Chapter XIV

Practical Pelagianism

Rev. Charles G. Finney was the first preacher, who adequately attempted to employ the theology of New Haven, in its practical relations. His “Sermons on important Subjects” present favorable illustrations of his practical system. Of their publication, he stated, in the preface, that, “As my health has been such as to render it probable that I shall never be able to labor as an evangelist again, I have thought that it might, in some measure, subserve the cause of Christ, to publish something, on several points, that I have found, by experience, to need discussion and explanation.”

We have, here, therefore, the views which his maturest experience, as an evangelist, induced him to present and insist upon. The first and second of these discourses are founded upon Ezekiel xviii. 31, and are entitled, “Sinners bound to change their own hearts;” and “How to change your heart.”

In the first of these, the preacher states what a “spiritual heart” is. It “is that deep‑seated but voluntary preference of the mind, which lies back of all its other voluntary affections and emotions, and from which they take their character. In this sense, I understand the term, heart, to be used, in the text. It is, evidently something over which we have control, something voluntary; something for which we are to blame, and which we are bound to alter.” “A change of heart consists in changing the controlling preference of the mind, in regard to the end of pursuit. The selfish heart is a preference of self‑interest, to the glory of God, and the interests of his kingdom. A new heart consists in a preference of the glory of God, and the interests of his kingdom, to one’s own happiness.” “It is a change in the choice of a Supreme Ruler.” In the entire discourse, there is not a word of self‑loathing, in view of the ineffable holiness of God, nor of recourse to the Fountain of cleansing for sin. In fact, Christ is altogether ignored, in his true character; and is only known as the preferred candidate for gubernatorial honors. As a citizen may change his politics, “so with a sinner; if his heart is changed, you will see that Christians become his friends, Christ his candidate.” “Now, the language of his heart and life is, ‘Let Christ rule, king of nations, as he is king of saints.”‘ This presents a perfectly adequate view of the whole system—All sin is selfishness; and the whole question, involved in the a matter of salvation, is, a political issue between self and God—who shall be king—Christ, or, Satan.

The preacher next shows the requirement of the text to be reasonable and equitable. It is so, because it is fully within man’s power to make the change. “Suppose God should command a man to fly; would the command impose upon him any obligation, until he is furnished with wings? Certainly not.” “As, therefore, God requires men to make to themselves a new heart, on pain of eternal death, it is the strongest possible evidence that they are able to do it.”

But, how is all this consistent with the Bible statements that a new heart. is the gift of God? The preacher answers: “There is a sense in which conversion is the work of God. There is a sense in which it is the effect of truth. There is a sense in which the preacher does it. And it is, also, the appropriate work of the sinner himself. The fact is, that the actual turning, or change, is the sinner’s own act. The agent who induces him, is the Spirit of God. A secondary agent is the preacher or individual who presents the truth. The truth is the instrument, or motive, which the Spirit uses, to induce the sinner to turn.” A man, in a reverie, is unconsciously approaching the verge of Niagara. You call to him, “Stop!” He hears; sees his danger, and turns. You thus save him. The word, “Stop,” saves him. But the man says, ” If I had not turned, I should have been a dead man.” Here, he speaks of it, and truly, as his own act.” So here, “Not only does the preacher say, Stop, but, through the living voice of the preacher, the Spirit cries, Stop. The preacher cries, ‘Turn ye, why will ye die?’ The Spirit pours the expostulation home, with such power that the sinner turns. Now, in speaking of this change, it is perfectly proper to say, that the Spirit turned him; just as you would say of a man, who had persuaded another to change his mind, on the subject of politics, that he had converted him, and brought him over.” “Now, it is strictly true, and true, in the most absolute and highest sense, the act is his own act, the turning is his own turning; while God, by the truth, has in duced him to turn, still, it is strictly true that he has turned, and has done it himself.” “The striving of the Spirit of God with men, is not a physical scuffling, but a debate; a strife, not of body with body, but of mind with mind; and that, in the action and reaction of vehement argumentation.”

From such premises, the conclusion is easily drawn, that “if the sinner ever has a new heart, he must obey the command of the text, and make it, himself..” But, if this be so, “why does he need the Spirit of God?” For the same reason that a man who can pay his debts, but will not, needs the appliances of the law, to make him willing, as well as able.

In the second discourse, we have the answer to the great question, to which the preacher has brought us, “How to change your heart.” We have already seen, that, in Taylor’s means of regeneration, the first step is, to bring selfishness into a passive state; after having accomplished which, he finds all else easy. But he fails to tell how selfishness is to be thus disposed of. To this point, the whole attention of Mr. Finney is now turned. First, he warns us, that the change of heart is not to be accomplished by an arbitrary calling up of a given set of feelings or emotions. To acquire these, we must look, not at them, but at considerations appro priate to induce them. “If you will give attention, I will try to place before you such considerations as are best calculated to induce the state of mind which constitutes a change of heart.” What a miserable falling off is this! We have just been assured, in the most emphatic manner, that we ourselves, can work this change, that, if it is ever done, we, and we only, must do it. Now, when we are ready to attempt this great work, we are remanded to consider ations which may perhaps do it for us. The thing to be accomplished is, to get rid of the affection of selfishness, and to acquire that of benevolence, love to God and man. But these we cannot command; perhaps certain considerations may! But what are these potent considerations, which are the best calculated to change the will and turn the heart ? Are they drawn from the infinite love of God, in giving his Son, to satisfy justice, and atone for sin? Are they derived from the scenes of Gethsemane, the judgment‑hall, and Calvary? No; these are altogether ignored, except in a passing allusion to them, as illustrations of the self-denial of God worthy of our imitation! The considerations, the only ones presented, are these: “First, fix your mind upon the unreasonableness and hatefulness of selfishness.” “Next, look at the reasonableness and utility of benevolence:” “Again, consider the reasons why God should govern the universe.” Such are the considerations, by means of which the inquiring sinner is instructed that he can make himself a new heart. Such, the practical theology, which, emanating from New Haven, became the legitimate parent of the wildest extravagance and fanaticism, in New England and the Presbyterian Church.

The fundamental principle of all the teaching was, that ability is absolutely the measure of obligation. The argument proceeded to the assumption that, such being the case, a just God will not hold us under obligation, unless we have the corresponding ability. Hence, the conclusion was deduced, that, whatever the Bible exhibits as a duty, we now can do. The point considered in the above discourses was only one application of this general principle. “As God requires men to make to themselves a new heart, on pain of eternal death, it is the strongest possible evidence that they are able to do it. To say that he has commanded them to do it, without telling them they are able, is consummate trifling. Their ability is implied as strongly as can be, in the command itself.”

This heresy involved with it a corresponding view, as to the office of the preaching of the gospel and the other means of grace. The word preached was not only different from that of the orthodox Church of God, in all ages, with respect to this point of ability, but, also, as to the matter, otherwise, of the gospel preached. In order to sustain the doctrine of ability, sin was relieved of its radical and inveterate nature, and reduced to a mere perversity of will, completely within man’s control. Not only, therefore, was the office of the Spirit obscured and lost, but. the precious blood of Calvary became comparatively valueless, and the doctrine of the cross of no repute—disparaged, alike, by the denial of the infinite evil of sin, and the assertion that Christ did not,. in fact, suffer its penalty. In a word, the whole issue between God and the sinner, justice being ignored, was reduced to a question of sovereignty, debated between the will of man and the rights of God. It is no longer, an issue between infinite holiness and unspeakable vileness and depravity; but a conflict between selfishness and benevolence, a contest waged at the bar of man’s free will, between God and Satan, who shall be sovereign; a contest, the decision of which is with the will of man; whilst God’s only remedy is, to avenge himself, by making man “as miserable as he can.”

The result of all this was, that the preaching of the cross became foolishness; the announcement of the Spirit, as the omnipotent and sovereign Renewer was condemned, as calculated to encourage men in indifference and ungodliness; and the preaching and other instrumentalities, devised and employed, were directed to one object—by arguments, by terrors, by entreaties, by vituperation, by clamor and excitement, by protracted and exhausting exercises, by any means, to break down the sinner’s will, and induce him to “submit to God.”

Another result, directly flowing from these doctrines, was the cultivation of a spirit of the most shocking irreverence and profanity. The theory professed to enthrone God. But the throne accorded to him was not his own seat of unapproachable majesty and glory; but, an exaltation conferred upon him by the free suffrages of those who prefer him as “candidate,” for governor. In the Spirit, they did not recognize a creative energy, “according to the working of his mighty power which he wrought in Christ Jesus, when he raised him from the dead,” but only a debater, skillful, indeed; but not so much so, that they had not long resisted his arguments; and could have done so for ever, had they chosen.

The disciple of this system, having tested and proved his own powers, by resisting the Spirit, as long as he pleased, and withholding sovereignty from Jehovah; and then, by a voluntary surrender, and making himself a new heart, felt entitled to tike great liberties with the adorable Godhead, and to be very familiar with Heaven. He claimed to have power with God—power to ask and receive whatever he chose.

The picture is revolting; but it is real; and the warning it conveys is one to which the Church should give solemn heed.

The system attained to its logical results, in the perfectionism which sprang up, broadcast, as an after-crop, in Western New York; and which Mr. Finney, himself, at length embraced, and transplanted to the congenial soil of Oberlin, Ohio, soil, in both regions, fallowed for such harvests, by the operation of the Plan of Union. If the divine commands are criteria of our ability, the words, “Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,” are an assurance that we can be perfect, as God.

It is not our design to trace the history of this system of doctrines and measures, as it triumphed, in a succession of misnamed revivals, in New England, and especially among the mixed congregations of the Plan of Union, in Western New York. That region was swept, as with wild‑fire, by the excitement of the new gospel; and left barren and parched, an easy prey to every form of fanaticism and satanic delusion.

Some illustrations of the system of new measures, born of the new theology, are now to be presented. In perfect harmony with the principles already stated, as determining the whole development, was the dictum, which was avowed by Mr. Finney as deciding the selection and use of means of grace. “The object of the ministry, is to get all the people to feel that the devil has no right to rule. this world; but that they ought all to give themselves to God, and vote in the Lord Jesus Christ, as governor of the universe. Now what shall be done? What measures shall we take? Says one, ‘Be sure and have nothing that is new.’ Strange! The object of our measures is to gain attention, and you must have something new. As sure as the effect of a measure becomes stereotyped, it ceases to gain attention, and you must try something new.” By skillful use of these new means, he thinks attention may he kept awake for a long course of years, “until our present measures will, by and by, have sufficient novelty in them, again, to attract and fix the public attention. And so, we shall never want, for something new.”

If the work of regeneration is one to be performed by men themselves, all this is evidently most proper. At the same time; it involves the introduction of a great diversity of measures, as the wit. or fancy of different preachers happens to be more or less inventive. The following were some of the leading measures employed by Mr. Finney and his immediate followers.

Conspicuous to the first glance of observation, was a rude and vulgar dialect, ornamented with a selection of slang expressions, enforced by grimaces, and theatrical gestures. “Dignity, indeed!” cries Mr. Finney, “Just the language of the devil!” “Let hell boil over, if it will, and spew out as many devils as there are stones in the pavement,” etc.

Akin to this, are the irreverence and profanity which were characteristic, not of Mr. Finney alone, but of the whole class of Pelagian revivalists. Says Mr. Finney, “Perhaps it is not too much to say, that it is impossible for God himself to bring about reformations, but by new measures.” “God cannot sustain this free and blessed country, which we love and pray for, unless the Church will take right ground” in regard to politics. Many expressions thus used are too shocking to repeat. Mr. Nettleton quotes the exclamation of a pious colored woman of Troy,” I do wonder what has got all the ministers to swear so, in the pulpit.”

Another revolting feature of the system was the style of prayer employed. “Father Nash, the praying man,” was a special favorite and co‑laborer with Mr. Finney, in Troy. “He perhaps exceeded all others in the frequent repetition of, ‘O God Almighty, Come, God Almighty, Come down, break in upon them.’ After continuing these strains, sometimes for a whole hour, alternately upon his knees, but more frequently sitting back upon his heels; writhing, as in an agony, throwing himself as far back as he could and recover, and then bringing his head forward into his chair; rising and bringing the weight of his fists to bear upon it, and give emphasis to his expressions; after continuing thus agonized in prayer, as he called it, for a whole hour, he would sometimes pitch forward into his chair, sometimes throw himself backward; sometimes rise and walk, as though hurried with a resistless impetus, and cry, ‘O God! O God! O God !’”

Connected with this wrestling, was what was much insisted upon, particularity in prayer; that is, the naming and describing those to be prayed for. “The, first thing, to be regarded as indispensable, is, to introduce the individual by name, and, in this, great care is to be taken, that the name be rightly called; as a misnomer has, it is said, been the occasion of disappointment, in the looked for result. The next thing in order is, to tell what God knows of the individual. If perchance, the subject be a female, her sex must first be noticed, followed with, ‘O Lord, thou seest this hardened enemy of thine,’ (for it has been considered wickedness to call a sinner by a softer name, than God’s enemy. ‘Thou seest. how she has raised her female hands against thee, and how she is stretching out her puny female hands to lay hold of thee and pull thee from thy throne! See, Lord, how full her hands are of sharp arrows, to fight thee! Thou seest how she is hurling her defiance at thee. Thou knowest how black her heart is, and how her enmity to thee rankles and burns like the malice of a demon;’ and, if she be present, it must be added, ‘Thou seest how she has come in here, with thy little ones, too proud to kneel before thee. Thou knowest that she has come in here on purpose to mock thee, and insult thee to thy face.’ After completing this description; which, by the by, was often drawn out far beyond what I have here quoted, then might follow the petition or imprecation, ‘Now, Lord God Almighty! come down upon this enemy of thine; break in upon her; break her down, O Lord, break her dawn.’ (This could not be too often repeated.) ‘Break in upon her. And if thou hast one thunderbolt in store, heavier than another, come, God Almighty, and break it over her head. Break her down. Crush her at thy feet. Slay her before thee.’”

“But, in case the subjects be males; (for, from six to twelve names were frequently introduced in the same prayer,) then the description and petition must vary with circumstances; as, ‘O Lord, thou knowest he is a hardened wretch. Thou seest how he has raised his crest against thee. Thou knowest, Lord, how vile his heart is; and how nothing is wanting to make him a perfect devil, but for thee to strip the covering of his heart. Now, Lord, don’t let him boast himself against thee; but draw thy sword and come down upon him. Drive it through his heart, and let him bleed at thy feet; that thine enemies may see it and be afraid.’

” This,” says Dr. Brockway, an intelligent and candid eye-witness, “is a .fair, though faint, specimen of the kind of praying which has been so abundant in Troy. I say, a faint specimen; because, to render it any way complete, it should be accompanied with loud groans, and with all that kind of action which denotes extreme distress. It is a fair specimen, because I have not introduced a single expression but what has been common; and many of them have been introduced more than twenty times in a single prayer; besides the addition of a long similar list, to fill out a prayer of half or three-quarters of an hour.”

This was particularity in prayer; and prayer that was not particular was of no value. This was fervency, and the admonition was familiar, “Don’t let us have any cold prayers.” This was telling the truth about people; and, said Dr. Beman, when expostulated with, about it, “Ah, well! we ought to pray the truth about folks. People are too apt, when they pray for individuals, not to tell God the truth about them. They will call them the servants of God; when, in fact, they are the servants of the devil. We ought to pray the truth about folks.”

A just conception of this part of the system, however will not be had, until we include in it the custom of ten or twelve in succession uttering these pretended prayers, without a word besides being said, read, or sung; and several praying at the same time, whilst, perhaps, others were exhorting the impenitent to “submit to God,” while the prayers were being made for them. Add to this, the promiscuous praying of women, in these assemblies, a measure eminently adapted to “arrest attention,” and create excitement. It was admitted, by some, to be wrong for women to pray in public. But, in mixed social meetings, it was altogether allowable, although fifty to a hundred persons might be present.

The “prayer of faith” filled an important place in the system. If they would only believe, they might have anything they chose to ask of God, and all other prayer was held up as an abomination to him.

As it was commonly difficult, at first, to find, in any community, a sufficient number of persons, qualified to carry on the machinery of this system, the evangelist was usually accompanied by several experts, who were represented as full of the Holy Ghost. These and the evangelist were “the holy band,” whose business it was, by any means, to create and keep up an excitement, and, especially to take charge of the prayer‑meetings, and the inquiry-room; from which, ordinarily, all others were excluded. The pastor was usually admitted an honorary, though subordinate, member of the band. One conspicuous trait characteristic of the band, was the indulgence of a spirit of the most arrogant pride and self-righteousness, commonly exhibited in the denunciation of Christians and ministers. “There is, to be sure,” said Father Nash, addressing the people of Dr. Beman’s church, in a prayer-meeting, “There is some thing of a revival, in Troy; but no thanks to any of you old professors, for it. No!—no thanks to any of you. You only hinder the work. If you were all removed out of the way, entirely; yes, I say, every one of you; if you were all removed entirely out of the city, and out of reach, so that your influence would be out of sight, the work would go on a great deal better. Yes, let two or three faithful ministers come in here from abroad, and take the whole management of the work, it would go much better. There is, to be sure, some of the young converts who would help some. Yes, I could name one young convert, who is worth more than all of you. Come, now, pray, some of you. But don’t make any of your cold prayers.”

Intimately connected with this trait was the disposition to arrogate the gift of discerning spirits, and to pronounce all those, and especially ministers, who would not give active countenance to their proceedings, to be unconverted men. As such, they were made the subjects of prayer, in which all the approved characteristics of particularity, fervency, and ” speaking the truth to God,” respecting them, were liberally displayed.

Like the prayers, was the preaching of this system. Designed to excite and “break down” the hearers, it was characterized by the selection of the most alarming themes, and the presentation of them in the most startling style and with the use of the most shocking imagery. “Look! look!” cries Mr. Finney. “See the millions of wretches, biting, and gnawing their tongues, as they lift their scalding heads, from the burning lake! See! see! how they are tossed and how they howl, as the tempest beats; blown up, by the breath of the Almighty. Hear them groan, amidst the fiery billows; as they lash, and lash,, and lash, their burning shores.”

Particularity was cultivated in preaching, as well as in prayer. Persons were described in such a manner as to leave no room to doubt who were intended; perhaps, with the eye fixed upon them, or the finger marking them, and the exclamation, “Thou art the man,” accompanied with the grossest vituperations and impassioned threatenings of hell, already exemplified.

Let us suppose this system of means in full operation. The report goes abroad that the man who has been so wonderfully blessed, in the conversion of souls, has come; and that a great work of the Spirit has begun. Believers hear it with joy, and crowd to the house of God. The unconverted throng the assembly, influenced by curiosity or hope. After a sufficient amount of the various exciting agencies has been employed, a call is made for sinners to come to the anxious seat; and the assurance is pressed upon them that now, and by this step, they must decide, for or against the claims of God. The excited throng rush to the appointed seats. Father Nash, or some other skilled in “fervent prayer,” is called to lead; and the anxious are assured that it is for them, now, if they choose, to make themselves new hearts; that is, to elect the Saviour to be Governor of the universe; and that they must do it, while the prayer is being offered. The prayer is uttered, amid groans and cries; whilst the anxious, it may be, are personally addressed by parents or friends, or by one of the ” holy band.” At the close of the prayer, those who have ” submitted to God” are called to rise, or retire to the conference‑room. A number respond. The same pro cess is renewed, again and again, until the night is far spent, and the morning hours are encroached upon. This course is continued, night after night, for weeks, or even months; as long as material remains, to be operated upon, or the susceptibilities to excitement continue.

At first, a judicious pastor and intelligent Christians may be startled, and alarmed. But souls are at stake. The revivalist has a reputation and experience, in which they fondly confide; and, soon, the power of effectual resistance is gone. The minister is “broken down,” and his unwilling sanction gives an additional impulse to the revivalist’s fame. Soon the papers report a great revival. Hundreds of converts are announced. Among them are numbered all who, by rising, or other wise, in response to the oft-repeated calls, have professed themselves to have enlisted on the Lord’s side. The evangelist goes his way, crowned with honor, and laden with gifts, to reenact similar scenes, on some other stage.

But, what has been the result upon the Church? Unconverted persons, who were of a susceptible disposition and tender conscience, have been wrought up to an intense state of excitement. This, according to a well-known law of the human mind, which refuses, permanently, to sustain excessive emotion, of any kind, has suddenly given place to apathy. The subject of it is “broken down,” and a transition is realized, which is supposed to be a change of heart. Others, more self -confident, have accepted the terms of salvation, pre sented to them; by electing Jesus as King, and deter­mining, henceforward, to be on his side. They have made themselves new hearts.” Thus, the impenitent are deceived. The Church is filled with false professors. The moral susceptibilities of all are blunted and deadened, multitudes awake out of the dream, to find themselves deceived, and to pronounce all religion a sham and a fraud. Others are the easy prey of the wildest fanatical impostures. The cause of true religion is prostrate; and the Church is doomed to years of barrenness and desolation; relieved, it may be, at long intervals, by spasms of activity, under the galvanism of similar appliances.

Such were the fruits, widely realized in Western New York, from the New Haven theology. They were its legitimate and proper results. The good taste, common sense, and piety, of many of the disciples of that school, may revolt from these exhibitions, and pause before adopting them, in their full development. But the practical system of Finney, Burchard, Myrick, and their compeers, was deduced, from the theology of New Haven, by a logic, which no ingenuity can evade. Dr. Beecher joined, at first, with Nettleton and others in expostulations to Messrs. Beman, Finney, and the patrons of their measures. “He has set himself up,” said Dr. Beman, “to oppose revivals, for fear they were getting unpopular.” Whatever the motives, Dr. Beecher afterward found reason to change his position, and give the cordial sanction of his presence and voice to the preaching and measures of Finney; when laboring in Boston, at a later date.

The errors of the New Divinity may, to many, seem of no practical importance; but the results following are, the ruin of souls, and the desolation of the churches.

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