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REVIVAL AT WESTERN.
I HAVE spoken of my turning aside to Western, as I was returning from the synod at Utica. At this place, commenced that series of revivals, afterward called “The Western Revivals.” So far as I know these revivals first attracted the notice, and excited the opposition of certain prominent ministers at the East, and raised the cry of “New Measures.”
The churches in that region were mostly Presbyterian. There were in that county, however, three Congregational ministers who called themselves “The Oneida Association,” who, at the time, published a pamphlet against those revivals. This much we knew; but as the pamphlet made no public impression that we could learn, no public notice, so far as I am aware, was ever taken of it. We thought it likely that that association had much to do with the opposition that was raised in the East. Their leader, Rev. William R. Weeks, as was well known, embraced and propagated the peculiar doctrines of Dr. Emmons, and insisted very much upon what he called “The divine efficiency scheme.” His peculiar views on this subject naturally led him to be suspicious of whatever was not connected with those views, in preaching, and in the means that were used to promote a revival. He seemed to have little or no confidence in any conversions that did not bring men to embrace his views of divine efficiency and divine sovereignty; and as those of us who labored in those revivals had no sympathy with his views in that respect, it was very natural for him to have but little confidence in the genuineness of the revivals. But we never supposed that the whole of the opposition could have originated in representations made by any of the members of that association.
No public replies were made to the letters that found their way into the public prints, nor to anything that was published in opposition to the revivals. Those of us who were engaged in them, had our hands too full, and our hearts too full, to turn aside, to reply to letters, or reports, or publications, that so manifestly misrepresented the character of the work.
The fact that no answers were made at the time, left the public abroad, and without the range of those revivals, and where the facts were not known, to misapprehend their character. So much misapprehension came to exist, that it has been common for good men, in referring to those revivals, to assume, that although they were, upon the whole, revivals of religion; yet, that they were so conducted that great disorders were manifest in them, and that there was much to deplore in their results.
Now all this is an entire mistake. I shall relate as fairly as I can, the characteristics of these revivals, the measures that were used in promoting them, and disclose, to the best of my ability, their real character and results; understanding well, as I do, that there are multitudes of living witnesses, who can attest the truth of what I say, or if, in anything, I am mistaking can correct me.
And now I will turn to Western, where these revivals commenced, in Oneida county. I have said, that Mr. Gale had settled upon a farm in Western; and was employing some young men, in helping to cultivate the farm, and was engaged in teaching them, and endeavoring to regain his health. I went directly to his house, and for several weeks was his guest.
We arrived there Thursday, I think, and that afternoon there was a stated prayer meeting, in the schoolhouse, near the church. The church had no settled minister, and Mr. Gale was unable to preach; indeed, he did not go there to preach, but simply for his health. I believe they usually had a minister, only a part of the time; and for some time previously to my going there, I think, they had had no stated preaching at all, in the Presbyterian church. There were three elders in the church, and a few members; but the church was very small, and religion was at low water mark. There seemed to be no life, or courage, or enterprise, on the part of Christians; and nothing was doing to secure the conversion of sinners, or the sanctification of the church.
In the afternoon Mr. Gale invited me to go to the prayer meeting, and I went. They asked me to take the lead of the meeting; but I declined, expecting to be there only for that afternoon, and preferring rather to hear them pray and talk, than to take part in the meeting myself. The meeting was opened by one of the elders, who read a chapter in the Bible, then a hymn, which they sung. After this he made a long prayer, or perhaps I should say an exhortation, or gave a narrative — I hardly know what to call it. He told the Lord how many years they had been holding that prayer meeting weekly, and that no answer had been given to their prayers. He made such statements and confessions as greatly shocked me.
After he had done, another elder took up the same theme. He read a hymn, and, after singing, engaged in a long prayer, in which he went over very nearly the same ground, making such statements as the first one had omitted. Then followed the third elder, in the same strain. By this time I could say with Paul, that my Spirit was stirred within me. They had got through and were about to dismiss the meeting. But one of the elders asked me if I would not make a remark, before they dismissed. I arose and took their statements and confessions for a text; and it seemed to me, at the time, that God inspired me to give them a terrible searching.
When I arose, I had no idea what I should say; but the Spirit of God came upon me, and I took up their prayers, and statements and confessions, and dissected them. I showed them up, and asked if it had been understood that that prayer meeting was a mock prayer meeting — whether they had come together professedly to mock God, by implying that all the blame of what had been passing all this time, was to be ascribed to his sovereignty?
At first I observed that they all looked angry. Some of them afterward said, that they were on the point of getting up and going out. But I followed them up on the track of their prayers and confessions, until the elder, who was the principal man among them, and opened the meeting, bursting into tears, exclaimed, “Brother Finney, it is all true!” He fell upon his knees and wept aloud. This was the signal for a general breaking down.
Every man and woman went down upon their knees. There were probably not more than a dozen present; but they were the leading members in the church. They all wept, and confessed, and broke their hearts before God.
This scene continued, I presume, for an hour; and a more thorough breaking down and confession I have seldom witnessed.
As soon as they recovered themselves somewhat, they besought me to remain and preach to them on the Sabbath. I regarded it as the voice of the Lord, and consented to do so. This was Thursday, at night. On Friday, my mind was greatly exercised. I went off frequently into the church, to engage secret prayer, and had a mighty hold upon God. The news was circulated, and on Sabbath the church was full of hearers. I preached all day, and God came down with great power upon the people. It was manifest to everybody that the work of grace had begun. I made appointments to preach in different parts of the town, in schoolhouses, and at the center, during the week; and the work increased from day to day.
In the meantime, my own mind was much exercised in prayer; and I found that the spirit of prayer was prevailing, especially among the female members of the church. Mrs. B— and Mrs. H—, the wives of two of the elders of the church, I found, were, almost immediately, greatly exercised in prayer. Each of them had families of unconverted children; and they laid hold in prayer with an earnestness that, to me, gave promise that their families must be converted. Mrs. H—, however, was a woman of very feeble health, and had not ventured out much, to any meeting, for a long time. But, as the day was pleasant, she was out at the prayer meeting to which I have alluded, and seemed to catch the inspiration of that meeting, and took it home with her.
It was the next week, I think, that I called in at Mr. H—’s, and found him pale and agitated. He said to me “Brother Finney, I think my wife will die.
She is so exercised in her mind that she cannot rest day or night, but is given up entirely to prayer. She has been all the morning,” said he, “in her room, groaning and struggling in prayer; and I am afraid it will entirely overcome her strength.” Hearing my voice in the sitting room, she came out from her bedroom, and upon her face was a most heavenly glow. Her countenance was lighted up with a hope and a joy that were plainly from heaven. She exclaimed, “Brother Finney, the Lord has come! This work will spread over all this region! A cloud of mercy overhangs us all; and we shall see such a work of grace as we have never yet seen.” Her husband looked surprised, confounded, and knew not what to say. It was new to him, but not to me. I had witnessed such scenes before, and believed that prayer had prevailed; nay, I felt sure of it in my own soul.
The work went on, spread, and prevailed, until it began to exhibit unmistakable indications of the direction in which the Spirit of God was leading from that place. The distance to home was nine miles, I believe.
About half way, was a small village, called Elmer’s Hill. There was a large schoolhouse, where I held a weekly lecture; and it soon became manifest that the work was spreading in the direction of Rome and Utica. There was a settlement northeast of Rome, about three miles, called Wright’s settlement. Large numbers of persons came down to attend the meetings at Elmer’s Hill, from Rome and from Wright’s settlement; and the work soon began to take effect among them.
But I must relate a few of the incidents that occurred in the revival at Western. Mrs. B—, to whom I have already alluded, had a large family of unconverted children. One of the sons was, I believe, a professor of religion, and lived at Utica; the rest of the family were at home. They were a very amiable family; and the eldest daughter, especially, had been manifestly regarded by the family as almost perfect. I went in several times to converse with her; but I found that the family were so tender of her feelings that I could not strip away her self-righteousness. She had evidently been made to believe that she was almost, if not quite a Christian. Her life had been so irreproachable, that it was very difficult to convict her of sin. The second daughter was also a very amiable girl; but she did not regard herself as worthy to be compared with the eldest, in respect to amiability and excellence of character.
One day when I was talking with S—, the eldest, and trying to make her see herself as a great sinner, notwithstanding her morality, C—, the second daughter said to me, “Mr. Finney I think that you are too hard upon S—.
If you should talk so to me, I should feel that I deserved it; but I don’t think that she does.” After being defeated several times in my attempts to secure the conviction and conversion of S—, I made up my mind to bide my time, and improve some opportunity when I should find her away from home, or alone. It was not long before the opportunity came. I entered into conversation with her, and by God’s help stripped the covering from her heart, and she was brought under powerful conviction for sin. The Spirit pursued her with mighty power. The family were surprised and greatly distressed for S—; but God pushed the question home till, after a struggle of a few days, she broke thoroughly down, and came out into the kingdom, as beautiful a convert as, perhaps, I have ever seen. Her convictions were so thorough, that when she came out, she was strong in faith, clear in her apprehension of duty and of truth, and immediately became a host in her power for good among her friends and acquaintances.
In the meantime, C—, the second daughter, became very much alarmed about herself, and very anxious for the salvation of her own soul. The mother seemed to be in real travail of soul day and night. I called in to see the family almost daily, and sometimes, two or three times a day. One of the children after another was converted; and we were expecting every day to see C— come out a bright convert. But for some reason she lingered. It was plain the Spirit was resisted; and one day I called to see her, and found her in the sitting room alone. I asked her how she was getting on, and she replied, “Mr. Finney, I am losing my conviction. I do not feel nearly as much concerned about myself as I have done.” Just at this moment, a door was opened, and Mrs. B— came into the room, and I told her what C— had said. It shocked her so that she groaned aloud, and fell prostrate on the floor. She was unable to rise; and she struggled and groaned out her prayers, in a manner that immediately indicated to me that C— must be converted. She was unable to say much in words, but her groans and tears witnessed the extreme agony of her mind. As soon as this scene had occurred, the Spirit of God manifestly came upon a afresh. She fell upon her knees, and before she arose she broke down; and became to all appearance as thorough a convert as S— was. The B— children, sons and daughters, were all converted at that time, I believe, except the youngest, then a little child. One of the sons has preached the gospel for many years.
I had conversed with her several times, and found her deeply convicted, and, indeed, almost in despair. I was expecting to hear, from day to day, that she had been converted; but she remained stationary, or rather despair increased upon her. This led me to suspect that something was wrong at home. I asked her if her parents were Christians. She said they were members of the church. I asked her if they attended meetings. She said, “Yes, on the Sabbath.” “Do not your parents attend meetings at other times?” “No,” was the reply. “Do you have family prayers at home?” “No sir,” she said. “We used to have; but we have not had family prayers for a long time.” This revealed to me the stumbling block, at once. I inquired when I could probably find her father and mother at home. She said, almost any time, as they were seldom away from home. Feeling that it was infinitely dangerous to leave this case as it was, I went the next morning to see the family.
This daughter was, I think, an only child; at any rate, she was the only child at home. I found her bowed down, dejected, and sunken in despair. I said to the mother, “The Spirit of the Lord is striving with your daughter.” “Yes,” she said, “I don’t know but he is.” I asked her if she was praying for her. She gave me an answer that led me to understand that she did not know what it was to pray for her. I inquired for her husband. She said that he was in the field at work. I asked her to call him in. He came, and as he came in I said to him, “Do you see the state that your daughter is in?” He replied that he thought she felt very bad. “And are you awake, and engaged in prayer for her?” His answer revealed the fact that if he was ever converted he was a miserable backslider, and had no hold upon God whatever. “And,” said I, “you do not have family prayers.” “No sir.” “Now,” said I, “I have seen your daughter, day after day, bowed down with conviction, and I have learned that the difficulty is here at home. You have shut up the kingdom of heaven against your daughter. You neither enter yourself, nor will you suffer her to enter. Your unbelief and worldly-mindedness prevent the conversion of your daughter, and will ruin your own soul. Now you must repent. I do not intend to leave this house until you and your wife repent, and get out of the way of your daughter. You must establish family prayer, and build up the altar that has fallen down. Now, my dear sir, will you get down here on your knees, you and your wife, and engage in prayer? And will you promise, that from this time you will do your duty, set up your family altar, and return to God?”
I was so earnest with them, that they both began to weep. My faith was so strong, that I did not trifle when I told them that I would not leave the house, until they would repent, and establish their family altar. I felt that the work must be done, and done then. I cast myself down upon my knees and began to pray; and they knelt down and wept sorely. I confessed for them as well as I could, and tried to lead them to God, and to prevail with God in their behalf. It was a moving scene. They both broke down their hearts, and confessed their sins; and before we rose from our knees the daughter got into liberty, and was manifestly converted. She arose rejoicing in Christ. Many answers to prayer, and many scenes of great interest were presented in this revival.
There was one passage of my own experience that, for the honor of God, I must not omit to relate in this connection. I had paralleled and prayed almost continually during the time that I had been at Mr. Gale’s. As I was accustomed to use my voice in private prayer, for convenience’ sake, that I might not be heard, I had spread a buffalo robe on the hayloft; where I used to spend much of my time, when not abroad visiting, or engaged in preaching, in secret prayer to God. Mr. Gale had admonished me, several times, that, if I did not take care, I should go beyond my strength and break down. But the Spirit of prayer was upon me, and I would not resist him; but gave him scope, and let out my strength freely, in pouring my soul out to God. It was November, and the weather was becoming cold.
Mr. Gale and I had been out visiting inquirers with his horse and buggy.
We came home and went into the barn, and put out the horse. Instead of going into the house, I crept up into the hayloft to pour out my burdened song to God in prayer. I prayed until my burden left me. I was so far exhausted that I fell down, and lost myself in sleep. I must have fallen asleep almost instantly, I judge, from the fact that I had no recollection of any time elapsing, after the struggle in my soul was over. The first I knew, Mr. Gale came climbing up into the hayloft, and said, “Brother Finney, are you dead?” I awoke, and at first could give no account why I was there asleep, and could form no idea how long I had been there. But this I knew, that my mind was calm and my faith unwavering. The work would go on, of that I felt assured.
I have already said that I was ordained to the ministry by a presbytery.
This was years before the division of the Presbyterian church into what is known as the Old and New School Assemblies. The well known doctrine of natural and moral ability and inability, was held by the Presbyterian church, almost universally, in the region where I commenced my ministry.
I must here repeat also that Mr. Gale, who, by direction of the presbytery, had attended somewhat to my theological studies, held firmly to the doctrine of the sinner’s inability to obey God; and the subject as he presented it in his preaching, as was the case with most of the Presbyterian ministers of that day, left the impression upon the people that they must wait God’s time. If they were elect, in due time the Spirit would convert them; if they were non-elect, nothing that they could do for themselves, or that anybody else could do for them, would ever savingly benefit them.
They held the doctrine that moral depravity was constitutional, and belonged to the very nature; that the will, though free to do evil, was utterly impotent to all good; that the work of the Holy Spirit in changing the heart, was a physical operation on the substance or essence of the soul; that the sinner was passive in regeneration, till the Holy Spirit had implanted a new principle in his nature, and that all efforts on his part vere utterly unavailing; that properly speaking there were no means of regeneration, this being a physical recreation of the soul by the direct agency of the Holy Ghost; that the atonement was limited to the elect, and that for the non-elect to be saved was an utter impossibility.
In my studies and controversies with Mr. Gale, I had maintained the opposite of this. I assumed that moral depravity is, and must be, a voluntary attitude of the mind; that it does, and must, consist in the committal of the will to the gratification of the desires, or as the Bible expresses it, of the lusts of the flesh, as opposed to that which the law of God requires. In consistency with this I maintained that the influence of the Spirit of God upon the soul of man is moral, that is persuasive; that Christ represented him as a teacher; that his work is to convict and convert the sinner, by divine teaching and persuasion.
I held also that there are means of regeneration, and that the truths of the Bible are, in their nature, calculated to lead the sinner to abandon his wickedness and turn to God. I held also that there must be an adaptation of means to the end to be secured; that is, that the intelligence must be enlightened, the unreasonableness of moral depravity must be set before the sinner, and its wickedness and ill-desert clearly revealed to him; that when this was done the mission of Christ could be strongly presented, and could be understood by him; that taking this course with the sinner, had a tenderness to convert him to Christ; and that when this was faithfully and prayerfully done, we had a right to expect the Holy Spirit to cooperate with us, giving effect to our feeble effort.
Furthermore, I held that the Holy Spirit operates in the preacher, clearly revealing these truths in their proper order to him, and enabling him to set them before the people, in such proportion, and in such order as is calculated to convert them. I understood then, as I do now, the charge and promise which Christ gave to the apostles and to the church, to be applicable in the present day: “Go and disciple all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”
This I regarded as a charge committed to me, to all ministers, and to the church; with the express promise that when we go forth to this work, with a single eye, and with a prayerful heart, Christ will be with us by his Spirit, giving efficiency to our efforts to save souls. It appeared to me then, as it ever has since, that the great failure of the ministry and of the church, in promoting religion, consisted, in great measure, in the want of a suitable adaptation of means to that end. I had sat under Mr. Gale’s preaching for years, and could never see any adaptation in his preaching to convert anybody. It did not appear to me as if that could have been his design. I found the same was true of all the sermons that I heard, anywhere. I had on one occasion spoken to Mr. Gale on this subject, and said to him, that of all the causes that were ever plead, the cause of religion, I thought, had the fewest able advocates; and that if advocates at the bar should pursue the same course in pleading the cause of their clients, that ministers do in pleading the cause of Christ with sinners, they would not gain a single case.
But at that time, Mr. Gale could not see it; for what connection was there between means and ends, upon his view of what regeneration consisted in, and the manner in which the Holy Spirit changed the heart?
As an illustration, soon after I began to preach, in the midst of a powerful revival, a young man from the theological seminary at Princeton, came into the place. The former pastor of the church, an elderly gentlemen, lived there, and had a great curiosity to hear this young man preach. The church had no pastor at the time; I therefore had the sole charge of the pulpit, and was conducting things according to my own discretion. He said he had known the young man before he went to college, and he desired very much to see what proficiency he had made; and wanted I should let him preach. I said I was afraid to set him to preach, lest he should mar the work, by not preaching that which was needed at the time. “Oh,” said the old gentleman, “he will preach the truth; and there is no connection in religion, you know, between means and ends, and therefore there is no danger of his marring the work.” I replied, “That is not my doctrine. I believe there is as much connection between means and ends in religion as in nature; and therefore cannot consent to let him preach.”
I have often found it necessary to take substantially the same course in revivals of religion; and sometimes, by doing so, I have found that I gave offense; but I dared not do otherwise. In the midst of a revival of religion, and when souls needed peculiar instruction, adapted to their present condition and their present wants, I dared not put a stranger into the pulpit, where I had the charge, to preach any of his great sermons, and generally too, a sermon not at all adapted to the wants of the people. For this course I have frequently been accused of supposing that I could preach better than others. And I confess I did suppose that I could meet the wants of the people, better than those that knew less about them, or than those that would preach their old written sermons to them; and I supposed that Christ had put the work into my hands in such a sense, that I was under obligation to adapt means to ends, and not call upon others who knew little of the state of things, to attempt to instruct the people. I did in these cases just as I would be done by. I would not allow myself to go in, where another man was laboring to promote a revival, and suffer myself to be put in his place, when I knew little or nothing about the state of the people.
I have said that at Western I was the guest of Mr. Gale, and that he had come to the conclusion that he was never converted. He told me the progress of his mind; that he had firmly believed, as he had so frequently urged upon me, that God would not bless my labors, because I would not preach what he regarded as the truths of the Gospel. But when he found that the Spirit of God did accompany my labors, it led him to the conclusion that he was wrong; and this led him to such an overhauling of his whole state of mind, and of his views as a preacher, as resulted in his coming to the conclusion that he had never been converted, and did not understand the Gospel himself. During the revival in Western, he attended nearly all the meetings; and before many weeks, he told me he had come into an entirely different state of mind in regard to his own soul, and had changed his views of the Gospel, and thought I was right. He said he thanked God that he had had no influence with me, to lead me to adopt his views; that I should have been ruined as a minister if he had prevailed.
The doctrine upon which I insisted, that the command to obey God implied the power to do so, created in some places considerable opposition at first. Denying also, as I did, that moral depravity is physical, or the depravity of the nature, and maintaining, as I did, that it is altogether voluntary, and therefore that the Spirit’s influences are those of teaching, persuading, convicting, and, of course, a moral influence, I was regarded by many as teaching new and strange doctrines. Indeed, as late as 1832, when I was laboring in Boston for the first time, Dr. Beecher said that he never had heard the doctrine preached before, that the Spirit’s influences are moral, as opposed to physical. Therefore, to a considerable extent, ministers and Christians regarded that doctrine as virtually a denial of the Spirit’s influence altogether; and hence, although I ever insisted very much, and incessantly, upon the divine agency in conviction and regeneration, and in every Christian exercise; yet it was a long time before the cry ceased to be heard that I denied the agency of the Holy Ghost, in regeneration and conversion. It was said that I taught self-conversion, self-regeneration; and not unfrequently was I rebuked for addressing the sinner, as if the blame of his impenitence all belonged to himself, and for urging him to immediate submission. However, I persisted in this course, and it was seen by ministers and Christians that God owned it as his truth, and blessed it to the salvation of thousands of souls.
I have spoken of the meetings at Elmer’s Hill, and have said that people from Rome and Wright’s settlement began to come in large numbers; and that the manifest effect of the word upon those that came, plainly indicated that the work was rapidly extending in that direction.