Have you seen the signs along the side of the road? The signs that say, “Revival, Coming This Week, Every Night, 7:00 p.m.” It is difficult to think of American Christianity apart from revivals. Historians sometimes divide up American church history by different times of revival or awakening. There’s the First Great Awakening in the 1740s, followed by the Second Great Awakening in the 1800s–1820s, and so on.
These revivals are not exclusive to America. Both the First and Second Great Awakenings were transatlantic. In fact, revivals might very well be America’s number one export, as revivalists and preachers have boated and jetted across the globe, holding revivals in everything from tents to mammoth football stadiums.
Revivals and awakenings are part of the warp and woof of not only American Christianity but also global Christianity. Consequently, we need to understand this phenomenon and how it impacts theology and church life today. To do that, we need to look back to the Second Great Awakening and its key figure, Charles Grandison Finney.
Finney (1792–1875) was a Presbyterian minister, the leading figure in the Second Great Awakening, and a leading figure in social reform. He was also an author, publishing his most popular book, Lectures on Revivals and Religion, in 1835.
Initially pursuing the profession of law, Finney turned to the ministry after a dramatic conversion. He had no formal training but apprenticed under George Washington Gale. Though Presbyterian, Finney had misgivings about Calvinism and had contempt for the Westminster Standards. After his apprenticeship, he started preaching revivals, culminating in the 1830–31 revivals in Rochester, N.Y. Next followed revivals in New York City until 1835, when he left for a post as professor, then president, at Oberlin College in Ohio.
In his practice of revivals and in his writings on revivals, Finney bequeathed to American Christianity the “New Measures.” These include prolonged meetings, dramatic if not theatrical elements, naming people publicly for their sins and calling them publicly for repentance, and the “anxious bench.” The Puritans spoke of someone under conviction of sin as being in a state of anxiety; that person was soul anxious. Before Finney, if sinners felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit during a sermon, they would notify the pastor after the sermon, usually waiting a few days. The minister would then pay a pastoral call and counsel the sinner. Finney’s new measure of the anxious bench changed all that.
Finney instituted the altar call, pleading during that prolonged service for sinners to come forward, kneel at the bench before the platform, confess their sins, and be saved. The New Measures were necessarily bound to Finney’s theology, which was also not only new but an intentional and decided departure from the Calvinism and from the doctrine of the sovereignty of God that dominated the First Great Awakening. Perhaps Benjamin B. Warfield best summed up Finney’s deficient theology when he observed that you could remove God from it and it would not change much of anything.