Power and Revivalism (Part II): Finney’s new empowerment

America’s two Great
Awakenings had a huge effect on Christian thinking. The intense revivalism of
nearly an entire century was a firepot for theological innovation, evolution and
diversion as much as anything, and we’re still feeling the effect of tha…

America’s two Great Awakenings had a huge effect on Christian thinking. The intense revivalism of nearly an entire century was a firepot for theological innovation, evolution and diversion as much as anything, and we’re still feeling the effect of that today, particularly with the ever-rising influence of modern-day Pentecostal revivalism.

Charles G. Finney (1792-1875) was the outstanding evangelist of the Second Great Awakening (ca. 1795-1930) and the dominant theological figure. He came from within Presbyterianism but was significantly influenced by Wesley's Plain Account of Christian Perfection, which crystallised his belief in 'entire sanctification' as a state of perfect trust in God and commitment to his will. But for him, this state of perfect consecration to God was only the means to the second blessing. The higher Christian state, attainable following conversion, was a state of empowerment through the experience of Spirit-baptism.

Finney was also immensely influenced by Nathaniel W. Taylor's form of Arminianism, called New Haven Theology. New Haven theology was a late stage of the New England theology that originated in the work of Jonathan Edwards to defend the revival of the First Great Awakening (ca. 1735-43). Understanding New Haven theology and its historical development is the key to understanding Finney’s new revivalism.

Jonathan Edwards

In the 1700s during the First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) rejuvenated Augustinian theology and Calvinism to give spiritual legitimacy to the revival. His theology dominated American Christianity for almost a century. Edwards is regarded as the classical theologian of revival. He emphasised the sovereignty of God in revival and the inability of people to produce revival. He also taught that genuine Christianity was not revealed by the quality or intensity of religious affections or experiences, but by a change of heart to love and seek God’s pleasure. Emotions or wilful exertion could not produce or ‘cause’ the work of God.

Along with George Whitefield, he taught that salvation belonged entirely to God and that people did not possess the natural ability to turn to Christ apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. In Original Sin (1758) he taught that all mankind were present in Adam when he sinned. Consequently, all people share his sinful character and guilt. Only God’s sovereign grace could cause them to repent. The human “will” was not an independent faculty, but an expression of basic motivation. Modern versions of “free will” only served to remove human responsibility.

Through Edwards, New England theology began with a focus on: the supremacy, sovereignty and majesty of God; the morality of divine justice for a sovereign God; and the problem of causation behind sin, including the problem of the freedom of the human will. But Edward’s successors would not master his theological rigour, and introduced subtle changes to his theology that would have a significant affect over time. Eventually in the nineteenth-century, his protégé would reverse many of his basic teachings.

David Hume

The Enlightenment was at its climax in the eighteenth-century (the age of ‘reason’). David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish philosopher and one of the key figures of the Enlightenment. He wrote Treatise of Human Nature (1734-37) which was taken by orthodox Christianity as an attack because it taught that all human knowledge is a product of experience. Hume reasoned that actual reality cannot be known for certain, because human knowledge cannot go beyond the appearance of probability, only having certainty over the relationship between ideas, not between objects. The concept of causality, cause and effect, was an assumption, an association made because of the appearance of cause and effect. In Dialogues, Hume denied the argument of natural theology. While not denying the existence of God, he argued that God’s existence cannot be established from reason or sense experience, and cannot be proved from causality.

Thomas Reid

Thomas Reid (1710-96) was a moderate Presbyterian and was particularly disturbed by Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1739), which he saw as a denial of the reality of external objects, causation and the unity of the mind. He attempted to overcome what he saw as a threat to Christianity from Hume in his writings: Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1764), Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1764) and Essays on the Active Powers of Man (1785).

Scottish Realism was the popular movement that he left behind him in the eighteenth and nineteenth-century. It aimed to stem the infidelity of the Enlightenment and combat the scepticism of David Hume with a philosophy of ‘common’ sense and natural ‘realism’, which taught a universal and innate human freedom and the power of people to shape their own destinies. The “self-evident” principles of ‘common experience’ were: the existence of external objects, causality and the obligations of morals.

Scottish Realism has been shown to have had an immensely influential effect on American theology during the nineteenth-century. Among those influenced were the children, grandchildren and protégé of Jonathan Edwards.

Timothy Dwight

Edward’s own son, Jonathan Edwards Jn. (1745-1801) and his grandson, Timothy Dwight (1752-1817) both deviated from Edwards. Dwight was a revivalist and a theologian of the Second Great Awakening and was particularly influenced by the eighteenth-century rationalist movement, himself contributing to Scottish realism in America.

Both tended to view sin as a summation of evil deeds rather than principally a wrong state of being that produces evil deeds. Dwight had a greater view of human ability, and in contrast to Edwards, emphasised the natural ability of people to respond to the gospel.  He also endeavoured to emphasise the ‘reasonable’ nature of the Christian position by giving it a rational defence in the context of the Enlightenment, rather than emphasising the supremacy and majesty of God, as had Edwards.

But it was one of Dwight’s students that changed the emphasis of New England theology most dramatically.

Nathaniel Taylor

Timothy Dwight’s best student Nathaniel W. Taylor (1786-1858), who was profoundly influenced by his revivalism, accepted Scottish realism, the humanistic teaching of common sense realism that teaches that ‘reason’ provides proof of the first principles of morality that make humans free moral agents. And building on the foundation laid by Dwight, he contended that people inherently possessed a natural power to be able to make free choices. He modified Calvinism to make it compatible with the revivalism of the Second Great awakening in the opening decades of the nineteenth century.

His teaching on human nature famously stated that individuals always possessed a “power to the contrary”. Following the lead of Jonathan Edwards Jn. and Timothy Dwight, he taught that although everyone did in fact sin, this was not a result of God’s predestination of human nature.

Going completely against the teaching of Jonathan Edwards, he reversed many of the original positions of New England theology, teaching that sin was actually the exercise of wilful actions against God, rather than an underlying condition of existing by nature with a will in opposition to God.

In order to make them compatible with the actual practices of the revivals of the Second Great Awakening, Taylor altered almost every doctrine of the Reformation and Calvinism, including revelation, human depravity, the sovereignty of God, the atonement, and regeneration.
W. A. Hoffecker has written about him:

“He insisted that people are lost but denied that Adam’s sin was imputed to all people and that everyone inherits a sinful nature that causes one to sin. Even though a person sins, that person has the power to do otherwise, thus remaining morally responsible. God made humans with a proper self-love, a natural desire for happiness, which motivates all choice.

Taylor also reinterpreted Calvin’s teaching on God’s sovereignty by calling God a moral governor who rules, not by determining the destiny of all people through election, but rather by establishing a moral universe and judging its inhabitants. God promotes moral action by a system of means and ends in which people can respond to ethical appeals for repentance.

He opposed the legal view of the atonement that stressed Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross in the place of sinners to satisfy God’s justice. Instead, God as benevolent moral governor sent Christ to die so that his death could be preached as a means to urge sinners to turn freely from their sin out of self-love and be converted”. (Elwell, p. 1168).

In direct opposition to Jonathan Edwards in the 1740s, Taylor undermined the distinction between the Holy Spirit’s sovereign work of regeneration and human repentance, and in so doing denied the absolute grace of God in salvation.

In what is now called New Haven Theology, Taylor's form of Arminianism greatly influenced a new revivalist and evangelist, Charles Finney, who would go even further in bringing this new theology of revivalism to its maturity.

Charles Finney

Dramatically converted in the middle of the revivalism of the American Holiness movement in 1821, Charles G. Finney (1792-1875) became the leading evangelist and leader in the movement. He is credited with establishing the modern forms and methods of revivalism, indirectly inherited by Pentecostalism. He spent the last 40 years of his life constructing a new theology of revival, casting into shadow the classic work of Jonathan Edwards.

He was influenced profoundly by Wesley’s theology, by the emphasis of the American Holiness movement, and by New Haven Theology. Underpinning all of Finney’s doctrine was his conviction from Wesley that the practice of Christian perfection was the attainable duty of all Christians and his conviction from Taylor that God has established natural means and ends in which people can and will respond to ethical appeals for repentance. 

Accordingly, Finney taught that God had established the means by which humans could produce revival. He believed that not only had individuals possessed the ability within themselves to make a choice to follow Christ, but also that Christians possessed the power within themselves to live holy lives.

He taught that the result of God's help combined with strenuous human effort was blessing and revival: "A revival is as naturally a result of the use of the appropriate means as a crop is of the use of its means." In his Revival Lectures, Finney taught that God had revealed laws of revival in Scripture: when the Church obeyed these laws, spiritual renewal followed. In direct contradiction to Edwards, Christians had the ability by means of complete commitment and faith to bring the Holy Spirit's blessing.

He thus gave a central role to human ability as a means to bring God's blessing and the Spirit's power, creating revival by use of human means. Whereas Edward’s had emphasised the sovereign grace of God in salvation, Finney emphasised human choice in conversion and went as far as psychologising conversion. His Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1854) taught techniques for success.

He had expected revival to overtake America and bring social, political and economic reform. But later in his Letters on Revival (1845) he revised this expectation, confessing to over-optimism. However he nonetheless hoped that Oberlin theology (named after Oberlin College in Ohio where he was professor since 1836), propagated also by the likes of Asa Mahan, would generate a “new race of revival ministers” and in time ‘awaken’ Christians to the attainable duty of walking in Christian perfection.

Oberlin theology emphasised a second more robust and mature stage of Christian experience. While different names were employed, Finney distinctly taught it as “baptism of the Holy Ghost”, and differed from Wesley in requiring entire sanctification as the means to obtaining this blessing, being a state of complete commitment to God’s will rather than perfect sinlessness. He also came to believe that this state should be reached by a process of steady growth, rather than by a dramatic single ‘crisis’ event.

Oberlin theology had an enormous effect on nineteenth-century evangelical belief. Finney’s pioneering of his so-called ‘new measures’  in revivalism and his active encouragement of concern for society and the role of revival in reforming America meant that his theology not only had a dramatic effect on the shape and direction of the Holiness movement towards the end of the nineteenth-century, but also had a wider social impact on American culture. It continued to have an influence well into the twentieth century directly through the Holiness movement, but indirectly it continues to have an almost unquantifiable impact via its inheritance in the genetic makeup of Pentecostalism.  

Charles Finney's central emphasis on human ability and his confidence in the effect of natural means to change the world can ultimately be understood as an over-reaction to David Hume's scepticism and rejection of causality. In an age of Enlightenment, when Reason was the language of debate, and Philosophy had seemingly taken the ground out from under Christianity by rejecting causality and confidence in human ability, Thomas Reid reacted by asserting the power of people to shape their world and their destiny. His approach to fighting reason with reason, and philosophical innovation with theological revision set in place a chain-reaction that would result in the evolution of a brand new modern revivalism: from Timothy Dwight to Nathaniel Taylor, from Charles Finney to Pentecostalism; and from the Pentecostal movement the “new race of revival ministers” continues to grow, exemplified and amplified acutely in the model of ministry that was practised by Leonard Ravenhill and Stephen Hill.

Today revivalism has long left behind Edward’s insistence on total dependence on the sovereign and free grace of God and has become a new form of Christian legalism. It insists on the central role of human ability and free choice, and preaches a Christian duty of exercising total commitment to his work that brings a new and unique power from God to change our lives, our world and society.

In the next post, we’ll look directly at Charles Finney’s Power from on High in order to understand Finney’s teaching and its problems: The need for power; conditions of receiving power; the effect of possessing power; power in prayer and power in preaching.


Brown, Colin. Philosophy and the Christian Faith, IVP, 1969.
Elwell, W. A (Ed.) Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2001, p. 1168
Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature (Book I), Collins Sons & Co, 1962.

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