Finney the Controversialist

“Mr. Finney does not pretend to teach a slightly modified form of old doctrine. He is far from claiming substantial agreement with the wise and good among the orthodox of the past and present generation. On the contrary, there is a very peculiar self-isolation about him. Through all his writings there is found an ill-concealed claim to be considered as one called and anointed of God, to do a singular and great work. There is scarcely a recognition of any fellow-labourers in the same field with him. One might suppose indeed, that he considered himself the residuary legatee of all the prophetic and apostolic authority that has ever been in the world, so arrogant does he assume all knowledge to himself, so loftily does he arraign and rebuke all other ministers of the gospel. He stands alone in the midst of abounding degeneracy, the only one who has not bowed the knee to Baal. The whole world is wrong, and he proposes to set them right. Ministers and professors of religion have hitherto been ignorant what truths should be taught to promote revivals of religion, and he offers to impart to them infallible information.”[1]

As I have been studying the theology and influence of Charles G. Finney in recent months, one of the most astonishing observations I have come to discern about him is his hypocrisy. In this article, I want make three points: Finney the Controversialist, Finney the Hypocrite, and Finney’s Legacy for today. On an administrative note, this will be my last article for the time being on the SBC and the controversy of Calvinism. So Let’s begin with Finney the Controversalist.

Finney’s Mission to Demolish

Finney detested the Old School doctrines of divine sovereignty and unconditional election. Moreover, he denied the total depravity or inability of man. Iain Murray points out that “the Memoirs-which deal most fully with the early period of his ministry-portrays him as continually waging a crusade to change the doctrinal standards of the churches.”[2] For instance, “In 1828, he sought to hunt out people ‘from under those peculiar views of orthodoxy in which I found them entrenched.”[3] Finney’s mission, in his own words, was, “Wherever I found that any class of person were hidden behind these dogmas, I did not hesitate to demolish them, to the best of my ability.”[4] In the same vane, Finney writes in his Lectures, “When I began ministering, so much has been said about God’s election and sovereignty that I found it was a universal hiding place for both sinners and the church. They couldn’t do a thing; they couldn’t obey the Gospel. Wherever I went I had to demolish these refuges of lies.”[5] Such a mission in his early ministry dominated him to the point that he confessed, “Much of my labor in the ministry has consisted in correcting these views.”[6] Generations who succeeded Finney would soon realize this major component of Finney’s life, as G. Frederick Wright notes, “Finney has left in literature a permanent record not only of his life, but also of his struggles to adjust the truths of Christianity into such a harmonious system of thought that no violence should be done to the dictates of reason. This, as he often said, was (after that of the actual conversion of souls), the great aim of his life.”[7]

As a controversialist and polemicist, Finney was bold and unapologetic, calling the Old School doctrines “twisted” and a “refuge of lies.” Consider these attacks in his Lectures:

“What results from such a teaching (of God’s sovereignty in salvation)? Generations and generations, millions of souls, go to hell while the church dreams and waits for God to save the world without our using the tools He has given us. This doctrine has been the devil’s most successful tool for destroying souls.”[8]

“No wonder the Gospel takes so little effect when it is encumbered with dogmas (Old School). For hundreds of years little of the true Gospel has been preached to the world without being clogged with fraudulent theology. People are told they must repent and in the same breath told they can’t repent. The truth itself has been so mixed up with error that it produces the same effect as error; the Gospel has been warped into another gospel or no gospel at all.”[9]

The Calvinism that had fueled the Protestant Reformation, Puritan movement, and the First Great Awakening was responsible for sending “millions of souls to hell” because it was “another gospel.” Clearly, Finney was well on his way in his demolition derby across the churches of America. Surely a man who made his presence by attacking orthodoxy both past and present would be able to withstand and weather the criticism of the opponents to the “New Measures” and the theology supporting them. However, Finney was quick to call the Old School responses as “ridiculous”[10] and “groundless” while at the same time telling them that they “must repent and pray to God for forgiveness.”[11] As a controversialist, Finney purposed to flush out Calvinism; yet as a revivalist, Finney purposed to fortify his methods by disarming his opponents and accusing them of grieving the Holy Spirit and hindering the work of revival.

Finney’s Appeal for Revival

This leads us to understand why Finney the Controversialist is also Finney the Hypocrite. A hypocrite, as well all know, is one who says, “Do as I say, not as I do,” and this is precisely how Finney operates as a revivalist. Perhaps the prior work as a controversialist would serve as a self-engineered precursor for justifying the need for revival. Finney writes, “When there is a spirit of controversy in the church or in the land, a revival is needed. The spirit of true faith is not the spirit of controversy. Christianity cannot prosper where arguments prevail.”[12] Get Finney’s logic. When controversy reigns, revival is needed; ergo, start controversy and later appeal for the need of revival. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Consider how Finney advises those who would desire to experience revival. He writes, “If a pastor or evangelist means to stir revival, he should take care not to introduce controversy, or he will grieve the Spirit of God.”[13] In other words, do not question or be critical of revivalism, especially if you are a minister, because, as he argues, “If I had time to review church history from the days of the apostles, I could show that all the controversies that took place and all the great schisms were caused by ministers.”[14] Incidentally enough, it is on this very page that some of Finney’s most controversial statements and inflammatory attacks are made against the Old School (and that, by a minister!). Eventually, Finney makes his case more explicit regarding the measures and the men behind them. He writes, “Revival is halted by controversies over new measures. Nothing is more certain to overthrow a move of God.”[15] Furthermore, regarding the men behind the new measures, he adds, “Another spirit that destroys revival is faultfinding, especially in those who have been fostering awakening.”[16]

What are we to make of Finney’s warnings against controversy, especially in light of his own personal mission of igniting controversy everywhere he went earlier in his career? Either all the statements against controversy must be written off with incredulity or insincerity, or we conclude that Finney is a hypocrite, plain and simple. Either way, a close examination between his ways and his words places his legacy and his influence in question. Do revivalists and evangelists really want to follow a man who is so duplicitous, let alone guilty of such unbiblical teachings on conversion and revival?

Finney’s Relevance to Today

What Charles Finney was able to do was on the one hand, unapologetically and unashamedly assault the core doctrines of orthodoxy (Old School), and on the other hand charge anyone who would dare question or criticize his methods or own doctrines as anti-evangelistic and guilty of attempting to overthrow the work of God. Murray notes, “To oppose [the new measures] . . . is to destroy evangelistic preaching. The ministers who disagreed with him, be constantly tells his readers, were useless as evangelists. . . . If preachers will only do the right thing they will not only secure the conversion of individuals but they will also secure revivals.”[17] Yet, Murray also reveals that Finney’s method of destruction did not cease during his ascendancy in the years of revivalism. Murray writes, “Finney was himself often responsible for the division of congregations, not only because of his general criticism of ministers, but because of the very nature of his teaching on revival. If, as he taught, all faithful men were able to secure revivals, only one conclusion could be drawn on preachers who failed to do so.”[18] There were many ministers who could not work up the excitement among the people, even though they bought into the new measures. Finney guaranteed that the right use of means would bring about the desired end of revival, that revival had a more cause-and-effect relation than anything else, and yet many churches were being left without the fruit of the harvest. To these Finney would often argue, they just didn’t break up the fallow ground. As a result, not only were his critics among those who knew that his doctrine and practices were unbiblical, but also those who believed Finney only to find that his methods were not all that he had promised them to be. In the end, ministers were disillusioned, churches divided, and false converts assimilated back into the worldliness that fitted their nature.

In the 21st century, especially among Southern Baptists, Charles Finney’s legacy looms large. On theological confessionalism, Finney was an ordained minister, meaning he publicly subscribed to the Westminster Confession. Shortly afterwards, however, churches came to find his theological positions quite contrary to stated orthodox beliefs. Could a similar argument be made for Southern Baptists today who subscribe to the BF&M (2000) but are found to teach contrary to it? Nevertheless, while Southern Baptists would reject Finney’s semi-Pelagianism, many have uncritically embraced his methods. Among the 20th century evangelistic practices, I would argue that no other individual had more influence upon Southern Baptists than Charles Finney, especially after they had been popularized under the ministries of Billy Sunday and Billy Graham. Moreover, Southern Baptists have also adapted Finney’s stance on controversy. While controversy has always been a part of Southern Baptist life, anyone who would dare challenge or criticize the evangelistic methods and practices (such as altar calls and revival services) would be charged with “doing the work of the devil,” and as Finney commanded, “must repent and pray to God for forgiveness.” On the other hand, we are finding more and more Southern Baptists have and continue to carry the mantle of Finney’s mission to “demolish” and “destroy” the doctrines of divine sovereignty and election in salvation. Like Finney, some matters of religion must go unfettered, namely those which bring the desired results and success (pragmatism). Other matters such as Calvinism, it is incumbent to see that such “twisted” doctrines and “refuge of lies” become the very thing we crusade against. Consequently, whether it is Southern Baptist revivalism or contemporary controversy, the fingerprints of Finney’s works are still making great impressions on the contemporary landscape of ecclesiological life.

If one were to pose the doctrines of semi-Pelagianism, and in particular Charles Finney, to the average Southern Baptist minister, they would reject them entirely. However, the methods and measures derived from those doctrines must go unfettered today. I simply ask, then: Why are we willing to denounce Finney’s theology and yet at the same time uncritically embrace his methods? In the end, if we cannot answer such a question, then the one we will inevitably face is why we are just as hypocritical when we know better.


[1]Albert B. Dod, “On Revivals of Religion” in Princeton Versus the New Divinity (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2001), 173-74.

[2]Iain H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1994), 256.


[4]Charles G. Finney, The Memoirs of Charles G. Finney: The Complete Restored Text (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 59.

[5]Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revival (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1988), 133.

[6]Charles G. Finney, The Memoirs of Charles G. Finney, 257.

[7]G. Frederick Wright, Charles Grandison Finney (Boston: Houghton, 1891), 314.

[8]Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revival, 14.

[9]Ibid., 234-35.

[10]Ibid., 173.

[11]Ibid., 191.

[12]Ibid., 21.

[13]Ibid., 132.

[14]Ibid., 133.

[15]Ibid., 180.

[16]Ibid., 184.

[17]Iain H. Murray, Pentecost-Today? The Biblical Basis for Understanding Revival (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1998), 43.

[18]Idem., Revival and Revivalism, 264.

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16 Comments on “Finney the Controversialist”

  1. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    If this is your last article on the controversy in the SBC for a while, are you saying that at least part of the problems can be traced to a known heretic and his influence upon the SBC? Shame…..

  2. Thomas,

    What I am saying is that I see some striking parallels to what Finney did in his day and we are experiencing today. His personal mission to rip apart and destroy the orthodox teachings of Calvinism in the Presbyterian church, his stirring up controversy, his accusations against those who would disagree with his theology and new measures, and his superficial adherence to the Westminster Confession.

    While many Southern Baptists perhaps would not be familiar with Finney or his theology, very few are not aware of his methods or “new measures.” These measures were developed from this theology which was explicitly semi-Pelagian (far more problematic than Arminianism). Having studied his theology and the popularizing of his measures, I am intrigued and alarmed by the fact that Finney’s legacy has been so enduring.

    I believe Southern Baptists really want to win the lost and experience revival. However, I have come to find that many (if not most) are doing it with a methodology that strives against the gospel and produces converts that bear no evidence of regeneration or a true work of the Spirit in the life of a sinner. I share that same passion and desire to win the lost and see God do an “extraordinary work of providence” (as Edwards would describe revival), but I am concerned that we have learned from the wrong teacher and are paying the price for it (unregenerate church membership for example).

  3. Gordon Says:

    Finney was not a semiPelagian, he was an archPelagian.

    “Do as I say, not as I do,” does not define a hypocrite. A thief admonishing a son not be a thief is giving good instruction. He only becomes a hypocrite if he denies that he is a thief when he knows that he is a thief. A hypocrite is one who says something about himself all the while knowing the opposite is true. In anycase, Finney was most probably a hypocrite since he would probably deny that any controversy was because of him all the while knowing that it was.

  4. JamesL Says:

    What do you make of folks such as Leonard Ravenhill who make much ado about Finney and all he stood for as a revivalist? At the same time men such as Asahel Nettleton, Edard Dorr Griffin, and Edward Payson are largely ignored. While I really like much of Ravenhill’s writings its the overlooking of the heretical ideas that undermine Finney that make me want someone to write “Why Revival Still Tarries”. Any thoughts?


  5. James,

    I have read alot of Ravenhill, and while I do not agree with much of his theology, I have often been convicted of his passion and courage. I still encourage folks to read Ravenhill and haven given away numerous copies of “Why Revival Tarries.” With that said, I really wish someone had introduced me to Nettleton and Payson earlier!

    It was amazing to see how Nettleton was treated by the New School Divinity (very harsh and bitter criticism). I plan on reading much more of Nettleton in the future, including his biography.

    Many folks have made much of Finney in the 20th century. If I am not mistaken, Billy Graham wrote the forward or introduction to his Lectures on Revival in a revised edition in the 1950’s. Also, Finney’s theology has been more accessible through publishers condensing his works and selling them cheap (especially Bethany House). I had bought Finney’s stuff very early in my Christian growth and didn’t know any better.

  6. Billy Birch Says:


    Do you think that Finney was just over-reacting to perhaps some form of hyper-Calvinism prevalent in his day (in the areas of which he ministered)? Is that possible? And is it posssible that Ian Murray, a strict Calvinist, is a bit biased against Finney?

    I’m not trying to make Finney orthodox–just wondering about the particulars.

    In Christ,


  7. gavin Says:


    I have noticed the same commendation of Finney in some of Ravenhill’s writing. You will also find the lauding of Finney in some of Tozer’s writing.

    Both Ravenhill and Tozer were all about “revival.” While I have benefited much from both Tozer and Ravenhill, you can see how they’d have at least some affinity with Finney, if not theologically, at least in terms of their common interest in “revival.”


    Am I mistaken in thinking Billy Graham once said Finney was one of the greatest preachers of all time (paraphrase)???

  8. gavin Says:


    It appears that you already alluded to Finney’s connection with Billy Graham…I guess I should read the whole thread.

  9. Billy,

    I know that it could be perceived that Murray did not treat Finney fairly, but if you look at his writings, he deals with primary sources almost exclusively, especially Finney’s Memoirs and Lectures.

    Regarding Finney’s over-reaction, he was adamantly against any doctrine that didn’t make salvation possible in the hands of men. If you are not saved, it is your fault. It you do not experience revival, it is because you did not want it enough. Shame on you, he would say. Therefore, his reactions would not be over Hyper-Calvinism as much as it would be simply over the doctrines divine sovereignty and regeneration of the Holy Spirit. The guiding principle for him was that God would not command you to do something which you were not able to accomplish, that there is a direct cause/effect relationship to salvation and revival whereby you can bring about the outcome you desire. I don’t see that as a reaction to Hyper-Calvinism but a rejection of total depravity and original sin (which is orthodox teaching).


    I have to go and look back at my sources, but I think you are correct about the Graham quote. He esteemed Finney in the highest regard (if my memory serves me correctly).

  10. Yogi Taylor Says:


    I was going to post, but I read your response to Thomas and if I may make a suggestion… post that response!

    I too agree that Finney’s methods are long lasting and have corrupted SBC’s methodology/philosophy of ministry. I am pastoring a church and preached Sunday night on Finney’s ill use of the invitation system, which I think he promoted as a slap in the face to Calvinist.

    The next day, during our deacon’s meeting they asked me about this and I explained the dangers. They concluded that this was a great system, and of course that’s the way we have always done it…! 😐 This system that was introduced many years ago is one implementation that was long lasting and damming at best!

    (I know that it can be done right, even Spurgeon has invitations at times, but Finney’s way was disgusting. Even if it is not as bad as we think, it has morphed into something very dangerous and found its way in our SBC churches as the norm…)

    And one other thing… I give my “amens” to Gordon, he is an archPelagian!

    Yogi Taylor

  11. JamesL Says:

    I just wanted to add that I do not think Finney was reacting against hyper calvinism. There was a “great awakening” going on among calvinistic churches! Two great resources
    in the study besides Murray’s “revival and Revivalism” are the appendix section of “Ashamed of the Gospel”by John Macarthur and Daniels Baker’s biography “Making Many Glad.” Macarthur deals with Finny head on and Baker’s book speaks of the struggle and fallout of the “new measures”.
    Also, Ravenhill does the foreword of Edward Payson’s works(the Sprinkle edition). Very good, I still wonder why he didn’t pick up on the differences in Payson’s and Finney’s theology.


  12. […] Timmy Brister, a seminary student from the great nation of Kentucky, lists some good resources on regeneration. Brister also has a solid post on Charles Finney and his evangelistic methods. […]

  13. James,

    Thanks for pointing to those sources. I am not aware of Daniel Baker’s work, so I will look into that.

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  15. Finney is far more orthodox than Calvinism. Calvinism is not Christianity in its purest form, but Christianity burdening the Gospel of the free grace of God with the sovereignty of God doctrine.

    In other words, Calvinists always see through the light of the Sovereignty of God AS DEFINED BY THEM. This results in making the scriptural offer of salvation to anyone who believes nullified by the Calvinist’s who believe that two opposing truths are possible in the scripture. Thus they miss the warning of Christ that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.

    In order to cover this doctrinal weakness of their system they come up with totally unscriptural terms such as “outer calling” and “inner calling”.

    Do they ever consider that since they hold that God is the Author of both “calls” He at best open to the charge of insincerity and at worse, out right deception? We call PEOPLE who do such things LIARS.

    But not to worry, God is Sovereign, so even if He does wrong He is still right! Thus gushed Arthur Pink, intoxicated on the Sovereignty of God as defined by the Calvinists.

    Finney was wrong on some things, but he had to overcome early indoctrination by the Calvinists. Those Christians of the day, fed only the dead, dry teachings of the Calvinists, found a well of living water in Finney’s preaching and thousands were brought to Christ before the unbelieving Calvinists’ very eyes. Believe it or not, some still question his ministry because he didn’t do it their way.

    So Finney was wrong on some things. He’s wrong about the perseverance of the saints but the Calvinists don’t attack him on that because they are wrong on it as well!

    God bless Finney and may God raise up men who will love Him as Finney did!

    Dennis Clough

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