I spent the summer studying an obscure man from church history. Most have never heard his name but are certainly familiar with his influence. He impacted the modern church as much as any other person born in the United States. His name is Charles Grandison Finney. He is still known as the “Father of Modern Revival.”
I studied profusely to understand what he believed and what made him so successful.
My research led to unexpected results. Finney began having tent revivals or camp meetings in the 1840s. His sermons were powerful and emotional. The music was loud, upbeat, and moving. Hundreds of thousands professed Christ at these meetings. What made him so successful?
Finney introduced the local church to many of the elements we still use today. The altar call or invitation, the sinners prayer, special music, solos, sermons heavy on application, social justice ministries, sermons on politics, and the term “backslidden” for carnal Christians (if there is such a thing) all came about during these early meetings. While some of these can be used for good, he used them to manipulate. His theology is also alarming. He believed the Holy Spirit played no role in salvation; revival was scientific, not spiritual; prayer can change God’s mind; man is not sinful at birth; at salvation we receive a pardon rather than the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. These are just a few heretical points to which he subscribed.
I gave my Finney lecture a few times this summer. The last time I gave it something interesting happened. An older gentleman in our congregation told an insightful story. When he was a teenager, he vividly remembers the preacher would preach for (what seemed like) two hours, night after night, and command people to walk the aisle and get saved. The sermons were loud, emotional and manipulative.
The preacher would say things like “if you don’t get saved right now, the Holy Spirit will leave you and you will never be able to get saved again.” His hell-fire and brimstone style was ultra-legalistic – telling people that after they get saved, they would never sin again or they weren’t truly saved. This gentleman said he and all his friends would walk the aisle every night. Then he spoke a nugget of gold: “Pastor Andy, we weren’t saved; we were scared.”
Finney’s influence is still alive and well today in many local churches. Instead of trying to get people to the altar, report numbers to a convention, talk about how many people we led in the sinners prayer on our last mission trip, and/or coercing children to raise their hand at VBS, why not trust the Holy Spirit to draw all men unto Himself (John 6:44)?
We share the gospel, but God saves the people – through persuasion, not manipulation. The Great Commission is a call to “make disciples” who reproduce themselves; not to “make parrots” who repeat a prayer (Matthew 28:18-20).
Andy Waits is associate pastor of worship and students at First Baptist Church in Springville. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.