How Charles Finney Trumped Jonathan Edwards in America

In the just-published 9Marks journal, I published an essay on the trajectory of conversion in America over the last 250 years.  It is my argument that in the evangelical scene writ large, conversion came to be seen more as a process to be engineered than as a miracle to be prayed down.

Here’s a bit from the piece, entitled “His Arm Is Strong to Save:”

Finney avowed that in the sinner’s “inward being,” he or she is “conscious of ability to will and of power to control their outward life directly, and the states of their intellect and of their sensibility, either directly or indirectly, by willing” (Lectures on Systematic Theology, 35). With statements like these the die was cast. Edwards’s revival work was Calvinistic—it depended on the Spirit of God to regenerate the sinner through the free offer of the gospel. Finney’s revival work was Arminian—it did not depend on such spiritual intervention. This meant that conversion, dammed up by Edwardsian error, could now be loosed. Finney even saw himself as an evangelistic hero for unblocking the dam: “It fell to my lot, in the providence of God, to attack and expose many fallacies and false notions that existed in the churches, and that were paralyzing their efforts and rendering the preaching of the Gospel inefficacious” (Memoirs, 536-37)

Conversion in Finney’s scheme therefore became a matter of discovering the right agitator of the will. He put it like this: conversion “is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means” (Lectures on Revivals of Religion,introduction and notes by William G. McLoughlin [Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1960], 13.) Accordingly, he instituted the “anxious bench” and other methods that placed tremendous psychological and emotional pressure on the sinner. This contrasted with Edwards’s own preaching, which placed theological or biblical pressure on the conscience. Conversion for Finney did not require a miracle; it was, with the proper techniques, a given.

Here’s the whole thing.

The whole journal is quite good; see, for example, Jared Wilson’s piece on the beauty of conversion, Bobby Jamieson’s review of Revival and Revivalism, and Jeremy Rinnie’s thoughts on how conversion and church architecture relate.

(Image: The Conversion of Saul)

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3 Comments

Filed under 9Marks, conversion

3 responses to “How Charles Finney Trumped Jonathan Edwards in America

  1. Great article Owen, I am taking a PhD seminar on the History of Spiritual Awakenings currently, and Edwards and Finney obviously play prominent roles. I greatly appreciated your historical analysis and the tracing of particular trajectories even to the present day.

  2. owenstrachan

    Jeremy–good to hear from you, my friend. Thank you for your kind words. Hope your seminar goes very nicely–is that Nathan Finn’s? Sounds like an excellent one.

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