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THE LORD'S FREE MAN: Charles G. Finney and His Abolitionism James David Essig Charles Grandison Finney etched his mark deeply into the character of antebellum religious life. Leaving his law practice in western New York to plead the cause of Jesus Christ, Finney seized the revival initiative from seaboard Calvinists and made itinerant evangelism a respectable vocation. His antislavery commitments, however , have made no clear impression on either his contemporaries or later historians. Theodore Weld, one of his young converts who became the most influential abolitionist lecturer, never doubted the evangelist's fidelity to the cause, but concluded that Finney's enthusiasm for revivals ruled out serious participation in the movement . Another of his converts favoring abolition, Lewis Tappan, accused Finney of outright defection from the antislavery ranks.1 Following Tappan's lead, historians have depicted Finney as a reluctant reformer whose abolitionism amounted to a passing fancy, an ornament fashionable among certain prosperous evangelicals in New York City, but which he abandoned in his quest to save souls. At most they have viewed him as a lukewarm abolitionist who somehow contributed to the aggravation of sectional tensions through "rabid" dogmatism.2 Closer attention to Finney's theology and his antislavery activities reveals not only a firm commitment to abolitionism, but also a conviction that Christian indifference to slavery impeded the great work of spreading the gospel. Far from being mutually exclusive enterprises, the progress of revivals and the abolition of slavery formed part of a single process by which men hastened the onset of the millennium. Regarding slaveholders as a threat to the benevolent man's pursuit of holiness, Charles Finney marked down the destruction of the slave system as a major prerequisite for the coming of the millennium. 1 Weld to Lewis Tappan, Nov. 17, 1835, in Gilbert H. Bames and Dwight L. Dumonds (eds.), Letters of Theodore Weld, Angeline Grimke Weld, and Sarah Grimke: 1822-1844 (New York, 1934), I, 243, hereafter referred to as Weld-Grimke Letters; William G. McLoughlin, Jr., Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham (New York, 1959), 110. 2 See McLoughlin, 107-111, and Charles C. Cole, The Social Ideas of the Northern Evangelists, 1826-1860 (New York, 1954), 205-211, 220. McLoughlin provides a helpful analysis of Finney's religious significance, but he consistently quotes Finne )''s most tepid antislavery utterances. 25 26CIVIL WAR HISTORY Like many abolitionists, Finney at first hoped to bring about this destruction by persuading Southerners to give up slavery as they would any other iniquitous habit. When events eroded Finney's expectation of an early end to slavery, he revised his strategy and adopted a more militant stance against the slave power. His abolitionist career thus falls into two phases, the first lasting from about 1833 to 1839, and the second continuing through the Civil War. During the first phase, he attempted to preserve the possibility for a national revival in face of Christian indifference to slavery and intemperate abolitionist zeal, both of which, to Finney's mind, would result in the collapse of the revival spirit. In the late 1830's, however , Finney saw malevolent designs in the slaveholders' counterattack on the abolitionists. His moderation gave way to pronounced hostility to the South after 1839, a transition reflected in the increased violence of his rhetoric. His devotion to antislavery, it should be emphasized, remained constant throughout both periods. Finney's gospel, with its stress on moral activism rather than quietism , could not countenance redemption without freedom from physical as well as spiritual bondage. Since Finney's conversion to immediatism coincided with his first New York revivals, a brief survey of his doctrinal views of the 1830's will illuminate the character of his abolitionism. By this time, the tall, grave-looking evangelist had derived his own set of theological propositions largely from experience on the revival circuit and self-directed readings in Scripture and other sources, including works by Jonathan Edwards.3 These doctrines filtered his perception of slavery and conditioned his response to it. If it can be kept in mind that in the early- 1830's much of Finney's theologywas still in process, several lifelong concerns can be isolated from...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 25-45
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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