The gentleman pictured to the right may be familiar to some of you. This is a color portrait of Charles Grandison Finney, noted by some as the "Father of Revivalism" in early-mid19th century America, as well as the founder of Oberlin College, and a leader in the movements to abolish slavery, ameliorate harsh labor conditions, promote temperance, and increase the rights and education of women. All of these social efforts Finney saw as necessary components of Christian holiness. And Finney's approach to holiness was very much like that of at least the earlier John Wesley-- without it, one could not hope to see the Lord.
At least in my experience, Finney's approach to revivals and revivalism has been largely mischaracterized as "competing" with the ministry of local congregations and focused primarily on "doing whatever it takes" to get "lost" people (i.e., those not regularly attending worship) to "come to Jesus," as well as almost entirely concerned with "individual salvation." At least on this last point, the list of his efforts and expectations of Christians to be fully engaged in social holiness should offset that caricature.
Still, his approach to the "use of new measures" (including "the protracted meeting" and "the anxious seat") has been particularly criticized for being manipulative in the extreme and generative of, at best, short-term emotional results.
However, if you read his writings carefully, you might see a somewhat more nuanced picture. At least, I do.
What Finney Cared About
Finney's passion was less about "getting non-Christians in" (though that was not unimportant!) and far more about reviving the faith, commitment and holiness of Christians already in the churches so they would "go out" and live faithfully in the world.
He supported and promoted revivals-- "protracted meetings" typically outside the regular meeting places of the congregations and during the week, not just on Sunday morning or evening (i.e., not a "sermon series")-- because he saw in them an effective venue for a clear focus on conversion, commitment and amendment of life in ways that the "regular" Sunday practices of worship were generally unlikely or unable to provide.
Finney was not suggesting that "regular" Sunday practices were either wrong or unimportant. He was not saying "Quit what you're doing on Sunday and just do revivals!" He was saying that these regular practices were not up to the task of eliciting and deepening commitment to the way of Christ in his own day.
"Without new measures, it is impossible that the church should succeed in gaining the attention of the world to religion. There are so many exciting subjects constantly brought before the public mind... that the church cannot maintain her ground, cannot command attention, without very exciting preaching, and sufficient novelty in measures, to get the public ear (pp. 251-252).
Finney's concern was for "the public mind," that is, all the ways all of our daily lives-- those in the church as well as those not yet in the church-- are formed by the actual practices of the cultures in which we live.
Neither morning worship nor the newly emerging Sunday Schools in most of the congregations he knew were trying to carve out a niche in that "marketplace," but rather to offer a public practice of religion for those who were primarily already in the church and whose minds were at least thought to be primarily influenced by the church.
What Finney observed was that even among those in the church, the normal round of congregational life, including its worship and educational opportunities, was at most one influence among many in their actual lives, and often not the most significant one.
The Role and Limitations of the Revival
Finney understood and repeatedly said that revivals and protracted meetings were no replacement for congregational life. However, they were a necessary additive for the church (not just the congregation, but Christianity in America) to spread the gospel to persons who had not received it and to help those who had received it actually to live the way of Christ.
In other words, Finney believed and taught that revivals should supplement rather than replace congregational life and worship. Indeed, he warned that over-reliance on protracted meetings was as dangerous and foolish as avoiding them altogether. He wrote:
"Some churches have got into a morbid state... Their zeal has become all spasmodic and feverish... When a protracted meeting is held they will seem to be wonderfully zealous, and then sink down into a torpid state until another protracted meeting produces another spasm" (p. 246).
Such congregations, we might say, had become "revival junkies," addicted to the revival itself as its core spiritual practice, always and ultimately only looking for the next "fix."
Was "the Fix" the Only Real Way to Generate Discipleship?
Finney never argued that the only way to generate initial or rededicated discipleship was through revivals, per se. What he noted, instead, was that the revival or protracted meeting appeared to be a very effective means to move many people from no faith to faith and from lukewarm commitment to deeper commitment to the way of Christ. He would also note the revivals were far better at that kind of "advancement of religion" than "regular" church life and worship in his day.
However, if you look at his detailed descriptions explaining why and how revivals worked on the human mind/soul, in the end, it is for him all about "the fix." Having a strong emotional and physical response to a call to come to Jesus or surrender to him in all or a particular matter of life was, in his view, the necessary precondition to actually coming to him in the first place or becoming a better disciple of his. And having such strong responses on a regular basis was in the end the only way to ensure an advance in holiness, an actual "revival of religion."
"A revival will decline and cease, unless Christians are frequently re-converted. By this I mean, that Christians, in order to keep in the spirit of a revival, commonly need to be frequently convicted, and humbled, and broken down before God, and re-converted. This is something which many do not understand, when we talk about a Christian's being re-converted. But the fact is that in a revival the Christian's heart is liable to get crusted over, and lose its exquisite relish for divine things; his unction and prevalence in prayer abates, and then he must be converted over again. It is impossible to keep him in such a state as not to do injury to the work, unless he pass through such a process every few days" (p. 262, emphasis Finney).
In saying this, Finney is not arguing that Christians have to get "the fix" every few days of their lives, but rather that they do need to get this every few days during a protracted meeting. If not, that meeting will not have done its intended work and the Christian will not have been revived enough to continue to grow in grace and holiness in the days until the next protracted meeting.
Still, the message is clear: no salvation or growth in holiness without "the fix." Only "the fix" such as can be generated through the right use of the "new measures" can generate or sustain "true religion." The regular practices of the congregation generally do not and cannot.
Worship and Discipleship: Historical Reflections on Finney, The Fix, and Practices... coming in part 4!
Peace in Christ,