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FIRST VISIT TO ENGLAND.
HAVING had repeated and urgent invitations to visit England, and labor for the promotion of revivals in that country, I embarked with my wife*, (*Mr. Finney had married, as his second wife, Mrs. Elizabeth F.
Atkinson, of Rochester) in the autumn of 1849, and after a stormy passage, we arrived at Southampton, early in November. There we met the pastor of the church in Houghton, a village situated midway between the market towns of Huntington and Saint Ives. A Mr. Potto Brown, a very benevolent man, of whom I shall have occasion to speak frequently, had sent Mr. James Harcourt, his pastor, to meet us at Southhampton.
Mr. Potto Brown was, by parentage and education, a Quaker. He and a partner were engaged in the milling business, and belonged to a congregation of Independents, in Saint Ives. They became greatly affected in view of the state of things in their neighborhood. The Church, as it is called in England, seemed to them to be effecting very little for the salvation of souls. There were no schools, outside of the church schools, for the education of the poor; and the mass of the people were greatly neglected. After much prayer and consultation with each other, they agreed to adopt measures for the education of the children, in the village where they lived, and in the villages around them, and to extend this influence as far as they could. They also agreed to apply their means, to the best advantage, in establishing worship, and in building up churches independent of the Establishment.
Not long after this enterprise was commenced, Mr. Brown’s partner died.
His wife, I believe, had died before him; and his partner committed his family, consisting of several sons and daughters, to the fraternal care of Mr. Brown, who committed them to the training of a judicious widow lady, in a neighboring village. Mr. Brown’s partner, at his death, begged him not to neglect the work which they had projected; but to pursue it with vigor and singleness of eye. Mr. Brown’s heart was in the work. His partner left a large property to his children. Mr. Brown himself had but two children, sons. He was a man of simple habits, and expended but little money upon himself, or his family. He employed a school teacher, in the village where he resided, and built a chapel there for public worship. They called a man to labor there as a minister, who held hyper-Calvinistic views; and consequently he labored year after year, with no results, such as met the expectations of Mr. Brown.
Mr. Brown had frequent conversations with his minister, about the want of good results. He was paying his salary, and laying out his money in various ways, to promote religion, by means of Sabbath schools, and teachers, and laborers; but few or none were converted. He laid this matter before his minister so frequently, that he finally replied, “Mr. Brown, am I God, that I can convert souls? I preach to them the Gospel, and God does not convert them; am I to blame?” Mr. Brown replied, “Whether you are God or no God, we must have conversions. The people must be converted.” So this minister was dismissed. Rev. James Harcourt was employed. Mr. Harcourt is an open-communion Baptist, a talented man, a rousing preacher, and an earnest laborer for souls. Under his preaching, conversions began to appear, and the world went on hopefully. Their little church increased in numbers and in faith; and the heaven was extending gradually, but perceptibly, on every side.
They soon extended their operations to neighboring villages, with good results. But still they did not know how to promote revivals of religion.
The children of his partner, who had been left under his charge, had grown up to be young men and women, and were not converted. There were three daughters and three sons, a fine family, with abundance of property; but they were unconverted. Mr. Brown had a large number of very interesting and influential friends, in that country, for whose salvation he felt a very deep interest. He was also very anxious about the children of his deceased partner, that they might be converted. For the education of his sons he had employed a teacher in his family; and a considerable number of young men, of respectable families, from neighboring towns, had studied with his sons. This little family school, to which the young men who were sons of his friends, in various parts of the county, had been invited, had created a strong bond of interest between Mr. Brown and these families. Mr.
Harcourt’s labors, for some reason, did not reach these families. He was successful among the poorer and lower classes, was zealous and devoted, and preached the Gospel. As Mr. Brown said, “He was a powerful minister of Jesus Christ.” But still he wanted experience, to reach the class of persons that Mr. Brown had more particularly on his own heart. These brethren frequently talked the matter over, and inquired how they could reach that class of persons, and draw them to Christ. Mr. Harcourt said that he had done all that he could, and that something else must be done, or he did not see this this class of persons would be reached at all.
He had read my revival lectures, and he finally suggested to Mr. Brown, the propriety of writing to me, to see if I could not come and labor with them. This led to my receiving a very earnest request from Mr. Brown, to visit them. He conversed also with many other people, and with some ministers; which lead to my receiving divers letters, of pressing invitations to visit England.
At first, these letters made but little impression upon me, for I did not see how I could go to England. At length the way seemed to open for me to leave home, at least for a season; and as I have said, in the autumn of 1849, my wife and myself went to England. When we arrived there, and had rested a few days, I began my labors in the village chapel. I soon found that Mr. Brown was altogether a remarkable man. Although brought up a Quaker, he was entirely catholic in his views, and was laboring, in an independent way, directly for the salvation of the people around him. He had wealth, and his property was constantly and rapidly increasing. His history has reminded me many times of the proverb: “There is that scattereth and yet increaseth; there is that withholdeth more than is meet, and it tendeth to poverty.” For religious purposes, he would spend his money like a prince, and the more he spent, the more he had to spend.
While we were there, he threw his house open morning, noon, and evening, and invited his friends, far and near, to come and pay him a visit. They came in great numbers, so that his table was surrounded, at nearly every meal, with divers persons who had been invited in, that I might have conversation with them, and that they might attend our meetings.
A revival immediately commenced, and spread among the people. The children of his partner were soon interested in religion, and converted to Christ. The work spread among those that came from the neighboring villages. They heard and gladly received the word. And so extensive and thorough was the work, among Mr. Brown’s particular friends, whose conversion he had been longing and praying for, that before I left, he said that every one of them was converted, that the Lord had not left one of them out, for whom he had felt anxiety, and for whose conversion he had been praying.
The conversion of this large number of persons, scattered over the country, made a very favorable impression where they were known. The house of worship at Houghton was small, but it was packed at every meeting; and the devotedness and engagedness of Mr. Brown and his wife, were most interesting and affecting. There seemed to be no bounds to their hospitality. Their schoolmaster was a religious man, and would run in every day, and almost every meal, and sit down with us, to enjoy the conversation. Gentlemen would come in, from neighboring towns, from a distance of many miles, early enough to be there at breakfast. The young men who had been educated with his sons, were invited, and came; and I believe every one of them was converted. Thus his largest desires in regard to them, were fulfilled; and very much more among the masses was done, than he had expected. Mr. Harcourt, had at that time several preaching places, beside Houghton, in the neighboring villages. The savor of this work at Houghton, continued for years. Mr. Harcourt informed me, that he preached in a praying atmosphere, and with a meeting state of feeling around him, as long as he remained in Houghton.
Among the brethren who had written, urging me to come to England, was a Mr. Roe, a Baptist minister of Birmingham. As soon as he was informed that I was in England, he came to Houghton, and spent several days, attending the meetings and witnessing the results.
About the middle of December we left Houghton, and went to Birmingham, to labor in the congregation of Mr. Roe. Here, soon after our arrival, we were introduced to Rev. John Angell James, who was the principal dissenting minister in Birmingham. He was a good, and a great man, and wielded a very extensive influence in that city, and indeed throughout England.
When my revival lectures were first published in England, Mr. James wrote an introduction to them, highly commending them. But when I arrived in Birmingham, I was informed that, after Mr. James had publicly recommended them, in meetings of ministers, and by his pen, he had been informed, by men belonging to certain circles on this side of the Atlantic, that those revivals that had occurred, under my ministry especially, had turned out very disastrously; and that to such an extent had these representations been made to him, that he had taken back what he had said publicly, in favor of those revival lectures.
However, when he saw me in Birmingham, he called the Independent ministers to a breakfast at his house, and requested me to attend. This is the common way of doing things in England. When we assembled at his house, after breakfast was concluded, he said to his ministerial brethren, that he had been impressed that they were falling greatly short of accomplishing the end of their ministry; that they were too well satisfied to have the people attend meeting, pay the minister’s salary, keep up the Sabbath school, and move on with an outward prosperity; while the conversions, in most of the churches, were very few, and after all, the people were going to destruction. I was told by Mr. Roe, with whom I was at that time commencing my labors, that there were, in Mr. James’ own congregation, not less than fifteen hundred impenitent sinners. At the breakfast at Mr. James’, he expressed himself very warmly, and said that something must be done.
Finally the ministers agreed upon holding meetings, as soon as I could comply with their request, in the different Independent churches, in succession. But for some weeks, I confined my labors to Mr. Roe’s congregation, and there was a powerful revival, such a movement as they had never seen. The revival swept through the congregation with great power, and a very large proportion of the impenitent were turned to Christ. Mr. Roe entered heart and soul into the work. I found him a good and true man. He was not at all sectarian, or prejudiced in his views; but he opened his heart to divine influence, and poured out himself in labors for souls, like a man in earnest. Day after day he would sit in the vestry of his church, and converse with inquirers, as they came to visit him, and direct them to Christ. His time was almost entirely taken up with this work, for many days. His church was, at that time, one of the few close-communion churches in England, as nearly all the Baptists in England are open-communionists.
After the number of conversions had become large, the church began to examine converts for admission. They examined a large number, and were about to hold a communion. I preached in the morning, and they were to hold their communion in the afternoon. When the morning service was closed, Mr. Roe requested the church to remain for a few moments. My wife and myself retired after the morning service, and went to our lodgings at Mr. Roe’s, where we were guests. After a little time, Mr. Roe came home, and entered our room with a smile upon his face, saying, “What do you think our church have done?” I could not tell; for really it had not occurred to me to raise the inquiry, what they were going to do, when they were requested to stay. He replied, “They have voted unanimously to invite you and Mrs. Finney to our communion, this afternoon.” Their close communion was more than they could sustain, on such an occasion as that. However, on reflection, we concluded that we had better not accept their invitation, lest they had taken the vote under a pressure, that might create some reaction and regret among them afterwards; and as we were really fatigued, we excused ourselves, and remained at home.
The congregations were everywhere crowded; a great interest was excited; and the numbers that would gather into the vestries after preaching, under an invitation for inquirers, was large. Their largest vestries would be packed with inquirers, whenever a call was made to resort thither for instruction. As to mean, I used the same there that I had done in this country. Preaching, prayer, conversation, and meetings of inquiry, were the means used.
But I soon found that Mr. James was receiving letters from various quarters, warning him against the influence of my labors. He had acquaintances on this side of the Atlantic; and some of them, as I understood him, had written him letters, warning him against my influence.
Besides, from various parts of his own county, the same pressure was made upon him. He was very frank with me, and told me how the matter stood; and I was as frank with him. I said to him, “Brother James, your responsibility is great. I am aware that your influence is great; and these letters show both your influence and your responsibility, in regard to these labors. You are led to think that I am heretical in my views. You hear my preaching, whenever I preach; and you know whether I preach the Gospel or not.”
I had taken with me my two published volumes of Systematic Theology. I said to him, “Have you heard me preach anything that is not Gospel?” He said, “No, not anything at all.” “Well,” said I, “Now I have my Systematic Theology, which I teach to my classes at home, and which I everywhere preach; and I want you to read it.” He was very earnest to do so. I soon saw that there was a very venerable looking gentleman with him, from evening to evening, at our meetings. They would attend meeting together; and when I called for inquirers, they would go in, and stand where they could get a place, and hear all that was said. Who this venerable gentleman was, I was not aware. For several nights in succession, they came in this way; but Mr. James did not introduce me to the person that was with him, nor come near, to speak with me, at those meetings.
After things had gone on in this way, for a week or two, Mr. James and his venerable friend called at our lodgings. He introduced me to Dr.
Redford, informing me, at the same time, that he was one of their most prominent theologians; that he had more confidence in Dr. Redford’s theological acumen, than he had in his own; and that he had requested him to visit Birmingham, attend the meetings, and especially to unite with him in reading my Theology. He said they had been reading it, from day to day; and Dr. Redford would like to have some conversation with me, on certain points of theology. We conversed very freely on all the questions to which Dr. Redford wished to call my attention; and Dr. Redford said, very frankly, “Brother James, I see no reason for regarding Mr. Finney, in any respect, as unsound. He has his own way of stating theological propositions; but I cannot see that he differs, on any essential point, from us.”
They had with them a little manual, prepared by the Congregational Union of England and Wales, in which was found a brief statement of their theological views. They read to me certain portions of this manual; and in my turn, I questioned them. I heard their explanations, and was satisfied there was a substantial agreement between us.
Dr. Redford remained some time longer at Birmingham. He then went home, and, with my consent, took with him my Systematic Theology; and said he would read it carefully through, and then write to me his views respecting it. I observed that he was indeed at home in theology, was a scholar and a Christian, and a thoroughly educated theologian. I was, therefore, more than willing to have him criticize my theology, that if there was anything that needed to be retracted or amended, he might point it out. I requested him to do so, thoroughly and frankly. He took it home, gave himself up to a thorough examination of it, and read the volumes patiently and critically through. I then received a letter from him, expressing his strong approbation of my theological views, saying there were a few points upon which he would like to make some inquiries; and he wished me, as soon as I could get away from Birmingham, to come and preach for him.
I continued in Birmingham, I think, about three months. There were a great many interesting conversions in that city; and yet the ministers were not then prepared to commit themselves heartily to the use of the necessary means, to spread the revival universally over the city.
There was one case of so interesting a character, that I will call attention to it. I suppose it is generally known in this country, that Unitarianism in England, was first developed and promulgated in Birmingham. That was the home of old Dr. Priestley, who was one of the principal, if not one of the first Unitarian ministers in England. His congregation I found still in existence, in Birmingham. One evening before I left Birmingham, I preached on this text: “Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost.” I dwelt first upon the divinity and personality of the Holy Ghost. I then endeavored to show in how many ways, and on how many points, men resist the divine teaching; that when convinced by the Holy Spirit, they still persist in taking their own course; and that in all such cases they are resisting the Holy Spirit. The Lord gave me liberty that night, to preach a very searching discourse. My object was to show, that while men are pleading their dependence on the Holy Spirit, they are constantly resisting him.
I found in Birmingham, as I did everywhere in England, that the greatest stress was laid upon the influence of the Holy Spirit. But I nowhere found any clear discrimination between a physical influence of the Spirit, exerted directly upon the soul itself, and that moral, persuasive influence, which he in fact exerts over the minds of men. Consequently I found it frequently necessary, to call the attention of the people to the work in which the Holy Spirit is really engaged, to explain to them the express teachings of Christ upon this subject: and thus to lead them to see that they were not to wait for a physical influence, but to give themselves up to his persuasive influence, and obey his teachings. This was the object of my discourse that evening.
After I arrived at our quarters, a lady who was present at the meeting, and who came into the family where we were guests, remarked that she observed a Unitarian minister present in the congregation. I remarked that must have sounded strangely in the ears of a Unitarian. She replied, she hoped it would do him good. Not long after this, and when I was laboring in London, I received a letter from this minister, giving an account of the great change wrought in his religious experience, by means of that sermon.
This letter I give, as follows: — August 16, 1850. REV.AND DEAR SIR: — Learning, from the Banner, that you are about to take your departure from England, I feel it would be somewhat ungrateful, if I allow you to go, without expressing the obligation I am conscious of being under to you, for the benefit I received from a sermon of yours, preached in Steelhouse Lane, Birmingham. I think it was the last sermon you preached, and was on resisting the Holy Spirit; but I have never been able to find the text. Indeed, in the interest of the points that most concerned me, I thought no more about the text, for two or three days after. In order that you may understand the benefit I received from the sermon, it is necessary that I should recount, briefly, my peculiar position at the time.
I was educated at one of our dissenting colleges, for the ministry among the Independents. I entered upon the ministry, and continued to exercise it about seven years. During that time, I gradually underwent a great change in my theological views. The change was produced, I think, partly by philosophical speculations, and partly in the deterioration that had taken place in my spiritual condition. I would say with deepest sorrow, my piety never recovered the tone it lost in my passage through college. I attribute all my sorrows principally to this. My speculations led me, without ever having read Dr. Williams’ book on divine sovereignty and equity, to adopt fundamentally his views. The reading of his book, fully perfected my system. Sin is a defect, rising out of the necessary defectibility of a creature, when unsupplied with the grace of God. The fall of man, therefore, expresses nothing but the inevitable original imperfection of the human race. The great end of God’s moral government, is to correct this imperfection by education, and revelation, and to ultimately perfect man’s condition. I had already, and long previously, adopted Dr. Jenkyn’s views of spiritual influence.
Under the guidance of such principles, you will understand, without my explaining how, sin became a mere misfortune, temporarily permitted; or rather a necessary evil, to be remedied by infinite wisdom and goodness; how eternal punishment became a cruelty, not for one moment to be thought of, in the dispensation of a good being, and how the atonement became a perfect absurdity, founded upon unphilosophical views of sin. I became thoroughly Unitarian, and in the beginning of the year 1848, I professed my Unitarianism, and became minister of a church. The tendencies of my mind, however, were fortunately too logical, for me long to be able to rest in Unitarianism. I pushed my conclusions to simple deism, and then found they must go still farther. For this I was not prepared. My whole soul started back in horror. I reviewed my principles. A revolution took place in my whole system of philosophy. The doctrine of responsibility was restored to me, in its most strict and literal sense, and with it a deep consciousness of sin. I need not enter into minute details, with reference to my struggles and mental sufferings.
About two weeks before I heard you, I saw clearly I must some day or the other, readopt the evangelical system. I never had doubted it was the system of the Bible. I became Unitarian, upon purely rationalistic grounds. But now I found I must accept the Bible, or perish in darkness. You may imagine the agonies of spirit I had to endure. On the one hand were convictions, becoming stronger every day, the sense of sin, and the need of Christ, obtaining a firmer hold over my heart, and the miserable condition of withholding the truth I knew, from the people looking up to me for instruction. On the other hand, if I professed myself, I instantly, in the sight of all parties, especially with that great majority having no sympathy with such struggles, ruined my character, by my apparent fickleness, and threw myself, my wife and children upon the world. I could not make up my mind to this alternative. I had resolved to wait, gradually to prepare the people’s minds for the change, and by exercising a more rigid economy, for some months, to make provision for our temporal wants, during the period of transition. In this state of mind I heard your sermon. You will recollect it, and easily comprehend the effect it produced. I felt the truth of your arguments. Your appeals came home irresistibly to my heart, and that night, on my way home, I vowed before God, come what would, I would at once consecrate myself afresh to that Savior, whose blood I had so recently learned to value, and whose value I had done so much to dishonor.
The result is, through the kind influence of Mr.—, I have lately become the minister of the church in this town. The peace of mind I now enjoy, does indeed surpass all understanding. I never before found such an absorbing pleasure, in the work of the ministry. I enter fully into the significance of what Paul says, “If any man be in Christ he is a new creature.” I cannot tell you therefore, with how many feelings of gratitude, your name will be associated in my soul. I bless God for the kind providence that brought me to hear you. It seems to me now, more than probable, had I not heard you, my newly awakened religious life would soon have been destroyed, by continued resistance to my deep convictions. My conscience would again have become hardened, and I should have died in my sins. Through the grace of God, I shall trace up to you, any usefulness God may hereafter crown my labors with, and I feel it would be unjust to withhold from you, the knowledge of this fruit of your labors. May God, of his infinite mercy and grace, grant you a long life of even greater usefulness, than he has yet blessed you with, will be the constant prayer of Dear Sir, Yours very truly, When I received this letter, I was laboring with Rev. John Campbell in the old Tabernacle of Whitefield in London. I handed it to him to read. He read it over with manifestly deep emotion, and then exclaimed “There, that is worth coming to England for!”
From Birmingham I went to Worcester, I think about the middle of March, to labor with Dr. Redford. I have said that he had read my Systematic Theology, and had written to me that he wished to have some conversation with me, on certain points. I had with me, my replies to the various criticisms which had been published, and these I handed to Dr.
Redford. He read them through, and then called on me and said, “Those replies have cleared up all the questions on which I wished to converse; therefore I am fully satisfied that you are right.” After that, in no instance, that I recollect, did he make a criticism upon any part of my Theology.
At the time I refer to, when he had read through my replies to those revenues, he expressed a strong desire that the work should be immediately published in England; and said that he thought the work was greatly needed there, and would do great good. His opinion had great weight in England, upon theological questions. Dr. Campbell, I remember, affirmed in his newspaper, that Dr. Redford was the greatest theologian in Europe. I remained in Worcester several weeks, and preached for Dr.
Redford, and also for a Baptist congregation in that city. There were many very striking conversions; and the work was interesting indeed.
Some wealthy gentlemen in Worcester, laid before me a proposition to this effect. They proposed to erect a movable tabernacle, or house of worship; one that could be taken down and transported from place to place upon the railway, and, at slight expense, set up again, with all its seats, and all the furniture of a house of worship. They proposed to build it, one hundred and fifty feet square, with seats so constructed as to provide for five or six thousand people. They said if I would consent to use it, and preach in it from place to place, as circumstances might demand, for six months, they would be at the expense of building it. But on consulting the ministers at that place, they advised me not to do it. They thought it would be more useful for me to occupy the pulpits, in the already established congregations, in different parts of England, than to go through England preaching in an independent way, such as was proposed by those gentlemen.
As I had reason to believe the ministers generally would disapprove of a course then so novel, I declined to pledge myself to occupy it. I have since thought that I probably made a mistake; for when I came to be acquainted with the congregations, and places of public worship, of the Independent churches, I found them generally so small, so badly ventilated, so situated, so hedged in and circumscribed by the Church — I mean, of course, the Establishment — that it has since appeared to me doubtful whether I was right; as I have been of opinion that I could, upon the whole, have accomplished much greater good in England, by carrying as it were, my own place of worship with me, going where I pleased, and providing for the gathering of the masses, irrespective of denominations. If my strength were now as it was then, I should be strongly inclined to visit England again, and try an experiment of that kind. Dr. Redford was greatly affected by the work in Worcester; and at the May anniversaries in London, he addressed the Congregational union of England and Wales, and gave a very interesting account of this work. I attended those May meetings, being about to commence labor with Dr. John Campbell, in London.
Dr. Campbell was a successor of Whitefield, and was pastor of the church at the Tabernacle in Finsbury, London, and also of the Tottenham Court Road chapel. These chapels are both in London, and about three miles apart. They were built for Mr. Whitefield, and occupied by him for years.
Dr. Campbell was also at that time editor of the British Banner, the Christian Witness, and of one or two other periodicals. His voice was such that he did not preach, but gave his time to the editing of those papers. He lived in the parsonage in which Whitefield resided, and used the same library, I believe, that Whitefield had used. Whitefield’s portrait hung in his study in the Tabernacle. The savor of his name was still there; yet I must say that the spirit that had been upon him, was not very apparent in the church, at the time I went there. I said that Dr. Campbell did not preach. He still held the pastorate, resided in the parsonage, and drew the salary; but he supplied his pulpit by employing, for a few weeks at a time, the most popular ministers that could be employed, to preach to his people. I began my labors there early in May. Those who are acquainted with the workings of such a constant change in the ministry, as they had at the Tabernacle, would not expect religion in the church, to be in a flourishing condition.
Dr. Campbell’s house of worship was large. It was compactly seated, and could accommodate full three thousand persons. A friend of mine took particular pains to ascertain which would hold the greatest number of people, the Tabernacle in Moorfields or Finsbury, or the great Dexter Hall, of which everybody has heard. It was ascertained that the Tabernacle would seat some hundreds more than Exeter Hall.