectures on Revival—the latter presented weekly on an extemporaneous basis in 1834—are some of the best “how to” books that can be read on the subject of revival. Also read his Letters on Revival to get the rest of the story.

Continued teaching and preaching into his 83rd year, and stopped teaching just two weeks before dying.

He is considered one of the greatest revivalists who ever lived.

In 1857-1858 alone, more than 100,000 people accepted Christ through Finney's efforts.


James Gilchrist Lawson: Charles Finney

This mini biography provides important details on Finney's conversion and baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Oberlin Alumni Magazine Biography PDF

This is a very interesting biography given at the dedication of the Finney Memorial Chapter in Oberlin on June 21, 1908. This is an 8 MB pdf file.

A Shock of Corn Fully Ripe

This short sketch highlights Finney's ability to obrain conversions: "He believed in the power of a consecrated church. His theory was that a saved church would soon result in a converted world. Hence his first effort in all places was to get the church right. He would often preach for weeks to Christians to prepare the way for saving sinners, and with wonderful skill probe every conscience, expose false hopes, tear away refuges of lies, search out the hiding places of worldly professors, bring the proud, selfish, and disobedient to the confessional, force wrong doers to make restitution of goods, rectify wrongs, confess injuries, reconcile difficulties, do justice. He "searched Israel as with a lighted candle," "broke up the fallow ground," brought men to their faces before the Lord in self-abnegation and brokenness of heart, and then followed a tremendous attack upon the unconverted, and sweeping harvests of souls." (Read the rest of this interesting mini biography)

John Muir: President Finney of Oberlin

This is a shorter biography by an individual who recognized that God was using Finney in bringing revival, but disagreed that the Presbyterian ministers were as opposed to Finney's ministry as Finney suggested in his own writing. Accordingly, one gains another perspective in reading this biography. Regardless of opinions, Finney's secrets are well worth learning!



The Memoirs is Finney's autobiography and includes much detail on his conversion and revival work in many places. If you want to learn about revival, this is a great source of information. That said, I don't agree with everything Finney says. However, the Memoirs provide a lot of helpful practical information. His Memoirs was one of the books that Jonathan Goforth read in seeking to understand revival. Titus Coan was also greatly impacted by Finney's revival ministry. Accordingly, it is worth reading. If you can, buy the unabridged edition for more insight. To explain, after Finney's death an editor tried to improve Finney's work by editing out certain portions that he felt might bring embarrassment to Oberlin. I think it is better to read it as Finney intended!—Dan

Lectures on Revival

This is an A5 pdf document suitable for reading on  your tablet and many phones. This book was also carefully studied by Jonathan Goforth in preparing for his revival ministry.

Letters on Revival

The Letters come from the Oberlin Evangelist, and consist of Finney's responses to specific questions about how he conducted his revival ministry, and provides the balance that is sometimes missed when reading the Memoirs and the Lectures.


Finney's Conversion and Baptism of the Holy Spirit

"But as I turned and was about to take a seat by the fire, I received a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost. Without any expectation of it, without ever having the thought in my mind that there was any such thing for me, without any recollection that I had ever heard the thing mentioned by any person in the world, the Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me, body and soul. I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed it seemed to come in waves and waves of liquid love; for I could not express it in any other way. It seemed like the very breath of God. I can recollect distinctly that it seemed to fan me, like immense wings!" (Read the entire chapter on Finney's conversion from the Memoirs.]

His Revivals

The Means Used In His Revivals

"They were taught here, as everywhere in those revivals, that the only obstacle in the way was their own stubborn will; that God was trying to gain their unqualified consent to give up their sins, and accept the Lord Jesus Christ as their righteousness and salvation. The point was frequently urged upon them to give their consent; and they were told that the only difficulty was, to get their own honest and earnest consent to the terms upon which Christ would save them, and the lowest terms upon which they possibly could be saved." (Read about other means that were used in Finney's meetings.)

Sample of His Logic

"Even if you make up your minds to do so from now henceforth, how are you going to atone for the sins already committed? You can never make good even to your fellow-men, the losses you have inflicted upon them. Damages, as every lawyer knows, are poor reparation for sufferings inflicted by willful misconduct. How, then, can you satisfy the demands of the moral Ruler of the Universe, to whom damages are as dust in the balance, an earthly expedient beneath contempt?" (Read more from the Oberlin Magizine on his work with the lawyers in New York.)

Finney Appealed to All Classes

"When Mr. Finney began preaching in the cities—Rome, Utica, Auburn, Troy, Rochester—he had an altogether different class to deal with, and his success was even more phenomenal. The revival in these places began at the top and worked downwards. The first to be converted were the educated men, leading citizens, respected judges, lawyers, doctors, bankers, merchants, manufacturers—and they constituted the prominent portion of his audiences to the end. The whole community was involved in serious thought and conversation, and the very atmosphere seemed charged with emotion. During twenty days spent in Rome there were five hundred conversions." (Read the rest of this paragraph on success with all classes of the population.)

A Sample Revival in "Sodom" New York

"“There was too much interest, and there were too many wounded souls, to dismiss the meeting; and so it was held all night. In the morning there were still those there that could not get away; and they were carried to a private house in the neighborhood, to make room for the school. In the afternoon they sent for me to come down there, as they could not yet break up the meeting.” Sometimes the Spirit of God seemed to hover, in a very remarkable manner, over the community where many souls were being convicted and saved. In speaking of his revival meetings at Utica, New York, Mr. Finney says: “Our meetings were crowded every night, and the work went on powerfully. The place became filled with the manifest influence of the Holy Spirit.” (Read more about this remarkable experience.)

A Backslider At Heart

In this lecture Finney discusses the person who has backlidden in his heart and the evidences, consequences and recovery from this backslidden condition.

Charles Finney on Devotions & Prayer

In reading Finney’s autobiography, one discovers that prayer was a continuing factor in his success. Supporting him were Daniel Nash and Abel Cleary, two great men of prayer, who would go to the towns in advance to pray. Often they would choose some of the least likely profligates to pray for, and more often than not those very people were converted, and with them a great host of others. As a result of these combined labors, entire towns were converted, resulting in great improvements in communities that continued long after. Sometimes the revivals began with the poorer classes; sometimes they started with the moneyed classes. Whatever the case, God used Finney and his partners in a great way.—Dan

Charles Finney on Devotions

"The spirit of a promise to observe certain hours for devotion, is simply this—that providence permitting—that health and all the circumstances rendering it consistent with the great law of benevolence; such and such hours shall be appropriated to such duties. If any thing more than this is intended by such a promise, the promise is unlawful." (Read the rest of this letter on making promises regarding devotions.)

Charles Finney: An Early Experience With Prayer

"On one occasion, when I was in one of the prayer meetings, I was asked if I did not desire that they should pray for me! I told them, no; because I did not see that God answered their prayers. I said, "I suppose I need to be prayed for, for I am conscious that I am a sinner; but I do not see that it will do any good for you to pray for me; for you are continually asking, but you do not receive. You have been praying for a revival of religion ever since I have been in Adams, and yet you have it not. You have been praying for the Holy Spirit to descend upon yourselves, and yet complaining of your leanness." I recollect having used this expression at that time: "You have prayed enough since I have attended these meetings to have prayed the devil out of Adams, if there is any virtue in your prayers. But here you are praying on, and complaining still." (Read the rest of this story by clicking on this link.)

Prevailing Prayer

In this article, Finney makes a strong case for the need of preaching truth AND prayer to obtain revival results!

"Prayer is an essential link in the chain of causes that lead to a revival, as much so as truth is. Some have zealously used truth to convert men, and laid very little stress on prayer. They have preached, and talked, and distributed tracts with great zeal, and then wondered that they had so little success. And the reason was, that they forgot to use the other branch of the means, effectual prayer. They overlooked the fact that truth, by itself, will never produce the effect, without the Spirit of God, and that the Spirit is given in answer to prayer." (Read the rest of his lecture on prevailing prayer.)

Prevailing Prayer Sermons 1847

This comprises of three sermons that were published in the Oberlin Evangelist in 1847. I also have these sermons over in the Intercessory Prayer section of this website.

The Prayer of Faith

This is some of the clearest thinking on the prayer of faith that I have found! This sermon is also found in the Intercessory Prayer section of this website.

His Theology

Charles Finney's Theology

Here is one of his theological points: "Repentance: A change of choice, purpose, intention, in conformity with the dictates of the intelligence. A turning from sin to holiness, or more strictly, from a state of consecration to self to a state of consecration to God, is and must be the turning, the change of mind, or the repentance that is required of all sinners." (Read more about Finney's theology.)

Charles Finney and Health Reform

Though it isn't discussed as much, by the time Charles Finney became President of Oberlin he had adopted strong convictions on health and helped establish rules at Oberlin regarding a more healthful diet that was later opposed by some of the teachers.