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ANOTHER WINTER IN BOSTON.
IN the fall of 1843, I was called again to Boston. At my last visit there, it was the time of the greatest excitement in Boston, on the subject of the second advent of Christ. Mr. Miller, who was at the head of the movement, was there lecturing, and was holding daily Bible classes, in which he was giving instruction, and inculcating his peculiar views; and his teaching led to intense excitement, involving much that was wild and irrational. I attended Mr. Miller’s Bible class once or twice; after which I invited him to my room, and tried to convince him that he was in error. I called his attention to the construction which he put on the prophecies; and, as I thought, showed him that he was entirely mistaken, in some of his fundamental views. He replied, that I had adopted a course of investigation that would detect his errors, if he had any. I tried to show him that his fundamental error was already detected.
The last time that I had attended his Bible class, he was inculcating the doctrine that Christ would come personally, and destroy his enemies, in 1843. He gave what he called an exposition of the prophecy of Daniel, on the subject. He said, the stone cut out of the mountain without hands, that rolled down and destroyed the image there spoken of, was Christ. When he came to my room I called his attention to the fact, that the prophet affirmed expressly that the stone was not Christ, but the kingdom of God; and that the prophet there represented the church, or the kingdom of God, as demolishing the image. This was so plain, that Mr. Miller was obliged to acknowledge that was indeed a fact; and that it was not Christ that was going to destroy those nations, but the kingdom of God. I then asked him if he supposed that the kingdom of God would destroy those nations, in the sense in which he taught that they would be destroyed, with the sword, or with making war upon them? He said, no, he could not believe that. I then inquired, “Is it not the overthrow of the governments that is intended, instead of the destruction of the people? and is not this to be done, by the influence of the church of God, in enlightening their minds by the Gospel? And if this is the meaning, where is the foundation for your teaching, that, at a certain time, Christ is coming in person to destroy all the peoples of the earth?” I said to him, “Now this is fundamental to your teaching. This is the great point to which you call attention in your classes; and here is a manifest error, the very words of the prophet teaching the direct opposite to what you teach.” But it was vain to reason with him, and his followers, at that time. Believing, as they most certainly did, that the advent of Christ was at hand, it was no wonder that they were too wild with excitement, to be reasoned with to any purpose.
When I arrived there, in the fall of 1843, I found that particular form of excitement had blown over; but many forms of error prevailed among the people. Indeed I have found that to be true of Boston, of which Dr.
Beecher assured me, the first winter that I labored there. He said to me, “Mr. Finney, you cannot labor here as you do anywhere else. You have got to pursue a different course of instruction, and begin at the foundation; for Unitarianism is a system of denials, and under its teaching, the foundations of Christianity are fallen away. You cannot take anything for granted; for the Unitarians and the Universalists have destroyed the foundations, and the people are all afloat. The masses have no settled opinions, and every ‘lo here,’ or ‘lo there,’ finds a hearing; and almost any conceivable form of error may get a footing.”
I have since found this to be true, to a greater extent than in any other field, in which I have ever labored. The mass of the people in Boston, are more unsettled in their religious convictions, than in any other place that I have ever labored in, notwithstanding their intelligence; for they are surely a very intelligent people, on all questions but that of religion. It is extremely difficult to make religious truths lodge in their minds, because the influence of Unitarian teaching has been, to lead them to call in question all the principal doctrines of the Bible. Their system is one of denials. Their theology is negative. They deny almost everything, and affirm almost nothing. In such a field, error finds the ears of the people open; and the most irrational views, on religious subjects, come to be held by a great many people.
I began my labors in the Marlborough chapel at this time, and found there a very singular state of things. A church had been formed, composed greatly of radicals; and most of the members held extreme views, on various subjects. They had come out from other orthodox churches, and united in a church of their own, at Marlborough chapel. They were staunch, and many of them consistent, reformers, They were good people; but I cannot say that they were a united people. Their extreme views seemed to be an element of mutual repellence among them. Some of them were extreme non-resistance, and held it to be wrong to use any physical force, or any physical means whatever, even in controlling their own children. Everything must be done by moral suasion. Upon the whole, however, they were a praying, earnest, Christian people. I found no particular difficulty in getting along with them; but at that time the Miller excitement, and various other causes, had been operating to beget a good deal of confusion among them. They were not at all in a prosperous state, as a church.
A young man by the name of S— had risen up among them, who professed to be a prophet;. I had many conversations with him, and tried to convince him that he was all wrong; and I labored with his followers, to try to make them see that he was wrong. However, I found it impossible to do anything with him, or with them, until he finally committed himself on several points, and predicted that certain things would happen, at certain dates. One was that his father would die on a certain day. I then said to him: “Now we shall prove you. Now the truthfulness of your pretensions will be tested. If these things that you predict come to pass, and come to pass, as you say they will, at certain times, then we shall have reason to believe that you are a prophet. But if they do not come to pass, it will prove that you are deceived.” This he could not deny. As the good providence of God would have it, these predictions related to events, but a few weeks from the time the predictions were uttered. He had staked his reputation as a prophet, upon the truth of these predictions, and awaited their fulfillment. Of course they every one of them failed, and he failed with them; I never heard anything more of his predictions. But he had confused a good many minds, and really neutralized their efforts; and I am not aware that those who were his followers, ever regained their former influence as Christians.
During this winter, the Lord gave my own soul a very thorough overhauling, and a fresh baptism of his Spirit. I boarded at the Marlborough hotel, and my study and bedroom were in one corner of the chapel building. My mind was greatly drawn out in prayer, for a long time; as indeed it always has been, when I have labored in Boston. I have been favored there, uniformly, with a great deal of the spirit of prayer. But this winter, in particular, my mind was exceedingly exercised on the question of personal holiness; and in respect to the state of the church, their want of power with God; the weakness of the orthodox churches in Boston, the weakness of their faith, and their want of power in the midst of such a community. The fact that they were making little or no progress in overcoming the errors of city, greatly affected my mind.
I gave myself to a great deal of prayer. After my evening services, I would retire as early as I well could; but rose at four o’clock in the morning, because I could sleep no longer, and immediately went to the study, and engaged in prayer. And so deeply was my mind exercised, and so absorbed in prayer, that I frequently continued from the time I arose, at four o’clock, till the gong called to breakfast, at eight o’clock. My days were spent, so far as I could get time, in searching the Scriptures. I read nothing else, all that winter, but my Bible; and a great deal of it seemed new to me.
Again the Lord took me, as it were, from Genesis to Revelation. He led me to see the connection of things, the promises, threatenings, the prophecies and their fulfillment; and indeed, the whole Scripture seemed to me all ablaze with light, and not only light, but it seemed as if God’s word was instinct with the very life of God.
After praying in this way for weeks and months, one morning while I was engaged in prayer, the thought occurred to me, what if, after all this divine teaching, my will is not carried, and this teaching takes effect only in my sensibility? May it not be that my sensibility is affected, by these revelations from reading the Bible, and that my heart is not really subdued by them? At this point several passages of scripture occurred to me, much as this: “Line must be upon line, line upon line, precept upon precept, precept upon precept, here a little, and there a little, that they might go and fall backward, and be snared and taken.” The thought that I might be deceiving myself, when it first occurred to me, stung me almost like an adder. It created a pang that I cannot describe. The passages of Scripture that occurred to me, in that direction, for a few moments greatly increased my distress. But directly I was enabled to fall back upon the perfect will of God. I said to the Lord, that if he saw it was wise and best, and that his honor demanded that I should be left to be deluded, and go down to hell, I accepted his will, and I said to him, “Do with me as seemeth thee good.”
Just before this occurrence, I had a great struggle to consecrate myself to God, in a higher sense than I had ever before seen to be my duty, or conceived as possible. I had often before, laid my family all upon the altar of God, and left them to be disposed of at his discretion. But at this time that I now speak of, I had had a great struggle about giving up my wife to the will of God. She was in very feeble health, and it was very evident that she could not live long. I had never before seen so clearly, what was implied in laying her, and all that I possessed, upon the altar of God; and for hours I struggled upon my knees, to give her up unqualifiedly to the will of God. But I found myself unable to do it. I was so shocked and surprised at this, that I perspired profusely with agony. I struggled and prayed until I was exhausted, and found myself entirely unable to give her altogether up to God’s will, in such a way as to make no objection to his disposing of her just as he pleased.
This troubled me much. I wrote to my wife, telling her what a struggle I had, and the concern that I had felt at not being willing to commit her, without reserve, to the perfect will of God. This was but a very short time before I had this temptation, as it now seems to me to have been, of which I have spoken, when those passages of Scripture came up distressingly to my mind, and when the bitterness, almost of death seemed, for a few moments, to possess me, at the thought that my religion might be of the sensibility only, and that God’s teaching might have taken effect only in my feeling. But as I said, I was enabled, after struggling for a few moments with this discouragement and bitterness, which I have since attributed to a fiery dart of Satan, to fall back, in a deeper sense than I had ever done before upon the infinitely blessed and perfect will of God. I then told the Lord that I had such confidence in him, that I felt perfectly willing, to give myself, my wife and my family, all to be disposed of according to his own wisdom.
I then had a deeper view of what was implied in consecration to God, than ever before. I spent a long time upon my knees, in considering the matter all over, and giving up everything to the will of God; the interests of the church, the progress of religion, the conversion of the world, and the salvation or damnation of my own soul, as the will of God might decide.
Indeed I recollect, that I went so far as to say to the Lord, with all my heart, that he might do anything with me or mine, to which his blessed will could consent; that I had such perfect confidence in his goodness and love, as to believe that he could consent to do nothing, to which I could object. I felt a kind of holy boldness, in telling him to do with me just as seemed to him good; that he could not do anything that was not perfectly wise and good; and therefore, I had the best of grounds for accepting whatever he could consel it to, in respect to me and mine. So deep and perfect a resting in the will of God, I had never before known.
What has appeared strange to me is this, that I could not get hold of my former hope; nor could I recollect, with any freshness, any of the former seasons of communion and divine assurance that I had experienced. I may say that I gave up my hope, and rested everything upon a new foundation.
I mean, I gave up my hope from any past experience, and recollect telling the Lord, that I did not know whether he intended to save me or not. Nor did I feel concerned to know. I was willing to abide the event. I said that if I found that he kept me, and worked in me by his Spirit, and was preparing me for heaven, working holiness and eternal life in my soul, I should take it for granted that he intended to save me; that if, on the other hand, I found myself empty of divine strength and light and love, I should conclude that he saw it wise and expedient to send me to hell; and that in either event I would accept his will. My mind settled into a perfect stillness.
This was early in the morning; and through the whole of that day, I seemed to be in a state of perfect rest, body and soul. The question frequently arose in my mind, during the day, “Do you still adhere to your consecration, and abide in the will of God?” I said without hesitation, “Yes, I take nothing back. I have no reason for taking anything back; I went no farther in pledges and professions than was reasonable. I have no reason for taking anything back; I do not want to take anything back.” The thought that I might be lost, did not distress me. Indeed, think as I might, during that whole day, I could not find in my mind the least fear, the least disturbing emotion. Nothing troubled me. I was neither elated nor depressed; I was neither, as I could see, joyful or sorrowful. My confidence in God was perfect, my acceptance of his will was perfect, and my mind was as calm as heaven.
Just at evening, the question arose in my mind, “What if God should send me to hell, what then?” “Why, I would not object to it.” “But can he send a person to hell,” was the next inquiry, “who accepts his will, in the sense in which you do?” This inquiry was no sooner raised in my mind than settled. I said, “No, it is impossible. Hell could be no hell to me, if I accepted God’s perfect will.” This sprung a vein of joy in my mind, that kept developing more and more, for weeks and months, and indeed I may say, for years. For years my mind was too fall of joy to feel much exercised with anxiety on any subject. My prayer that had been so fervent, and protracted during so long a period, seemed all to run out into, “Thy will be done.” It seemed as if my desires were all met. What I had been praying for, for myself, I had received in a way that I least expected.
Holiness to the Lord seemed to be inscribed on all the exercises of my mind. I had such strong faith that God would accomplish all his perfect will, that I could not be careful about anything. The great anxieties about which my mind had been exercised, during my seasons of agonizing prayer, seemed to be set aside; so that for a long time, when I went to God, to commune with him — as I did very, very frequently — I would fall on my knees, and find it impossible to ask for anything, with any earnestness, except that his will might be done in earth as it is done in heaven. My prayers were swallowed up in that; and I often found myself smiling, as it were, in the face of God, and saying that I did not want anything. I was very sure that he would accomplish all his wise and good pleasure; and with that my soul was entirely satisfied.
Here I lost that great struggle in which I had been engaged, for so long a time, and began to preach to the congregation, in accordance with this my new and enlarged experience. There was a considerable number in the church, and that attended my preaching, who understood me; and they saw from my preaching what had been, and what was, passing in my mind. I presume the people were more sensible than I was myself, of the great change in my manner of preaching. Of course, my mind was too full of the subject to preach anything except a full and present salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ.
At this time it seemed as if my soul was wedded to Christ, in a sense in which I had never had any thought or conception of before. The language of the Song of Solomon, was as natural to me as my breath. I thought I could understand well the state of mind he was in, when he wrote that song; and concluded then, as I have ever thought since, that song was unwritten by him, after he had been reclaimed from his great backsliding. I not only had all the freshness of my first love, but a vast accession to it.
Indeed the Lord lifted me so much above anything that I had experienced before, and taught me so much of the meaning of the Bible, of Christ’s relations, and power, and willingness, that I often found myself saying to him, “I had not known or conceived that any such thing was true.” I then realized what is meant by the saying, that he “is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.” He did at that time teach me, indefinitely above all that I had ever asked or thought. I had no conception of the length and breadth, and height and depth, and efficiency of his grace.
It seemed then to me that that passage, “My grace is sufficient for thee,” meant so much, that it was wonderful I had never understood it before. I found myself exclaiming, “Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful!” as these revelations were made to me. I could understand then what was meant by the prophet when he said, “His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of peace.” I spent nearly all the remaining part of the winter, till I was obliged to return home, in instructing the people in regard to the fullness there is in Christ.
They did not understand me. There was, indeed, a goodly number that did; and they were wonderfully blessed in their souls, and made more progress in the divine life, as I have reason to believe, than in all their lives before.
But the little church that was formed there was not composed of materials that could, to any considerable extent, work healthfully and efficiently together. The outside opposition to them was great. The mass even of professors of religion in the city, did not sympathize with them at all. The people of the churches generally were in no state to receive my views of sanctification; and although there were individuals in nearly all the churches, who were deeply interested and greatly blessed, yet as a general thing, the testimony that I bore was unintelligible to them.
Some of them could see where I was. One evening I recollect that Deacon P— and Deacon S—, after hearing my preaching, and seeing the effect upon the congregation, came up to me, after I came out of the pulpit, and said, “Why, you are a great way ahead of us in this city, and a great way ahead of our ministers. How can we get our ministers to come and hear these truths?” I replied, “I do not know. But I wish they could see things as I do; for it does seem to me infinitely important that there should be a higher standard of holiness in Boston.” They seemed exceedingly anxious to have those truths laid before the people in general. They were good men, as the Boston people well know; but what pains they really took, to get their ministers and people to attend, I cannot say.
Although I had much of the divine life working within me; yet, as I said, so far did what I experienced that winter, exceed all that I had before experienced, that at times I could not realize that I had ever before been truly in communion with God.
To be sure I had been, often and for a long time; and this I knew when I reflected upon it, and remembered through what I had so often passed. It appeared to me, that winter, that probably when we get to heaven, our views and joys, and holy exercises, will so far surpass anything that we have ever experienced in this life, that we shall be hardly able to recognize the fact that we had any religion, while in this world. I had in fact oftentimes experienced inexpressible joys, and very deep communion with God; but all this had fallen so into the shade, under my enlarged experience, that frequently I would tell the Lord that I had never before had any conception of the wonderful things revealed in his blessed Gospel, and the wonderful grace there is in Christ Jesus. This language, I knew when I reflected upon it, was comparative; but still all my former experiences, for the time, seemed to be sealed up, and almost lost sight of.
As the great excitement of that season subsided, and my mind became more calm, I saw more clearly the different steps of my Christian experience, and came to recognize the connection of things, as all wrought by God from beginning to end. But since then I have never had those great struggles, and long protracted seasons of agonizing prayer, that I had often experienced. It is quite another thing to prevail with God, in my own experience, from what it was before. I can come to God with more calmness, because with more perfect confidence. He enables me now to rest in him, and let everything sink into his perfect will, with much more readiness, than ever before the experience of that winter.
I have felt since then a religious freedom, a religious buoyancy and delight in God, and in his word, a steadiness of faith, a Christian liberty and overflowing love, this I had only experienced, I may say, occasionally before. I do not mean that such exercises had been rare to me before; for they had been frequent and often repeated, but never abiding as they have been since. My bondage seemed to be, at that time, entirely broken; and since then, I have had the freedom of a child with a loving parent. It seems to me that I can find God within me, in such a sense, that I can rest upon him and be quiet, lay my heart in his hand, and nestle down in his perfect will, and have no carefulness or anxiety.
I speak of these exercises as habitual, since that period, but I cannot affirm that they have been altogether unbroken; for in 1860, during a period of sickness, I had a season of great depression, and wonderful humiliation.
But the Lord brought me out of it, into an established peace and rest.
A few years after this season of refreshing, that beloved wife, of whom I have spoken, died. This was to me a great affliction. However, I did not feel any murmuring, or the least resistance to the will of God. I gave her up to God, without any resistance whatever, that I can recollect. But it was to me a great sorrow. The night after she died, I was lying in my room alone, and some Christian friends were sitting up in the parlor, and watching out the night. I had been asleep for a little while, and as I awoke, the thought of my bereavement flashed over my mind with such power! My wife was gone! I should never hear her speak again, nor see her face! Her children were motherless! What should I do? My brain seemed to reel, as if my mind would swing from its pivot. I rose instantly from my bed, exclaiming, “I shall be deranged if I cannot rest in God” The Lord soon calmed my mind, for that night; but still, at times, seasons of sorrow would come over me, that were almost overwhelming.
One day I was upon my knees, communing with God upon the subject, and all at once he seemed to say to me, “You loved your wife?” “Yes,” I said. “Well, did you love her for her own sake, or for your sake? Did you love her, or yourself? If you loved her for her own sake, why do you sorrow that she is with me? Should not her happiness with me, make you rejoice instead of mourn, if you loved her for her own sake?” “Did you love her,” he seemed to say to me, “for my sake? If you loved her for my sake, surely you would not grieve that she is with me. Why do you think of your loss, and lay so much stress upon that, instead of thinking of her gain? Can you be sorrowful, when she is so joyful and happy? If you loved her for her own sake, would you not rejoice in her joy, and be happy in her happiness?”
I can never describe the feelings that came over me, when I seemed to be thus addressed. It produced an instantaneous change in the whole state of my mind. From that moment, sorrow, on account of my loss, was gone forever. I no longer thought of my wife as dead, but as alive, and in the midst of the glories of heaven. My faith was, at this time, so strong and my mind so enlightened, that it seemed as if I could enter into the very state of mind in which she was, in heaven; and if there is any such thing as communing with an absent spirit, or with one who is in heaven, I seemed to commune with her. Not that I ever supposed she was present in such a sense that I communed personally with her. But it seemed as if I knew what her state of mind was there, what profound, unbroken rest, in the perfect will of God. I could see that was heaven; and I experienced it in my own soul. I have never to this day, lost the blessing of these views. They frequently recur to me, as the very state of mind in which the inhabitants of heaven are, and I can see why they are in such a state of blessedness.
My wife had died in a heavenly frame of mind. Her rest in God was so perfect, that it seemed to me that, in leaving this world, she only entered into a fuller apprehension of the love and faithfulness of God, so as to confirm and perfect forever, her trust in God, and her union with his will.
These are experiences in which I have lived, a great deal, since that time.
But in preaching, I have found that nowhere can I preach those truths, on which my own soul delights to live, and be understood, except it be by a very small number. I have never found that more than a very few, even of my own people, appreciate and receive those views of God and Christ, and the fullness of his free salvation, upon which my own soul still delights to feed. Everywhere, I am obliged to come down to where the people are, in order to make them understand me; and in every place where I have preached, for many years, I have found the churches in so low a state, as to be utterly incapable of apprehending and appreciating, what I regard as the most precious truths of the whole Gospel.
When preaching to impenitent sinners, I am obliged, of course, to go back to first principles. In my own experience, I have so long passed these outposts and first principles, that I cannot live upon those truths. I, however, have to preach them to the impenitent, to secure their conversion. When I preach the Gospel, I can preach the atonement, conversion, and many of the prominent views of the Gospel, that are appreciated and accepted, by those who are young in the religious life; and by those also, who have been long in the church of God, and have made very little advancement in the knowledge of Christ. But it is only now and then, that I find it really profitable to the people of God, to pour out to them the fullness that my own soul sees in Christ. In this place, there is a larger number of persons, by far, that understand me, and devour that class of truths, than I have found elsewhere; but even here, the majority of professors of religion, do not understandingly embrace those truths. They do not object, they do not oppose; and so far as they understand, they are convinced. But as a matter of experience, they are ignorant of the power of the highest and most precious truths of the Gospel of salvation, in Christ Jesus.
I said that this winter in Boston, was spent mostly in preaching to professed Christians, and that many of them were greatly blessed in their souls. I felt very confident that, unless the foundations could be relayed in some sense, and that unless the Christians in Boston took on a higher type of Christian living, they never could prevail against Unitarianism. I knew that the orthodox ministers had been preaching orthodoxy, as opposed to Unitarianism, for many years; and that all that could be accomplished by discussion, had been accomplished. But I felt that what Unitarians needed, was to see Christians live out the pure Gospel of Christ. They needed to hear them say, and prove what they said by their lives, that Jesus Christ was a divine Savior, and able to save them from all sin. Their professions of faith in Christ, did not accord with their experiences. They could not say that they found Christ in their experience, what they preached him to be. There is needed the testimony of God’s living witnesses, the testimony of experience, to convince the Unitarians; and mere reasonings and arguments, however conclusive, will never overcome their errors and their prejudices.
The orthodox churches there, are too formal; they are in bondage to certain ways; they are afraid of measures, afraid to launch forth in all freedom, in the use of means to save souls. They have always seemed to me, to be in bondage in their prayers, in so much that what I call the spirit of prayer, I have seldom witnessed in Boston. The ministers and deacons of the churches, though good men, are afraid of what the Unitarians will say, if, in their measures to promote religion, they launch out in such a way as to wake the people up. Everything must be done in a certain way. The Holy Spirit is grieved by their yielding to such a bondage.
I have labored in Boston in five powerful revivals of religion; and I must express it as my sincere conviction, that the greatest difficulty in the way of overcoming Unitarianism, and all the forms of error there, is the timidity of Christians and churches. Knowing, as they do, that they are constantly exposed to the criticisms of the Unitarians, they have become over-cautious. Their faith has been depressed. And I do fear that the prevalence of Unitarianism and Universalism there, has kept them back from preaching, and holding forth the danger of the impenitent, as president Edwards presented it. The doctrine of endless punishment, the necessity of entire sanctification, or the giving up of all sin, as a condition of salvation — indeed the doctrines that are calculated to arouse men, are not, I fear, held forth with that frequency and power, that are indispensable to the salvation of that city.
The little church at the Marlborough chapel, were very desirous that I should become their pastor; and I left Boston, and came home, with this question before my mind. Afterward brother Sears came on, with a formal call in his pocket, to persuade me to go and take up my abode there. But when he arrived in Oberlin, and consulted the brethren here, about the propriety of my going, they so much discouraged him, that he did not lay the question before me at all.