The revival meetings led by Charles Finney, the “Billy Graham” of the 19th century, were a far cry from what they became in the 20th century. Finney’s revivals, as part of calling his listeners to being converted via the power of the Holy Spirit, also called them to a commitment to work for social change. As he preached John 3:16, declaring that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” to save the world from the effects of sin, he emphasized that what the Bible talks about in that verse includes not only people, but also all that is in the world.
Finney preached that Christ came to save individuals from sin and through them to save and transform society. The political and economic structures of his day, as in ours, were far from being what God had willed for them to be, and he believed that God wills to rescue them from their fallen condition. To be Christian, declared Finney, was to be spiritually motivated and led by the Holy Spirit to carry out this mission.
The two specific social institutions that were the primary focus of Finney’s attention were the slavery that oppressed African Americans and the political system that oppressed women by relegating them to second-class citizenship. His revival meetings called converts to not only do the work of repentance from personal sins such as adultery, cheating, lying, alcoholism, and self-centered living, but likewise for repentance from the social sins of oppression.
Students of history usually are aware that out of the Finney revival came young men and women who were often referred to as “firebrands” because of their fiery opposition to slavery. What is less well known is that the modern feminist movement was also birthed from the Finney revivals.
Finney did most of his preaching across northern New York state and into Ohio and Michigan, and it may come as a surprise to many feminists that the first meetings of the women’s suffrage movement were held in Methodist churches in and around Niagara, New York. That is because over the past 100 years, sadly, in the minds of a great number of modern-day feminists, one of the great barriers to the progress for women’s rights has been Evangelical Christianity which, at times, has taught that women should be subservient to men. So it comes with some wonderment to many contemporary feminists that their movement actually got its early support from Finney and Wesleyan revivalism.
Finney declared that it was the responsibility of “born again” Christians to press for the political changes that would guarantee all women and all African Americans the same civil rights that men enjoyed. In accordance with Galatians 3:28, he preached that there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female — that all are one in Christ Jesus. To be faithful to scripture, he claimed, Christians should work for the kinds of changes in economic and political institutions that would ensure the equality of people, regardless of race, nationality, and gender. His was a holistic gospel message.
Those of us in the Red Letter Christians movement claim to be legitimate heirs to Finney and call all Christians to join us in declaring the Christ who broke into history to bring salvation to lost sinners and a broken world. In claiming to be heirs of Finney’s revivalism, we are inviting all who want to be identified with us to join us on April 6th and 7th in Lynchburg, Virginia, for a revival meeting. There, we too will preach a holistic gospel and issue a Finney-like call to action. We pray you can join us in seeking God’s continued presence, providence, and guidance.