The GOSPEL TRUTH
CHARLES G. FINNEY
Revival in Boston in 1856, '57, and '58
The next autumn we accepted an invitation to labor again in Boston. We began our labors at Park Street, and the Spirit of God immediately manifested His willingness to save souls. The first sermon that I preached was directed to the searching of the church; for I always began by trying to stir up a thorough and all-pervading interest among professors of religion; to secure the reclaiming of those that were backslidden, and search out those that were self-deceived, and if possible bring them to Christ. After the congregation was dismissed and the pastor was standing with me in the pulpit, he said to me, "Brother Finney, I wish to have you understand that I need to have this preaching as much as any member of this church. I have been very much dissatisfied with my religious state for a long time, and have sent for you on my own account, and for the sake of my own soul, as well as for the sake of the souls of the people." As the work went on this brother became more and more deeply convicted, until one day he sent a note to my lodgings inviting me to his study that he might have some conversation with me. He then told me that he thought he had been self-deceived. That when he was in college he passed through a change that he was led to think was conversion; but he was now satisfied that he was entirely mistaken, and that he had never been truly converted; and he wished me to give him the same directions that I would to any other person in his situation. We had a protracted and very interesting conversation. I found his convictions of sin very striking. He seemed then to thoroughly give his heart to God.
That evening there was a prayer and conference meeting in the vestry of that church; and the pastor, as I understood, related to the people his experience, and told them that he had been that day converted. The next Sabbath in his sermon, I was informed that he did the same. This of course produced a very deep impression upon the church and congregation, and upon the city quite extensively. Some of the pastors thought that it was injudicious for him to make a thing of that kind so public. But I did not regard it in that light. It manifestly was the best means he could use for the salvation of his people, and highly calculated to produce among professors of religion generally a very great searching of heart.
The work was quite extensive that winter in Boston, and many very striking cases of conversion occurred. We labored there until spring, and then thought it necessary to return to our labors here. But it was very manifest that the work in that city was by no means done, and we left with the promise that, the Lord willing, we would return and labor there the next winter. Accordingly the next autumn we returned to Boston. In the meantime Brother Kirk had been writing some articles, which were published in the Congregationalist, opposing our return there. He regarded my theology, especially on the subject of sanctification, as unsound. When I labored there the winter previous he was in Paris. When he came home and found that I was expected there the next autumn, he endeavored "to head it off," as I have said, by some articles in the newspaper. However, his purpose was not accomplished. But still we felt at once that there was a jar there among the Christian people. Some of the leading members of his church, who the winter before had entered heart and soul into the work, stood aloof and did not come near our meetings; and it was evident that his whole influence, which was considerable at that time in the city, was against the work. This made some of his good people very sad.
This was in the winter of 1857 and '58, and it will be remembered that it was at this time that a great revival prevailed throughout all the northern states. It swept over the land in such a tremendous manner, that for some weeks it was estimated that not less than fifty thousand conversions occurred per week. This revival had some very peculiarly interesting features. It was carried on to a large extent through lay influence, so much so as almost to throw the ministers into the shade. There had been a daily prayer meeting observed in Boston for several years previous, and in the autumn previous to the great outburst the daily prayer meeting had been established in Fulton St., New York, which has been continued to this day. Indeed, daily prayer meetings were established throughout the length and breadth of the northern or free states. I recollect in one of our prayer meetings in Boston that winter a gentleman arose and said: "I am from Omaha the capital of Nebraska. On my journey east I have found a continuous prayer meeting all the way. We call it," said he, "about two thousand miles from Omaha to Boston, and here was a prayer meeting about two thousand miles in extent."
In Boston we had to struggle, as I have intimated, against this divisive influence, which set the religious interest a good deal back from where we had left it the spring before. However, the work continued steadily to increase. In the midst of these diverse circumstances it was evident that the Lord intended to make a general sweep in Boston. Finally it was suggested that a business men's prayer meeting should be established at twelve o'clock in the chapel of the Old South Church, which was very central for business men. The Christian friend whose guests we were secured the use of the room, and advertised the meeting. But whether such a meeting would succeed in Boston at that time was considered doubtful. However, this brother called the meeting; and to the surprise of almost everybody, the place was not only crowded to its utmost capacity, but multitudes could not get in at all. This meeting was continued day after day with wonderful results. The place was from the first too strait for them, and other daily meetings were established in other parts of the city.
Mrs. Finney held ladies' meetings daily at the large vestry of Park Street. These meetings became so crowded that the ladies would fill the room to its utmost capacity, and then stand about the door on the outside as far as they could hear on every side. One of our daily prayer meetings was held at Park Street Church, which would be full whenever it was open for prayer, and this was the case with many other meetings in different parts of the city. The population, large as it was, seemed to be moved en masse. The revival became too general to keep any account at all of the number of conversions, or to allow of any estimate being made that would approximate to the truth. All classes of people were inquiring everywhere. Many of the Unitarians became greatly interested, and attended our meetings in large numbers.
This revival is of so recent date that I need not enlarge upon it, because it became almost universal throughout the northern states. A divine influence seemed to pervade the whole land. Slavery seemed to shut it out from the south. They were in such a state of irritation, of vexation, and of committal to their peculiar institution, which had come to be assailed on every side, that the Spirit of God seemed to be grieved away from them. There seemed to be no place found for Him in the hearts of the southern people at that time. It was estimated that during this revival not less than five hundred thousand souls were converted in the northern states. It extended all the way from our frontier settlements in the west, to our most eastern boundary on the Atlantic coast. As I have said, it was carried on very much through the instrumentality of prayer meetings, personal visitation and conversation, by the distribution of tracts, and by the energetic efforts of the laity, male and female. Ministers nowhere opposed it that I am aware of. I believe they universally sympathized with it. But there was such a general confidence in the prevalence of prayer, that the people very extensively seemed to prefer meetings for prayer to meetings for preaching. The general impression seemed to be, "We have had instruction until we are hardened; it is time for us to pray." The answers to prayer were constant, and so striking as to arrest the attention of the people generally throughout the land. It was evident that in answer to prayer the windows of heaven were opened and the Spirit of God poured out like a flood. I recollect very distinctly, that in praying for Boston I was led to lay hold of that class of promises in which God promises to open the windows of heaven and pour out His Spirit like a flood upon the people, and like showers that water the earth, etc. It seemed to me clear that the revival would be according to the faith of God's people, and that if they would lay hold upon God's largest promises they would receive an unparallelled blessing. The New York Tribune at that time published several extras filled with accounts of the progress of the revival in different parts of the United States.
A circumstance occurred during this revival relating to the celebrated Theodore Parker, who held services in a large hall in Boston, and whose views of theology and religion are so well understood that I need not enter into particulars in regard to them. During this winter a good many of the Christian people became very much exercised in their minds about the evil influence that he was exerting in Boston, and there was much prayer offered for him. I called twice myself to see him, hoping to have an opportunity to converse with him, but in both instances he declined to see me, as was reported to me on account of his health. But the Spirit of prayer for him seemed to increase, and took on this type: that the Lord would convert him if He wisely could, but that if He could not do this, his evil influence might in some way be set aside. The minds of God's people labored so much upon this point, that a number of Christian gentlemen met by appointment in a certain place to lay this matter before God. I state the facts as they were told me by one of the gentlemen present. He said that after the meeting was opened they called on one of their number to lead in prayer, and he was led out in prayer in such a remarkable manner--laid the whole subject so fully before God, and in such a spirit, as to lead them all with one heart and one soul to unite in laying the whole case before God. He said the man who led in prayer seemed almost to be inspired, to say just the right things, and in the right way and spirit, in leading them in prayer. They all felt as if their prayer would be answered, and so deep was this impression that although they had come together for a prayer meeting, after the first prayer was offered no one had a word to say. He said the impression was universal that they had prayed enough, that the answer to their prayer was certain, and that no more prayer was necessary, and no one of them felt inclined to offer any further petition to God about it. In some way this prayer meeting came to the knowledge of Mr. Parker, and he said, and I believe wrote, some very strong things against it. However, he was very soon laid aside by illness, became unable to preach, went to Europe for his health, and there died. Thus ended the evil influence of his preaching forever, except as the remembrance of it may influence future generations.
I have said there were some very striking instances of conversion in this revival in Boston. One day I received an anonymous letter from a lady, asking my advice in regard to the state of her soul. Usually I took no notice whatever of anonymous letters. But the handwriting, the manifest talent displayed in the letter together with the unmistakable earnestness of the writer, led me to give it unwonted attention. She concluded by requesting me to answer it and to direct it to Mrs. M., and leave it with the sexton of the church where I was to preach that night, and she should get it. I was at this time preaching around from evening to evening in different churches. I replied to this anonymous letter, that I could not give her the advice which she sought, because I was not well enough acquainted with her history, or with the real state of her mind. But I would venture to call her attention to one fact, which was very apparent not only in her letter but also in the fact of her not putting her name to it, that she was a very proud woman, and that that fact she needed thoroughly to consider. I left my reply with the sexton as she requested, and the next morning a lady called to see me. As soon as I was alone with her in the parlor she informed me that she was the lady that wrote that anonymous letter, and she had called to tell me that I was mistaken in thinking that she was proud. She said that she was far enough from that, but she was a member of the Episcopal church, and did not want to disgrace her church by revealing the fact that she was not converted. I replied: "It is church pride, then, that kept you from revealing your name." This touched her so deeply that she arose, and in a manifest excitement left the room. I expected to see her no more, but that evening I found her after preaching among the inquirers in the vestry.
It was my custom all along, after preaching to invite inquirers into the vestry. The vestry was generally filled with inquirers, and often there were more than could get seats. I used to spend more or less time in these meetings in conversing in few words with individuals as I passed around, that I might be enabled the more intelligently to address to them the class of truths that I perceived they needed. In passing around at this meeting I observed this lady. She was manifestly a lady of first rate intelligence and education, and I could perceive that she belonged to the first class of society. But as yet I did not know her name, for our conversation that morning had not lasted perhaps more than a minute or two before she left the room as I have related. As I observed her in passing around I remarked to her quietly, "And you here?" "Yes," she replied, and dropped her head as if she felt deeply. I had a few words of kind conversation with her, and it passed for that evening. In these inquiry meetings I always pressed them with the necessity of immediate submission to Christ, and brought them face to face with that duty; and I then called on such as were prepared to commit themselves unalterably to Christ, to kneel down. I observed when I made this call that she was among the first of the number that made a movement to kneel down.
The next morning she called on me again at an early hour. As soon as we were alone she opened her mind to me and said: "I see, Mr. Finney, that I have been very proud. I have come to tell you who I am, and to give you such facts in regard to my history that you may know what to say to me." She was, as I had supposed, a woman in high life, the wife of a wealthy gentleman who was himself a skeptic. She had made a profession of religion, but was unconverted. She was very frank in this interview, and threw her mind open to instruction very cordially, and either at that time or immediately after, she expressed hope in Christ and became a very earnest Christian. She is a remarkable writer, and could more nearly report my sermons without short-hand than any person I ever knew. She used to come, and sit and write my sermons with a rapidity and an accuracy that was quite astonishing. She sent copies of her notes to a great many of her friends, and exerted herself to the utmost to secure the conversion of her friends in Boston and elsewhere. With this lady I have had much correspondence since that time. She has always manifested that same earnestness in religion that she did at that time. She has always some good work in hand, and is an earnest laborer for the poor, and for all classes that need her instruction, her sympathy, and her help. She has passed through many mental struggles, surrounded as she is by such temptations to worldliness and vanity. But I trust that she has been, and will be, an ornament to the cause of Christ.
In this revival I had conversation with a large number of the higher classes in Boston, especially those that attended Episcopal worship. But I suppose we shall never know in this world anything like the number savingly affected during this great revival in Boston. The interest was as great and general in that large city as any that I ever witnessed in any place that I recollect. Should I take time to give an account of one in ten or even twenty of the interesting cases that came under my own observation, it would require a considerable volume to do them justice. The revival extended from Boston to Charlestown and Chelsea. In short it spread on every side. I preached in East Boston and Charlestown, and for a considerable time in Chelsea, where the revival became very general and precious.
We continued to labor in Boston that winter until it was time for us to return to our labors here in the spring. When we left there the work was in its full strength, without any apparent abatement at all. The church and ministry in this country had become so very extensively engaged in promoting the revival, and such was the blessing of God attending the exertions of laymen as well as of ministers, that I made up my mind to return and spend another season in England, and see if the same influence would not pervade that country. The brethren of all evangelical denominations had so entered into the work and both Mrs. Finney and myself were so exhausted that we left Boston and went to her brother in Brooklyn and spent a week or two there. We then labored in Oberlin with success and the next fall went to England.
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