Example in Church History
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” — Matthew 3:1-3 ESV
Optional fuller reading: Matthew 3-6
John the Baptist prepared the way for the Lord by calling people to repentance. The same may be said about one of the greatest revivalists of the 18th century, Charles Grandison Finney.
On the eve of the Industrial Revolution, Finney’s preaching sparked the second great awakening, bringing a divided country together around Scripture and prayer. More than half a million people were converted through his influence. His approach to theology and his methods of ministry laid the groundwork for the holiness movement and for methods of revivalism that would be employed even to the present day.
Born in 1792, approximately a year after the death of John Wesley, Finney’s parents did not claim faith or religion, despite the abundance of Methodist circuit riders that passed through their town in western New York. Their part of the state was known as the “Burned-over District,” as so many Methodist preachers had passed through the area that people had become immune to their message. In this environment, Charles grew up with a distinct distaste for lukewarm religion and half-hearted Christianity. He began working as an apprentice to study and practice law when he was dramatically converted through a baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Charles gave up law and prepared for ministry in the Presbyterian Church. After being ordained in 1824, he began preaching in the frontier communities of upper New York where rigid Calvinism dominated the theological landscape. Finney spoke to people directly, arguing the case for their repentance with the practical logic and persuasive appeal of a lawyer on the bench.
Finney’s methods quickly became controversial. Unlike other preachers, he spoke extemporaneously and used common and informal language. Like John the Baptist who confronted the Pharisees and Sadducees, Finney was unafraid to call people out for their hypocrisy. He allowed women to pray out loud in meetings and he employed the “anxious seat,” or alter call method by which people would come forward to indicate their desire to be saved. He also developed the “protracted meeting,” moving the frequency of gatherings from weekly to nightly.
Finney’s innovations brought him much success and won him many enemies. When other pastors complained about his methods he infuriated them by asking who was bearing the most fruit. As Finney preached, people often fell under deep conviction for their sins and were soundly converted. Charles teamed up with Father Nash, who would go ahead of Finney and prepare the way in each city or town through travailing intercession. Charles preached with the expectation that he would see the Holy Spirit suddenly poured out. Until this outpouring would occur, he acknowledged, his preaching would have little effect. But once the Spirit came in power, Finney had little else to do than point people to the Savior.
In September of 1830, Finney brought revival into Rochester, New York, under great opposition. He persevered and God moved in power. Roughly one hundred thousand people, nearly the entire population of Rochester, was converted. God’s work in Rochester sparked a national revival that spread like wildfire across the country in 1831. Many of Finney’s antagonists became supporters. The membership rolls in churches everywhere began to swell, whether Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, or Congregational.
Even today Finney’s methods are both debated and supported. Perhaps his strong emphasis on human means to bring about God’s divine work was necessary in his day to bring balance to a church that had so emphasized God’s work that they forgot how to repent. As with John the Baptist in the time of Christ, Finney called for a change of heart and life. His preaching laid the foundation for social reforms ranging from abolition to the temperance and civil rights movements.
Jesus, thank you for John the Baptist who prepared the way for your coming. And thank you for revival leaders like Charles Finney, a man who was willing to stand out from the crowd and call his contemporaries to repentance. Bring us more preachers like Finney who will preach your Word with deep conviction, calling the nation to repentance in the power of your Spirit. And send us more Father Nashes, intercessors whose prayers will rend the heavens and release your glory upon the earth.
1. From what you know about Charles Finney, what do you think were his strengths and weaknesses? How do you think Finney would be received in our day? Why?
2. From Matthew 3:1-12, why do you think God used John the Baptist so powerfully? Do you know anyone like John in our day? Explain.
3. From Matthew 11:1-19, what significant truths about John did Jesus elucidate? (See also Malachi 4:5). Pray for the message of repentance to sweep our land, preparing the way for the Lord’s second coming.