Charles Finney the Scary Heretic

My last post on wine in church reminded me that the source of all this frustration is the stupid Prohibition movement which still leaves its mark on American churches in the form of grape juice. Many of these movements stemmed from the crusading fervor of heretics such as Charles Finney. I call him scary both for his beliefs and his personal appearance [see below].

Finney’s heresies are ably outlined by Michael Horton here. Essentially, he taught a form of Christian perfectionism that meant not only that you *can* be free from sin prior to death [not possible] , but that you *must* be like this in order to be saved! Horton quotes him:

… full present obedience is a condition of justification. But again, to the question, can man be justified while sin remains in him? Surely he cannot, either upon legal or gospel principles, unless the law be repealed … But can he be pardoned and accepted, and justified, in the gospel sense, while sin, any degree of sin, remains in him? Certainly not.

You cannot be justified while any degree of sin remains in you! Christ cleaned the slate and now it’s up to you to get it done! I grew up in a church that held this man up as a hero and it plagued many years of my life with thinking that I didn’t measure up because I kept sinning. It is a theology that warps and destroys souls. If you want to see the extreme, cultish version of where it leads [including free love], read The Kingdom of Matthias. Finney -> Matthias -> Sojurner Truth, the 1800’s creep me out.

But out of all this perfectionist fervor came Prohibition, amongst other weird things like Quaker Oats and Graham Crackers. Graham was another perfectionist with bizarre dietary theories that are probably right at home with our modern practitioners of magnets and needles. Susan Cayleff writes in Wash and Be Healed, “Graham admonished his listeners against culinary gluttony, believe that the stomach was the center of the system, and advocated the use of only whole grain bread, unbolted. This belief eventually produced the “graham cracker,” which was a dietary mainstay in hygenic households.”

The Wikipedia entry on Graham says, “Graham was also inspired by the temperance movement and preached that a vegetarian diet was a cure for alcoholism, and, more importantly,sexual urges. The main thrust of his teachings was to curb lust. While alcohol had useful medicinal qualities, it should never be abused by social drinking. For Graham, an unhealthy diet stimulated excessive sexual desire which irritated the body and caused disease. While Graham developed a significant following known as Grahamites, he was also ridiculed by the media and the public for his unwavering zealotry. According to newspaper records, many women fainted at his lectures when he aired opinions both on sexual relations and the wearing of corsets…In 1850 he helped found the American Vegetarian Society modeled on a similar organization established in Great Britain.”

Vegetarianism, socialism, sinless perfectionism, prohibition, it’s all there. These folks figured that your diet produced sinful lust in you, so it must be regulated. Alcohol was evil, so it must be eliminated. They placed the source of sin in the object outside of you, rather than your own failure of self-control. Due to these fine folks, most churches today disobey Jesus and use grape juice in Communion.


21 thoughts on “Charles Finney the Scary Heretic”

  1. Marsden in his biog of Jonathan Edwards believes Edwards predicted all this with precision in the mid-1700s when churches started preaching repentance for particular nasty sins and stopped preaching that we are all fallen and must repent because of both our sins and our sin condition in Adam. Both the self-righteous moralist and the debauched are called to repent and believe. Edwards nailed it. Within a generation the Ivy League was Unitarian and the 19th Century gave us the weirdness you describe.

  2. Thanks for these connections, Joel. What was it about Sojourner Truth that was disturbing. Despite studying a lot of US history, I don’t know that much about her.

  3. I keep graham crackers and Quaker oats in stock (I will continue to do so.), but I never knew their weird origin.

    This is an interesting post, and once again you are introducing stuff that is new to me. I will have to check out the Finney thing on my own. I know a number of people who burned all of their Finney texts, but I consider them to be of very odd theological persuasions anyway, so I did not pay much attention to them.

    It goes to show that when we depart from the Biblical basics about Jesus Christ that there is no limit to the ridiculous things and ideas we will grasp.

    Thanks for posting. You are fascinating.

  4. Jim – I believe it. The whole revivalist tradition has a lot of baggage.
    Scott – it’s more the milieu of the times than Truth herself. The fact that she took such an outlandish name, that she was associated with Robert Matthews, and the whole constellation of social causes that fermented in the North before coming to fruition in the Welfare State – that stuff gives me pause.
    Mindi – nothing wrong with those foods, just the bizarre ideas that gave them birth. I’m glad you liked the post!
    Todd – good article. The man was very unorthodox.

  5. Yikes, truly a scary guy.

    Funny, but I began to have reservations concerning Mr. C G Finney back in the early 90’s when I realized that that great champion, Jack Chick, was a fan of his writings on revival. His embrace of works-based religion would make Father Johann Tetzel proud.

    Like you, I was affiliated with a church that was steeped in the same “semi-pelegianism” and Arminianism espoused by the man. This toxic theology wreaked havoc in the lives of earnest believers, keeping them stunted spiritual infants who were always a heartbeat away from “loosing their salvation”, and having to “get saved” again whenever they stumbled or transgressed. I saw countless of individuals who were in church for decades who were unable to progress beyond spiritual infancy due to the fact that they were having to reset their walk in the faith on a near routine basis.

    I know this may sound harsh, but in retrospect, Finney really appears to have been a “useful idiot” for the accuser of the brethren.

  6. I agree Andy. I know of a perfectionist church where the people got really warped and into some heinous sins, all while trying to claim perfection It is a dangerous and pernicious doctrine.

  7. OK: so can you post something else now because the picture of Charles Finney that pops up every time I check your blog scares the garbage out of me.

  8. Andy, I was wondering if Jack Chick was author of Chick Tracts. The same. What would I do without Wikipedia?

    I have not seen a Chick Tract for years, but I remember thinking that they were scary even though I was a Christian.

    Joel, (I accidentally spelled your name Jowl; aren’t you glad I corrected it before anyone saw it?) I think you should post a second time on Finney and leave off the photo for R’s sake.

    Also, what I really wanted to say was that a pastor friend of mine who is in his 70’s, burned all of the sermons he preached from the early decades of his ministry. He started preaching at 19, and he can see now that he was completely wrong-headed on a number of things. He did not want his relatives to find the old, bad sermons after his death and try to publish or resurrect them in any way.

    Is it possible that Finney changed any of his views as he aged?

  9. If his views changed, they only got worse. I type “Jowl” all the time and have to correct it!

  10. Finney died in 1875. Here is a portion of a sermon he preached in 1861. I would think that at this point in his life his doctrine was firmly set in his mind.

    The Oberlin Evangelist.
    September 11, 1861



    II. I now come to the main doctrine of our texts–that any one form of sin persisted in, is fatal to the soul.

    That is, it is impossible for a person to be saved, who continues to commit any form of known sin.

    Again, 5. One sin, persisted in, is fatal to the soul, because it is a real rejection of God’s whole authority. If a man violates knowingly any one of God’s commandments as such, he rejects the authority of God; and if in this he rejects the authority of God, he rejects his whole authority for the time being, on every subject. So that if he appears to obey in other things while in one thing he sets aside and contemns God’s authority, it is only the appearance of obedience, and not real obedience. He acts from a wrong motive in the case in which he appears to obey. He certainly does not act out of supreme respect to God’s authority; and therefore he does not truly obey him. But surely one who rejects the whole authority of God cannot be saved.

    I fear it is very common for persons to make a fatal mistake here; and really to suppose that they are accepted in their obedience in general, although in some things or thing they habitually neglect or refuse to do their duty.

    Many, I am sorry to say, preach a Gospel that is a dishonor to Christ. They really maintain–at least they make this impression, though they may not teach it in words and form–that Christ really justifies men while they are living in the indulgence habitually of known sin.

    Many preachers seem not to be aware of the impression which they really leave upon their people. Probably, if they were asked whether they hold and preach that any sin is forgiven which is not repented of, whether men are really justified while they persist in known sin, they would say, No. But, after all, in their preaching they leave a very different impression. For example, how common it is to find ministers who are in this position; –You ask them how many members they have in their church. Perhaps they will tell you, five hundred. How many do you think are living up to the best light which they have? How many of them are living from day to day with a conscience void of offense toward God and toward man, and are not indulging in any known sin either of omission or commission? Who are living and aiming to discharge punctually and fully every duty of heart to God and to all their fellow men? Push the inquiry, and ask, How many of your church can you honestly say, before God, you think are endeavoring to live without sin? that do not indulge themselves in any form of transgression or omission?

    They will tell you, perhaps, that they do not know a member of their church, or at least they know but very few, of whom they can say this. Now ask them further–How many of your church do you suppose to be in a state of justification? and you will find that they have the impression that the great mass of their church are in a state of justification with God; in a state of acceptance with Him; in a state in which they are prepared to die; and if they should die just in this state by any sudden stroke of Providence, and they should be called upon to preach their funeral sermon, they would assume that they had gone to heaven.

    While they will tell you that they know of but very few of their church of whom they can conscientiously say–I do not believe he indulges himself in any known sin; yet let one of that great majority, of whom he cannot say this, suddenly die, and this pastor be called to attend his funeral, would he not comfort the mourners by holding out the conviction that he was a Christian, and had gone to heaven? Now this shows that the pastor himself, whatever be his theoretical views of being justified while indulging in any known sin, is yet after all, practically an Antinomian; and practically holds, believes, and teaches, that Christ justifies people while they are living in the neglect of known duty; while they are knowingly shunning some cross; while they persist in known sin. Ministers, indeed, often leave this impression upon their churches, (and I fear Calvinistic ministers quite generally,) that if they are converted, or ever were, they are justified although they may be living habitually and always in the indulgence of more or less known sin; living in the habitual neglect of known duty; indulging various forms of selfishness. And yet they are regarded as justified Christians; and get the impression, even from the preaching of their ministers, that all is well with them; that they really believe the Gospel and are saved by Christ.

    Now this is really Antinomianism. It is a faith without law; it is a Savior that saves in and not from sin. It is presenting Christ as really setting aside the moral law, and introducing another rule of life; as forgiving sin while it is persisted in, instead of saving from sin.

    6. Many profess to be Christians, and are indulging the hope of eternal life, who know that they never have forsaken all forms of sin; that in some things they have always fallen short of complying with the demands of their own consciences. They have indulged in what they call little sins; they have allowed themselves in practices, and in forms of self-indulgence, that they cannot justify; they have never reformed all their bad habits; and have never lived up to what they have regarded as their whole duty. They have never really intended to do this; have never resolutely set themselves, in the strength of Christ, to give up every form of sin, both of omission and commission; but, on the contrary, they know that they have always indulged themselves in what they condemn. And yet they call themselves Christians! But this is as contrary to the teaching of the Bible as possible. The Bible teaches, not only that men are condemned by God if they indulge themselves in what they condemn; but also that God condemns them if they indulge in that the lawfulness of which they so much as doubt. If they indulge in any one thing the lawfulness of which is in their own estimation doubtful, God condemns them. This is the express teaching of the Bible. But how different is this from the common ideas that many professors of religion have!

  11. Joel,

    Excellent article, though I must point out that you seem to have forgotten a significant figure of the era, in this overall movement; Ellen G. White, pioneer and ‘leser light to the greater light’ of Seventh Day Adventism. Historic, or conservative Adventism preaches the same health message to this day, coupled with the teaching that we must be sinless before our Creator in this life.


    Acventist health Message, health Reform, EGW Councils on Diet and Food, SDA beliefs concerning the relationship between lust and a non vegetarian diet, EGW end times need for veganism, Ollie Aldridge ‘Vegan’s delight’, former Baptismal requirements that one not only leave aside alcohol, tobaco and drugs, but caffine also, founding of SDA health foods such as Weetbix and veg suppliments (Sanatarium health Food Co. Australia), the Investigative Judgement, our need for perfection of character before the ‘close of probation’ because our character is all we can take into the Kingdom of god, Limited Attonement (the SDA understanding of Christ’s sacrifice at the Cross), conditional salvation by grace through Faith…

    I was steeped in this religious system from the age of 13 to the age of 34; only exited on marriage and am lucky to have my faith intact (returned to Anglicanism, the denomination of my childhood, all but certain that i was forfiting my faith as the SDA understanding is that they are the remnant and all who knowingly abandon Saturday churches to go back to sunday have sold their salvation down the river of the enemy. I give thanks that I actually serve a loving god… and for the several dear souls both on line and in real life have done much to support my exit; leaving the people was the easy part; learning Jesus Christ anew; now that has been much more difficult.

    I keep an occasional eye on SDA goings on and it would appear that historic, or conservative Adventism is experiencing a resergence…

    Fascinating, and an accurate portrayal of my own faith paradigm for all of my adolescance and much of my adult life. (am now 39).

    Keep up the good work!

  12. Hey–your daughter saw this post and so I said, “Isn’t he handsome?”
    She looked at me funny and said, “What? You think he’s handsome?”
    I shook my head and laughed.
    She said, “Good, because he looks like a wolf!”

  13. Todd – an awful sermon.
    Sarah – I’ve been around a lot of SDA folks, but I didn’t know that they had these same perfectionist errors. That is sad and I am glad that you were able to break out of it by God’s grace.

  14. I get where your coming from and it is ridiculous to believe that humans can ever achieve a perfect standard of Christian living. But that doesn’t mean that they should stop trying or compromise.

    ‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will’ Romans 12:2

    Far too often the Church compromises because “We live in a different age’ or “That is just modern life’ I think in some ways the balance of the Church having it’s beliefs and getting out into the world is totally unbalanced. I’m wondering when the church forgot about simple living and looking for the true treasures in life that God provides us.

    Alcohol does worry me. Try telling an alcoholic that he is disobeying Jesus when he refuses to take communion. These guys may have had crazy beliefs but that doesn’t mean that there was truth to some of what they were saying. Many Churches are ill equipped to deal with the problems massive problems of Alcohol and Drug Abuse not to mention gambling because they invite these very things into their church

  15. Craig, I’m certainly not advocating “stop trying.” Our prayerbook includes daily prayers that say:
    “…give us the constant assistance of thy Holy Spirit; that we may be effectually restrained from sin…Imprint upon our hearts such a dread of thy judgements, and such a grateful sense of thy goodness to us, as may make us both afraid and ashamed to offend thee.”
    Just look up “the third use of the law” and you’ll see what I mean.
    Regarding alcohol, God brought these things into the church! Jesus *commanded* bread and wine, and in the Old Testament recommended wine and choice meats for gladness at festivals. As Mark McConnell wrote:
    “I suggest that the alcoholic can be invited to partake of a cup of blessing without fear that it will ruin him. It is transformed for him, because he is in Christ. Further, if it would appall him to make himself drunk on the cup of the new covenant, won’t this help him to have a transformed view of wine in other contexts as well?”

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