"I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause, I cannot plead yours."
And so in the fall of 1829, country lawyer Charles Grandison Finney gave up his practice and set out to become an itinerant preacher, becoming the nation's first successful revivalist and working to end slavery, toward women's suffrage (voting), and treating mental patients and convicts with respect. He also would teach and later preside over Oberlin College without a college or law degree,
Born on August 29, 1792, in Warren, Massachusetts, the youngest of 15 children i a farm family, Finney was raised in Oneida, New York, where the family relocated when he was young. His parents and siblings seldom attended church, although they were familiar with the gospel, as most people were in the early 19th century.
"My parents were neither of them professors of religion, and, I believe, among our neighbors there were very few religious people. I seldom heard a sermon, unless it was an occasional one from some travelling minister, or some miserable holding forth of an ignorant preacher who would sometimes be found in that country. I recollect very well that the ignorance of the preachers that I heard was such, that the people would return from meeting and spend a considerable time in irrepressible laughter at the strange mistakes which had been made and the absurdities which had been advanced," Finney wrote in his autobiography.
He studied law under lawyer Benjamin Wright in Adams, New York. Finney also played cello and led the choir at the local Presbyterian church, which was headed by the Rev. George W. Gale. One day, on a log in the woods, Finney wrestled with God in prayer in the woods when he felt waves of liquid love throughout his body, an experience he remembered throughout his remaining life. He said he eschewed the seminary to apprentice under Reverend Gale, but Gale later said Finney flunked the entrance exam.
Finney became a licensed Presbyterian minister, although he later had a falling out with the church and even today, there are those who say he used the church to get the license to preach.
Nevertheless, Finney was a great preacher. Tall -- 6-foot-3 -- with piercing blue eyes, he was lawyerly in making his case for God, earning that retainer. But people don't always like lawyers, nor the pushiness of revivalists. At the end of one sermon, he said, . At the end of his sermon, which stressed the need for conversion, he took a bold step: "You who have made up your minds to become Christians, and will give your pledge to make your peace with God immediately, should rise up."
No one stood up. Angrily, he dismissed the entire congregation.
He also could tick off the choir, as he opened one sermon after a rendition of "Tallis Canon," by telling the congregation, "Oh Lord, bless the choir. Thou knowest what they have been singing about. We do not."
But he developed a following and worked to convert sinners to join the rest of the sinners in church. He had several campaigns throughout New York and New England. By 1832, his home base was the Chatham Street Chapel. Two years later, he opened the Broadway Tabernacle.
Meanwhile in Oberlin, Ohio, a pair of Presbyterian ministers, John Jay Shipherd and Philo P. Stewart, founded Oberlin College in 1833, but after two school years it had to be rescued by Arthur Tappan, a rich abolitionist who insisted that Finney be hired. Tappan also insisted that Oberlin be integrated and coed. In 1844, it graduated George B. Vashon, who became the first black man to pass the New York Bar; he later co-founded Howard University.
At Oberlin, Professor Finney quickly established himself as a theological leader, becoming pastor of the local church in 1837 and president of the college in 1851. Oberlin was a hotbed of anti-slavery fervor, which reflected of its great benefactor.
Born on May 22, 1786, Northampton, Massachusetts, Tappan made a fortune in the dry goods business and used it to finance the abolitionist cause. Along with his brother, Lewis, Tappan founded the New York Journal of Commerce, which was a firebrand in the anti-slavery movement. A mob once tried to destroy the newspaper. When Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, Tappan began financing the underground railroad in protest. Opposition to slavery was a Christian crusade. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was a religious song:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,When was the last time anyone was as committed to such a positive cause in America? They changed history, it is as simple as that. White Christians did die to free black people, which makes atheistic socialists uncomfortable today.
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free;
While God is marching on.
But abolition, women's suffrage and better treatment of the lowest classes were not the only causes for Finney. He believed in keeping the Sabbath, opposed the use of tobacco, and favored temperance -- the banning of alcohol.
The end of the Civil War brought an end to his college presidency the next year. At 74 he became a professor emeritus, preaching and teaching until his death on August 16, 1875.
Whatever the Lord Jesus paid for that retainer, He got his money's worth.
My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.
Volume 2's publication will be on Tuesday, September 1, my 62nd birthday. It will be available here, and on Amazon and Kindle.