Charles Finney (August 29, 1792 – August 16, 1875) was the Billy Graham of his day. He was an evangelist who pioneered many of the techniques of mass evangelism and revivalism that are still used today. People love him, or hate him, but they can’t ignore him. He was one of the giants on the playing field of American religion in the 19th century — the same time that our Movement was getting its start.
One of my college professors (Alger Fitch) wrote a book about Alexander Campbell (one of “our” founders) as a preacher (Alexander Campbell: Preacher of Reform and Reformer of Preaching – Sweet Publishing -1970). Alexander Campbell wrote that once on a trip to New York that he had the occasion to hear the man whose preaching had converted Charles Finney, and who remained an important spiritual influence on him. Of this man Alexander Campbell said that he was “impassioned in his oratory, illogical in his reasoning, and extremely hazardous in his use of Scripture.” Campbell described him as “vehement, boisterous, and declamatory,” compelling members of his audience to come forward to the mourner’s bench to be prayed over whether they wanted to or not. Campbell compared him to a “tornado passing through the country upturning everything that can be moved” (20). And the same thing could be said of Charles Finney and his techniques. If our approach to matters of faith is too cerebral, then his approach to matters of faith would have to be described in exactly the opposite way, as being too emotional. We Disciples together with our Reformed kin don’t have many kind things to say about Charles Finney. But I as a member of the Stone/Campbell family will praise Brother Charles for something — a rather significant something — he not only kept the horse in front of the cart, he never let people forget that there was a cart!
Jim Rice in his article on “The Roots of Justice Revival” (http://sojo.net/magazine) wrote –
Finney’s preaching had a lasting effect, not only on the personal lives of those who heard him but also on the broader society. In his memoirs, Finney himself described the impact of one his revivals: “This revival made a great change in the moral state and subsequent history of Rochester. The great majority of the leading men and women in the city were converted. … From night to night I had been making appeals to the congregation, and calling forward those that were prepared to give their hearts to God; and large numbers were converted every evening.”
Finney, who believed strongly that salvation came through grace alone by faith, saw “works”—the way people act in the world, including, in his case, adamant opposition to the abomination of slavery—as evidence of faith…
Finney, of course, wasn’t alone in linking revival to social reform. Jonathan Blanchard was the founder of Wheaton College and another leader of 19th-century evangelism. In his 1839 commencement address at Oberlin College, which he titled “A Perfect State of Society,” Blanchard affirmed that “every true minister of Christ is a universal reformer, whose business it is, so far as possible, to reform all the evils which press on human concerns.” For Blanchard, being a “minister of Christ” meant, in today’s terms, becoming an activist on behalf of social justice.
When critics of the day argued that Christians ought not to be focused on this world, Blanchard responded that while “the kingdom is not of this world, it is in it.” Blanchard’s evangelical approach to social reform understood the balance: On the one hand, imperfect human beings cannot, through their own power, bring about the kingdom of God on earth—that would constitute “works righteousness,” a reliance on something other than God’s grace. But at the same time, Christians are called to “reform all the evils” in the world, as Blanchard put it…
Finney, like Blanchard, did not conflate “revival” and “reform” into one; he didn’t stop calling people to conversion. Rather, he saw social reforms—such as temperance and the abolition of slavery—as “appendages” of revival, the fruits of conversion. Finney’s use of the term “appendage” did not imply that he thought the reforms he was involved in were unimportant—in fact, he devoted much of his life to these reform movements. Rather, the metaphor emphasized that the “heart” of evangelism was conversion to Christ, with the natural outgrowth of reform being like a person’s arms or legs—appendages, yes, but certainly significant to a person’s existence, and neither discretionary nor expendable.
For Finney, involvement in reform efforts was not optional, and the lack of such involvement hampered the revival movement. In his “Lectures on Revivals of Religion,” Finney wrote, “Revivals are hindered when ministers and churches take wrong ground in regard to any question involving human rights.” Note his emphasis: It was the revivals that were hindered when believers failed to act on behalf of human rights. In fact, Finney felt that the spiritual vitality of a church was sapped by a failure to embrace reform. When the church fails to speak out on such issues, Finney wrote, “She is perjured, and the Spirit of God departs from her.” Commitment to the reform of society was seen by Finney as a spiritual issue, a sign of holiness, and not just a matter of “secular” politics.
I have long been an advocate of the “full” Gospel. In Christian College where the emphasis of the community I was in was on evangelism and personal spiritual growth, I found myself frequently and forcefully advocating for the engagement of my Christian brothers and sisters in ministries of compassion, service and social reform. Now, in an era of denominational life when the mission of the church is conceived of almost exclusively in terms of social change — the improvement of human life in this world now — I find myself more frequently and forcefully coming down on the side of the necessity for personal conversion and the urgency for the Spirit’s indwelling empowerment of our personal transformation before anything else. To look at what I was writing about and advocating in the 1970’s compared with what I am writing and advocating these days, you might conclude that I have undergone a change. But in fact, what’s changed is not me, but my audience.
In the 1970’s my personal context was more overtly evangelical, and in that setting the deficiency that I experienced was in the area of social responsibility. They had soul winning and soul shaping well in hand. My spiritual discomfort came not from what was being done, but rather from what was missing Today my context is much more decidedly mainline, and in this setting the glaring deficiency that I see is evangelism — not evangelism defined as moving church visitors into church membership, which is a perfectly legitimate and urgent activity that we need to keep working on to improve as a church — but defined instead as a matter of telling people about what God has done for them in Jesus Christ, and inviting them into a personal relationship with Him through repentance and faith. Our dry baptistery witnesses week in and week out to our almost complete abdication of this core expectation of the Risen Lord of His church (Matthew 28:18-20). We do social service, delivering real help to people at the points of their hurts and hopes, as well as anybody does. I’m not critical of this, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we need to do less. Again, my spiritual discomfort comes not from what’s being done, but rather from what’s missing.
It’s the “full” Gospel that I preach and teach. It’s the “whole” Gospel that I believe, and what I have always emphasized in my ministry has depended on where the “hole” is in the Gospel of the people with whom I have been called to live and serve. And my most important teacher in this was John R.W. Stott, of blessed memory. An absolutely defining moment for me and my faith was the International Congress on World Evangelization that was held in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1974, and that was actually attended by my college mentor, Dr. Herb Works. This gathering was called by a committee headed by Rev. Billy Graham and drew more than 2,300 evangelical leaders, from 150 countries, under the theme: “Let the Earth Hear His Voice.” All of my spiritual influences were there – Francis Schaeffer, Rene Padilla, Donald McGavran, Michael Green, Ralph Winter, Samuel Escobar, Peter Beyerhaus, Corrie ten Boom, Festo Kivengere, Stanley Mooneyham, Os Guiness, Harold Lindsell, and perhaps most important of all, John R.W. Stott – to think and talk together about what it means for the church of Jesus Christ to take the whole Gospel to the whole world. My copy of the Official Reference Volume of the Papers and Responses presented at this Congress that was given to me by my parents on the occasion of my graduation from college remains one of my precious possessions. And it was the work done at this gathering and reported about in this book that resulted in the statement that has been absolutely defining for me and my ministry for the last 30 years –
We tend to set evangelism and social responsibility over against one another in an unhealthy way soul and body, the individual and society, redemption and creation, grace and nature, heaven and earth, justification and justice, faith and works. The Bible certainly distinguishes between these, but it also relates them to each other, and it instructs us to hold each pair in a dynamic and creative tension.
Social activity not only follows evangelism as its consequence and aim, and precedes it as its bridge, but also accompanies it as its partner. They are like the two blades of a pair of scissors or the two wings of a bird. This partnership is clearly seen in the public ministry of Jesus, who not only preached the gospel but fed the hungry and healed the sick. In his ministry, kerygma (proclamation) and diakonia (service) went hand in hand. His words explained his works, and his works dramatized his words. Both were expressions of his compassion for people, and both should be of ours. Both also issue from the lordship of Jesus, for he sends us out into the world both to preach and to serve. If we proclaim the Good News of God’s love, we must manifest his love in caring for the needy. Indeed, so close is this link between proclaiming and serving that they actually overlap.
This is not to say that they should be identified with each other, for evangelism is not social responsibility, nor is social responsibility evangelism. Yet, each involves the other. To proclaim Jesus as Lord and Saviour (evangelism) has social implications, since it summons people to repent of social as well as personal sins, and to live a new life of righteousness and peace in the new society which challenges the old. To give food to the hungry (social responsibility) has evangelistic implications, since good works of love, if done in the name of Christ, are a demonstration and commendation of the gospel. It has been said, therefore, that evangelism, even when it does not have a primarily social intention, nevertheless has a social dimension, while social responsibility, even when it does not have a primarily evangelistic intention, nevertheless has an evangelistic dimension. (LOP 21: Evangelism and Social Responsibility: An Evangelical Commitment – www.lausanne.org)
The “full” Gospel involves a cart and a horse. We get in trouble when they aren’t lined up in the right order, and when the horse is allowed to move out without the cart attached. DBS+