Charles Finney: Instructions on how to hold a revival
One of the reasons I enjoy studying church history is that I can better understand how different practices began. So it is with one of the usual occurrences in many churches: the altar call. The man who popularized this practice was Charles Finney in the 1800s. He was one of the main preachers during the movement known as the Second Great Awakening. (The First Great Awakening was in the mid-1700s.)
This movement swept across America and resulted in many people becoming Christian. Most of the new Christians joined Methodist and Baptist churches. This caused these two groups to swell until they were the largest Protestant groups in America by the mid-1800s.
Finney (1792-1875) was a traveling evangelist, probably the most successful one of the Nineteenth Century. He was converted to Christianity in 1821 and was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1824. He began his revival preaching in western New York, and then went on to Philadelphia and New York. Eventually he traveled to many parts of American with his tent revivals.
From the beginning, Finney tried new procedures in his revivals. While he did not originate these ideas, he was the first to popularize these various revival alternative methods.
One of the most influential and imitated was that of the “anxious bench.” In a revival meeting, when someone became concerned about the state of their soul, they could move to the front of the audience and sit in special seats set aside for those about to make a conversion decision. The purpose was twofold: bring the person closer to Finney where he could look the person in the eye, and allow other non-Christians who were close to making a decision to see others turning their lives over the God. This would encourage them to come to the “anxious bench” and also be converted. (This is one of the forerunners to the current practice in many churches of having an “altar call,” that time after the sermon where individuals are encouraged to come to the front where the pastor is standing and make a profession of converted faith.)
While the most prominent method, Finney utilized several other new practices. One was the practice of holding services a number of nights in a row. This led to increased conversions as people had two, three, four, or more nights to consider their spiritual situation. He also believed that a revivalist should forgo lofty and theological language. Instead of speaking above people’s heads, he said, the preacher should speak to them in the language they use, “the language of common life”. By appealing to hearts instead of heads, Finney believed more people would be converted.
His overarching belief was that God gave humans the ability to promote and encourage spiritual renewal. While his opponents believed God should lead in bringing people to God, Finney believed God allowed him to use any device or tool to bring a person to God. In other words, Finney did not believe the timing of a conversion should be left to God, but the minister could control the various aspects of the worship service and sermon in order to bring the listener to a place of spiritual brokenness leading to conversion or spiritual renewal.
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