Charles Finney: Father of Much That’s Wrong with Evangelicalism

The following is an excerpt from Brannon's new book, What Every Christian Should Know: Understanding and Defending Biblical Truths. For full details and to order please click here:

Many practices of the modern evangelical church are so ingrained that people generally do not question them. They assume what goes on is normative, scriptural, and true to the best “traditions” of the church. So it may surprise you to know that many traits of contemporary “biblical” churches are not biblically sound at all, including:

• Altar calls

• Emphasis on church growth

• Political and social involvement

Creating a “worshipful” atmosphere to elicit an emotional response from worship participants.

What’s more, all of these “standard operating procedures” of the modern church can be traced back to the teachings of one well-known, widely respected, nineteenth-century evangelist by the name of Charles Finney, also known as the Father of Modern Revivalism. 

Crossing the Finney Line

From political activism to worship service evangelism, many conservative church practices we take for granted as long-standing parts of church life have only been around for the past 150 years or so. And many of these “time-honored” ways of doing church are actually hazardous to the spiritual health of believers. 

Charles Finney is best known for his role in America’s Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s, but he also served as the president of Ohio’s Oberlin College and was an activist in the Abolitionist Movement. During revivals, his innovations included holding an altar call for those wishing to “make a commitment” to Christ. The problem with altar calls—then and now—is that they have little success in producing true converts. Even Finney’s own studies revealed that the attendant emotional manipulation often produces false converts—the “goats” Jesus refers to in Matthew 25:32-33.

Finney’s social activism fostered modern church activities that have crossed the line of what is appropriate for churches. Boycotting, for instance, is not a biblical reaction to social problems. Bullying and annoying the unsaved world to get them to live the way we want them to is not a biblical mandate. We are not supposed to judge those outside the Church. 

While it is all right to point out their unbiblical lifestyles, we should spend more time concerned about what the Church is doing. Are we functioning according to the standards given in the Scriptures? The world is not expected to measure up, but many groups today want to be involved in political moralizing and social movements. Like Finney, we are far too involved in social action movements. The American Family Association, for example, made news in 2014 by promoting a drive to “Boycott PetSmart This Christmas.” The website announced why:

AFA is calling for a limited one-month boycott of PetSmart over the company’s censorship of the word Christmas. For years, PetSmart has refused to use the word Christmas on its website and television commercials, newspaper ads, and their store promotions, despite tens of thousands of consumers’ request to recognize Christmas, and in spite of repeated requests from AFA to do the same.70

I hardly think the biggest issue facing America and the Church today is whether or not PetSmart has enough Merry Christmas signage and says Merry Christmas on their website and in their ads. Saying Merry “Christ” mass is not significant. It’s a Catholic reference to transubstantiation, offering up Christ in the wafer, the practice of a false religion. This refers to another Jesus and another Gospel. 

I have no problem with people celebrating Christmas—my family puts up a Christmas tree each year—because these things do not have to retain the pagan meanings they may have once had. Truly honoring or recognizing the birth of Christ is what matters—even though His birth probably did not occur on December 25th. Worrying about PetSmart’s recognizing or not of the birth of Christ, though, is a waste of the Church’s time and energy.

We have inherited a strange idea that coercing church outsiders into “good behavior” is a legitimate use of our resources. It’s a misguided notion that getting Hollywood to produce more Christian-friendly movies or Americans to elect the right representatives will change our cultural values and produce revival.

Charles Finney believed that sinners need to change their own hearts before they could be saved. He also taught that Christians eventually become sinless, a belief known as perfectionism, but you will not find support for this doctrine in the Bible. Scripture clearly teaches that we battle our old man, our flesh, all through life. While we are sanctified as we walk in faithfulness and obedience, we still battle the old man.

Michael Horton, author of The Gospel-Driven Life, also notes Finney’s unfortunate influence on American evangelicalism: 

Finney is particularly esteemed among the leaders of the Christian Right and the Christian Left—by Jerry Falwell and Jim Wallis of Sojourners Magazine—and his imprint can be seen in movements that appear to be diverse, but in reality are merely heirs to Finney’s legacy. From the Vineyard movement and the church growth movement to the political and social crusades, televangelism, and the Promise-Keepers movement, as a former Wheaton College president rather glowingly cheered, “Finney lives on!” That is because Finney’s moralistic impulse envisioned a church that was in large measure an agency of personal and social reform rather than the institution in which the means of grace, Word and Sacrament, are made available to believers who then take the Gospel to the world.71

It is troubling that Finney can be so widely esteemed by people as diverse as Jim Wallis and the late Jerry Falwell. Falwell is one of the originators of the Religious Right, while Wallis is a Neo-Marxist. 

In both Grave Influence and Religious Trojan Horse, I detail Wallis’ views and his defense of many communists in South America. His versions of social justice advocates socialism, redistribution of wealth, and his ecumenicalism includes being a spiritual adviser to Barack Obama. Finney’s appeal lies in his vision and ability to set up revivals, draw a crowd, and manipulate them with emotional experiences in order to elicit the desired response.

It is likewise revealing that Finney is cited as an influencer of the Vineyard movement—the late John Wimber’s precursor to the New Apostolic Reformation. So, Finney has had an impact on both mainstream evangelicalism and more extreme versions such as the Vineyard, Word of Faith, and the New Apostolic Reformation movement. The boundary lines of his influence seem wide open. 

Finney’s Methods

Many people today—including me—strongly oppose altar calls because they are mostly about manipulation. Countless church attenders have walked the aisle multiple times. A friend of mine who was raised in the Southern Baptist church told me that he had walked the aisle three times. As a result, even some Southern Baptist pastors I know oppose Finney’s legacy. One from Mississippi emailed to thank me for the radio and TV programs I’ve done to expose Finney. So to be clear: I am aware that not all Southern Baptist or other evangelical churches are into the Finney style of manipulation. 

Altar calls are really about setting the stage, prepping the environment, and tweaking emotions, not about explaining the Gospel. 

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