Saints, Sinners and Reformers
The Burned-Over District Re-Visited
Charles Grandison Finney
Religion on the Frontier of Western New York
New York Revivalism in the 1820-1830s
Charles Grandison Finney is credited with being one of the most forceful
American evangelists, one who was greatly responsible for the rise of
religious fervor in western New York from the 1820s to the 1850s. There
can be little doubt as to the forcefulness of his personality or of the
impact of his message which helped to give the name of the "Burned-Over
District" to western New York as one religious revival after another swept
over the area. Finney can also be seen as one who was to help to re-make
much of American Protestantism in his turning away from traditional New
England Christian theology in favor of a less rigid approach favored by
the Methodists and Baptists of his day. He is remembered as well for his
embracing the more emotional approach to preaching which began with George
Whitefield in New England before the American Revolution.
By the beginning of the 1800s, the orthodox intellectuality of New England
Puritan divines, with their faith based on the writings of their church
predecessors and particularly in the doctrine of pre-destination of John
Calvin (whereby God had ordained before one's birth whether one was destined
for Heaven or Hell) was beginning to wane. At the same time, a new approach
to the giving of sermons developed when George Whitefield, a Methodist
colleague of the Wesleys in England, came to America to preach. He used
a new, somewhat emotional style of preaching about the evils of sin and
the fear of Hell which rather scandalized the staid New England and Virginia
church leaders. Yale and Harvard, those bastions of orthodoxy, and most
of the churches, closed their doors to Whitefield. He may have been persona
non grata in orthodox churches, but he made his mark with many church
goers by adding a new emotional tone to American preaching.
A new era, known as the Romantic Period, was coming into existence at
the turn of the 1800s. It would flourish intellectually in various quarters,
such as in the Boston of Emerson and other New Englanders before long.
Out on the frontier, however, it would flourish in a variant form of romanticism,
in religion in particular, which was often anti-intellectual. The religious
faith of the frontier era was motivated by emotion and the warmth of a
new spirit in religion, and this was most obviously observed in the manifestation
of the new religious revival movement. Puritan theology was seen as bookish,
dry, and musty by many frontiersmen, many of whom were illiterate. Thus
on the frontier, religion often substituted emotion for intellectual thought.
As one scholar of American life, Dr. Sidney Mead has put it, "Around 1800
American religion gained a heart—and lost its head." This was particularly
to be true in western New York.
At the same time that Whitefield was visiting America before the American
Revolution, Methodist and Baptist theological notions were taking hold
in the American seaboard colonies, and these ideas were to combine with
the new emotional type of preaching of which Whitefield was the forerunner.
These dissident sects held Arminian beliefs, named for Jacob Arminius
(1560-1609), a Dutch theologian who had begun a break with Calvinism.
These two new faiths, along with Arminius, held that individuals were
not predestined before their birth to their fate by an omnipotent God,
nor did they accept the belief that only the elect would go to Heaven
at the decision of the Almighty. Instead, the Baptists and the Methodists
believed that God had given each person free will, and thus individuals
could chose between good and evil and work out their own religious destiny
both here and in the hereafter. They also held that in his death, Jesus
had assumed the sins of mankind, not just the sins of those elected by
God, and thus the version of original sin which the orthodox clung to
was no longer valid.
The Methodists and the Baptists were not ready to give up the traditional
doctrine of man's sinfulness entirely. They did find a theological loophole
in that man could rise above his inherent sinful nature through religious
effort, through a decision to lead a religious life. This was in opposition
to the doctrine of Calvin and New England Presbyterianism that one could
do little about one's sinful state. Further, as the average American looked
about him, he saw that he and his neighbors were no doubt fallible, but
perhaps they were not doomed to everlasting iniquity as the traditional
preachers claimed. Americans were trying to improve their lot by the building
of schools and mutual aid societies. Ben Franklin., for example, started
public libraries, public fire departments, public academies for the betterment
of mankind. He attended no church, but he gave to all churches or societies
in need. Mankind could not be as hopeless as Calvin had thought.
This concept of self-improvement would in time lead to a form of perfectionism.
An individual could perfect his nature and his universe—yet there
was still the problem of sin. It was here that the American religious
mind developed a technique which could bring the two concepts together,
and this was through the device of the American religious revival. The
religious revivals which were to spread from the frontier to all of American
society in the nineteenth century were a peculiarly American approach
to Christianity. If it is found in operation hereafter anywhere else in
the world than in the United States, one can be certain that an American
missionary has been in the vicinity.
In a religious revival, an individual could take cognizance of his sinfulness
while, at the same time, the form of the revival provided a means for
him to come forth "to be saved." At a revival meeting, a sinful American
could find Christ within and would vow to be good and to do good thereafter.
He would do this publicly during the revival, and the repentant sinner
thus came out of the meeting as a new individual. It was an emotional
and an uplifting experience. Fortunately, being saved could be experienced
annually, since at a revival one vowed to be and to do good, but inevitably
one fell into one's slothful and even sinful ways and had to be saved
again, which was quite possible at the next revival. Thus the American
revival system squared the traditional Christian doctrine of man's sinfulness
with the possibility of improvement and salvation. The revival system
institutionalized these two opposing views of sinfulness and salvation
with little regard for logic or the traditional theology of Christianity.
Stephan Leacock, the Canadian humorist who could look at an American
citizen with a loving yet critical eye, once wrote a biography of his
favorite American humorist, Mark Twain. In Twain he saw all the marks
of the characteristics which the revival system imparted, even to a free-thinker
and non-Christian like Twain. Every New Year's Day, Twain swore off drinking,
and then both figuratively and literally, he fell off the wagon on the
second day of January. There would always be another New Year, however,
and there could always be another set of New Year's resolutions. The same
was true for the revival system, for the sinner who recanted and then
sinned again knew there would always be another revival after which he
could start afresh once more.
There were many reasons why this American religious pattern was to catch
fire, particularly on the frontier. The life of the frontiersman was not
only lonely, but it was fraught with danger. The life was difficult: one
labored from dawn to dusk at back breaking tasks in the hope of eking
out a successful livelihood. The loneliness of life on the frontier is
something that cannot be realized today. There were few breaks in what
was a very solitary and onerous regimen for a family. The fear of illness
or sudden disaster was always present, far away from neighbors or any
medical care, and what medical care was available was often far less than
adequate. Inability to work due to illness or to accident could lead to
the loss of the ability to farm and thus to starvation and the loss of
survival. Wives often died in childbirth; children often died young. Life
Living under these conditions, the annual American revival in frontier
lands became a once a year event of great note. It provided an emotional
release from tensions through the public confession of one's sins, through
the emotional ecstasy which a revival preacher might invoke in one, and
even through the often excessive expression of emotion in physical manifestations
to which some gave vent during camp meetings and revival services on the
frontier. The annual revival provided companionship during the religious
exercises and pleasure in the evenings afterwards. It provided a chance
for young people to meet members of the opposite sex. The revival thus
became a social-cultural-religious event of the first order in the life
of rural America in the first half of the nineteenth century. There was,
naturally a down-side to such occasions, what with the hawkers, the whiskey
sellers, the ruffians, the camp followers, and even sex.
Western New York was quite ripe for such revivals by the 1820s. It was
rural and sparsely populated. It was inhabited primarily by Yankees and
was almost completely untouched by foreign immigration or non-Protestant
religions. Into this region needing emotional release, there came Charles
Grandison Finney, an almost irresistible religious force. He was a handsome,
eloquent preacher with a hypnotic eye, a mellifluous voice of great power
and pitch, he spoke without mannerisms, and with sufficient imagery of
the terrors of Hell for the unrepentant which swept up hundreds of converts
in what became known as the "Great Revival." His sermons were spoken extemporaneously
and not from a prepared text as was used by most clergymen, and he illustrated
his points from the common life of his hearers: his forceful presentations
were immensely effective. The emotional fires he generated gave the area
the name of "The Burned-Over District," an area which was to be burned
over by the fires of religious enthusiasm for a number of years.
Charles Finney had been educated in academies in Connecticut and New
Jersey, and afterwards taught for awhile. He next apprenticed to a lawyer,
and then in 1821 at twenty-nine years of age he practiced law with a confident
manner which often bordered on arrogance. Studies in Hebraic law led him
further into religious studies and eventually to the realization that
the ministry was where his talents belonged. He was ordained a Presbyterian
minister on July 1, 1824, and he appeared in a number of churches to lead
revivals. In late 1825 a major revival ignited Rome, New York, and Finney
not only took part in the revival but then proceeded to lead revivals
throughout New York State and Pennsylvania. In his early period in the
revivals he was derogatory of the traditional clergy and their approach
to religion, and this was to bar him from many Presbyterian and Congregational
churches whose ministers were offended by his words.
In 1830 he moved to Rochester where the three leading Presbyterian churches
were feuding, and Finney was welcomed in the hopes that a revival might
heal the split among the churches. Here Finney preached three times on
Sunday and three more times during the week. While depicting the terrors
of Hell fire for the unredeemed, he gradually developed a logical and
unemotional presentation which avoided the excesses of the ranting revivalists,
yet his preaching held a conviction and forcefulness which would move
congregations. His campaign exceeded the hopes of the sponsors that winter
as thousands came to hear Finney, primarily from the surrounding countryside.
Revivals were often most effective in the winter when farm people had
time on their hands, and the revivals offered a release from an otherwise
dry-emotional and unproductive season. The revivals of 1826 and 1831 became
noted as the Great Revivals of the era.
Using what he termed the "New Measures," Finney's revivals swept away
doctrinal differences which had separated the Protestant churches since
medieval times. Ritual, ceremonies, doctrines were set aside. In his small
"Cottage Prayer Meetings," the unconverted were prayed for by name. Those
with an afflicted conscience were invited to the front of the meeting
to the "anxious bench" while the preacher threatened the fires of hell
to the unrepentant and the members of the meeting prayed for the sinner
before them. One could be shamed into a state of grace before one's neighbors
in such sessions. On the other hand, Finney also dealt with people individually
in the process of saving their souls from damnation and Hell's fires.
He permitted women full participation in religious services, an innovation
never before permitted. His whole approach of personalizing religion and
bringing it down to the individual person became known as "Finney's New
Measures," and the approach was to be copied by other evangelists.
Among the "New Measures" was a more direct preaching to the congregation
in an emotional manner which avoided the rhetorical approach of traditional
clergy. The language to be used was simple, and the sentences were short
and to the point as to the unhappy destiny for those who sinned. A colloquial
rather than a formal language was employed with much repetition to drive
home the preacher's points. Sinners were always described as "You" rather
than being addressed in the third person. Many of Finney's followers in
the pulpit varied their tone from whispers to shouts as they swayed back
and forth during their peroration. Protracted meetings were another device
so as to whip up enthusiasm and to keep it at an intense emotional level.
As the facets of traditional Calvinism: election, predestination, eternal
sin were cast aside, he watered down Presbyterian Calvinism to a point
where a new approach to religion was created and the nature of Protestant
church services was to be changed. He had one major theme: only by repentance
at a revival and the acceptance of Christ in one's soul could one be saved
from damnation and Hell's fires and be assured of a place in Heaven. One
could perfect one's life, one could save one's nature through one's own
efforts. The new Christian should aim at being holy and not rest satisfied
until he was as perfect as God. Such preaching was terrifying and could
lead to an emotional trauma for the listeners, but then, upon repentance,
a tremendous lifting of fear for the future, and a joyousness of being
"saved" could result.
In the case of Finney, as with many other preachers of the time, he eschewed
theological training at Princeton Theological Seminary since he did not
want "to have his theology ready-made for him." "He was not," he said,
"going to have his religious ideas spoiled by education." This was to
be true of many of the revivalists who followed after him. The revival
thus became an American amalgam: In the revival one sought the Holy Spirit
within one—the same tradition as Jemima Wilkinson, the Shakers,
and, in part, the Quakers. Salvation became not a becoming one with one
God or Jesus, or the entrance into Heaven at the end of life, but it became
the beginning of a new life here on earth. One became emancipated from
sin, and this could be done through the means of the revival meeting.
There was an ultimate benefit, of course, since a sinless life could eventuate
in acceptance into Heaven when this life came to an end.
Finney used many of the emotionally arousing techniques in his early
revivals, practices which had been successful in frontier Ohio, Indiana,
and Kentucky, on the real frontier. In time he tried to avoid the excesses
which were typical of those mid-Western frontier revivals which led to
convulsions, trances, and mass hysteria. In Kentucky, for example, under
the excess of emotion whipped up by energetic preachers, converts would
get down on all fours and "tree the Devil" and bay like hounds at the
foot of the tree. In frontier revivals, psychogenic ills could be cured—or
caused. Finney avoided the extremes of this type of revivalism.
Thus the new revival approach under Finney gave lip service to the doctrine
of sin of traditional Christianity. What was more important was "the New
Man in Christ." One should strive to be perfect, and a doctrine of Perfectionism
was to develop. Finney and revivalists who followed in his train preached
salvation through individual reform, and in time this would become salvation
through the reform of society, as in the growing temperance movement and
then in the women's rights and the anti-slavery movement. There were those
who would carry the idea of perfection to its extremes, and the more radical
Perfectionists felt that conversion made them totally sinless, and they
therefore sometimes engaged in behavior which flaunted scriptural, social,
and moral codes, and in some cases, such as in the Oneida community, led
to a sexuality which shocked society.
In the years ahead, instead of "wasting" time on religious doctrinal
differences, and perhaps even on the church itself, one could throw oneself
into social reforms to make for a better society. Finney and the Great
Revivals made a tremendous mark on American religion, moving it along
non-thinking, emotional, and activist lines, which has often been its
hallmark since that time. A new freedom swept into American religion,
new denominations blossomed, until today those who maintain the statistics
tell us that one has a choice of some one thousand different approaches
to religion in the United States, each one with a true doctrine.
Among the new religious movements which were to develop, there were those
who were concerned with the imminent end of the world and the return of
Jesus. There were movements which permitted the speaking in tongues or
with discourse with those who were no longer alive. There were even religious
movements which had an unusual interest in sex, ranging from the Mormons
with polygamy, to the free-love units in Berlin Heights, Ohio, and Modern
Times on Long Island, to the Oneida Community where multiple marriage
was permitted, to the Shakers and the Society of the Universal Friends
of Jemima Wilkinson whose doctrine of celibacy eschewed all forms of sex
as a counter balance to those groups with an erotic bent.
As for Finney, his fame led to him to a church in New York City where
he became associated with men of wealth and learning, individuals who
were deeply involved in reform movements and not ones who cared for the
revivalist approach to religion. Finney's pulpit manner therefore evolved
into a more sedate but yet effective approach. Eventually, he became President
of Oberlin College, an institution supported by upstate New Yorkers interested
in Perfectionism, and here he oversaw the training of a generation of
clergymen and educators who were to spread over the West and into the
South after the Civil War, This was a far cry from his earlier years when
he did not want formal education of a theological school to distract from
his inherent religious beliefs. By 1851 when he accepted the College Presidency,
Finney had changed as American religion had changed. His doctrine of reforming
one's self led to the various reforms movements of the nineteenth century,
and American Protestantism was to head in different directions after the
1850s. One portion evolved towards a completely literal approach to the
Bible and the coming Millennium, while the other, among the major Protestant
denominations, downplayed much of traditional theological concerns in
favor of a growing interest in the Social Gospel which would concern itself
with the betterment of society. Revivals would continue among the more
conservative and fundamentalist Protestant churches, but it no longer
played the major part that it did during the first half of the nineteenth
century in American religion.
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