Charles Finney And His Critics
Charles Finney’s most astute critic was John Williamson Nevin (1803-86). Nevin is not well-known today, outside the circles of church history students, but in the view of some (which I share) he is something of a forgotten genius. Born in Pennsylvania of Scottish-Irish ancestry and raised a Presbyterian, Nevin studied at Princeton from 1823-28, where he became the favourite student of Charles Hodge. From 1830-40, Nevin was Professor of Biblical Literature in Western Theological Seminary at Allegheny near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He described his time at Western as a period of personal assessment, in which he recognised certain theological deficiencies in himself and tried to correct them.
As a result of his personal re-assessment, Nevin became increasingly disillusioned with the state of Evangelicalism in America. He abhorred the popularity of Finneyite revivalism, which he believed was Pelagian. But he thought that even Finney’s conservative opponents had a too individualistic understanding of Christianity – a concept that focused too much on the individual and his personal experience, to the detriment of the church and the public means of grace.
In 1840, Nevin became Professor of Theology at Mercersburg Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. This was the Seminary of the German Reformed Church in America. In 1843, the first edition of Nevin’s The Anxious Bench was published. It has been called the most probing critique of Finneyism ever written. The background to the treatise was Nevin’s general dislike of Finneyism, and also a major schism in the German Reformed Church in 1830. In that year a Finneyite revivalist, John Winebrenner, had led a breakaway movement from the German Reformed Church to form a new denomination, the so-called “Church of God”. Finneyism had made big inroads into the German Reformed Church, much to Nevin’s disgust.
The Anxious Bench
As the title of his treatise indicates, Nevin takes the anxious bench as the evangelistic method of Finney and his party that exemplifies all its errors and dangers. He does not, however, limit himself to criticising this method alone; the treatise is a wide-ranging analysis of Finneyite religion and a presentation of the Reformed alternative. Let us summarise the content of Nevin’s work, then.
After the introduction, Nevin argues in Chapter Two that the use of the anxious bench cannot be justified either by its popularity, or its apparent success in converting sinners. The second claim takes it for granted that the conversions are genuine. But, says Nevin, “It is marvellous 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.” Further, Nevin maintains that 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.
In Chapter Three Nevin argues that the anxious bench is an example of what he calls “quackery” – that is, the pretension to possess an inward power merely because one can produce an outward effect, like a quack doctor. In religion, quackery is the confusing of form with reality. Mere reliance on forms and techniques is a sign of spiritual poverty. Yet Finneyism relies mechanically on forms. In Nevin’s words:
“To rely upon the anxious bench, to be under the necessity of having recourse to new measures of any sort to enlist attention or produce effect in the work of the gospel, shows a want of inward spiritual force. If it be true that old forms are dead and powerless in the minister’s hands, the fault is not in the forms, but in the minister himself; and it is the very impotence of quackery to think of mending the case essentially by the introduction of new forms. The man who had no power to make himself felt in the catechetical class is deceived most assuredly and deceives others when he seems to be strong in the use of the anxious bench.
“Let the power of religion be present in the soul of him who is called to serve at the altar, and no strange fire will be needed to kindle the sacrifice. He will require no new measures. His strength will appear rather in resuscitating, and clothing with their ancient force the institutions and services already established for his use. The freshness of a divine life, always young and always new, will stand forth to view in forms that before seemed sapless and dead. Attention will be engaged; interest excited; souls drawn to the sanctuary. Sinners will be awakened and born into the family of God. Christians will be builded up in faith, and made meet for the inheritance of the saints in light. Religion will grow. This is the true idea of evangelical power.
“But let a preacher be inwardly weak, though ambitious at the same time of making an impression in the name of religion, and he will find it necessary to go to work in a different way. Old forms must needs be dull and spiritless in his hands. His sermons have neither edge nor point. The visitation and no skill to make it of any account. Still he desires to be doing something in his spiritual vocation to convince others and to satisfy himself that he is not without strength.
“What then is to be done? He must resort to quackery; not with clear consciousness, of course; but instinctively, as it were, by the pressure of inward want. He will seek to do by the flesh what he finds himself too weak to effect by the spirit. Thus it becomes possible for him to make himself felt. New measures fall in exactly with his taste, and are turned to fruitful account by his zeal. He becomes theatrical; has recourse to solemn tricks; cries aloud; takes strange attitudes; tells exciting stories: calls out the anxious, etc. In this way possibly he comes to be known as a revivalist, and is counted among those who preach the Gospel ‘with the demonstration of the Spirit and with power.’ And yet when all is done he remains as before without true spiritual strength. New measures are the refuge of weakness.”
In Chapter Four Nevin outlines the dangers of the anxious bench. Briefly these are four:
1. it creates a false issue for the conscience. The real issue for a sinner is, Will he repent? The anxious bench changes the issue to, Will he perform a physical action? The sinner is thus disastrously distracted from the real issue.
2. the use of the anxious bench obstructs and diverts the action of truth in the minds of the genuinely awakened.
3. the anxious bench fosters spurious conversions.
4. following on inevitably from these three dangers, harm and loss to the souls of men will surely stem from the use of the anxious bench.
In Chapter Five, Nevin refutes various attempted justifications of the anxious bench, and then in Chapter Six he renews the attack with four more criticisms. First, the anxious bench, he argues, tends to disorder because it provokes improper excitement. Second, it also promotes religious vulgarity. As Nevin puts it:
“It gives rise to a style of preaching which is often rude and coarse, as well as uncommonly vapid; and creates an appetite for such false aliment, with a corresponding want of taste for true and solid instruction. All is made to tell upon the one single object of effect. The pulpit is transformed, more or less, into a stage. Divine things are so popularised as to be at last shorn of their dignity as well as their mystery. Anecdotes and stories are plentifully retailed, often in low, familiar, flippant style. Roughness is substituted for strength, and paradox for point. The preacher feels himself and is bent on making himself felt also by the congregation; but God is not felt in the same proportion. In many cases self-will and mere human passion, far more than faith or true zeal for the conversion of souls, preside over the whole occasion. Coarse personalities and harsh denunciations, and changes rung rudely on terms the most sacred and things the most solemn, all betray the wrong spirit that prevails.”
Nevin’s third criticism is that the anxious bench is linked in practice with allowing women to preach and pray in mixed meetings. Finally, the anxious bench produces a superficial Christianity: “A low, shallow. Pelagianising theory of religion runs thru it from beginning to end… It is wholly subjective and therefore visionary and false.”
The place of the church and the family
In Chapter Seven, we have Nevin’s alternative to the anxious bench – what he calls the ‘system of the Catechism’. What Nevin means by this phrase is that God carries on His saving work through the ordinary, divinely established means grace in the church and in the Christian family.
“Hence where the system of the Catechism prevails great account is made of the church, and all reliance placed upon the means of grace comprehended in its constitution as all-sufficient under God for the accomplishment of its own purposes. The means are felt to be something more than mere devices of human ingenuity, and are honored and diligently used accordingly as the ‘wisdom of God and the power of God’ unto salvation.”
Nevin argues that we must not see the church as merely a collection of saved individuals, as revivalists do, but as a divine organism with its own supernatural life. “In this view,” he says, “the church is truly the mother of all her children. They do not impart life to her, but she imparts life to them . . . The church is in no sense the product of individual Christianity, as though a number of persons should first receive the heavenly fire in separate streams, and then came into such a spiritual connection comprising the whole: but individual Christianity is the product, always and entirely, of the church.”
Nevin goes on to say that the church, the living body of Christ, exists prior to the individual Christian, and manifests its life in and through the individual. He draws a parallel between Adam and Christ. As Adam is head and source of the human race, so Christ is the head and source of the church. As the natural life of Adam is expressed and lived out in the individual members of the human race, so the supernatural life of Christ is expressed and lived out in the individual members of the church.
Nevin wishes to draw two important conclusions from this. First, 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.
Second. Finney’s practical methods participate in the basic falsehood of his concept of religion. Because Finney sees religion as the natural exercise of human powers, he therefore practices a form of evangelism which is simply a human attempt to stimulate those powers into exercise. For Nevin, by contrast, religion is the supernatural life of Christ at work in His body the church. Therefore it is in the church that God has lodged the means for implanting and nurturing true religion. People are normally brought to share in the life of Christ by (so to speak) a process of “good infection” as they are drawn into the life of the church.
Therefore, rather than inventing our own man-made ‘New Measures’, we should rather trust God to work in His own way through the ordinary means of grace that He Himself has placed within the church. Christ will generally act through these to unite people to Himself, and then to build them up in Himself. Nevin especially highlights the role played by the Christian family in the communication of Christ’s life and the expansion of His community. Through the Christian family, infants are born into the embrace of the church and drenched in all its gracious influences. In Nevin’s words:
“The idea of infant conversion is held in practical honor; and it is counted not only possible, but altogether natural that children growing up in the bosom of the church under the faithful application of the means of grace should be quickened into spiritual life in a comparatively quiet way, and spring up numerously ‘as willows by the water-courses’ to adorn the Christian profession, without being able at all to trace the process by which the glorious change has been effected.”
Finally, Nevin appeals to the example of the Protestant Reformers – Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin – as holding the view he has outlined. He concludes by holding up the Puritan Richard Baxter in Kidderminster as a great example of this system in practical operation, and recommends that we study Baxter’s classic The Reformed Pastor.
Finding the right way
Unfortunately, the Evangelical world by and large, particularly in America, chose to listen to Finney rather than Nevin. Perhaps Nevin did not help his cause by falling out in a spectacular manner with his one-time mentor Charles Hodge of Princeton over the right understanding of the Lord’s Supper; this colossal controversy impelled the influential Hodge to denounce Nevin in somewhat unmeasured terms, and it probably curtailed Nevin’s influence quite severely. Nonetheless, Nevin’s book The Anxious Bench has stood the test of time and endures as arguably the best, most theologically and practically illuminating critique of Finney written. Michael Horton says of Finney’s impact:
“Needless to say, Finney’s message is radically different from the evangelical faith, as is the basic orientation of the movements we see around us today that bear his imprint: revivalism (or its modern label, ‘the church growth movement’), Pentecostal perfectionism and emotionalism, political triumphalism based on the ideal of ‘Christian America,’ and the anti-intellectual, anti-doctrinal tendencies of American evangelicalism and fundamentalism… Finney, of course, is not solely responsible; he is more a product than a producer. Nevertheless, the influence he exercised and continues to exercise to this day is pervasive.”
This means that Nevin’s book is paradoxically even more relevant today than ever it was in his own lifetime. So perhaps we can conclude by suggesting that if we want to know what Evangelicalism has largely become today, and what Evangelicalism ought to be according to its Reformation roots, we could do a lot worse than read Charles Finney’s Lectures on Revivals of Religion, and then its antidote, John W. Nevin’s The Anxious Bench.
Taken with permission from Today’s Contender May 2006, edited by Pastor Chris Hand.
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