Saturday, February 18, 2023

What Can the 'Burned Out' Learn from the 'Burned Over'? Finney and the Anxious Bench

“Remember not the former things,

nor consider the things of old.

Behold, I am doing a new thing;

now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:18–19 ESV)

These posts are going to get hard to write because I am going to attempt to thread a needle where misunderstanding can quickly arise.

We are generations removed from the rise of what has been called 'the new measures' of the mid-19th century preachers and evangelists. This was the fire that eventually burned up the burned over district.

And we are going to see issues from these techniques that will bring into question some of our all-time famous preachers. Billy Graham, Billy Sunday, and MANY churches throughout our lifetime will have some similarities to these practices. And so much of this can apply to the rise of televangelists and celebrity pastors as well.

And there is a balance here... one that will create dividing lines. It may even sound contradictory to applaud the work of Billy Graham but write hard things about Charles Finney, but I do see differences even though we ALL inherit expectations and procedures... don't we?

This topic is so on point right now with various reports surfacing about a revival at Asbury in Kentucky and an early report coning from Samford University. I am prayerful, hopeful, and Lord please don't make me so skeptical that we miss supporting YOUR work!

I have issues with Finney and some of the mechanics of the 2nd Great Awakening... a lot of it is purely on doctrinal grounds, but it is up to the Lord to be the final judge.

 Charles Finney looked like a man who cared. One commentator mentioned that his appearance exuded a "guileless, honest, frank heart".

As a hard charging lawyer, Finney described himself as 'worldly' and "decadent', in his pre-conversion  days though in Whitney Cross's book, there was a minister who is quoted saying, Finney "had a good respect for people and institutes of religion".

But it wasn't long before a dramatic conversion, a zealous devotion to his faith, and an impressive skill set of oratory and persuasiveness began the fire that finally consumed the burned over district in what historian later called "the 2nd Great Awakening". Finney was a 'man's man' and exhibited excellent skill on horseback, marksmanship, and social interaction. From those experiences, he pulled together stories and illustrations that resonated with the pioneers.

This was no show of pretense, Finney wasn't a hypocrite or con man, but motives and intentions may still not fulfill the call to the great commission. Finney devoted himself to hours of prayer and Bible study. In his mind, he was simply following the Spirit in the tradition as old as Acts. Finney did not originate revivalism in Western New York in the mid-19th century, but his zeal and efforts pounced upon the opportunities in some of the most  favorable circumstances one could imagine.

The problem is that zeal without knowledge can lead to a condition we call "ultraism", defined as "the holding of extreme opinions". Is ultraism a sin? If the extreme position is Biblical... then NO. But we all must live with a healthy skepticism of our opinions. We can be so right, we become dead right! 

It wasn't long until calls rang across the countryside for Finney and his team. And his time in Rochester, NY has birthed legendary tales of supernatural fires. Finney held service after service and kept the audiences spellbound for days on end.

I have read and watched numerous books and on-line videos on Finney, and it isn't surprising to learn that the support and criticism of his style, theology, and ministry is varied and controversial.

The changes widely employed in the formal process and procedure to conversion was greatly impacted by how Finney operated and we see the influence even today.

For the sake of time and space, I am going to deal with the issues I have struggled with in terms of giving Finney a voice of support in spite of his zeal and intentions.

The biggest issue was some important theological problems around the nature of salvation. If salvation can be obtained merely by the will and efforts of the human soul, then there can be a dangerous temptation to employ techniques that can manipulate a person in the process.

I stumbled upon some excellent resources on this subject during my reading a research. There was actually a book written all the way back in the 1840's that correctly articulated many of these issues that surrounded Finney's ministry.

John Nevin was the Professor of Theology at Mercersburg Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. This was the Seminary of the German Reformed Church in America. In 1843, he published the first edition of The Anxious Bench. It has been called the most probing critique of Finneyism ever written.

The book has a number of interesting arguments, here is a summary of some of these I found in various journals online:

 "The use of the anxious bench (reserved seats at the front of the meeting house where people anxious over their souls were implored to come and sit with counselors) cannot be justified either by its popularity, or its apparent success in converting sinners, taking for granted that some/many of the the conversions are genuine. But, we must be EXTREMELY careful- 'It is marvelous credulity to take every excitement in the name of religion for the work of God’s Spirit.' Further, God in His sovereignty may sometimes choose to make use of a bad method to effect a real conversion – but that does not justify us in using bad methods. 'We must not do wrong even to gain a soul for heaven.' If  the success of the anxious bench can be accounted for by purely natural factors. No clear spiritual preaching of the truth is necessary, only an ability to stir up and manipulate the emotions of the vulnerable."

"If Christianity exists primarily as a divine and supernatural organism in the church, then Finney’s whole understanding of religion is negated. Finney sees religion in natural, not supernatural terms, as merely the right exercise of natural human faculties. Not so, says Nevin: that would make religion stand in Adam instead of in Christ. Religion is a supernatural life that flows from God’s recreation of fallen humanity in the Second Adam. It is Finney’s failure to see this that makes his whole concept of religion into a man-centred system of self-salvation by natural free-will."

I also wrote some quips that I stumbled across:

Finney's tent revivals fit right along with the optimistic, mechanical explosion in the region. His 'new measures' could be described as the 'cotton gin of the soul'.

Though we cannot say the converts of the 'new measures' were true or sincere, many critics of the day seemed to find ammunition in the reality that a lot of souls who walked the sawdust trail eventually seemed to fall away when the mood was gone.

There was a populist vibe attached to this movement as well and it is interesting to study the overall societal impact of this... one commentator mentions the mid-19th century as the time 'when power changed from the snobs to the mobs".

"Finney employed all the techniques that work in sales" and he was rewarded "when using ingenuity to provide new sensations."

"So what’s the theology behind these “new measures”? Finney denied the teaching of a human, sinful nature. He declared the notion of original sin to be “anti-scriptural and nonsensical dogma.”Similarly, he rejects the doctrine of supernatural regeneration. He didn’t deny that the Holy Spirit exerts some moral influence on the believer, but “the actual turning . . . is the sinner’s own act.” He doesn’t even seem to try to conceal his Pelagianism—the most frequently condemned heresy of all time—which is evident in the mere title of his most famous sermon, “Sinners Bound To Change Their Own Hearts. ' "

But there were two other issues that concerned me about Finney and, to be honest, will still rile me up today. One was how mean spirited and toxic he was from the pulpit toward other ministers and churches. We do have disagreements, but we must be careful about sarcasm and mockery. These are holy things and we should handle with great care!

Whitney Cross quotes Finney as praying "Lord wake up these stupid sleeping ministers; else they wake up in hell".

The other issue seems to be ample evidence that Finney and others pre-planted congregants to come forward to the anxious benches to promote the movement. In the leaders eyes, these were just the counselors coming forward, but the technique can't escape the charge of manipulation.

A final summary of the issue at hand?

"The revival engineers had to exercise increasing ingenuity to find even more sensational means to replace those worn out by overuse..... the (new) measures themselves grew more and more intense, until the increasing zeal boiled up inside of orthodoxy and overflowed into heresy. (Cross pg. 184)"

My early experience with Christian conversion had some of these elements... though they were tempered in time and, I believe, held in check by Bible exposition.

My introduction to Christianity was sporadic attendance at Ruhama Baptist Church in Birmingham. I have to acknowledge the important ministry of Mr. Jack Rutledge (father of Gary and Jeff) in my life. He was the first man to press me to make a decision for Christ. I resisted him at an 'anxious bench' moment during a revival as he put his arm around me and whispered, 'Don't you want to go forward and accept Jesus and was sad that I disappointed him with a firm NO.  But I was still drawn to Sunday School to look at Sugar Bowl watches and hear Alabama football stories. Mr. Rutledge even took us to Tuscaloosa to see an Alabama Spring practice. (On that day Steadman Shealy tore his ACL and we got to meet Coach Bryant.)

My first experience with my personal salvation was around the age of 10 (I think in an earlier version I said 8, but I think I was mistaken about that). It was during a revival (just months after resisting the altar call and Mr. Rutledge) and, this time, I felt like I was supposed to go down the aisle. A lot of it was just doing what a friend of mine was doing. I remember a Pastor meeting with my mother and me. During this meeting, he showed me a Good News Bible and pointed to a picture of a shepherd. I just shook my head “yes”.

The baptismal ceremony was performed in freezing cold water because the water heater was broken. It took my breath away as I went under. In later years I laughed that this was a little humor from the Lord about my “cold” baptism.

I tried to be a good boy for about 2 weeks but eventually regressed to being the same ole me.

In 8th or 9th grade, I remember a Sunday School teacher explaining the gospel in a way that I actually understood it. My sin was real and Jesus’ sacrifice made complete sense in bridging the separation I had with God.

I vividly remember thinking “I’ve already been baptized, so I can’t tell anyone that I’m not a real Christian” And I lived in conflict off and on for a long time. I knew I wasn’t living for God and I believed that I was going to hell. It disturbed me whenever I thought about it.

I was playing a video game in the mall one day and a little girl came up with a gospel tract. I treated her very rudely, but inside I still felt condemned.

Another time a girl I knew well told me that I couldn’t be a Christian because of my behavior. I told her that I had been baptized. She said that baptized or not, I lived like I was going to hell. Deep in my heart, I knew she was right.

I wanted to write a little about the outstanding Christian education I received at Ruhama Baptist. Vacation Bible School, Bible sword drills, and the teaching in Sunday School gave me a very solid Biblical foundation. I remember memorizing Psalm 100 and singing in the choirs.

Getting to high school actually provided distractions from God and found that I was hardening to the idea that I was not a believer. Sports were a great diversion and offered some reward as an idol. I received recognition and relationships and I experienced a lot of success.

I also ended my attendance at Ruhama. I really don’t know why, but I never went to Sunday School once high school started for me. At high school, I was an honors student (based on the enrichment program I attended in grades 5-8) and a basic ‘good guy’. The role models for athletics had me living the ‘All-American’ image pretty well.

My realization about eternity abruptly came back up in the summer before my junior year. An acquaintance of mine was tragically killed while robbing a convenience store. He was with a group who was doing it just for the thrill.

I remember receiving this news from my mom as I was coming home from Sunday School. I don’t know why I went to church that day and remember nothing from the visit.

All of the students were grief stricken and I was confronted once again with the idea of death.

We had a student gathering at a home and I was very impressed by the message. It was my first experience with Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham. A minister, Tom Caradine, gave a clear gospel presentation along with Biblical answers for grief and loss. I was stirred immensely.

After the meeting, a college student who had been an athletic role model for me, Benny Parks, found me and shared a gospel tract with me. The tract had a drawing of two lives and I knew that my life was not being directed by Christ.

I went home and re-read the tract and knew it was time to make a choice. I got on my knees and prayed that God would forgive me and take me back. At the time, I thought I was re-dedicating my life to Christ. I now know from thinking through Scripture that this was my actual conversion. The earlier experiences were valid and God used all of them to prepare me for this time of being born again.

And that is where I want to leave Finney and the new measures.... experiences with God that God will use to call His children.. in His way.. and in His time.

We must not fall into the temptation to manipulate these moments. Sadly, I feel like I did that at times in my ministry to kids... Lord, please forgive me for those times.

Usually, it is about wanting ME to look successful. Evangelism is not an athletics contest. It is living under God's direction, taking time to initiate conversations, praying at all times, and trusting the Holy Spirit to move as He may.

But this has also shaped some of my feelings about ministry as well.

Less topical sermons and more expository preaching.

I worry that topical approaches get out of Biblical balance in a hurry. Let the Spirit apply the Word and educate believers about the entire counsel of Scripture.

At every point in public or private, explain the gospel.

I know I heard the gospel thousands of times before I finally responded as a work of God's grace in my heart.

Love others and be patient with others.

I especially implore folks who work with teens. Be patient. We often expect the sanctification of a 40 year old from a 16 year old. Don't fall apart when people sin... it shouldn't surprise us. Love, teach, correct, restore, forgive.

Finally, play the long game. God works like yeast, not like dynamite.

And as we a burned out... we need that yeast in a desperate way!

Lord, send a true revival in our day... and come quickly!

No comments: