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REVIVALS IN BOSTON IN 1856, ‘57, ‘58.
THE next autumn we accepted an invitation to labor again in Boston. We began our labors at Park street, and the Spirit of God immediately manifested his willingness to save souls. The first sermon that I preached was directed to the searching of the church; for I always began by trying to stir up a thorough and pervading interest among professors of religion; to secure the reclaiming of those that were back slidden, and search out those that were self-deceived, and if possible bring them to Christ.
After the congregation was dismissed, and the pastor was standing with me in the pulpit, he said to me, “Brother Finney, I wish to have you understand that I need to have this preaching as much as any member of this church. I have been very much dissatisfied with my religious state for a long time; and have sent for you on my own account, and for the sake of my own soul, as well as for the sake of the souls of the people.” We had at different times protracted and very interesting conversations. He seemed thoroughly to give his heart to God. And one evening at a prayer and conference meeting, as I understood, he related to the people his experience, and told them that he had been that day converted.
This of course produced a very deep impression upon the church and congregation, and upon the city quite extensively. Some of the pastors thought that it was injudicious for him to make a thing of that kind so public. But I did not regard it in that light. It manifestly was the best means he could use for the salvation of his people, and highly calculated to produce among professors of religion generally a very great searching of heart.
The work was quite extensive that winter in Boston, and many very striking cases of conversion occurred. We labored there until spring, and then thought it necessary to return to our labors at home. But it was very manifest that the work in that city was by no means done; and we left with the promise that, the Lord willing, we would return and labor there the next winter. Accordingly the next autumn we returned to Boston.
In the meantime one of the pastors of the city, who had been in Europe the previous winter, had been writing some articles, which were published in the Congregationalist, opposing our return there. He regarded my theology, especially on the subject of sanctification, as unsound. This opposition produced an effect, and we felt at once that there was a jar among the Christian people. Some of the leading members of his church, who the winter before had entered heart and soul into the work, stood aloof and did not come near our meetings; and it was evident that his whole influence, which was considerable at that time in the city, was against the work. This made some of his good people very sad.
This winter of 1857-58 will be remembered as the time when a great revival prevailed throughout all the Northern states. It swept over the land with such power, that for a time it was estimated that not less than fifty thousand conversions occurred in a single week. This revival had some very peculiarly interesting features. It was carried on to a large extent through lay influence, so much so as almost to throw the ministers into the shade. There had been a daily prayer meeting observed in Boston for several years; and in the autumn previous to the great outburst, the daily prayer meeting had been established in Fulton street, New York, which has been continued to this day. Indeed, daily prayer meetings were established throughout the length and breadth of the Northern states. I recollect in one of our prayer meetings in Boston that winter, a gentleman arose and said, “I am from Omaha, in Nebraska. On my journey east I have found a continuous prayer meeting all the way.” “We call it,” said he, “about two thousand miles from Omaha to Boston; and here was a prayer meeting about two thousand miles in extent.”
In Boston we had to struggle, as I have intimated, against this divisive influence, which set the religious interest a good deal back from where we had left it the spring before. However, the work continued steadily to increase, in the midst of these unfavorable conditions. It was evident that the Lord intended to make a general sweep in Boston. Finally it was suggested that a businessmen’s prayer meeting should be established, at twelve o’clock, in the chapel of the Old South church, which was very central for business men. The Christian friend, whose guests we were, secured the use of the room, and advertised the meeting. But whether such a meeting would succeed in Boston at that time, was considered doubtful.
However, this brother called the meeting; and to the surprise of almost everybody the place was not only crowded, but multitudes could not get in at all. This meeting was continued, day after day, with wonderful results. The place was, from the first, too strait for them, and other daily meetings were established in other parts of the city.
One of our daily prayer meetings was held at Park street church, which would be full whenever it was open for prayer; and this was the case with many other meetings in different parts of the city. The population, large as it was, seemed to be moved throughout. The revival became too general to keep any account at all of the number of conversions, or to allow of any estimate being made that would approximate the truth. All classes of people were inquiring everywhere. Many of the Unitarians became greatly interested, and attended our meetings in large numbers.
This revival is of so recent date that I need not enlarge upon it, because it became almost universal throughout the Northern states. A divine influence seemed to pervade the whole land. Slavery seemed to shut it out from the South. The people there were in such a state of irritation, of vexation, and of committal to their peculiar institution, which had come to be assailed on every side, that the Spirit of God seemed to be grieved away from them. There seemed to be no place found for him in the hearts of the Southern people at that time. It was estimated that during this revival not less than five hundred thousand souls were converted in this country.
As I have said, it was carried on very much through the instrumentality of prayer meetings, personal visitation and conversation, by the distribution of tracts, and by the energetic efforts of the laity, men and women.
Ministers nowhere opposed it that I am aware of. I believe they universally sympathized with it. But there was such a general confidence in the prevalence of prayer, that the people very extensively seemed to prefer meetings for prayer to meetings for preaching. The general impression seemed to be, “We have had instruction until we are hardened; it is time for us to pray.” The answers to prayer were constant, and so striking as to arrest the attention of the people generally throughout the land. It was evident that in answer to prayer the windows of heaven were opened and the Spirit of God poured out like a flood. The New York Tribune at that time published several extras, filled with accounts of the progress of the revival in different parts of the United States.
I have said there were some very striking instances of conversion in this revival in Boston. One day I received an anonymous letter, from a lady, asking my advice in regard to the state of her soul. Usually I took no notice whatever of anonymous letters. But the handwriting, the manifest talent displayed in the letter, together with the unmistakable earnestness of the writer, led me to give it unwonted attention. She concluded by requesting me to answer it, and direct it to Mrs. M—, and leave it with the sexton of the church where I was to preach that night, and she should get it. I was at this time preaching around from evening to evening in different churches. I replied to this anonymous letter, that I could not give her the advice which she sought, because I was not well enough acquainted with her history, or with the real state of her mind. But I would venture to call her attention to one fact, which was very apparent, not only in her letter but also in the fact of her not putting her name to it, that she was a very proud woman; and that fact she needed thoroughly to consider.
I left my reply with the sexton, as she requested, and the next morning a lady called to see me. As soon as she came in, she informed me that she was the lady that wrote that anonymous letter; and she had called to tell me that I was mistaken in thinking that she was proud. She said that she was far enough from that; but she was a member of the Episcopal church, and did not want to disgrace her church by revealing the fact that she was not converted. I replied, “It is church pride, then, that kept you from revealing your name.” This touched her so deeply that she arose, and in a manifest excitement left the room. I expected to see her no more; but that evening I found her, after preaching, among the inquirers in the vestry. In passing around I observed this lady. She was manifestly a woman of intelligence and education, and I could perceive that she belonged to cultivated society. But as yet I did not know her name; for our conversation that morning had not lasted more than a minute or two, before she left the room as I have related. As I observed her in passing around, I remarked to her quietly, “And you here?” “Yes,” she replied, and dropped her head as if she felt deeply. I had a few words of kind conversation with her, and it passed for that evening.
In these inquiry meetings I always urged the necessity of immediate submission to Christ, and brought them face to face with that duty; and I then called on such as were prepared to commit themselves unalterably to Christ, to kneel down. I observed when I made this call, that she was among the first that made a movement to kneel. The next morning she called on me again at an early hour. As soon as we were alone, she opened her mind to me and said, “I see, Mr. Finney, that I have been very proud. I have come to tell you who I am, and to give you such facts in regard to my history, that you may know what to say to me.” She was, as I had supposed, a women in high life, the wife of a wealthy gentleman, who was himself a skeptic. She has made a profession of religion, but was unconverted. She was very frank in this interview, and threw her mind open to instruction very cordially; and either at that time or immediately after, she expressed hope in Christ, and became a very earnest Christian.
She is a remarkable writer, and could more nearly report my sermons, without shorthand, than any person I ever knew. She used to come and sit and write my sermons with a rapidity and an accuracy that were quite astonishing. She sent copies of her notes to a great many of her friends, and exerted herself to the utmost to secure the conversion of her friends in Boston and elsewhere. With this lady I have had much correspondence.
She has always manifested that same earnestness in religion, that she did at that time. She has always some good work in hand; and is an earnest laborer for the poor, and for all classes that need her instruction, her sympathy, and her help. She has passed through many mental struggles, surrounded as she is by such temptations to worldliness. But I trust that she has been, and will be, an ornament to the church of Christ.
The revival extended from Boston to Charlestown and Chelsea. In short it spread on every side. I preached in East Boston and Charlestown; and for a considerable time in Chelsea, where the revival became very general and precious. We continued to labor in Boston that winter, until it was time for us to return to our labors at home in the spring. When we left, the work was in its full strength without any apparent abatement at all.
The church and ministry in this country had become so extensively engaged in promoting the revival, and such was the blessing of God attending the exertions of laymen as well as of ministers, that I made up my mind to return and spend another season in England, and see if the same influence would not pervade that country.