Labors and Revivals in New York City in 1832 and Onward


Mr. Lewis Tappan with other Christian brethren leased the Chatham Street Theater and fitted it up for a church, and as a suitable place to accommodate the various charitable societies in holding their anniversaries. They called me to, and I accepted the pastorate of the Second Free Presbyterian Church. I left Boston in April, and commenced labors in that theater at that time. The Spirit of the Lord was immediately poured out upon us, and we had an extensive revival that spring and summer.

About midsummer the cholera appeared in New York for the first time. This was in the summer of 1832. A great many Christian people fled into the country. The panic became great. The cholera was very severe in the city that summer, more so than it ever has been since; and it was especially fatal in the part of the city where I resided. I recollect counting from the door of our house five hearses drawn up at the same time at different doors within sight, to remove the dead. I remained in New York until quite the latter part of summer, not being willing to leave the city while the mortality was so great. But I found that the influence was undermining my health, and in the latter part of summer went into the country for two or three weeks. On my return I was installed as pastor of the church. During the installation services I was taken ill, and soon after I got home it was plain that I was seized with the cholera. The gentleman at the next door was seized about the same time of night, and before morning he was dead. I however recovered. But the means that were used for my recovery had given my system a terrible shock, from which it took me long to recover. However, toward spring I was able to preach again. I invited a couple of ministerial brethren to help me in holding a series of meetings. We alternated. One of us would preach one night, and the other the next, and so on. For two or three weeks but very little was accomplished. I saw that it was not the way to promote a revival there, and I drew the meeting in that form to a close.

On the next Sabbath I made an appointment to preach every evening during the week. I did so, and a revival immediately commenced and became very powerful. I continued to preach for twenty evenings in succession, beside preaching on the Sabbath. One of the elders, who gave himself up to visit among inquirers, kept a notebook, in which he set down the names of those persons in which the case seemed to be a clear conversion to Christ. My health was not yet vigorous enough to continue to preach every night; and after preaching twenty evenings in succession I suspended that form of my labors; and the converts that were known to us numbered five hundred, as Father Smith, as we called him, one of the elders, assured us. This made our church so large that very soon a colony was sent off to form another church; and a suitable building was erected for that purpose on the corner of Madison and Catharine Sts.

The work continued to go forward in a very interesting manner. We held meetings of inquiry once or twice a week, and sometimes oftener, and found that every week a goodly number of conversions was reported. The church were a praying, working people. They were thoroughly united, and after being well-instructed in regard to labors for the conversion of sinners, were a most devoted and efficient church of Christ. They would take hold and go out into the highways and hedges, and bring people to hear preaching whenever they were called upon to do so. Both men and women would undertake this work. When we wished to give notice of any extra meetings, little slips of paper, on which was printed an invitation to attend the services, would be carried from house to house by the members of the church in every direction, especially in that part of the city in which Chatham St. Chapel, as we called it, was located. By distributing these slips, and giving an oral invitation to such as they saw and had an opportunity to speak with, the house could be filled any evening in the week. Our ladies were not afraid to go and gather in all classes from the neighborhood round about into our meetings. It was something new in that part of the city to have religious services in that theater, instead of such scenes as had formerly been enacted there. When they transformed it into a church as before said they called it, Chatham St. Chapel.

There were three rooms, one over the other, connected with the front part of the theater, long, large rooms, which were fitted up for prayer meetings and for a lecture room. It was said that these rooms had been used for very vile purposes while the main building was occupied as a theater. But these rooms, when fitted up for our purpose, were exceedingly convenient. There were three tiers of galleries, and those rooms were connected with those tiers of the gallery respectively, one above the other. I instructed my church members to scatter themselves over the whole house, and to keep their eyes open in regard to any that were seriously affected under preaching, and if possible to detain them after preaching for conversation and prayer. They were true to this teaching, and on the lookout at every meeting to see with whom the Word of God was taking effect; and they had faith enough to dismiss their fears, and to speak to anyone before they retired, if possible, whom they saw to be affected by the Word. In this way the conversion of a great many souls was secured. They would invite them into one of those rooms that we had fitted up for prayer, for the Sabbath School, and for lecture rooms, where we could converse and pray with them, and thus gather up the results of every sermon. The members became exceedingly efficient in this respect, and I could hardly wish for better helpers to secure the conversion of sinners than I found in them. They were wise and in real earnest.

A case, which I this moment recollect, will illustrate the manner in which the members would work. The firm of Naylor and Co., who were at that time the great cutlery manufacturers in Sheffield, England, had a house in New York, and a partner by the name of Hutchinson. Mr. Hutchinson was a worldly man, had travelled a great deal, and had resided in several of the principal cities of Europe. One of the clerks of that establishment had come to our meetings and been converted, and felt very anxious for the conversion of Mr. Hutchinson. The young man for some time hesitated about asking him to attend our meetings, but he finally ventured to do so; and in compliance with his earnest entreaty Mr. Hutchinson came one evening to meeting. As it happened he sat on the opposite side of the broad aisle over against where Mr. Tappan sat. Mr. Tappan saw that during the sermon he manifested a good deal of emotion, and seemed so uneasy that several times he seemed on the point of going out. Mr. Hutchinson afterwards acknowledged to me that he was several times on the point of leaving, because he was so affected by the sermon. However he remained till the blessing was pronounced. Mr. Tappan kept his eye upon him, and as soon as the blessing was pronounced crowded across the aisle, and introduced himself as being Mr. Tappan, a partner of Arthur Tappan and Co., a firm well-known to everybody then in New York. I have heard Mr. Hutchinson himself relate the facts with great emotion. He said that Mr. Tappan stepped up to him and took him gently by the button of his coat, and spoke very kindly to him, and asked him if he would not remain for prayer and conversation. He tried to excuse himself and to get away; but Mr. Tappan was so gentlemanly and so kind, that he could not well get away from him. He was importunate, and as Mr. Hutchinson expressed it, "he held fast at my button, so that," said he, "an ounce weight at my button was the means of saving my soul." The people retired, and Mr. Hutchinson, among others, was persuaded to remain. According to our custom we had a thorough conversation, and Mr. Hutchinson was either then, or very soon after, hopefully converted.

When I first went to Chatham St. Chapel, I informed the brethren that I did not wish to fill up the house with Christians from other churches, as my object was to gather from the world. I wanted to secure the conversion of the ungodly to the utmost possible extent. We therefore gave ourselves to labor for that class of persons, and by the blessing of God with good success. Conversions were multiplied so much, that our church would soon become so large that we would send off a colony. Our church was, when I went there, the second church. When I left New York I think we had seven Free churches, whose members were laboring with all their might to secure the salvation of souls. They were supported mostly by collections that were taken up from Sabbath to Sabbath by carrying the contribution boxes around among the people. If at any time there was any deficiency in the treasury to pay all our expenses, there were a number of brethren of property who would at once supply the deficiency from their own purses, so that we never had the least difficulty in supplying the pecuniary wants of the congregation.

A more harmonious, prayerful, and efficient people I never knew than were the members of those Free churches. They were not among the rich, although there were several men of property belonging to them. In general they were gathered from among the middle and lower classes of New York citizens. This was what we aimed to accomplish, to preach the Gospel especially to the poor. When I first went to New York, I had made up my mind on the subject of the slavery question, and was exceedingly anxious to arouse public attention to the subject. I did not, however, turn aside to make it a hobby, or divert the attention of the people from the work of converting souls. Nevertheless, in my prayers and preaching I so often alluded to slavery and denounced it, that a considerable excitement came to exist among the people.

While laboring at Chatham St. some events occurred connected with the presbytery that led to the formation of a Congregational church, and to my becoming its pastor. A member came to us from one of the old churches, and we were soon informed that before this man came to us he had committed a crime for which he needed to be disciplined. I supposed that since we had been misled in receiving him, as he had been recommended to us as a member in good standing, and it appeared that the crime had been committed before he left that church, that it belonged to them to discipline him, and that the crime did not come within our jurisdiction. The question was brought before the Third Presbytery of New York, to which I then belonged, and they decided that he was under our jurisdiction, and that it belonged to us to take the case in hand and discipline him. We did so. But soon another case occurred in which a lady came from one of the other churches and united with us, and we found that she had committed a crime before she came to us, for which she needed to be disciplined. In accordance with the ruling of the presbytery in the other case we went forward and excommunicated her. She appealed from the decision of the Session to the presbytery; and they decided that the crime was not committed under our jurisdiction, and ruled in a manner directly opposite to their former ruling. I expostulated, and told them that I did not know how to act, that the two cases were precisely similar, and that their rulings in the two cases were entirely inconsistent and opposed to each other. Dr. Cox replied that they would not be governed by their own precedent, or by any other precedent; and talked so warmly and pressed the case so hard, that the presbytery went with him. I then told them that we could not get along that way, for they would not abide by their own decisions, and we knew not how to act.

Soon after, the question came up of building the Tabernacle in Broadway. The men that built it, and the leading members who formed the church there, built it with the understanding that I should be its pastor, and they formed a Congregational church. I then took my dismissal from the presbytery, and became pastor of that Congregational church. But I should have said that the second or third year after I went to Chatham St. Chapel, I was obliged to leave and take a voyage to sea. I went up the Mediterranean in a small brig in the midst of winter. We had a very stormy passage, my state room was small, and I was on the whole very uncomfortable, and the voyage did not much improve my health. I spent some weeks at Malta, and also at Sicily. I was gone about six months, and then returned. On my return I found that there was a great excitement in New York. The members of my church, together with other abolitionists in New York, had held a meeting on the fourth of July, and had had an address on the subject of slaveholding. This had excited a mob; and this was the beginning of that series of mobs that spread in many directions whenever and wherever there was an anti-slavery gathering, and addresses made against the abominable institution of slavery. However, I went forward in my labors in Chatham Street. The work of God immediately revived on my return, and went forward with great interest, numbers being converted at almost or quite every meeting.

I continued to labor thus in Chatham Street, and the church continued to flourish and to extend its influence and its labors in every direction, until the Tabernacle in Broadway was completed. The plan of the interior of that house was my own. I had observed the defects of churches in regard to sound, and was sure that I could give the plan of a church in which I could easily speak to a much larger congregation than any house would hold that I had ever seen. An architect was consulted, and I gave him my plan. But he objected to it that it would not appear well, and feared that it would injure his reputation to build a church with such an interior as that. However, I insisted on it, and told him that if he would not build it on that plan he was not the man to superintend its construction at all. It was finally built in accordance with my ideas, and it was altogether the most spacious, commodious, and comfortable place to speak in that I have ever seen of its size.

In this connection I must relate the origin of the New York Evangelist. When I first went to the city of New York, and before I went there, the New York Observer, in the hands of Mr. Morse, had gone into the controversy originating in Mr. Nettleton's opposition to the revivals in central New York. He had sustained Mr. Nettleton's course, and refused to publish anything on the other side. Anything that Mr. Nettleton or his friends would write, Mr. Morse would publish in the New York Observer; but if any reply was made by any of my friends, or of the friends of those revivals, he would not publish it. In this state of things the friends of those revivals had no organ through which they could communicate with the public to correct misapprehensions. Judge Jonas Platt, of the Supreme Court, was then living in New York, and was a friend of mine. His son and daughter had been hopefully converted in the revival at Utica. Considerable pains were taken by the friends of those revivals to get a hearing on the question in debate. But it was all in vain; the New York Observer would not publish anything except on one side. Judge Platt found one day, pasted on the inside cover of one of his old law books, a letter written by one of the then New York pastors against the labors of Whitefield at the time he was in this country. That letter of the New York pastor struck Judge Platt as so strongly resembling the opposition made by Mr. Nettleton, that he sent it to the New York Observer and wished it published as a literary curiosity, it having been written nearly a hundred years before. Mr. Morse refused to publish it, assigning as a reason that the people would apply it as being a parallel to the opposition of Mr. Nettleton. After waiting for some time, some of the friends of the revivals in New York assembled and talked the matter over of establishing a new paper that should deal fairly with those questions. They finally did so. I assisted them in getting out the first number, in which I invited ministers and laymen to consider, and discuss several questions in theology, and also questions relating to the best means of promoting revivals of religion.

The first editor of this paper was a Mr. Saxton, a young man who had formerly labored a good deal with Mr. Nettleton, but who strongly disapproved of the course he had been taking in opposing what he then called "the western revivals." This young man continued in the editorial chair about a year, and discussed with considerable ability many of the questions that had been proposed for discussion. The paper changed editors two or three times perhaps in the course of as many years, and finally the Rev. Joshua Leavitt was called to and accepted the editorial chair. He, as everybody knows, was and is an able editor. The paper soon went into extensive circulation, and proved itself a medium through which the friends of revivals as they then existed could communicate their thoughts to the public. I have spoken of the building of the Tabernacle, and of the excitement in New York on the subject of slavery. When the Tabernacle was in the process of completion, its walls being up and the roof on and they were doing off the interior, a story was set in circulation that it was going to be "An Amalgamation church," in which colored and white people were to be compelled to sit together, promiscuously mingled together all over the house. Such was the state of the public mind in New York at that time that this report created a great deal of excitement, and somebody set the building on fire. The firemen were in such a state of mind that they refused to put it out, and left the interior and roof to be consumed. However, the gentlemen who had undertaken to build it went forward and completed it.

As the excitement increased on the subject of slavery and antislavery, Brother Leavitt espoused the cause of the slave, and advocated it in the New York Evangelist. I watched the discussion with a good deal of attention and anxiety. But about this time my health so failed that I was obliged, as I have already intimated, to take a voyage to sea. When I went away I admonished Brother Leavitt to be careful and not go too fast in the discussion of the anti-slavery question, lest he should destroy his paper. I returned in about six months with my health but very little improved. On my homeward bound passage my mind became exceedingly exercised on the question of revivals. I feared that they would decline throughout the country. I feared that the opposition that had been made to them had grieved the Holy Spirit. My own health, it appeared to me, had nearly or quite broken down; and I knew of no other evangelist that would take the field, and aid pastors in revival work. This view of the subject distressed my mind so much that one day I found myself unable to rest. My soul was in an utter agony. I spent almost the entire day in prayer in my state room; or walking the deck in such agony as to wring my hands, and almost to gnaw my tongue, as it were, with pain in view of the state of things. In fact I felt crushed with the burden that was on my soul. There was no one on board to whom I could open my mind or say a word.

It was the Spirit of prayer that was upon me; that which I had often before experienced in kind, but perhaps never before to such a degree for so long a time. I besought the Lord to go on with His work, and to provide Himself with such instrumentalities as were necessary. It was a long summer day in the early part of July. After a day of unspeakable wrestling and agony in my soul, just at night the subject cleared up to my mind. The Spirit led me to believe that all would come out right, and that God had yet a work for me to do. That I might be at rest on the subject; that the Lord would go forward with His work, and give me strength to take any part in it that He desired. But I had not the least idea of what the course of providence would be. On my arriving at New York I found, as I have said, the mob excitement on the subject of slavery very intense. I spent but a day or two in New York, and went into the country to the place where my family were spending the summer. On my return to New York in the fall Brother Leavitt came to me and said: "Brother Finney. I have ruined the Evangelist. I have not been as prudent as you cautioned me to be, and I have gone so far ahead of public intelligence and feeling on the subject, that my subscription list is rapidly failing; and we shall not be able to continue its publication beyond the first of January, unless you can do something to bring the paper back to public favor again." I told him my health was such I did not know what I could do, but I would make it a subject of prayer. He said if I could write a series of articles on revivals, he had no doubt it would restore the paper immediately to public favor. After considering it a day or two, I proposed to him to preach a course of lectures to my people on revivals of religion, and that he might report them for his paper. He caught at this at once. Says he, "That is the very thing!" and in the next number of his paper he advertised the course of lectures. This had the effect he desired, and he soon after told me that the subscription list was very rapidly increasing; and stretching out his long arms he said, "I have as many new subscribers every day as would fill my arms with papers to supply them each a single number." He had told me before that his subscription list had fallen off at the rate, he found, of sixty per day. But now he said it was increasing more rapidly than it ever had decreased.

I began the course of lectures immediately and continued them through the winter preaching one each week. Brother Leavitt could not write shorthand, but would sit and take notes, abridging what he wrote in such a way that he would understand it himself; and then the next day he would sit down and fill out his notes and send them to the press. I did not see what he had reported until I saw it published in his paper. I did not myself write the lectures, of course; they were wholly extemporaneous. I did not make up my mind, from time to time what the next lecture should be until I saw his report of my last. When I saw his report I could see what was the next question that would naturally need discussion. Brother Leavitt's reports were meager as it respects the matter contained in the lectures. They averaged, if I remember right, not less than an hour and three quarters in their delivery. But all that he could catch and report, could be read, probably, in thirty minutes.

These lectures were afterwards published in a book, and called "Finney's Lectures on Revivals." Twelve thousand copies of them were sold as fast as they could be printed. And here for the glory of Christ I would say, that they have been reprinted in England and France; they were translated into Welch, and on the Continent were translated into French and I believe German, and were very extensively circulated throughout Europe and the colonies of Great Britain. They are, I presume, to be found wherever the English language is spoken, or wherever the French language is spoken. After they had been printed in Welch, the Congregational ministers of the principality of Wales at one of their public meetings appointed a committee to inform me of the great revival that had resulted from the translation of those lectures into the Welch language. This they did by letter. One publisher in London informed me that his father had published eighty thousand volumes of them. They are stereotyped in England, and I believe on the Continent. I do not know into how many languages they have been translated. But I mention this particularly as being an answer to prayer. These revival lectures, meager as was the report of them, and feeble as they were in themselves, have been instrumental, as I have learned, in promoting revivals of religion in England, and Scotland, and Wales, on the Continent in various places, in Canada east and west, in Nova Scotia, in some of the islands of the sea--and in fact throughout the British colonies and dependencies.

When I have been in England and Scotland, I have often been refreshed by meeting with ministers and laymen in great numbers that had been converted, directly or indirectly, through the instrumentality of those revival lectures. I recollect the last time that I was there one evening three very prominent ministers of the Gospel introduced themselves to me after the sermon, and said that when they were in college they got hold of my revival lectures, which had resulted in their becoming ministers. I found persons in England in all the different denominations, who had not only read those revival lectures, but had been greatly blessed in reading them. When they were first published in the New York Evangelist the reading of them resulted in revivals of religion in multitudes of places throughout this country. This looks egotistical. But let the reader remember my agony at sea, the long day of travail of soul that I spent in praying that God would do something to forward the work of revival, and enable me, if He desired to do it, to take such a course as to help forward the work. I felt certain then that my prayers would be answered; and I have regarded all the revival work that I have since been able to accomplish, and all the results of preaching and publishing those lectures, as well as all else that I have been in any wise instrumental in accomplishing for the Zion of God, as in a very important sense an answer to the prayers of that day. It has always been my experience, when I have a day or season of great travail of soul for any object, if I pursue the subject, and continue my pleadings until I prevail and my soul is at rest--that in answer to such prayers God not only gives me what I ask, but exceedingly above all that I at the time had in my mind. God has been answering the prayers of that day on shipboard, for more than thirty years.

Nobody but myself can appreciate the wonderful manner in which those agonizing throes of my soul on that occasion have met with the divine response. Indeed it was God the Holy Ghost making intercession in me. The prayer was not properly mine, but the prayer of the Holy Spirit. It was for no righteousness or worthiness of my own at all. The Spirit of prayer came upon me as a sovereign grace, bestowed upon me without the least merit, and in despite of all my sinfulness. He pressed my soul in prayer until I was enabled to prevail, and through infinite riches of grace in Christ Jesus I have been many years witnessing the wonderful results of that day of wrestling with God. In answer to that day's agony, He has continued to give me the Spirit of prayer.

Soon after I returned to New York I commenced my labors in the Tabernacle. The Spirit of the Lord was poured out upon us, and we had a continuous precious revival as long as I continued to be pastor of that church. While in New York I had many applications from young men to take them as students, and give them some of my views in theology. I however had too much on my hands to undertake such a work. However, in doing off the Tabernacle the brethren who built it had this in view, and prepared a room under the orchestra, which we expected to use for prayer meetings, but more especially for a theological lecture room. The number of applications had been so large that I had made up my mind to deliver a course of theological lectures in that room each year, and let such students as chose attend them gratuitously. But about this time, and before I had opened my lectures in New York, the breaking up occurred at Lane Seminary, the particulars of which are too well-known to need to be narrated here. When this occurred Brother Arthur Tappan proposed to me that I should come west somewhere long enough to get those young men that had left Lane Seminary into the ministry. He made the proposition that if I would come west and take rooms where I could instruct them, and would give them my views in theology and prepare them for the work of preaching throughout the west, he would foot the bills and be at the entire expense of the undertaking. He was very earnest in this request. But I did not know how to leave New York; and furthermore I did not see how I could accomplish the wishes of Mr. Tappan, although I strongly sympathized with him in regard to helping those young men. Most, and perhaps nearly all of them, were converts in those great revivals in which I had taken more or less part.

While this subject was under consideration, Rev. J. J. Shipherd, and the Rev. Asa Mahan from Cincinnati, arrived in New York to persuade me to come to Oberlin as professor of theology. Brother Mahan had been one of the trustees of the theological seminary that had exploded near Cincinnati. Brother Shipherd had formed a colony, some of whom were on the ground, in Oberlin; and had obtained a charter wide enough for a university, but at that time its corporate name was, "The Oberlin Collegiate Institute." Brother Mahan had never been in Oberlin. The trees had been removed from the public square, some log houses had been built; and they had had the previous season a few scholars here, and had opened the preparatory or academic department of the institution.

The proposal they laid before me, was to come on and take those students that had left Lane Seminary, and teach them theology. They had themselves proposed to come here in case I would come. This proposal met the views of Brothers Arthur and Lewis Tappan, and many of the friends of the slave who sympathized with Mr. Tappan in his wish to have those young men instructed and got into the ministry as soon as possible. We had several consultations on the subject. The brethren in New York who were interested in the question offered if I would come and spend half of each year in Oberlin, to endow the institution so far ~s the professorships were concerned, and to do it immediately. I had understood that the trustees of Lane Seminary had acted "over the heads" of the faculty, and in the absence of several of them had passed the obnoxious resolution that had caused the students to leave. I said therefore to Brother Shipherd, as he was the agent with whom I had to do, that I would not go at any rate unless two propositions were conceded to by the trustees. One was that the trustees should never interfere with the internal regulations of the school, but should leave that entirely to the discretion of the faculty. The other was, that we should be allowed to receive colored people on the same conditions that we did white people, that there should be no discrimination made on account of color; and that this question should be left also entirely to the faculty. When these conditions were forwarded to Oberlin the trustees were called together, and they had a great struggle to overcome their own prejudices and the prejudices of the community, and pass resolutions complying with the conditions upon which I would come. This difficulty being removed, the friends in New York were called together to see what they could do about endowing the institution. In the course of an hour or two they had a subscription filled that endowed eight professorships, which was supposed to be all that the institution would need for several years, for professors.

But these subscriptions were in such a form that when the great commercial crash came in 1837, the men failed, nearly every one of them, who had subscribed, and thus our endowment fund fell to the ground. But after this endowment fund was subscribed, I felt a great difficulty in my mind in giving up that admirable place for preaching the Gospel, which was always crowded when I preached to its utmost capacity. But I felt assured that in this enterprise we should have great opposition from many sources. I therefore told Brother Arthur Tappan that my mind did not feel at rest upon the subject. That we should meet with great opposition because of our anti-slavery principles, throughout the land; and that we could expect to get but very scanty funds to put up our buildings, to provide ourselves with apparatus and to procure all the paraphernalia of a college. We wanted a library, apparatus, etc., and we had nothing. That we were what were called New School in theology; that we were revivalists, and believed in pushing revival measures wherever we could. That therefore I did not see my way clear, after all, to commit myself, unless something could be done that should guarantee us the funds that were indispensable.

Brother Arthur Tappan's heart was as large as all New York, and I might say, as large as the world. He was a small man in stature, but he had a mighty heart. When I laid the case thus before him he said: "Brother Finney, my income, I will tell you on this occasion, averages about a hundred thousand dollars a year. Now if you will go to Oberlin, take hold of that work, and go on and see that the buildings are put up, and a library and everything provided,"--said he, "I will pledge to give you my entire income, except what I need to provide for my family, till you are beyond pecuniary want." Having perfect confidence in Brother Tappan I said, "That will do. Thus far the difficulties are out of the way." But still there was a great difficulty in my leaving my church in New York. I had never thought of having my labors at Oberlin interfere with my revival labors and preaching. It was therefore agreed between myself and my church that I should spend my winters there, and my summers here at Oberlin. That they would be at the expense of my going and coming; and that I would come out here in April, and return there in November of each year. When this was arranged I took my family and arrived in Oberlin in May.


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