Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875) - American EducationTheologian, educator and father of modern American evangelism. Educated as a lawyer, he experienced a “conversion”—that is, he was “born again”—while preparing briefs in which he related the origins of American legal principles to Mosaic law. Abandoning law, he studied theology, was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1824 and promptly denounced not only the teachings of organized Protestant churches but those of his predecessor evangelists, including the Rev. Lyman Beecher.
Gifted with near-hypnotic oratorical skills, Finney preached a thoroughly democratized Protestantism, asserting that Christ had died to remove the burden of original sin from everyone. His preachings contradicted those of the traditional, or “Old Light,” Protestants who claimed that original sin left all mankind tainted from birth and eternally damned, with the exception of an unspecified elite (presumably, the dues-paying members of organized churches). Most “New Light” evangelicals had preached that man can free himself of the burden of original sin and find salvation through personal “conversion,” a religious experience produced by intense Bible study and a personal revelation leading to total acceptance of Christ (see NEW LIGHT–OLD LIGHT CONTROVERSY). A firm believer in New Light doctrines, Finney declared that Christ’s death had removed the burden of sin from every newborn and that he, Finney, was therefore declaring a “universal amnesty,” which offered salvation to all people willing to repent their previous sins on Earth and proclaim their belief in Christ. Finney’s offer of universal amnesty electrified the nation. From everywhere, Americans flocked to hear him and accept his offer. Although his teachings horrified traditionalists, hundreds of would-be evangelical ministers came to learn his revival techniques, which he codified in his Lectures on Revivals. These were published as a text for revivalist student-ministers and contained a variety of instructions on design and management of prayer meetings.
Finney was invited to preach across the United States and even in Britain. New York City adherents appointed him minister of the Second Free Presbyterian Church in 1832. His success in conversion led to the formation of several other churches, and in 1836, he organized his own independent Broadway Tabernacle. Meanwhile, publication of his theological lectures brought him an invitation to establish a department of theology at the two-year-old Oberlin College, where he served as professor of theology from 1835 to 1866 and as college president from 1851 to 1866. While there, he developed the evangelical doctrine called “Oberlin perfectionism,” or Oberlin Theology, which became the basis for modern evangelical thought. He also established teaching methods and curricula that not only set standards for evangelistic theological colleges but also influenced the curricula of many American public schools for the rest of the 19th and much of the 20th centuries and virtually Protestantized American public schools for several generations.