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  • Writer's pictureObbie Tyler Todd

The Terrifying Eyes of Charles Grandison Finney



Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875) has been dubbed the father of modern revivalism for good reason. As the most famous preacher of the Second Great Awakening, he was the inventor of the so-called “new measures,” innovative methods designed to produce decisions for Christ on the part of his hearers. These measures included protracted meetings, public prayer by men and women, and most famously, the anxious bench, a seat positioned near the pulpit where penitent sinners could contemplate their sins. In an era of American history that ascribed more and more importance to the choices of everyday people, Finney was an outspoken abolitionist and someone who expanded traditional notions of free will. (He once preached a sermon entitled “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts.”) Finney has been accused of manipulating the emotions of his listeners to engineer a brief spiritual experience. Michael Horton has gone so far as to call him “not only an enemy of evangelical Protestantism, but of historic Christianity of the broadest sort.”[1] Finney always was, and still is, a figure of controversy.

While Finney’s anxious bench has survived in the form of today’s “altar call,” Finney’s most lasting legacy upon American evangelicalism may be his mark upon American preaching itself. With the persuasion of a trained lawyer, Charles Grandison Finney transferred the power of preaching from the oratorical to the visible. Finney’s magnetism was located not just in his voice, but in his eyes. In the so-called “Burned-Over-District” of Western New York, a region populated with displaced Puritans, churches were accustomed to fervent preaching. However, from his earliest days in the pulpit, what set Finney apart was his ability to capture (and frighten) people with his eyes. Finney knew how to stare into someone’s soul. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton once called Finney the great “terrifier of souls.”[2]

Finney’s reputation for mesmerism began in western New York. In the spring of 1826, a fiery college student in Oneida, New York named Theodore Dwight Weld was invited by his aunt to come listen to Finney one Sunday morning. Weld had heard of Finney’s irreverent style and was convinced that “this man is not a minister.” Nevertheless, Weld politely acquiesced to his aunt. Preaching from Ecclesiastes 9:18 (“One Sinner destroyeth much good”), Finney stared directly at Weld for what seemed like the entire sermon. “He just held me up on his toasting-fork before that audience,” Weld recalled, convinced that Finney had personalized his sermon just for him. Apparently, it was too personal. The next day Weld went to confront Finney about his approach only to fall victim to Finney’s gaze. Soon the two were sobbing and praying together. Finney had gained one of his most trusted disciples. Eventually, Weld became Finney’s “most talented protégé and trusted aide,” embracing his bold, anti-authoritarian style.[3]

While a host of Finney’s sermons and lectures have been left behind for us to read, it is difficult to convey their convicting power apart from the eyes that could pierce even the most unwilling soul. According to historian Richard Hofstadter, Finney’s stare was almost unparalleled in the United States. “Finney was gifted with a big voice and a flair for pulpit drama. But his greatest physical asset was his intense, fixating, electrifying, madly prophetic eyes, the most impressive eyes — except perhaps for John C. Calhoun’s — in the portrait gallery of nineteenth-century America.”[4]Indeed, daguerreotype photos of Finney reveal the ferocity of his eyes, and he leveraged this part of his repertoire when he became a full-time pastor. After Finney established himself as a national phenomenon, he became the pastor of Broadway Tabernacle in Manhattan, New York. Financed by Arthur and Lewis Tappan and other wealthy New York businessmen, the church was built according to Finney’s own specifications. The circular auditorium, seating 2,400 people, allowed Finney to look virtually every listener in the eye.[5] The building was the first of its kind in America. Finney had constructed a building which emphasized the strengths of his own preaching style. He wanted to lock eyes with each congregant.

Influenced by Finney’s success, across the river in Brooklyn years later, Henry Ward Beecher oversaw the construction of a new kind of church building not unlike Finney’s. “I want the audience to surround me,” he told the architect, “so that I shall be in the centre of the crowd, and have the people surge all about me.” Shedding his pulpit for a platform, Beecher introduced the age of the attraction-style megachurch by placing a premium on the visible experience of preaching.[6] One observer called Beecher a combination of the Apostle Paul and P. T. Barnum. A century earlier, during the First Great Awakening, preachers had been marked more by their voice than by their facial expressions. George Whitefield, the man revered for the way he said the word “Mesopotamia,” had actually been cross-eyed. Despite his theological genius, Jonathan Edwards was not known for his oratorical brilliance. But preaching had changed since the days of Whitefield and Edwards. With the help of Charles Finney, preaching was no longer just about speaking. It was about appearing.

When Finney moved to Oberlin College in northern Ohio in 1835 to become professor of theology and then president of the institution, he codified his new preaching style in his lectures on revivalism. Eye contact was now a principle of good preaching. He coached his students, “Mankind are accustomed to read the countenances of their neighbors. Sinners often read the state of a Christian’s mind in his eyes. If his eyes are full of levity, or worldly anxiety and contrivance, sinners read it. If they are full of the Spirit of God, sinners read it; and they are often led to conviction by barely seeing the countenance of Christians.” In other words, a preacher’s eyes conveyed the gravity of the gospel. Conversely, Finney taught, “If a minister has his eyes on the people he is preaching to, he can commonly tell by their looks whether they understand him.”[7] The eyes were the window into someone’s mind, and indeed their soul.

It was the power of Charles Finney’s eyes, not just his anxious bench, that revolutionized preaching in America. He believed that the aim of preaching was to influence people, and he utilized every part of the preaching experience to attempt to persuade sinners of their sin and their need for Christ. Perhaps churches today have imbibed Finney’s approach more than they think, with or without his hypnotic eyes.

[1] Michael Horton, “The Disturbing Legacy of Charles Finney,” Monergism, https://www.monergism.com/disturbing-legacy-charles-finney (Accessed August 5, 2023). [2] Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology, 216.

[3] Robert H. Abzug, Passionate Liberator, 48–49, 52. [4] Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in America, 92. [5] Hambrick-Stowe, Charles Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism, 162.

[6] Rugoff, The Beechers, 369. [7] Finney, Lectures on Revival of Religion, 16, 195.

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