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Revivalism and Power (Part I): Finney and Pentecostalism

Describing the power of God during revival, Charles Finney wrote:

“This power is a great marvel. I have many times seen people unable to endure the Word. The most simple and ordinary statement would cut men off from their seats like a sword, take away their bodily strength, and render them almost as helpless as dead men. Several times it has been true in my experience that I could not raise my voice, or say anything in prayer or exhortation except in the mildest manner, without wholly overcoming those who were present. This was not because I was preaching terror to the people, but the sweetest sounds of the Gospel would overcome them.

This power seems sometimes to pervade the atmosphere of one who is highly charged with it. Many times great numbers of people in a community are clothed with this power when the very atmosphere of the whole place seems to be charged with the life of God. Strangers coming into it and passing through the place are instantly struck with conviction of sin and, in many instances, converted to Christ.” (Finney, p. 19-20)

The ‘power’ – the mysterious and surprising power of God – had never before had such a vital role to play in bringing revival. The Great Awakenings, particularly the second wave of revivals that gave birth to the Methodists, had its strong focus on holiness. It in turn gave birth to the Holiness movement when Wesley’s Methodism spread to America. But then Charles Finney emerged within the American movement, affecting a deep shift in emphasis, significantly changing the focus of the movement from sanctification to empowerment. The Holiness movement became the Power movement and revivalism changed its focus. Finney’s revivalism was a quest for power, and it found fertile soil in the landscape of American idealism at the turn of the nineteenth-century, and in turn found a permanent place in what is now the biggest and still fastest growing movement in the world: Pentecostalism, the power-revival movement still feeling the affect of Finney’s legacy and continuing to dramatically shape 21st century Evangelicalism.

Enter Pentecostal revivalism

Reading Charles Finney as a Hillsong College student in 1997 had a deep impact upon my changing spirituality. I had left for the Sydney leadership college after year 12 to begin a decidedly indefinite period of preparation for what I planned would be a lifelong ministry as an evangelist and church planter. The entire endeavour would amount to a brief excursion of a little less than one full calendar year, but the effect of that 12 months is still being felt in my life today, well over a decade later.

As an evangelical ‘charismatic’, much more than an old-school Pentecostal, Power from on High changed not only the way I evangelised people, but also the way I prayed. The book’s blurb summarises Finney’s approach to revivalism well:

“Is it possible to lead sinners to the Lord with one look or a single sentence? Charles Finney did. He knew the secret of winning souls to Christ—an outpouring of power from heaven. In this book, he gives remarkable stories of dramatic conversions, along with instructions on how to receive power from God, overcome sin, and prevail in prayer.”

Without realising the significant of my choice for a Sydney AOG college, I had walked into a distinctively Pentecostal culture. I myself had converted to a Pentecostal doctrinal system years earlier, but existed in a mainline Brethren church that had turned Charismatic. At home I was considered ‘full on’ for simply holding to the notions of divine healing and tongues as compulsory evidence of Spirit baptism. But here, these were but mere elemental truths. This was a place where Kenneth Copeland was in the curriculum, Prosperity preaching was a significant element of every church service, and Charles Finney was recommended reading from the library book list. And any serious student sought him out first. I was now to be affected by a new exposure to the first-fruits of the Holiness movement and a mainstay culture of revivalism.

Although I was already a very passionate and active evangelist, I had only led a handful of people to Christ. But now, Power from on High gave me not only answers on how I could be more effective, but also the guarantee of success: If I fulfilled the conditions described by Finney, I would succeed in winning more souls.

At the same time, the Pensacola Revival of Brownsville USA was well underway. I had already been referred to Leonard Ravenhill by a close and dear mentor, Kevin Wilcock, and chewed my way through Ravenhill’s scolding Why Revival Tarries and Revival God’s Way. But now I was able to listen directly to the preaching of his protégée, Steven Hill, and watch the video replays of the dramatic responses to his sermons, with hundreds of people pouring forward from their pews towards the altar of the church in repentance of sin, service after service, year after year.
Hill’s Time to Weep described the “power of repentance that brings revival”, and also had a deep influence on my spiritual quest for personal revival. After reading this book, I began to make it my daily goal to spend long hours on my knees in prayer and fasting for power, and with my head on the carpet weeping over the lost multitudes. I’d regularly follow this routine with walk-up evangelism in my Local Street, mall or shopping centre. I would spend Friday night going through Parramatta mall with Bible college friends, asking every passerby, “Have you heard the good news?”  Saturday nights we might journey to Oxford Street in the city seeking to find and convert Pedestrians.  

And people did make decisions to follow Christ. One or two people here, a few more there; but I was hungry for souls and a few handfuls in as many months was well below our expectations. Finney’s Revivalism promised mass conversions. According to Finney, the Power of God, the Power to be witnesses, should bring whole streets to Christ, if we fulfilled the conditions necessary. Together we should be able to reach hundreds, thousands of people, eventually changing the city, the nation, the world even—provided we remained humble, provided we did the hours in prayer, provided we wanted it enough, fasted enough,  wept and remained 100 per cent abandoned to Christ’s mission.  And so we endeavoured to ‘press in’ harder.

But although we were never completely aware of it at the time, the results were far from evident. Yes dozens of people had made ‘decisions’, but many of these commitments to Christ later fell through. We were heart-broken again and again to see much of our labour torn apart by the power of sin in the lives of our converts which remained a destructive influence despite all of our prayer and preaching. We were earnest, sincere, but still lacking success.

We needed more power. And so at the time we simply became hungrier and spiritually desperate for the dynamic and effective enabling of the Spirit that had been promised to give us real and lasting success. We began and attended more prayer meetings, spent longer in private prayer, and time and time again I returned to Finney’s How to win souls and his Power from on High, asking myself, what was I missing and how could I obtain what we still lacked.

From Holiness to Power

Some years later I know look back on myself and those years at Hillsong immersed in Finney’s revivalism, and I have now the ability to make sense of Pentecostalism and its particular quest for power within the context of the history of Evangelicalism.

Pentecostalism itself has its roots in nineteenth-century American Revivalism, inheriting the emphasis of Charles Finney directly from the Holiness movement. In the eighteenth-century John Wesley’s doctrine of 'entire sanctification' taught that sanctification involves a 'second blessing' as an experience of the Spirit distinct from conversion. Wesleyan doctrine spread to America where it inspired the ‘Holiness’ movement in the 1840-50s, it’s name coming from the original motive of preserving and spreading Wesley's doctrine of entire ‘holiness’, Christian perfection and Methodism's “second blessing” emphasis. However the Holiness movement in turn reformed Wesleyan theology on the 'second blessing' by shifting to the notion that Spirit-baptism was actually the second experience (not sanctification/ entire holiness) and the purpose was to empower Christians for miraculous evangelization of the world.

The Holiness movement sought to restore what it understood to be New Testament Christianity to the Church in the last days in preparation for Christ's return in order to accomplish the churches mission of converting the world. This led to the movement developing what it saw to be the “full" gospel” = Christ as not only Saviour, but also Baptizer and Healer, as well Coming King.

At the turn of the twentieth century the Holiness movement was pregnant with Pentecostalism. What was missing was only one element that the worldwide revival only a few years after the turn of the century would deliver: the gift of ‘languages’ (tongues) for equipping the end time church with the gift it needed for inter-national and worldwide evangelism, and at the same time serving an immediate evidence/sign of the second work in order to distinguish those who had the power from those Christians who had not.

"By the turn of the century, the Holiness movement had become preoccupied with the ‘Pentecostal reformation of Weslyan doctrine’ and the four themes of the full gospel. In fact, when the Pentecostal movement began a few years later, only the priority given to the gift of tongues distinguished it theologically from Holiness beliefs" (Systematic Theology, p. 15-16.)

To understand Pentecostal spirituality we need to first understand the Holiness movement which gave it birth. Phoebe Palmer and John Inskip were leaders in the movement who, although still teaching that the second work of grace was sanctification, began employing the new scriptural imagery of Spirit “outpouring”, and Spirit “baptism”. But it was primarily through the significant influence of the evangelist Charles Finney (1792-1875) that the nature of the second work of grace began to slowly shift to “instant empowerment.” He taught not only that the second experience was Spirit baptism, but that it brought something entirely additional to sanctification: it gave a unique power from God.

Finney within Pentecostalism

With Finney’s doctrine and new emphasis, the Holiness movement adopted a new form of revivalism with a quest for power that became the DNA later inherited by the Pentecostals. This late nineteenth-century American revivalism generated a third ‘great awakening’ that swept the globe as a worldwide revival after a re-occurrence of tongues-speaking at the Azusa Street meetings from 1906-1909 gained international attention: The ‘Holiness’ movement had given birth to the ‘Empowerment’ movement, propagating a new message of Pentecostal power and how it could not only be received, but also evidenced.

Accordingly, understanding Pentecostalism needs to begin by understanding the emphasis of Charles Finney on power. It was his shift to focus on empowerment, and his confidence in the certain effect of the use of natural means that formed the backbone of what became the Pentecostal movement, radically altering still further the way Christians would understand their mission.

In the next post we’ll look through the historical developments that gave rise to Finney’s new empowerment and how this radically altered Christian thinking and the direction of Evangelicalism.

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Finney, Charles G. Power from on High, Whitaker House, 1995.
Hill, Stephen. Time to Weep, Creation House, 1997.
McGee, Gary B. Systematic Theology, Logion Press, 1995.
Ravenhill, Leonard. Why Revival Tarries, Bethany House Publishers, 1959.
Ravenhill, Leonard. Revival God’s Way, Bethany House Publishers, 1983.

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