CHARLES G. FINNEY
The Oberlin Evangelist
April 23, 1845
LETTERS ON REVIVALS--No. 7.*
by Prof. Finney.
TO ALL THE FRIENDS AND ESPECIALLY ALL THE MINISTERS OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST
Another error which has prevailed to a considerable extent in promoting revivals of religion I apprehend is that of encouraging an unhealthy degree of excitement. Some degree of excitement is inevitable. The truths that must be seen and duly appreciated to induce the sinner to turn to God, will of necessity produce a considerable degree of excitement in his mind; but it should always be understood that excitement, especially where it exists in a high degree, exposes the sinner to great delusions. Religion consists in the heart's obedience to the law of the intelligence, as distinguished from its being influenced by emotion or fear. When the feelings are greatly excited, the will yields to them almost of necessity. I do not mean that it does absolutely by necessity, but that an excited state of feeling has so much power over the will that it almost certainly controls it. Now the mind is never religious when it is actuated by the feelings, for this is following impulse. Whatever the feelings are, if the soul gives itself up to be controlled by feelings rather than by the law and gospel of God, as truth lies revealed in the intelligence, it is not a religious state of mind. Now the real difficulty of obeying the law of the intelligence is in proportion to the amount of excitement. Just in proportion as the feelings are strongly excited they tend to govern the will, and in as far as they do govern the will, there is and can be no religion in the soul, whatever these feelings are. Now just so much excitement is important in revivals as is requisite to secure the fixed and thorough attention of the mind to the truth, and no more. When excitement goes beyond this, it is always dangerous. When excitement is very great, so as really to carry the will, the subjects of this excitement invariably deceive themselves. They get the idea that they are religious in proportion as they are governed by their feelings. They are conscious of feeling deeply, and of acting accordingly, and because they do feel. They are conscious of being sincerely actuated by their feelings. This they regard as true religion. Whereas if they are really governed by their feelings as distinguished from their intelligence, they are not religious at all.
This is no doubt the secret of so many false hopes, in those revivals in which there is very great excitement. Where this has not been understood, and very great excitement has been rather nourished then controlled; where it has been taken for granted, that the revival of religion is great in proportion to the amount of excitement, great evils have invariably resulted to the cause of Christ. The great excitement attending revivals is an evil often incidental to real revivals of religion. But if the attention of the people can be thoroughly secured, no more excitement should be encouraged than is consistent with leaving the intelligence to exercise its full power on the will, without the obstruction of deeply excited feelings. I have often seen persons in so much excitement that the intelligence seemed to be almost stultified, and any thing but reason seemed to have the control of the will,[.] This is not religion, but enthusiasm; and often times, as I shall have occasion to show in the course of these letters, has taken on at last the type of fanaticism.
Again, it is a dangerous thing in revivals to address too exclusively the hopes and fears of men, for the plain reason that selfish as man is, addressing his hopes and fears almost exclusively, tends to beget in him a selfish submission to God--a selfish religion to which he is moved on the one hand by fear of punishment, and on the other by hope of reward. Now it is true that God addresses the hopes and the fears of men, threatens them with punishment if they disobey, and offers them rewards if they obey, but still there is no virtue while the heart is actuated merely by hope of reward or fear of punishment. If sinners will disinterestedly love him and consecrate themselves to the good of universal being, he promises them a reward for this disinterested service. But he no where promises them reward for following him for the loaves and fishes. This is sheer selfishness. If sinners will repent and turn away from their sins, and disinterestedly consecrate themselves to the good of the universe and the glory of God, he promises to forgive their sins. But this promise is not made to a selfish giving up of sin. Outward sin may be given up from selfish motives, but the sin of the heart never can be, for that consists in selfishness, and it is nonsense and absurdity to speak of really giving up sin from selfish motives. Every selfish effort at giving up the heart is only a confirmation of selfishness. All attempts to give up sin from mere fear of punishment or hope of reward are not only hypocritical but tend directly to confirm, strengthen and perpetuate the selfishness of the heart. There can be no doubt that when sinners are careless, addressing their hopes and fears is the readiest and perhaps the only way of arousing them and getting their attention to the subject of salvation; but it should be forever remembered that when their attention is thus secured, they should, as far as pessible[sic.], be kept from taking a selfish view of the subject. Those considerations should then be pressed on them that tend to draw them away from themselves and constrain them to give their whole being up to God. We should present to their minds the character of God, his government, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the plan of salvation, any such thing that is calculated to charm the sinner away from his sins, and from pursuing his own interests, and that is calculated to excite him to exercise disinterested and universal love. On the other hand, his own deformity, selfishness, self-will, pride, ambition, enmity, lusts, guilt, loathsomeness, hatefulness, spiritual death: dependence, its nature and its extent; all these things should be brought to bear in a burning focus on his mind. Right over against his own selfishness, enmity, self-will, and loathsome depravity, should be set the disinterestedness, the great love, the infinite compassion, the meekness, condescension, purity, holiness, truthfulness, and justice, of the blessed God. These should be held before him like a mirror until they press on him with such mountain weight as to break his heart. It is very easy to see that this cannot be done without producing a considerable degree and often times a high degree of excitement. But it should be forever remembered that great excitement is only an incidental evil, and by no means a thing which is to be looked upon as highly favorable to his conversion. The more calm the soul can be kept while it gazes on those truths, the more free is the will left to comply with obligation as it lies revealed in the intelligence.
I have no doubt that much unreasonable opposition has been made to the excitement that is often witnessed in connection with revivals of religion, for, as I have said, great excitement is often times unavoidable. But I have just as little doubt that often-times excitement has been unnecessarily great, and that real pains have been taken to promote deep and over-whelming excitements. I have sometimes witnessed efforts that were manifestly intended to create as much excitement as possible, and not unfrequently have measures been used which seemed to have no tendency to instruct or to subdue the will, or to bring sinners to the point of intelligently closing in with the terms of salvation; but on the contrary, it has seemed to me to beget a sort of infatuation through the power of overwhelming excitement. I cannot believe that this is healthful or at all safe in revivals. Indeed, where such a course has been taken, l believe it will be found to be a universal truth that evil instead of good has resulted from such efforts. The more I have seen of revivals, the more I am impressed with the importance of keeping excitement down as far as is consistent with a full, thorough and powerful exhibition of truth.
Often-times excitement spreads rapidly through a congregation under the influence of sympathy, and it not unfrequently becomes necessary in powerful revivals to proceed with great discretion for this reason. Where one individual becomes overwhelmed with excitement, and breaks out into loud crying and tears, where he cannot contain himself but has to wail out with excitement. It requires much judgment to dispose of such a case without injury on the one side or on the other. If the thing be severely rebuked, it will almost invariably beget such a feeling among christians as to quench the Spirit. On the other hand, if it be openly encouraged and the flame fanned, it will often produce an overwhelming amount of excitement throughout the congregation. Many will, perhaps be entirely overcome, and multitudes will profess to submit to God; whereas scarcely one of them has acted intelligently or will in the end be found to have been truly converted. It is sometimes said, no matter how great the excitement is, if it is produced by truth. Now it often comes to pass that up to a certain point, excitement will be produced by truth, at which point the intellect becomes bewildered, the sensibility becomes inflamed and overwhelmed, and there is a perfect explosion of feeling, while the intellect is almost smothered and wretched by the tornado of excitement. Now this is a state very unfavorable to true conversion. I have seen such cases repeatedly, and before I had experience on that subject, I thought well and even highly of cases of this kind. But I have learned to view them in a different light and to feel much more confidence in apparent conversions that occur where there is greater calmness of mind. l wish to be understood. Excitement cannot reasonably be objected to as a thing entirely unnecessary in revivals; but the thing I would be distinctly understood to say is, that no effort should be made to produce excitement beyond what a lucid and powerful exposition of truth will produce. All the measures used to awaken interest, and our whole policy in regulating this awakened interest should be such as will not disturb the operations of the intelligence or divert its attention from the truth to which the heart is bound to submit.
l remark again that many excitements which are taken for revivals of religion, after all result in very little substantial piety, simply because the excitement is too great. Appeals are made too much to the feelings. Hope and fear are too exclusively addressed, a strain of preaching is adopted which appeals rather to the sympathies and the feelings than to the intelligence. A tornado of excitement results, but no intelligent action of the heart. The will is swept along by a tempest of feeling. The intelligence is rather for the time being stultified and confounded than possessed with clear views of truth. Now this certainly can never result in good.
Again, especially has this mistake been common if I am not mistaken, in endeavors to promote revivals among children. The whole tendency of things with them is to excitement, and not the least dependence can be placed on revivals among them, without the greatest pains to instruct rather than to excite them. They may be thrown into a perfect tempest of excitement, and multitudes of them profess to be and perhaps appear to be converted, when they are influenced solely by their feelings, and have no thorough discriminating and correct views of truth at all. Now the result of all such efforts and such excitements among children is to make them sceptics, and indeed this is the result among all classes of persons who are brought to be the subjects of great excitement about religion and have not sufficient solid and discriminating instruction to turn their hearts to God. Such evils are doubtless to be looked upon among the greatest evils with which communities are ever visited.
*Original had "No. 6" in error.
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