Monday, November 07, 2016

19th Century America: "Calvinistic Fatalism," New England Revivalism and Charles Finney

Reacting against a kind of fatalism in his own denomination, [Charles] Finney deplored the notion that sinners should continue under conviction of sin until God should deign to grant them repentance: rather he felt that they should by an act of the will surrender to God. It was this emphasis upon immediate decision and his preaching of "whosever [sic] will" which had made a powerful effect. [J Edwin Orr, The Light of the Nations: Evangelical Renewal and Advance in the Nineteenth Century (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1965), 60]

The Evangelical myth concerning Charles Finney and the 19th century Second Great Awakening, propagated by Evangelical church historians, is that Finney revived true evangelism against a petrified sterile "dead orthodoxy." In much of contemporary Evangelicalism, this myth has permeated the churches such that anyone who speaks out against modern evangelistic practices are believed to be against evangelism. Evangelistic rallies, altar calls, the Gospel message as being that of "God loves you" — all of these and more stemmed directly and indirectly from the middle stages of the Second Great Awakening temporally, from the "New Measures" adopted by Charles Finney in practice, and from Finney's Pelagianism in theory.

The religious environment in which Finney came into the scene was not that dead orthodoxy, contrary to Evangelical hagiographies. But it would be similarly an error to assume the fault lies wholly with Finney, as if the church just decided to lose its mind for no reason whatsoever and adopt Finney's New Measures. Finney was a product of his age, and there are legitimate problems in the religious scene when he began his revivals.

The older view of revivals, stemming from the First Great Awakening, was that revivals are acts of God. The preacher is to present the wrath of God and then call people to turn to Christ, who offers us the way of salvation. In the life of the church in 17th century Puritan New England, Congregationalism had came up with an emphasis on conversion experiences as being part of the experience of salvation. Believers ought to have a genuine feeling of horror over their sins, followed by an experience of joy and gladness over God's grace over them. Only those with such conversion experiences were to be regarded as being saved. [In other words, even if a person professes faith in Jesus Christ, is orthodox in his beliefs and strives to live a godly life, that person is not a Christian as long as he does not possess the required "conversion experience."] The Halfway covenant advocated by some Congregationalist pastors like Solomon Stoddard (Jonathan Edwards' grandfather) became necessary only because many covenant children did not have such conversion experiences and thus were not regarded as church members despite their faith in Christ and adherence to orthodoxy, and thus the question was raised as to whether their own children (2nd generation) should be baptized as infants since the 1st generation children were not members of the churches they were brought up in. The halfway covenant, which allowed for baptism and participation in the life of the church of the 2nd generation children of 1st generation children who did not receive a conversion experience, was a bad solution to a problem created by bad theology, in this case the idea that every believer ought to have a conversion experience.

This theology of the "conversion experience" carried over into American religious life in the 18th century through the New Side Presbyterians and New Light Congregationalists. In fact, it can be said to provide a major impetus for the First Great Awakening in America. But when coupled with Calvinism, the revival teaching calls people to repentance and faith as a conversion experience, and since God is sovereign, no time limits can be placed for the onset of the conversion experience.

It is therefore correct when historians assert that Finney rejects "the notion that sinners should continue under conviction of sin." But one should notice that this notion comes about because of the emphasis on the conversion experience, which as God's sovereign activity cannot be timed. This particular piece of bad theology from New England Puritanism was not rejected by Finney but instead modified. The key error concerning the necessity of the conversion experience is kept. Finney merely replaced Calvinism with Pelagianism, therefore allowing him to shift the focus to Man's ability to decide for God, immediately. Also, since revivals are created by the mere use of the proper means, therefore all manners of appealing to the emotions to create revival are to be used. Thus, revivalism is birthed, a man-centered theory for creating converts which has created all manner of trouble in the churches

Evangelical histories in general are in error concerning Charles Finney. At the same time, we should understand that there was indeed a problem in the churches of that time, that of the necessity of a conversion experience for salvation, the more vivid they are the better. Wrong diagnostics by Evangelical hagiographers should not lead us into blaming Finney for things he is not guilty of. Finney has enough to answer for for his heresies, but we do not need to make him the devil incarnate even as we reject him and his heresies.

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