Skip to main content

On Revivals of Religion: Review of Charles G. Finney – Part III by Albert Dod

By April 9, 2011April 12th, 2016False Teachers

We proceed to exhibit to our readers the measures recommended and the spirit displayed in Mr. Finney’s Lectures on Revivals. We do this at the known hazard of being denounced as enemies to revivals, and friends of Satan. But it is a very small thing with us that we should be judged of Mr. Finney’s judgment. We, in common with all the friends of pure and undefiled religion, have a sacred duty to discharge in relation to this subject, from which no considerations of fear or favor should deter us. Mr. Finney, and his followers, have shown a resolute determination to persevere in their course. It is surely then the duty of those who believe that course to be detrimental to the best interests of religion, to proclaim their dissent. We believe; therefore will we speak.

Our first remark is upon the disingenuousness of which Mr. Finney is guilty, in stating the question of New Measures. These measures, he says, are opposed ‘on the grounds that they are innovations’. Now he knows perfectly well, and all the world knows, that this is not the ground on which they are opposed. Of the many testimonies against them, which have been published, we defy him to point to a single one in which their novelty is made the cause of their condemnation. And yet he seeks continually to make upon his reader the impression, that naught has been or can be said against them, save that they are new. Who does not know that he has picked up his measures, as well as his theology, among the castaway rubbish of past times? The only novelty in the matter is, that these measures should be employed in the Presbyterian church, in combination with a false theology and a fanatical spirit. Why then, when Mr. Finney is professedly defending his course from the objections which have been urged against it, does he confine himself so exclusively to the single ground of opposition, that his measures are new? Why, if he felt himself equal to the task, did he not fairly and honestly meet the real objections which have been urged against him? Such disingenuous evasions always injure the cause in defence of which they are employed.

A similar artifice may be detected in his enumeration of New Measures. ‘They are Anxious Meetings, Protracted Meetings, and the Anxious Seat.’ He must have known, while uttering this sentence, that the public estimation has never ranked these three things together; and we very much doubt whether he has ever heard the term New Measures applied to the Inquiry Meeting or the Protracted Meeting. Meetings3 of the kind thus designated have been held in all parts of our church, and when wisely instituted and controlled, have never within our knowledge met with any opposition. Why then should he place the Anxious Seat in the same category with these institutions, unless it were furtively to borrow for it a portion of their admitted respectability? Doubtless he intended that his triumphant vindication of things which no one has opposed, should leave a general impression on the reader’s mind, of which the Anxious Seat might receive the benefit. But does he not know, that while there are some who will be imposed upon by such chicanery, there are others who will penetrate the flimsy deception, and turn with disgust from a cause thus advocated? Or does he take it for granted, that among his ‘fit audience’ (would that we could add, ‘though few’), there will be no discrimination of mind?

In his formal defence of his peculiar measures, Mr.Finney undertakes to establish the position, ‘that our present forms of public worship, and everything, so far as measures are concerned, have been arrived at by degrees, and by a succession of New Measures.’ His remarks under this head are so curious that we are sure they would amaze our readers. We wish we could quote them all. He descants with most admirable perspicacity and force upon cocked-hats, fur caps, bands, silk gowns, stocks, cravats, wigs, and small-clothes. He then passes on to the discussion of Psalm Books, lining the hymns, choirs, pitch-pipes, whistles, and fiddles. In the course of his profound and edifying remarks upon these topics, he relates several stories, of which the following may be taken as a specimen:

‘I have been told that some years ago, in New England, a certain elderly clergyman was so opposed to the new measure of a minister’s wearing pantaloons, that he would on no account allow them in his pulpit. A young man was going to preach for him who had no small-clothes [knee breeches], and the old minister would not let him officiate in pantaloons. `Why,’ said he, `my people would think I had brought a fop into the pulpit, to see a man there with pantaloons on, and it would produce an excitement among them.’ And so, finally, the young man was obliged to borrow a pair of the old gentleman’s small-clothes, and they were too short for him, and made a ridiculous figure enough. But anything was better than such a terrible innovation as preaching in pantaloons.’ Again, he says: ‘I remember one minister who, though quite a young man, used to wear an enormous white wig. And the people talked as if there was a divine right about it, and it was as hard to give it up, almost, as to give up the Bible itself.’

We dare not reproach him for these instructive little stories in which he abounds, since he is a strenuous advocate for the propriety, nay, the necessity, of telling such stories from the pulpit. ‘Truths, not thus illustrated,’ he says, ‘are generally just as well calculated to convert sinners as a mathematical demonstration.’ But as, besides himself, ‘there are very few ministers who dare to use these stories,’ he calls upon them to ‘do it, and let fools reproach them as story-telling ministers.’ Speaking too, of such as contend for the dignity of the pulpit, he cries out, ‘Dignity, indeed! Just the language of the the devil.’

We do not pretend to be as well acquainted as Mr. Finney seems to be with the language of the devil; but knowing who it is that has said, ‘Whosoever shall say,thy fool, shall be in danger of hell-fire,’ we would rather abide the consequences of the malediction against those who censure ‘story-telling ministers,’ than stand in the predicament of him who uttered it. ‘Fool’ and ‘devil’ are in truth very hard names, but we will not be angry with Mr. Finney for employing them; we can bear them from him, and it would be cruel to deny him the use of his most effective weapons. We trust that we may be excused, however, from attempting to reply to such arguments. Nor can it be reasonably expected that we should answer his stories about cocked-hats, wigs, whistles, etc.; or controvert the important truths they were intended to illustrate. Indeed, so far are we from wishing to controvert them, that we will furnish him with an additional truth of like kind, and one of such vital moment, that we can only wonder how it escaped his penetrating survey.

It is unquestionably true that the ministers in New England, within the last half century, were very generally in the habit of wearing long queues, and riding on switch-tailed horses; and if he will apply to us, we can furnish him with some instructive stories to illustrate this truth. We shall leave to him, however, the duty of explaining how the ‘new measure’ of cutting off the queues, carried through like that of wearing pantaloons, black stocks, and round hats, in the face of persecution and danger, was made instrumental in promoting the purity and power of revivals of religion. We should be glad if he would inform us too, whether the men, who in the spirit of martyrs introduced these innovations, regarded conformity to them as the only credible evidence of true piety. Did any of these worthies ever say of ‘wearing pantaloons instead of small-clothes,’ as he has said of the ‘Anxious Seat,’ that it occupied the precise place that baptism did with the apostles? Or has the signal honor been reserved for him of discovering and introducing a measure co-equal in importance with a divine institution?

The object of Mr. Finney, in this miserable farrago, is to produce the impression that the objections which have been brought against his measures are as trivial and ridiculous as those which were urged against the innovations of which he here speaks. Whether he has succeeded, however, in making any other impression than that of pity for the man who can thus ineptly trifle with a serious subject, we leave our readers to judge.

It has often been objected against the modern reformers, that granting the beneficial tendency of their measures, they unduly magnify their importance. This charge they have denied, and have maintained that they considered them important, but yet unessential, circumstances, attending and favoring the exhibition of truth. We rejoice that evasion of this kind is no longer possible. Mr. Finney throughout his Lectures insinuates, and often directly asserts the paramount importance, nay, the indispensable necessity of the new measures. ‘The object of the ministry,’ he says, using that ‘Saxon colloquialism’ which his reporter so much admires, ‘is to get all the people to feel that the devil has no right to rule this world, but that they ought all to give themselves to God, and vote in the Lord Jesus Christ as the governor of the universe. Now what shall be done? What measures shall we take? Says one, `Be sure and have nothing that is new.’ Strange! The object of our measures is to gain attention, and you must have something new. As sure as the effect of a measure becomes stereotyped, it ceases to gain attention, and you must try something new.’ In the exercise of a wise economy ‘of our new things,’ he thinks public attention ‘may be kept awake to the great subject of religion for a long series of years, until our present measures will by and by have sufficient novelty in them again to attract and fix the public attention. And so we shall never want for something new.’

All this would be abundantly unintelligible, if interpreted by the light of Mr. F’s own definitions. On the page preceding that from which it is taken, he says, ‘building houses for worship, and visiting from house to house, etc., are all `measures,’ the object of which is to get the attention of the people to the gospel.’ And in another Lecture from which we have made some extracts, he dignifies with the name of ‘measures’ the several articles of the clergyman’s dress, the chorister’s pitch-pipe, and various other like things. As ‘building houses for worship’ is a ‘measure,’, it must, according to his theory, soon cease to produce its effect; and the gospel cannot gain attention then unless we ‘try something new,’ such for instance as preaching in tents instead of our present church edifices. In the revolving cycle of these ‘measures,’ too, the time will come when the cocked hat, small clothes, and wig, must be restored to their former honors, or the truth cannot make any impression upon the minds of men. Will Mr. Finney calculate the length of this cycle, that the public may know when they will be favored with the opportunity for observing the impulse which will be given to the spread of the truth by the return of these ancient observances?

Admitting the truth of Mr. Finney’s favorite maxim that ‘obligation and ability are commensurate,’ he cannot perhaps be considered bound to write with anything like logical precision or consistency. But we have a right to expect honesty. We are entitled to demand that he shall not use terms in one sense, when seeking to relieve his system from odium, and then artfully change the meaning to subserve his purpose. This he has evidently done in the passage above quoted. Let us assign, however, to the term ‘measures, ‘in this extract, the signification which it was intended here to bear, and yet how revolting is the doctrine taught! According to this theory, the gospel, which its divine author left complete in all its parts and proportions, and most admirably adapted to secure its destined ends, must utterly fail of its effect unless there be added to it a set of machinery of man’s invention. A great, if not the chief part of ministerial wisdom is made to consist ‘in devising and carrying forward measures’ for exciting public attention. The very perfection of Christian wisdom, the height of religious prosperity, are to be sought in that state of things in which ‘we shall never want for something that is new.’ How is the temple of God dishonored by this alleged necessity for a continual shifting of its services, like the scenes of some rare-show, to attract the vulgar gaze! How is the gospel degraded by being thus made dependent for its effect upon a kind of jugglery which shall be studiously adapted to surprise and startle beholders, and thus ‘attract their attention!’ It is the very nature of truth to be severely simple; and in this simplicity she delights to go forth to win her victories. She leaves to error the use of stratagem and guile.

The quotation we have made is not a solitary passage in which the writer, in an unguarded moment, has claimed for his new measures a degree of importance, which, in his more sober moods, he would rather disavow. Deliberately and often does he assert the unqualified necessity of these new measures, to the success of the gospel. ‘Without new measures,’ he says, ‘it is impossible that the church should succeed in gaining the attention of the world to the subject of religion.’ And again, ‘But new measures, we must have.’ It will be seen in the sequel, that this is only one illustration of Mr. Finney’s disposition to claim infallibility and supreme importance for all his own opinions, even when the smallest matters are in question. His argument, in the paragraph from which the sentences last quoted are taken, may certainly claim the merit of originality. ‘There are so many exciting subjects constantly brought before the public mind, such a running to and fro, so that cry `Lo here,’ and `Lo there,’ that the church cannot maintain her ground, cannot command attention, without very exciting preaching, and sufficient novelty in measures to get the public ear.’ He then proceeds to explain what these ‘exciting subjects’ are, which call upon the church to institute specific measures for producing a counteracting excitement. They are such as ‘the measures of politicians, of infidels and heretics, the scrambling after wealth, the increase of luxury,’ etc. It should seem, then, that the church must vary the method of celebrating divine worship, and modify all the arrangements for presenting religious truth to the minds of men, according to the dainties of their tables and the elegance of their furniture and equipage, the degree of commercial enterprise among them, or the extent of infidel machinations, the number of railroads and canals in progress, and of Presidential candidates in the field. The measures we must use are some determinate function of all these variable quantities; and its form should be, in each case, most carefully calculated. Every change in the state of speculation, trade, or politics, must call for such a change of measures as will be ‘calculated to get the attention of men to the gospel of Christ,’ under these new circumstances. Religion must descend from her vantage ground, and on the level with all this world’s concerns and by kindred arts, must she bustle, contrive, and intrigue ‘to get the public ear.’ To make use of one of Mr. Finney’s own illustrations, because ‘the politicians get up meetings, circulate handbills and pamphlets, blaze away in the newspapers, send their ships about the streets on wheels with flags and sailors, send coaches all over town with handbills to bring people up to the polls, all to gain attention to their cause and elect their candidate,’ the church is bound to imitate their wisdom, and institute a similar system of manoeuvres. Where then is the contrast which Paul so often draws between the weapons of our warfare, and those with which the world contends?

How widely do these ad captandum measures differ from the direct, single-hearted course of the apostles! They evidently relied upon the truth, as the only instrument they could lawfully employ in the accomplishment of their errand. Their miracles were not intended, like the glaring show-bill of some exhibition, to attract the attention of the public; their object was to convince, not to amaze the people. They felt that they were the heralds of God, commissioned to bear a weighty message to the children of men; and while to their miracles they appealed for proof of their commission, upon the intrinsic overwhelming importance of their message they founded their claim to the public attention. If we may credit their own statements, they ‘renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth, commending themselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.’ They seem to have had no idea that they must set in operation some preliminary mechanism to awaken the attention of conscience to the truth. If this complicated and ever-shifting system of ‘exciting measures’ is necessary to the success of the gospel, why do we find no trace of it in their practice, and not a syllable of it in their writings? If, as Mr. F. says, ‘new measures are necessary from time to time to awaken attention, and bring the gospel to bear upon the public mind,’ why has it been left for him to reveal to us these necessary means for the propagation of the gospel?

Mr. Finney refers distinctly to the character of the present age as furnishing a special argument for the use of new measures in religion, and as determining the kind of measures to be employed. The substance of his argument is, that this is an age of great excitement, and therefore the same kind of preaching and of measures, which did very well in the days of our fathers, will not answer now; we must have something more exciting, or religion cannot obtain a hearing. From the same premises, we should arrive at a very different conclusion. This is, indeed, an age of extraordinary excitement. The great improvements in the mechanic arts, and the wide diffusion of knowledge, have given a strong impulse to the popular mind; and everywhere the social mass is seen to be in such a state of agitation, that the lightest breath may make it heave and foam. This being the case, should religion fall in with this excitement, and institute measures for fostering it up to a certain point, that she may gain a favorable moment for presenting her claims? We had thought that one great object of religion was to allay this undue excitement of the human mind; to check its feverish outgoings towards earthly objects, and to teach it without hurry or distraction, in self-collectedness, to put forth its energies in a proper direction, and to their best advantage. This self-possession being included in the final result at which religion aims, can it be wise to commence the attempt to produce it, by exasperating the contrary state of mind?

Paul was once placed among a people who were proverbial for their excitability. Their feelings would kindle and flame with the lightest spark, and, like all persons of this mercurial temperament, they delighted in excitement, and were continually seeking its procuring causes. ‘For all the Athenians and strangers which were there, spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing.’ Here, then, according to Mr. Finney’s theory, was the very people upon whom it would be necessary to play off some preparatory measures to excite them, and gain their attention to the Word. But the apostle appears to have felt that nothing was necessary beyond the simple declaration of the Word. He looked upon the truth, declared by his lips, and prospered in its course by the energy of the Holy Spirit, as amply sufficient to secure the needful attention, and accomplish the purpose whereunto it was sent. Nay, so desirous was he to prevent the surprise of novelty, that he represents himself as aiming, by the truth which he exhibits, merely to supply a chasm in their knowledge which they had themselves discovered. He presents Jehovah to them as the God of an altar already existing, and declared to them Him, whom they had ignorantly worshipped.

Nor did this Apostle ever vary his course to suit the latitude of the place he was in, or the temperament of the people around him. Among the pains-taking and thrifty Jews; the learned and witty Athenians; the dissolute Corinthians; the more phlegmatic and martial Romans, he employed but one measure, the declaration of the truth. Will it be said that, in his day, the gospel was so novel, its truths so surprising, that the necessity for other measures was superseded, but that now, when men have become familiar with the revelations of the gospel, something else than the ‘thrice-told tale’ must be employed to awaken public attention? And is it conceivable, then, that the Great Head of the Church, foreseeing that the time would come when the preaching of the gospel would lose its effect, and other means become necessary for its propagation, should leave human reason to grope in the dark for these additional measures? Such imperfection does indeed, often mark the ways and proceedings of man, but may not be attributed unto Him, ‘whose thoughts are not as our thoughts, nor his ways as our ways.’

We have assumed, thus far, that the new measures cannot be defended under the pretext that they are only a particular mode of preaching the gospel, or of exhibiting the truth, and are therefore virtually comprised in the appointed means for the promotion of religion. The measures for which Mr. Finney pleads are something distinct from the truth, aside from it, and intended to exert a separate influence. He plainly presents them as the precursors of the gospel, to prepare the way for its coming. It is surely incumbent on him, therefore, to explain why the Scriptures make no allusion to these indispensable appendages, or rather prefixes, of the gospel.

Pressed with this difficulty, and unable to work a miracle in confirmation of his right to supply the deficiencies of the revelation already made, will he yield the position that these new measures are necessary, and content himself with maintaining, that as they tend to favor the impression of the truth, and it is our duty to preach the truth in its most efficient form, it is both expedient and right to make use of them? Upon this ground some of Mr. Finney’s fellow laborers have rested their cause, and have constructed for it a much better defence than he has made. The principle is here assumed, that it is the right and the duty of every man to make use of any measures for promoting religion that seem to him well adapted to co-operate with the truth and aid in its work; and this principle is, within certain limits, both just and safe, but when pressed beyond them it is false and dangerous. If there are no restraint upon the application of this principle, then are the means for the diffusion of Christianity left, as before, at the mercy of human discretion. Each minister should, in this case, be keen as a Metternich in foreseeing the final effect of the machinery he puts in operation; and the most eagle-eyed would often find themselves mistaken. Hence experiment after experiment must be made to try the efficacy of different measures; and the house of God becomes transformed into a kind of religious laboratory.

Upon this same principle the Roman Catholic church has introduced the worship of images and pictures, and overlaid the simplicity of the gospel with the tinsel and glare of her pompous ritual. She has cast upon religion such a profusion of ornaments wherewith to deck herself, that she has expired beneath the burden. The measures of the Catholic church, though adopted with the honest design of favoring the operation of the truth, are readily condemned by all Protestants. We might imagine, too, many other measures which would temporarily assist the impression of the truth, and which would yet meet with universal condemnation.

It was Domitian, we believe, who invited some of his senators, on a certain occasion, to sup with him, and when they arrived at his palace, they were ushered into a room hung with black, and against the walls of which were placed coffins, each one, by the dim, blue light of a sulphur lamp placed within it, showing the name of one of the horror-stricken guests. At a signal from the emperor, executioners rushed into the room, each with a drawn sword in his hand. There can be no doubt, that a homily on death, delivered just then, would have produced a wonderful effect upon the audience. But would anyone recommend such measures for giving effect to the truth of man’s mortality? Or would anyone, save the preacher and the trumpeter who are said to have actually tried the trick, approve of stationing a man in the belfry of the church to give emphasis, by a blast from his horn, to the preacher’s account of the blowing of the archangel’s trump? Phosphoric paintings might be drawn upon the walls of the church, which being rendered suddenly visible by the extinguishment of the lights, at the proper point in the preacher’s discourse, would most powerfully aid the impression of the truth he was delivering. A thousand devices equally effective, and equally objectionable, might be invented by the exercise of a little ingenuity. Where then shall we draw the line between what is right and what is wrong?

If compelled to run this boundary line, we should make it divide between those measures which might be considered vehicles of the truth, or intended simply to provide for the exhibition of the truth, and those which are designed of themselves to produce an effect. There are various methods in which the truth may be presented, such as from the pulpit, in Bible classes, or Sunday-schools, and in private conversation. Of all such measures, if measures they must be called, those are best which are best adapted to make the truth effective. Means must also be provided for the proper exhibition of truth, such as building convenient houses for public worship, collecting children in Sunday-schools, visiting from house to house, forming Bible and other benevolent societies. To this class may be referred also protracted meetings and inquiry meetings. The design of these meetings is simply to collect the people together that they may hear such truths as are deemed suitable to their state of mind. It was never intended that the mere institution of such a meeting, or the act of going to attend upon it, should produce any religious effect. Such arrangements as these may undoubtedly be made if they are fitted to favor the operation of the truth. And this limitation will be found to include the condition that the measures themselves, the bare mechanism of the arrangements for the presentation of the truth, instead of being constructed with the design and the tendency to surprise and captivate the attention, should be so ordered as to attract no notice. The perfection of pulpit eloquence is when the manner of the preacher attracts no attention, and the truth is left to work its unimpeded effect upon the hearer; and so those are the best measures which themselves pass unregarded, and suffer the mind to be entirely occupied with the truth.


The measures which are peculiar to Mr. Finney and his followers are of a very different class. The anxious seat, for instance, is intended to produce an effect of its own. Its object is not simply to collect in one place those who are in a particular state of mind, that they may be suitably instructed and advised. No, there is supposed to be some wonder-working power in the person’s rising before the congregation and taking the assigned place. This measure then, and all that resemble it in its tendency to occupy and excite the mind, we should condemn on scriptural grounds as inexpedient and unauthorized.

The distinction we have here made we think is just and important; and we could urge many reasons why it should be taken as the dividing line between right and wrong measures for promoting religion. But this position might be contested by some, and we are anxious here to reason from premises universally conceded. There are many cases where right and wrong run into each other, and the bounding line between them, like that between neighboring states, is involved in dispute and doubt. We will grant therefore, to save all cavil, the universal truth of the principle that it is right to make use of any measures in our efforts to promote religion that are adapted to aid the truth in its operation upon the minds of men. Here then we are called upon to examine the tendency of the particular measures proposed and insisted by Mr. Finney; and when he shall have worn out these, and, in accordance with his Athenian notion that we must continually find something new, introduced others, we shall be under the necessity of testing them in like manner.

For reasons already given we shall throw out of consideration inquiry meetings and protracted meetings. We shall first consider what Mr. F. calls the anxious seat. His formal definition of this measure is, ‘the appointment of some particular seat in the place of meeting, where the anxious may come and be addressed particularly, and be made subjects of prayer and sometimes conversed with individually.’ Let this definition be well marked. It points out with sufficient distinctness the nature and design of this measure. What then will be the surprise of the reader to learn, that on the same page he implicitly admits that the real design is totally different from the avowed one! In defending this measure from objection, he says, ‘the design of the anxious seat is undoubtedly philosophical and according to the laws of mind:–it has two bearings.’ These two bearings are, that ‘it gets the individual (who is seriously troubled in mind), willing to have the fact known to others;’ and secondly, ‘it uncovers the delusion of the human heart and prevents a great many spurious conversions, by showing those who might otherwise imagine themselves willing to do anything for Christ that in fact they are willing to do nothing.’

In defending this measure, who would not have supposed that his arguments would have been drawn from the importance of having those who were troubled in mind collected together that they might ‘be addressed particularly,’ etc.? But there is not one word of his defence that has the remotest connection with the avowed object of this measure. He was evidently thrown off his guard; and the plainness with which he thus incautiously reveals the true in distinction from the professed design, is only a new instance to illustrate the difficulty of maintaining a consistent system of deception. We have understood from the beginning the guileful character of this measure, and it has constituted in our minds a strong objection against it; but we had not expected to find so distinct an acknowledgment of it in Mr. Finney’s defence.

Can any measures, thus marked by insidiousness, be lawfully employed in the promotion of religion? How careful is the Apostle Paul to inform us that he did ‘not walk in craftiness;’ and when some of his enemies at Corinth charged him with having ‘caught them with guile,’ how promptly did he repel the odious accusation! We are told too that in the Savior’s lips, ‘there was found no guile;’ but that his enemies used crafty measures to ensnare him. Christian wisdom becomes worldly cunning the moment that it ceases to be united with the artlessness and simplicity of the dove. But we need not multiply arguments to prove that deception can never be lawfully employed in the support and furtherance of the truth. The only difficulty heretofore has been to substantiate the charge of guile against the new measures, and Mr. Finney has saved us all further trouble on this score.

Deception may seem, for a time, to aid the progress of truth, but its ultimate effects must always be injurious. In the case now under examination, it is easy to foresee the evil. Many will doubtless go to the anxious seat, and finding that no counsels or prayers are offered on their behalf, which might not have been delivered with as much propriety and effect while they occupied their former seats, will perceive that the apparent and professed design of this measure was intended merely as a lure to draw them within the sphere of its real operation. They will feel that they have been deceived, and there is nothing which the mind more instinctively and quickly resents than the least approach to fraud or imposition upon itself–nothing which more surely awakens its unfriendly and hostile feelings. A still larger class will see at once the deception of this measure, and will turn away in disgust from a cause which calls in the aid of such fantastic trickery–a disgust which we should not hesitate to pronounce reasonable, if the conduct which excites it were lawful and right. The best cause imaginable, on trial before a jury, would be prejudiced and probably lost, by any appearance of fraud in the matter or management of it. What impression then must be made respecting religion, when her friends employ such measures, and represent them as essential to the success of the gospel! What multitudes will conclude, and conclude justly, if the sayings and doings of these reformers are true and right, that the cause itself thus supported, must be a bad one! The character of religion is known to the world chiefly from the conduct of its professed friends; and they cannot be too careful, therefore, to pursue such an open and honest course, as will plainly show, that, in the strong consciousness of the merits of their cause, they reject with disdain the tortuous policy and intriguing arts of worldly men.


The substance of Mr. Finney’s first argument in defence of the anxious seat is comprised in the following extract. ‘When a person is seriously troubled in mind, everybody knows that there is a powerful tendency to try to keep it private that he is so, and it is a great thing to get the individual willing to have the fact known to others. And as soon as you can get him willing to make known his feelings you have accomplished a great deal.’ The anxious seat he supposes will produce this willingness, will ‘get him to break away from the chains of pride,’ and thus ‘gain an important point towards his conversion.’

It is true that there is often found the tendency, here spoken of, to conceal the state of the feelings from public observation. But this is not always the effect of pride. However strange and inconceivable it may be to Mr. Finney, there can be no doubt that there is such a thing as a diffidence, which has its origin in modesty rather than pride. There are those, and they form perhaps a much larger class than he supposes, whose minds shrink from everything like a parade, or public display of feeling. Every refined mind possesses more or less of this retiring delicacy. Its tenderest, most cherished feelings are those which are least exposed save to the objects of them; it feels indeed, that its affections would be profaned by being laid open to the stare of vulgar curiosity. It is easy to see how such a mind will be affected by the anxious seat. In proportion ordinarily to the intenseness of the feelings awakened within a man of this mood, will be his aversion to the public exhibition of them, which is demanded. He knows that there is, in every community, a circle of religious gossips, who are always found among the earliest and warmest patrons of the anxious seat, and who attend continually upon it, to satisfy their prurient curiosity, and gather materials for conversation from the disclosures there made of the feelings of their neighbors. And he cannot bear the thought that his most private and sacred emotions should be thus idly bruited about. After a severe struggle of mind, he will decide not to go to the anxious seat, and, as he has been taught to consider this step necessary to his conversion, there is much reason to fear that his decision not to take it will put an end to his seriousness. The spark, which, properly fostered, might have been kindled into a bright and ever-during flame, is thus quenched by a kind of rude and harsh dealing for which the word of God affords no warrant.

There are others, in whom the unwillingness to make known their religious concern proceeds from the dread of ridicule. This dread has a place in most minds, and with some men it constitutes one of the strongest feelings of their nature. There are many young men who could better brave almost any danger than endure the laugh or face the sneer of their thoughtless companions. The religious anxiety of such must become deep and strong, before it will drive them to break through the restraints which this fear imposes upon them. Can it be deemed wise or safe then to expose them unnecessarily to so severe a trial as the anxious seat? This trial may in some cases effect, so far as this is concerned, the desired result, but there is a dreadful risk incurred of repelling some, upon whom the truth had taken hold, to their former state of thoughtless unconcern. And what is the counterbalancing advantage to warrant this risk? Why, the anxious seat, argues Mr. Finney, ‘ gets the individual who is seriously troubled in mind, willing to have the fact known to others; and as soon as you can get him willing to make known his feelings, you have accomplished a great deal.’

The true state of the question is here very artfully concealed from view. The real operation of the anxious seat is not to make the individual upon whom it takes effect, willing to have his feelings known to ‘others;’ it is to make him willing to display them before the whole congregation. And this is so far from being ‘an important point gained towards his conversion,’ that it should be deprecated as fraught with almost certain evil. It is important that some one or more should be made acquainted with his state of mind, that he may receive the instructions adapted to his case; but it is highly undesirable that the whole community should know it, lest the thought that he is the object of general observation and remark should turn away his mind from the contemplation of the truth, and call up an antagonist influence, which shall prevail over that which had begun to work within him. The risk, then, which is involved in the use of this measure, is incurred for the attainment of an end, which is of itself a positive and serious disadvantage.

In this connection, too, we would remark, that the tendency of the anxious seat, and of the whole system of public pledging, voting, etc., or, as Mr. Finney calls it in his Saxon English, ‘of speaking right out in the meeting,’ is to obstruct the operation of the truth. They distract the mind and divert it from the truth, by producing a distinct and separate excitement. Suppose an individual, listening to the message of God, feels the truth manifested to his conscience. As the preacher proceeds, the truth takes deeper hold upon him, the penitential tear starts from his eye, and he resolves that he will begin to seek the Lord. When the sermon is closed, his heart still meditates upon the truth he has heard, and his feeling of anxious concern becomes each moment more intense. But now comes the call to the anxious seat. He hears himself exhorted in the most impassioned manner, to exchange the seat he now occupies for another designated one; and the vehemence with which this measure is urged upon him, and the motives and illustrations employed to enforce it, seem to imply that the salvation of his soul depends upon his taking this step. Here is a new subject presented to his mind, and one of a very agitating nature. The divine truth, which was but now occupying his mind, is forced away, while he revolves the question, `Shall I go or not?’ The excitement thus produced, obliterates the impressions which the truth had made, and, but for the consideration we are now about to present, it would then be a matter of small moment whether he went to the anxious seat or not.


The consideration just alluded to, is the tendency of the anxious seat to form and cherish delusive hopes. Mr. Finney has, indeed, assigned as his second argument, and the only additional one to that already examined, in favor of this measure, that its bearing is ‘to detect deception and delusion, and thus prevent false hopes.’ This argument would have astonished us beyond measure, had we not ceased to be startled by anything which Mr. Finney can say or do. He has worn out all our susceptibilities of this kind, and no measures from him, in argument or action, however new, could now surprise us. This case is but one out of several similar ones, in which Mr. F. resorts to the forlorn hope of reversing what he knows and feels to be the most formidable objections against him, and changing them into arguments in his favor. As might have been anticipated in every attempt of this kind, he has utterly failed. He supposes that the anxious set operates as a test of character. ‘Preach,’ he says ‘to him (the awakened sinner) and at the moment he thinks he is willing to do anything, –but bring him to the test, call on him to do one thing, to take one step, that shall identify him with the people of God, or cross his pride–his pride comes up, and he refuses; his delusion is brought out, and he finds himself a lost sinner still; whereas, if you had not done it he might have gone away flattering himself that he was a Christian.’

This argument involves the capital error that no sinner who is truly awakened can refrain from obeying the call to the anxious seat. It assumes that to go to the anxious seat is ‘to do something for Christ,’ and that it is impossible for him who refuses to go, to be a Christian. It supposes that these things are true, and that every awakened sinner is ignorant or undiscerning enough to believe them true. Some test of this kind, he says, the church has always found it necessary to have. ‘In the days of the Apostles, baptism answered this purpose. It held the precise place that the anxious seat does now, as a public manifestation of their (the people’s) determination to be Christians.’ So it appears that baptism, like all other measures, wears itself out, and must be replaced by something new. Will Mr. Finney inform the church how long we must wait before this measure will be again fitted to accomplish the purpose for which the Savior intended it? Though he supposes that the anxious seat occupies ‘the precise place’ that baptism did, we can by no means consent to receive it as an equivalent. Baptism was, indeed, a test of character, since obedience or disobedience was exercised in view of a divine command; but the anxious seat cannot operate thus, except by arrogating to itself a similar authority. We trust that this may be deemed a sufficient answer to Mr. F.’s argument for the anxious seat as a test of character.


The tendency of this measure to foster delusion and create false hopes is very evident. There are some persons who are fond of notoriety, and ever ready to thrust themselves forward on any occasion, or in any manner which will attract to them the notice of others. To such the anxious seat holds out a powerful temptation. This measure, if used at all, must be used without discrimination. It applies the same treatment to all, and does not permit us, according to the apostolic direction, to make a difference, ‘having compassion on some,’ ‘and pulling others out of the fire.’ While it unduly discourages, and in many cases overwhelms with despair, the timid and diffident, it invites forward the noisy and bustling, who need to be repressed.

Others again will go to the anxious seat, who are not properly awakened, upon whom, indeed, the truth has produced no effect; but they go because they have been persuaded that to do so is ‘to do something for Christ,’ and that it will be ‘an important point gained towards their conversion.’ Mr. Finney agrees with us in supposing that such public manifestations will often be made by persons who have not the feelings indicated; for however irrational a man’s theories may be, he cannot refrain, sometimes, out of connections with them, from talking common sense. On one occasion, when he is out of his controversial attitude, he says to his congregation, ‘perhaps if I should put it to you now, you would all rise up and vote that you were agreed in desiring a revival, and agreed to have it now;’ and he then goes on to prove to them, that nevertheless they are not agreed. Doubtless it would be so, and in like manner will many go to the anxious seat, who are not ‘anxious.’ And the great majority of all who go will go under the influence of erroneous impressions and wrong excitement. Whatever may be the theory of the anxious seat, in practice it is not used for the purpose of making visible and thus rendering permanent, the impressions made by the truth, nor is such its effect. This is most fully disclosed by Mr. Finney. Those who have been affected by the truth, and who obey the summons to the anxious seat, will not go with the view of making known their state of mind to their spiritual adviser. They will ordinarily make this ‘pilgrimage to Mecca,’ because they have been deceived into the belief that it is a necessary step towards their salvation; and they are rendering to Christ an acceptable service by thus attending upon an institution which is as good as baptism, or perhaps a little better. The excitement which draws persons of these different classes to the anxious seats, not being produced by the truth, and yet partaking of a religious character, must tend to conduct the mind to error and delusion. Some, no doubt, who in the heat of the moment, have taken this step before so many witnesses, will feel that they are committed, and rather than be talked of as apostates through the whole congregation, they will be induced to counterfeit a change which they have not experienced. We have not been surprised, therefore, to learn, what is an unquestionable fact, that where this measure has been most used, many hypocrites have been introduced into the church–men professing godliness, but living in the practice of secret wickedness. And a still greater number, through the operation of the same influence, have been led to cherish false hopes. In the mind of an individual who has gone to the anxious seat, an important place will be filled by the desire to come out well in the estimation of the multitude who have looked upon this declaration of his seriousness; and, already too much disposed to judge favorably of himself, he will be thus still more inclined to rest satisfied with insufficient evidences of a gracious change. Every extraneous influence of this kind, which is brought to bear upon a mind engaged in the delicate business of forming an estimate of itself, must tend to mislead and delude it.

The anxious seat, no matter how judiciously managed, is liable to the objection here advanced. It excites the mind and thus urges it forward, at the same time that it thrusts aside the truth, the attractive power of which is alone sufficient to draw it into its proper orbit. But the intrinsic tendency of this measure to lead the mind astray is very greatly enhanced by the manner in which it is conducted by Mr.Finney and his imitators. The ordinary course of proceeding with those who come forward to occupy the anxious seat is on this wise. They are exhorted to submit to God during the course of the prayer which the preacher is about to offer. They are told that this is a work which they can perform of themselves. They have only to summon up all their energies, and put forth one Herculean determination of will, and the work is done. A strong pull, as in the case of a dislocated limb, will jerk the heart straight, and all will be well. At the conclusion of the prayer, they are called upon to testify whether they have submitted. All who make this profession, without any further examination, are at once numbered and announced as converts. Sometimes a room, or some separate place, is provided to which they are directed to repair. Those who remain are upbraided for their rebellion, and again urged to energize the submitting volition during another prayer. And this process is continued as long as there is a prospect of its yielding any fruit.

Does it need any argument or illustration to show, that the anxious seat, thus managed, must be a very hot-bed of delusion? The duty here urged upon the sinner is not, as we have shown in our former article, the duty which the Bible urges. We are at no loss to understand why Mr. Finney presents the sinner’s duty in this form. Submission seems to be more comprised than some other duties within a single mental act, and more capable of instant performance. Were the sinner directed to repent, it might seem to imply that he should take some little time to think of his sins, and of the Being whom he has offended; or if told to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, he might be led to suppose that he could not exercise this faith until he had called up before his mind the considerations proper to show him his lost condition, and the suitableness of the offered Savior. Repentance and faith, therefore, will not so well answer his purpose. But with submission, he can move the sinner to the instant performance of the duty involved, or, as he says in his Saxon way, can ‘break him down,’ ‘break him down on the spot,’ ‘melt him right down clear to the ground, so that he can neither stand nor go.’ In the mental darkness, consequent upon this unscriptural exhibition of his duty, and while flurried and bewildered by the excitement of the scene, the sinner is to perform the double duty of submitting, and of deciding that he has submitted. Who can doubt that, under these circumstances, multitudes have been led to put forth a mental act, and say to themselves, ‘There, it is done,’ and then hold up the hand to tell the preacher they have submitted, while their hearts remain as before, except, indeed, that now the mists of religious delusion are gathering over them? Had this system been designed to lead the sinner, in some plausible way, to self-deception, in what important respect could it have been better adapted than it now is to this purpose?

The test-question propounded to the occupant of the anxious seat is not always made as definite as we have represented. Sometimes it is proposed in as loose and vague a form as this: ‘Would you not be willing to vote that God should be the Supreme Ruler?’ and an affirmative answer to this question has been deemed and proclaimed adequate evidence of submission, and the assenting individual filed off among the ‘new converts.’ So unbecoming and foreign from the true nature of religion have been the attempts often made by these preachers to produce an excitement; so indecent the anxiety manifested to force upon the anxious sinner some expression or sign which might authorize them to make use of his name to swell their list of converts, that we can liken it only to the manner in which the recruiting sergeant, by the display of drum and fife and banner, and if this will not answer, by the intoxication of his dupe, persuades him to accept a piece of the king’s money, and thus binds him to the service and increases his own reward. The chief difference is, that the enlisted soldier soon perceives that he has been caught with guile, and bitterly deplores the consequences of his delusion, but the deceived sinner will, in many instances, remain deceived until he learns his mistake at the bar of his Judge.


Lest the proclamation, upon the most slight and insufficient grounds, that the anxious sinner is a convert, should not act with sufficient power upon his sense of character to make him counterfeit a Christian deportment, or deceive himself into the belief that he is a true disciple of Christ, there is provided an additional new measure, the immediate admission to the Lord’s Supper, of all who profess themselves converts. It will be at once seen how this measure plays into the rest of the system, and assists the operation of the whole. Mr. Finney, to perfect his system, has but to take one further step, and maintain that no church has the right to discipline any of its members who have been thrown in by the operation of the new measures. This is evidently wanting to complete his plan, which ought to provide some method for retaining his converts in the church, as well as for their easy introduction into it. And why should he hesitate to make this small addition? It is surely more defensible than many other parts of his system. We should not be surprised to find a denial that the ‘set of old, stiff, dry, cold elders,’ that have crept into our churches, have any authority to discipline his converts, figuring at large in the neat pattern-card which he issues, of the newest fashion in measures.

Mr. Finney endeavors to show that it is the duty of the young convert to apply immediately for admission to the church, and the duty of the church to yield to this application. In Chatham Street Chapel, it seems, their practice is to propound applicants for a whole month, but the reason of this long delay is, that in a city many strangers will apply, and it is necessary for the session to have opportunity to inquire respecting them. In the country, however, the church will ‘sin and grieve the Holy Spirit,’ by debarring from the communion any who apply, ‘if they are sufficiently instructed on the subject of religion to know what they are doing, and if their general character is such that they can be trusted as to their sincerity and honesty in making a profession.’ ‘Great evil,’ he says, ‘has been done by this practice of keeping persons out of the church a long time to see if they were Christians.’ No doubt great evil has been done to the credit of his system, wherever the converts made by it have been thus tried, but this is the only evil that we have ever known to result from the practice. Under the ordinary ministrations of the gospel there is much that springs up having the semblance of piety, but without root, so that it soon withers away. And it cannot be doubted that much more than the usual number of these fair-looking but rootless plants will start up in Mr. Finney’s forcing-bed. Surely, then, the voice of wisdom and of duty calls upon the church to wait until the blossom, if not the fruit, shall have appeared. When the seeming but deceived convert has been once admitted within the pale of the church, the motives and means of continued self-deception are so greatly multiplied, as to leave but little ground for hope that he will ever be awakened from his false security until the dawning light of another world breaks in upon him. The church also owes a duty to herself in this matter. The addition of unworthy members to her communion, by rendering frequent acts of discipline necessary, will expose her to distraction within, and to scandal without. But these weighty considerations, plainly involving the eternal welfare of individuals and the true prosperity of the church, must all give way to provide for the effectual working of Mr. Finney’s system. Better that the church should be filled with the hypocritical and the deluded, than that the new measures should lose their credit.

Many of Mr.F.’s opinions tend to this same point, to provide for smuggling his converts into the church, before they themselves, or the session to whom they apply, can have had full opportunity to judge whether they have undergone a change of heart. ‘There is no need,’ says he, ‘of young converts having or expressing doubts as to their conversion. There is no more need of a person’s doubting whether he is now in favor of God’s government, than there is for a man to doubt whether he is in favor of one government or another. It is, in fact, on the face of it, absurd for a person to talk of doubting on such a point, if he is intelligent and understands what he is talking about.’ Though it might perplex a man of plain understanding to conceive how such instruction as this could be reconciled with the scriptural account of the deceitfulness of man’s heart, yet its meaning and drift are perfectly intelligible. Its tendency, and it would hardly be uncharitable to say, its design, is to form a bold, swaggering, Peter-like confidence, which may preserve the fresh convert from misgivings of mind during the brief interval of a few hours, or at most days, which must elapse between his professed submission and his reception into the church. The next thing is to impress him with the belief that it is his duty to apply at once for admission to the Lord’s Supper, and this is most fully done. He is told that if he waits, ‘he will probably go halting and stumbling along through life.’ No, there must be no waiting–drive on, or the tempestuous gust will die away. Then the church must be taught to throw open her doors, and this she is told to do under the pains and penalties of ‘grieving the Holy Spirit’ if she refuse.

Some examination, however, must be held, and the result of this might be to show that many of the applicants had been insufficiently or erroneously instructed in the plan of salvation. And see how beautifully Mr.Finney provides for this difficulty. ‘In examining young converts for admission to the church, their consciences should not be ensnared by examining them too extensively or minutely on doctrinal points.’ The meaning of the phrase, ‘too extensively or minutely,” may be readily understood from the exposition we have given of Mr. Finney’s theological system. The church session who should ask of one of these converts, what is the ground of your hope of salvation? might receive for an answer, ‘My submission to God:–the world is divided into two great political parties, the one with Satan, the other with God at its head; and I have energized a mighty volition, and resolved to join the latter and vote in the Lord Jesus Christ as governor of the universe.’

Suppose the examination to proceed a little further–Have you been led to see the depravity of your heart? ‘I know nothing of a depraved heart. All I know on this subject is, that ever since Adam sinned, every person begins to sin when he becomes a moral agent.’ But does not David say, I was shapen in sin? ‘Yes, but the substance of a conceived fetus cannot be sin, and David only meant that he sinned, when he sinned.’

Have you any reason to believe that your soul has been washed in the fountain set open for the remission of sin? ‘I know nothing of any such operation. I have been taught that it is a great error introduced into the church by the accursed traditions of the elders, to speak as though in religion there occurred anything like the washing off of some defilement.’

Upon whom do you rely for strength in the conflict which is before you? ‘Upon the might of my own arm.’

Do you not pray to God to strengthen you and enable you to discharge your duties? ‘No, it would be an insult to God to pray thus, as though he had commanded me to do what I am not able to perform.’

Do you believe that God is all-powerful? ‘Yes; that is, I believe he can do some things, and others too, if his creatures will not oppose him.’

Can he preserve and promote the prosperity of the church? ‘Yes, by taking advantage of excitements.’

The session, somewhat dissatisfied, we may suppose, with this examination, resolve to question the candidate more closely on some of these points. But, `Hold, hold,’ cries Mr. Finney, take care how you ensnare the conscience of this young convert by examining him too extensively or minutely on doctrinal points.

Copyright © 1998 Naphtali Press