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Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism (Library of Religious Biography Series) Paperback – July 1, 1996
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From Library Journal
Charles G. Finney began his work in the revivals of the Second Great Awakening from 1824 to 1834 and went on to preach here and abroad for many years. His roll in forming evangelical theology was further enhanced by his long tenure as professor and president of Oberlin College. By his death in 1875, his influence was significant on such diverse subjects as revivalism, racial justice, the holiness movement, and education reform. Hambrick-Stowe (The Practice of Piety, Univ. of North Carolina, 1986) sees Finney as both a cause and product of the uniquely American evangelical spirit still active today. While an original thinker and a powerful speaker, Finney was also a product of the unique blend of Calvinistic pietism and fiercely competitive independence that characterized the rest of the nation. In many ways, he personifies all aspects of the American Evangelical spirit. A good biography with an interesting interpretation; recommended for public and academic libraries.?C. Robert Nixon, Lafayette, Ind
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Hambrick-Stowe's account will appeal not only to readers with a special interest in Finney's life and thought but also to those who seek a better understanding of the historical roots of evangelicalism and the development of U.S. theology in the nineteenth century. Finney's role in Presbyterian denominational conflicts, in the emergence of Congregationalism as a formal denomination, in shaping a revivalist style that continues to mark much evangelical preaching, and in the development of Oberlin College as a theological, educational, and social institution, makes him a singularly important figure in the religious history of the U.S. Hambrick-Stowe narrates Finney's life with admirable clarity, places it in historical context, and provides a thorough bibliographical review for readers inclined to dig deeper. Steve Schroeder
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The book Charles G. Finney by Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe is a biography of an influential nineteenth-century Christian, Charles G. Finney. Hambrick-Stowe writes of the ways that Finney influence on the people brought forth the spirit of American evangelism. The author looks at Finney as a typical American, and as a Spirit filled believer mixed into one. One of the major themes in the book is how this complex man, Finney, managed to hold together the very different religious beliefs. These beliefs were of Presbyterian New School-Old School schism, and the Calvinist and Wesleyan versions of the Protestant gospel. Another theme is about the effectiveness of Finney ministry and his way of preaching. Before his conversion Finney was an apprentice to a lawyer, and Hambrick-Stowe points out how this had much influence on the way that Finney preached. Finney began his preaching career in and around New York after the first Great Awakening, and before the Civil War. According to Hambrick-Stowe's account of Finney's conversion and preaching ministry, was anything but traditional. Hanbrick-Stowe continually points out different times that Finny broke with the traditional ways of preaching and went on to forge new ways to evangelize the American people with much vivacity. Hambrick-Stowe did not believe that Finney started the Second Great Awakening, but he was a major contributor influenced by preachers from the Great Awakening. His critical thinking skills and the poor preachers that he heard before his conversion helped strengthen his conviction to present the gospel with furor. Hambrick-Stowe makes Finney out to be the spark that lit the fire of evangelism. Because there was much turmoil in the church, and a lack of enthusiasm in preaching, Finney's style spoke directly to the people and brought on deep conviction of even the hardest critic. People responded to Finney's preaching because he used whatever method was necessary for the congregation. The greater the crisis in the community where Finney preached, the greater the response to the Holy Spirit. If a town or city were experiencing turmoil in any sense of the word, they would look to religion to lighten the burden of the social and economic status. Finney used this to his advantage in the pulpit. Hambrick-Stowe lets the reader believe that another reason for the effectiveness of Finney's preaching is due to Finney's personal interest in the people Spiritual wellbeing. In his ministry, Finney would go to different people's house to talk to them on a personal level, and to get a better understanding of them. He would talk to the local authorities and the religious leaders as well. Finney would encourage people to pray for the ministry, for penitents to give their lives to Christ, and for those who had special needs to come up to the front to be prayed for. Hambrick-Stowe tells us that another factor that contributed to Finney's influence was his message for all peoples regardless of age, race, or sex. Even during a time of heated theological debate between the denominations, Finney brought harmony where there was discord between people. Finney's role in the time was of a person who led the way for a new means of revival that continue today. His idea's of salvation for all persons was a new idea after the puritan and Calvinistic ideas of predestination. Finney encouraged door-to-door evangelism, personal testimonies in a service, and even women's testimonies. This is a good educational book.
My main hesitations in recommending this book are the almost gratuitous jabs the author takes at Finney and others that take away from the scholarly feel. For example, after his conversion, Finney quit his practice as a lawyer and told a client (as he writes in his autobiography), "I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause, and I cannot plead yours." Hambrick-Stowe decided to follow this up with the line "A famously witty utterance, it is also the kind of line that may have gotten better with each telling until it finally saw print" (p. 19). This type of cynical statement, grounded only in the author's speculation, almost ruined the book for me. He does it several times. Sometimes it's based on his opinion (as the above example). Other times, when there are two conflicting accounts, he will select one as the "correct" version and then put the other version in a bad light. He does this a few times with Finney's Memoirs. Charles Finney wrote his Memoirs (his autobiography) when he was in his seventies, about events that happened up to fifty years earlier. Interestingly, he asked his wife to burn it the day before he died. He never even intended his autobiography to be published! Though there are undoubtedly some errors in his Memoirs, it was actually a "prodigious feat of memory" as Hambrick-Stowe calls it (p. 292). Whenever Hambrick-Stowe finds a discrepancy in it, he should have been more charitable, realizing it was the work of a man in his seventies who did not intend it to be published. In general, I wish he had been less caustic in general, especially in the early parts of the book.
To his credit, Hambrick-Stowe does nicely set Finney in the historical context, and acknowledges the immense accomplishments and genius that Finney had. He ends with the appropriate quote from James Morgan that "There was in him [Finney], in prayer, the most remarkable power that I have ever seen in any human being."
Instead of this book, I would recommend three other sources to start learning about Charles Finney. The first would be his abridged autobiography (edited by Helen Wessel). This is an excellent place to start to learn about the man. For those with more interest and time, the complete and unabridged autobiography (edited by Garth Rosell and Richard Dupuis) is a very long but *very* thorough and well done work. It is even more scholarly than Hambrick-Stowe's work, carefully footnoting many other external sources to fill out Charles Finney's life story. Finally, to get a sense of what Finney preached and his style, there is a volume of his sermons called "True Christianity" that is an excellent place to begin.