I Commence Preaching as a Missionary. (1824)
Having had no regular training for the ministry I did not expect or desire to labor in large towns or cities, or in cultivated congregations. I intended to go into new settlements and preach in schoolhouses, and barns and groves, as best I could. Accordingly soon after being licensed to preach, for the sake of being introduced to the region where I proposed to labor, I took a commission for six months of a Female Missionary Society, located in Oneida County.
I went into the northern part of Jefferson County and began my labors at Evans’ Mills, in the town of Le Ray. At this place I found two churches, a small Congregational church without a minister, and a Baptist church with a minister. I presented my credentials to the deacons of the church. They were very glad to see me, and I soon began my labors.
They had no meetinghouse, but the two churches worshipped alternately in a large stone schoolhouse. The schoolhouse was so large, I believe, as to accommodate all the children in the village. The Baptists occupied the house on one Sabbath, and the Congregationalists on the next; so that I could have the house but every other Sabbath to preach in that place, but could use the house evenings as often as I pleased. I therefore divided my Sabbaths between Evans’ Mills and Antwerp, a village some sixteen or eighteen miles still farther north.
I will relate first some facts that occurred at Evans’ Mills during that season, and then give a brief narrative of the occurrences at Antwerp. But as I preached alternately in these two places, these facts were occurring from week to week in one or the other of these localities.
I began, as I said, to preach in the stone schoolhouse at Evans’ Mills. The people were very much interested, and thronged en masse to hear me preach. They extolled my preaching; and the little Congregational church became very much interested, and hopeful that they should be built up, and that there would be a revival.
More or less convictions occurred under every sermon that I preached, but still no general conviction appeared upon the public mind. I was very much dissatisfied with this state of things; and at one of my evening services, after having preached there two or three Sabbaths and several evenings in the week, I told the people at the close of my sermon, that I had come there to secure the salvation of their souls. That my preaching, I knew, was highly complimented by them, but that after all, I did not come there to please them but to bring them to repentance. That it mattered not to me how well they were pleased with my preaching, if after all they rejected my Master. That something was wrong, either in me or in them; and that the kind of interest they manifested in my preaching was doing them no good. That I could not spend my time with them unless they were going to receive the Gospel.
I then, quoting the words of Abraham’s servant, said to them: “Now will you deal kindly and truly with my Master? If you will, tell me; and if not, tell me, that I may turn to the right hand or to the left.” l turned this question over, and pressed it upon them, and insisted upon it that I must know what course they proposed to pursue. If they did not purpose to become Christians, and enlist in the service of the Savior, I wanted to know it that I might not labor with them in vain.
I said to them: “You admit that what I preach is the Gospel. You profess to believe it. Now will you receive it.’? Do you mean to receive it? Or do you intend to reject it’? You must have some mind about it. And now I have a right to take it for granted, inasmuch as you admit that I have preached the truth, that you acknowledge your obligation at once to become Christians. This obligation you do not deny. But will you meet the obligation? Will you discharge it? Will you do what you admit that you ought to do? If you will not, tell me; and if you will, tell me, that I may turn to the right hand or to the left.”
After turning this over till I saw they understood it well, and looked greatly surprised at my manner of putting it, I then said to them: “Now I must know your minds. And I want that you who have made up your minds to become Christians, and will give your pledge to make your peace with God immediately, should rise up; but that on the contrary, those of you who are resolved that you will not become Christians, and wish me so to understand, and wish Christ so to understand, should sit still.”
After making this plain, so that I knew that they understood it, I then said: “You who now are willing to pledge to me and to Christ that you will immediately make your peace with God, please to rise up. On the contrary, you that mean that I should understand that you are committed to remain in your present attitude, not to accept Christ–please, those of you that are of this mind, to sit still.”
They looked at one another, and at me–and all sat still, just as I expected. After looking around upon them for a few moments I said: “Then you are committed. You have taken your stand. You have rejected Christ and His Gospel; and ye are witnesses one against the other, and God is witness against you all. This is explicit, and that which you may remember as long as you live–that you have thus publicly committed yourselves against the Savior, and said, ‘We will not have this man Christ Jesus to reign over us.'”
This is the purport of what I urged upon them, and as nearly in these words as I can recollect. When I thus pressed them they began to look angry, and arose en masse and started for the door. When they got fairly underway, I paused. As soon as I stopped speaking, they turned to see why I did not go on. I said: “I am sorry for you, and will preach to you once more, the Lord willing, tomorrow night.”
They all left the house except Deacon McComber, who was the deacon of the Baptist church in that place. I saw that the Congregationalists were confounded. They were few in number, and very weak in faith. I presume that every member of both churches who was present, except Brother McComber, was taken aback, and concluded that the matter was all over–that by my imprudence I had dashed and ruined all hopeful appearances.
Brother McComber came and took me by the hand and smiling said: “Brother Finney, you have got them. They cannot rest under this, rely upon it. The brethren are all discouraged,” said he, “but I am not. I believe you have done the very thing that needed to be done, and that we shall see the results.” I thought so myself, of course. I intended to place them in a position which, upon reflection, would make them tremble in view of what they had done.
But for that evening and the next day they were full of wrath. Brother McComber and myself agreed upon the spot to spend the next day in fasting and prayer, separately in the morning, and together in the afternoon. I learned in the course of the day that they were threatening me–to “ride me on a rail,” “to tar and feather me,” and to “give me a walking paper,” as they said. Some of them cursed me, and said that I had put them under oath, and made them swear that they would not serve God–that I had drawn them into a solemn and public pledge to reject Christ and His Gospel. This was no more than I expected.
In the afternoon Brother McComber and I went into a grove together, and spent the whole afternoon in prayer. Just at evening the Lord gave us great enlargement, and gave us victory. Both of us felt assured that we had prevailed with God, and that that night the power of God would be revealed among the people. As the time came for meeting, we left the woods and went to the village. The people were already thronging to the place of worship, and those that had not already gone, seeing us go through the village turned out of their stores and places of business, threw down their ball clubs where they were playing ball upon the green, and packed the house to its utmost capacity.
I had not taken a thought with regard to what I should preach–indeed, this was common with me at that time. I was full of the Holy Spirit, and I felt confident that when the time came for action I should know what to preach. As soon as I found the house packed, so that no more could get in, I arose, and I think without any formal introduction of singing opened upon them with these words: “Say to the righteous that it shall be well with him; for they shall eat the fruit of their doings. Wo to the wicked! it shall be ill with him; for the reward of his hands shall be given him.”
I say I opened upon them with these words. The Spirit of God came upon me with such power, that it was like opening a battery upon them. For more than an hour, and perhaps for an hour and a half, the Word of God came through me to them in a manner that I could see was carrying all before it. It was a fire and a hammer breaking the rock, and as the sword that was piercing to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit. I saw that a general conviction was spreading over the whole congregation. Many of them could not hold up their heads. I did not call that night for any reversal of the action they had taken the night before, nor for any committal of themselves in any way; but took it for granted, during the whole of the sermon, that they were committed against the Lord. At the close I appointed another meeting, and dismissed.
As the people withdrew I observed a lady lying in the arms of some of her friends, who were supporting her, in one part of the house; and I went to see what was the matter with her, supposing that she was in a fainting fit. But I soon found that she was not fainting, but that she could not speak. There was a look of the greatest anguish in her face, and she made me understand that she could not speak. I advised the ladies to take her home and pray with her, and see what the Lord would do. They informed me that she was a sister of the great missionary, William Goodell of Constantinople; and that she was a member of the church in good standing, and had been for several years.
That evening, instead of going to my usual lodgings I accepted an invitation and went home with a family where I had not before stopped overnight. Early in the morning I found that I had been sent for to the place where I was supposed to be several times during the night, to visit families where they were under awful distress of mind. This led me to sally forth among the people, and everywhere I found a state of wonderful conviction of sin and alarm for their souls.
After lying in this speechless state about sixteen hours, Miss Goodell’s mouth was opened, and a new song was put in her mouth. She was taken from the horrible pit of miry clay, and her feet were set upon a rock; and it was true that many saw it and feared. It occasioned a great searching among the members of the church. She declared that she had been entirely deceived. That for eight years she had been a member of the church, and thought she was a Christian. But during the sermon the night before she saw that she had never known the true God; and when His character arose before her mind as it was then presented, her hope “perished,” as she expressed it, “like a moth.” She said such a view of the holiness of God was presented, that like a great wave it swept her away from her standing, and annihilated her hope in a moment.
I found at this place a number of deists, and some of them were men of high standing in the community. One of them was a keeper of a hotel in the village, and others were respectable men, and of more than average intelligence. But they seemed banded together to resist the revival. When I ascertained exactly the ground that they took, I preached a sermon to meet their wants–for on the Sabbath they would attend my preaching.
I took this for my text: “Suffer me a little, and I will show you that I have yet to speak in God’s behalf. I will bring my knowledge from afar, and I will ascribe righteousness to my Maker.” I went over the whole ground, so far as I understood their position, and God enabled me to sweep it clean. As soon as I had finished and dismissed the meeting, the hotel keeper, who was the leader among them, came frankly up to me, and taking me by the hand said: “Mr. Finney, I am convinced. You have met and answered all my difficulties. Now I want you to go home with me, for I want to converse with you.” I heard no more of their infidelity; and if I remember right, that class of men were nearly or quite all converted.
There was one old man in this place–I cannot recollect his name–who was not only an infidel, but a great railer at religion, and was very angry at the revival movement. I heard every day of his railing and blaspheming, but took no public notice of it. He refused altogether to attend meeting. But in the midst of his opposition, and when his excitement was great, while sitting one morning at the table he suddenly fell out of his chair in a fit. It proved to be a fit of apoplexy. A physician was immediately called, who, after a brief examination, told him that he could live but a very short time; and that if he had anything to say, he must say it at once. He had just strength and time, as I was informed, to stammer out, “Don’t let Finney pray over my corpse.” This was the last of his opposition in that place.
During that revival my attention was called to a sick woman in the community, who had been a member of a Baptist church, and was well-known in the place; but people had no confidence in her piety. She was fast failing with the consumption; and they begged me to call and see her, and see if I could not undeceive her. I went, and had a long conversation with her.
She told me a dream which she had when she was a girl, which made her think that her sins were forgiven. Upon that she had settled down, and no argument could move her. I tried to persuade her that there was no evidence of her conversion in that dream. I told her plainly that her acquaintances affirmed that she had never lived a Christian life, and had never evinced a Christian temper; and I had come to try to persuade her to give up her false hope, and see if she would not now accept Jesus Christ that she might be saved. I dealt with her as kindly as I could, but did not fail to make her understand what I meant.
But she took great offence, and after I went away complained that I tried to get away her hope and distress her mind. That I was cruel to try to distress a woman as sick as she was in that way–to try to disturb the repose of her mind. She died not long afterwards. But her death, in thinking of it, has often reminded me of Dr. Nelson’s book called, “The Cause and Cure of Infidelity.” When this woman came to be actually dying, her eyes were opened; and before she left the world she seemed to have such a glimpse of the character of God, and of what heaven was and of the holiness required to dwell there, that she shrieked with agony, and exclaimed that she was going to hell. In this state, as I was informed, she died.
While at this place, one afternoon a Christian brother called on me and wished me to visit his sister, who, as he informed me, was fast failing with consumption, and was a Universalist. Her husband, he said, was a Universalist, and had led her into Universalism. He said he had not asked me to go and see her when her husband was at home, because he feared that he would abuse me, and was confident that he would, as he was determined that his wife’s mind should not be disturbed on the question of universal salvation, but that she should be left to die in that belief.
He said that her husband was gone at that time, and begged me to go and see her. I did so, and found her not at all at rest in her views of Universalism; and after conversing some time with her, she gave up these views entirely. I think she declared that she had never been settled in them; but at any rate she gave them up, and appeared to embrace the Gospel of Christ. I believe she held fast to this hope in Christ till she died.
At evening her husband returned, and learned from herself what had taken place. He was greatly enraged, and swore he “would kill Finney.” As I learned afterwards he armed himself with a loaded pistol, and that night went to meeting where I was to preach. Of this, however, I knew nothing at the time.
The preaching that evening was in a schoolhouse out of the village. The house was very much packed, almost to suffocation. I went on to preach with all my might; and almost in the midst of my discourse I saw a powerful looking man, about in the middle of the house, fall from his seat. As he sunk down he groaned, and then cried, or bellowed, that he was sinking to hell. He repeated that several times. The people knew who he was, but he was a stranger to me. I think I had never seen him before. Of course this created a great excitement. It broke up my preaching, and so great was his anguish that we spent the rest of our time in praying for him. When the meeting was dismissed his friends helped him home.
The next morning I inquired for him; and found that he had spent a sleepless night, and was in great anguish of mind all night, and that at the early dawn he had gone forth, they knew not whither. He was not heard from till about ten o’clock in the morning. I was passing up the street, and saw him coming from out of the village, and apparently from a grove at some distance from the village. He was on the opposite side of the street when I first saw him, and coming toward me. When he recognized me he came across the street to meet me.
When he came near enough, I saw that his countenance was all in a glow. I said to him, “Good morning, Mr. Comstock.” “Good morning,” he replied. “And,” said I, “how do you feel in your mind this morning?” “O I do not know,” he replied; “I have had an awfully distressed night. But I could not pray there in the house; and I thought if I could get alone, where I could pour out my voice with my heart, I could pray.
In the morning I went into the woods,” said he, “but when I got there I found I could not pray as I thought I could. I thought I could give myself to God; but I found that I could not. I tried and tried till I was discouraged,” he continued. “Finally I saw that it was of no use; and I told the Lord that I found myself condemned and lost, that I had no heart to pray to Him, and no heart to repent, that I found I had hardened myself so much that I could not give my heart to Him, and therefore I must leave the whole question to Him. I was at His disposal, and could not object to His doing with me just as it seemed good in His eyes, for I had no claim to His favor at all. I left the whole question of my salvation or damnation wholly with the Lord.”
“Well, what followed?” I inquired. “Why,” said he, “I found I had lost all my conviction. I got up and came away, and my mind was so still and quiet that I found the Spirit of God was grieved away, and I had lost my conviction.” Said he: “I came along the street, and found that my convictions were so gone that I could not account for it unless the Holy Spirit had left me.
But,” said he, “when I saw you my heart began to burn and grow hot within me; and instead of feeling as if I wanted to avoid you, I felt so drawn that I came across the street to see you.” But I should have said that when he came near me he leaped and took me right up in his arms, and turned around once or twice and then set me down.
This preceded the conversation that I have just related. After a little farther conversation, I left him without expressing any opinion with respect to his religious state. However, he soon came into a state of mind that led him to indulge a hope. We heard no more of his opposition.
At this place I again saw Father Nash, the man who prayed with his eyes open at the meeting of presbytery when I was licensed. After he was there at presbytery, he was taken with inflamed eyes, and for several weeks he was shut up in a dark room. He could neither read nor write, and gave himself up almost entirely to prayer, as I learned. He had a terrible overhauling in his whole Christian experience; and as soon as he was able to see with a double black veil before his face, he sallied forth to labor for souls.
When he came to Evans’ Mills, he was full of the power of prayer. He was another man altogether from what he had been at any former period of his Christian life. I found that he had “a praying list,” as he called it, of the names of persons whom he made subjects of prayer every day, and sometimes many times a day. And praying with him, and hearing him pray in meeting, I found that his gift of prayer was wonderful, and his faith almost miraculous.
There was a man by the name of Dresser, who kept a low tavern in a corner of the village, whose house was the resort of all the opposers of the revival. The bar-room was a place of blasphemy: and he was himself a most profane, ungodly, abusive man. He went railing about the streets respecting the revival, and would take particular pains to swear and blaspheme if he saw a Christian, for the sake of hurting his feelings.
One of the young converts lived almost across the way from him; and he told me that he meant to sell and move out of that neighborhood, because every time he was out of doors and Dresser saw him, he would come out and swear, and curse, and say everything he could to wound his feelings. He had not, I think, been to any of our meetings. Of course he was ignorant of the great truths of religion, and despised the whole Christian enterprise.
Father Nash heard us speak of this Mr. Dresser as “a hard case,” and immediately put his name upon his praying list. He remained in town a day or two, and went on his way, having in view another field of labor.
Not many days subsequent to this, as we were holding an evening meeting with a very crowded house, who should come in but this notorious Dresser? His entrance created a considerable movement and excitement in the congregation. People feared that he had come in to make a disturbance. The fear and abhorrence of him had become very general among Christians, I believe, so that when he came in some of the people got up and retired.
I knew his countenance, and kept my eye upon him. I very soon became satisfied that he had not come in to oppose, and that he was in great anguish of mind. He sat and writhed upon his seat, and was very uneasy. He soon arose, and tremblingly–for he trembled from head to foot–asked if he might say a few words. I told him that he might.
He then proceeded to make one of the most heart-broken confessions that I almost ever heard. His confession seemed to cover the whole ground–of his treatment of God, and of his treatment of Christians, and of the revival, and of everything good. This thoroughly broke up the fallow ground in many hearts. It was the most powerful means that could have been used, just then, to give an impetus to the work. Dresser soon came out and professed a hope, abolished all the revelry and profanity of his bar-room; and from that time, as long as I stayed there, and I know not how much longer, they held a prayer meeting in his bar-room nearly every night.
THE MEMOIRS OF CHARLES G. FINNEY CHAPTER V.