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I turned to the passage and consulted it in its connection. This soon led to my taking a new interest in the Bible, and I read and meditated upon it much more than I had ever done before in
This interesting leaf from his history shows not only how thorough he was inclined to be as a student, and thus explains his intellectual power, but it also brings to light the process of providential training by which he was made ready for the remarkable experience which accompanied his conversion. The study of law was to him at the same time the study of the divine government. His naturally quick sense of right and wrong was deepened by meditation upon the righteousness of God. When under the guidance of the Spirit “he came to himself," there was something in himself to come to.
Late in life President Finney often recalled the wonderful freshness with which during these years the truths of the Bible came to his mind. There was, he thought, some compensation in this for his lack of earlier familiarity with it. It was a new book to him, and for this reason all the more suggestive and stimulating ; besides, he was untrammelled by traditional interpretations. He had the privilege — in one point of view it certainly was a privilege — of finding out for himself what the Bible taught concerning sin and redemption. Unquestionable as are the advantages of early religious culture in the midst of a Christian community, it is not unlikely that it is well for the world that Mr. Finney was trained as he was. What he would have been if he had been brought up in Connecticut by pious parents, and by them had been sent to Yale College, no one can tell ; but however distinguished he might have been, he would probably not have been fitted for the particular work for which God so evidently girded him. For a special mission there is need of special training.
Christian biography contains nothing that is more remarkable than the story which Mr. Finney has given of his own conversion. He had been for some time convinced of the truth of the Bible, and had given it special study; he had frequently attended the prayer-meetings of the church, and had speculated not a little upon the genuineness of the prayers to which he listened; he had disputed with the minister, whose
1 Autobiography, p. 7.
preaching, being of the old-school type, did not, in his independent judgment, harmonize with reason or the Scriptures. He was not a blasphemer or persecutor; but he was, at least, a merciless critic of the disciples of Christ. All the while the Holy Spirit was bringing the truth, with which he was becoming so familiar, home to his heart. Conviction seized him, and, as if he were an arrested criminal, he was brought face to face with his Judge. His fierce struggle with his pride; his efforts to pray; his temporary abandonment of business that he might concentrate his whole mind upon the great question of his salvation; the inward voice that stopped him on the street, and the sudden illumination which made the way of salvation so simple and so clear ; his retirement to the seclusion of a wood, and the revelation then made of the pride and obstinacy of his wicked heart; his humiliation and confession, and the desperate grasp with which he laid hold of the promises of God; the peace that followed his conscious justification ; the subsequent vision of the Saviour and the wonderful baptism of the Spirit, which seemed to him "like wave upon wave of liquid love," — all these and other similar experiences Mr. Finney describes with a particularity almost too minute. The impression may be left on some minds that the principal evidence of his regeneration lay in the wonderful sensations that accompanied it rather than in the changed character which was produced by it. It would not be strange if many should enviously wish that they might be converted in a way similarly brilliant and miraculous, although, through lack of the same deep, emotional nature which characterized Mr. Finney, they are, perhaps, as incapable of such an experience as is anthracite of sudden combustion.
Mr. Finney, as his “ Memoirs" show, was deeply impressed by the remarkable experiences which attended his conversion and the subsequent crises of his religious life. He, no doubt, regarded them rightly as evident tokens of the Spirit's presence and power. But for his active, rational instinct and his well-trained, metaphysical judgment he might have become visionary. As it was, he was far enough from adopting anything like fanatical views of the nature of religion. To be a Christian, in his view, is to love God; and the love of God is the cheerful and affectionate surrender of the will to His service, — this and nothing more. The evidence to him of his conversion was not his visions and sensations, but the utter and radical change of his supreme and governing purpose, and his conscious trust in Christ.
3. Like the converted Saul of Tarsus, Mr. Finney, after his conversion, "immediately preached Christ that He is the Son of God.” “I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead His cause, and I cannot plead yours," was his answer to the client who, on the morning after the light had shone upon him, came to remind him of the approach of the hour fixed for a pending trial. The profession of the law, of which he was devotedly fond, was at once and forever abandoned. It suddenly lost all its attractiveness. From that day, his life was devoted to the advocacy of the claims of the gospel. He began at once to beseech his friends and neighbors, everywhere, on the street, at their homes, in the public meeting, to be reconciled to God, with a power not unlike that of the apostles in Pentecostal times.
But he did not enter upon the full duties of the ministry without suitable training. The legal profession had already furnished a considerable part of the requisite preparatory discipline. His thorough study of elementary law in connection with the Bible had made him familiar with the ethics of theology. He had, besides, in the handling of cases gained the power of analysis, of argumentation, and appeal, all which are as needful in the pulpit as at the bar; and, specially, he had already learned how to address men. He had studied the art of persuasion while facing juries. All his legal skill was converted, when he was converted, to the higher end of preaching; and none who ever heard him preach could have failed to see that he owed much of his success to the free use which he made in the pulpit of the argumentative, conversational, direct, persuasive mode of address which he had cultivated at the bar.
To this previous discipline he afterwards added a kind of theological course. Whether his old-school pastor (Rev. Mr. Gale), to whose care the Presbytery had committed him as a candidate for the ministry, was his teacher or his pupil, it may be difficult to say. He seems to have served the purpose of whetstone to the knife. The knife was sharpened by the collision and the whetstone was worn away : Mr. Gale afterwards accepted Mr. Finney's theology.
With the original languages of the Bible, this student of divinity was not then familiar, and to questions of scholarly criticism he gave little or no attention; but the English Bible, as containing a system of belief intelligible to the common mind, he studied with a personal application as devout and earnest as ever characterized commentator or theologian. He studied it at times literally on his knees. Out of such study as this came his theological system, which in the earliest years of his ministry was accurately and clearly defined.
No doubt he was specially endued with power from on high by the baptism of the Holy Ghost; but it was, after all, his remarkable natural gifts, cultivated by several years of legal study and practice and afterwards concentrated upon the study of the Scriptures, that God baptized and sanctified. Little countenance does his example give to the theory that the young man who is willing to place implicit reliance on the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit may safely omit a theological course, and, without any patient self-culture, enter at once upon his work. No doubt God
may sometimes choose "the weak things of this world to confound those things which are mighty ;” but it is quite certain that laziness will never be “endued with power from on high.”
Mr. Finney's “Remarks on Ministerial Education,” in the seventh chapter of his “Autobiography,” set forth quite fully his idea of preaching and of the preparation necessary for it. A racier discussion of this much-belabored topic can scarcely be found. Its value, however, consists more in its frank revealings of his own methods than in the general practicability and usefulness of his recommendations. Every great preacher is apt to recommend his own way with great positiveness. Doubtless it is best for him ; but the variety and contradictoriness of the homiletic theories of different men, each distinguished in his way, remind us that there is no single pattern that will fit all alike, and that ministerial striplings will be hindered rather than helped by being arrayed in the garments of some giant preacher. Still with due allowance for Mr. Finney's natural partiality for his own methods, this chapter will be greatly serviceable to the young preacher who is trying to find the best way to prepare and deliver his sermons.
Whether in the pulpit Mr. Finney realized his own ideal must be left to the judgment of his stated hearers. One of these, who is specially qualified for the task, has given the following remarkably faithful and complete portrait of him as a preacher, from which nothing can be spared and to which nothing need be added; — except a reminder that his sermons, which were never written, were preached from skeletons :
“He received his gospel as the word of God communicated to his mind by the illumination of the Spirit. Thus he went forth to his work as a preacher with the full conviction that he had a message from God for men ; and this conviction was strong upon him during the fifty years of his public life and labor.
“ This persuasion ruled in his soul and shaped his thought and his work. Probably no sermon of his ever made the impression that he had wrought upon it as a work of art, although the spirit of his work was that of the truest art. His aim was to bring the truth home to men in such forms as to control their thoughts and move their hearts and decide their action. To this end the truth itself was put foremost, and form and embellishment were made wholly subordinate. His own clear apprehension of the truth enabled him to give his doctrine such a statement that it would be accepted as self-evidently true. Thus he taught as one having authority, who had a right to require assent to his message ; and few men ever commanded a wider assent to their doctrines.
“ The manner of his discourse was simple, direct and conversational, at the opening. Beginning with the simplest propositions, defining carefully the idea he was to present, telling first what it was not and then what it was, he advanced to the profounder views of his discourse, and thus gradually paved the way to a powerful appeal to the hearts and consciences of his hearers. In the days of his full strength, his principal discourse upon the Sabbath seldom fell short of an hour and a half in length, and often extended to two hours ; and to the end of his days, he rarely preached less than an hour. The modern demand for short sermons found no sympathy with him. Perhaps this view sometimes prevailed in his audience. It seemed at times that the first half hour devoted to laying the foundation might profitably have been saved by assuming that his hearers in general apprehended and accepted the elementary truths with which he introduced
1 President Fairchild of Oberlin College, in his Baccalaureate Memorial Sermon, preached July 30, 1876.