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Charles Grandison Finney (August 29, 1792 – August 16, 1875) was an American Presbyterian minister and leader in the Second Great Awakening in the United States. He has been called The Father of Modern Revivalism. Finney was best known as an innovative revivalist during the period 1825–1835 in upstate New York and Manhattan, an opponent of Old School Presbyterian theology, an advocate of Christian perfectionism, and a religious writer.
Together with several other evangelical leaders, his religious views led him to promote social reforms, such as abolition of slavery and equal education for women and African Americans. From 1835 he taught at Oberlin College of Ohio, which accepted all genders and races. He served as its second president from 1851 to 1866, during which its faculty and students were activists for abolition, the Underground Railroad, and universal education.
Born in Warren, Connecticut, in 1792, Finney was the youngest of nine children. The son of farmers who moved to the upstate frontier of Jefferson County, New York after the American Revolutionary War, Finney never attended college. His leadership abilities, musical skill, six-foot-three-inch stature, and piercing eyes gained him recognition in his community. He and his family attended the Baptist church in Henderson, New York, where the preacher led emotional, revival-style meetings. Both the Baptists and Methodists displayed fervor through the early nineteenth century. He “read the law”, studying as an apprentice to become a lawyer, but after a dramatic conversion experience and baptism into the Holy Spirit in Adams, he gave up legal practice to preach the gospel.
In 1821, Finney started studies at age 29 under George Washington Gale, to become a licensed minister in the Presbyterian Church. He had many misgivings about the fundamental doctrines taught in that denomination. He moved to New York City in 1832, where he was a minister of the Chatham Street Chapel and introduced some of the revivalist fervor of upstate to his urban congregations. He later founded and preached at the Broadway Tabernacle. In 1835, he became the pastor of systematic theology at the newly formed Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio.
Finney was active as a revivalist from 1825 to 1835, in Jefferson County and for a few years in Manhattan. In 1830-31, he led a revival in Rochester, New York that has been noted as inspiring other revivals of the Second Great Awakening. A leading pastor in New York who was converted in the Rochester meetings gave the following account of the effects of Finney’s meetings that city: “The whole community was stirred. Religion was the topic of conversation in the house, in the shop, in the office, and on the street. The only theater in the city was converted into a livery stable; the only circus into a soap and candle factory. Grog shops were closed; the Sabbath was honored; the sanctuaries were thronged with happy worshippers; a new impulse was given to every philanthropic enterprise; the fountains of benevolence were opened, and men lived to good.”
He was known for his innovations in preaching and the conduct of religious meetings, which often impacted entire communities. These included having women pray out loud in public meetings of mixed sexes; development of the “anxious seat”, a place where those considering becoming Christians could sit to receive prayer; and public censure of individuals by name in sermons and prayers. He was also known for his extemporaneous preaching.
In addition to becoming a popular Christian evangelist, Finney was involved with social reforms, particularly the abolitionist movement. The movement was strongly supported by the Northern and Midwestern Baptists and Methodists with Finney frequently denouncing slavery from the pulpit.
In 1835, he moved to the free state of Ohio, where he became a professor at Oberlin College. After more than a decade, he was selected as its second president, serving from 1851 to 1866. (He had already served as acting President in 1849.) Oberlin was the first American college to accept women and blacks as students in addition to white men. From its early years, its faculty and students were active in the abolitionist movement. They participated together with people of the town in biracial efforts to help fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad, as well as to resist the Fugitive Slave Act. Many slaves escaped to Ohio across the Ohio River from Kentucky, making the state a critical area for their passage to freedom.
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