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Roots of Evangelical Worship: Charles G. Finney

Many factors, cultural and theological, converged to form what we might call today “Evangelical Worship,” including Enlightenment philosophy, German Pietism, John and Charles Wesley, American revival and democracy, and rural camp meetings. None, however, had as significant impact as one individual—nineteenth-century Revivalist Charles G. Finney (1792–1875).

Influenced by theologian Nathaniel Taylor’s “New Haven Theology,” Finney denied the imputation of Adam’s sin to all humankind, and thus, “We deny that the human condition is morally depraved”;1 sin comes only from choice, not from nature. Therefore, “the sinner has all the faculties and natural abilities requisite to render perfect obedience to God”;2 most people are simply morally weak and lack the will to do so. “All [the sinner] needs,” Finney argued, “is to be induced to use these powers and attributes as he ought.”3

As for Christian sanctification, Finney was influenced by Wesleyan Perfectionism, insisting that given the right conditions, Christians could experience “entire sanctification.”4 Because Finney believed that conversion and sanctification could be produced by human means, he sought to create experiences in his services that would “induce” sinners to accept the claims of Christianity or be motivated to complete sanctification. In his Revival Lectures, Finney insisted that “there is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature,” and revival is therefore “a result of the use of the appropriate means.” In order to create revival, then, “God has found it necessary to take advantage of the excitability there is in mankind, to produce powerful excitements among them, before he can lead them to obey.”5 He argued, “there must be excitement sufficient to wake up the dormant moral powers.”6

Finney argued that in order to create the necessary excitement, churches must employ “new measures” since “The Tradition of the Elders” (the title of one of his sermons) that were familiar to the congregation would never produce the desired results. Many of the measures he advocated had first appeared in early nineteenth-century rural camp meetings, such as altar calls and the use of choruses, but Finney brought them into the urban mainstream.

Finney found the newly emerging pop culture as the perfect tool for creating exciting experiences because it was immediate and it stimulated excitement. Finney urged those writing and leading music in his meetings to look to the advertisers of the day for inspiration. This new way of thinking affected not only the content and style of worship and music, but it transformed the view of the church and its worship. Music for church services was chosen based on whatever would create an exciting atmosphere for unbelievers or believers. Liturgy within corporate worship eventually began to mimic that of an evangelistic meeting, with an altar call replacing the Lord’s Table as the climax of the service. Finney’s revivalist measures marked a decided break with the Judeo-Christian worship tradition.

Finney’s philosophy began a trend to create emotional experiences in the church that was kept alive in the revivalist tradition in the years to come. D. L. Moody (1837–1899) and his famous song leader, Ira Sankey (1840–1908), were widely known for their emotional, experience-oriented preaching and music, helping to further ingrain these kinds of methods into the church’s worship so that every service became an evangelistic revival meeting. Sankey popularized “evangelistic song leading” and soloists in services, composing songs reminiscent of older camp meeting choruses. Sankey published a collection of his songs in 1873 and then teamed with Sunday School song author Philip Bliss (1838–1876) to compile Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs in 1875, which included songs by the most prolific author of gospel songs, Fanny Crosby (1820–1915). Gospel Hymns was printed in six total editions through 1894, when a final edition included 739 gospel songs.

Later, Homer Rodeheaver (1880–1955), song leader to revivalist Billy Sunday (1862–1935), taught that “Creating the proper atmosphere for the character of the meeting to be held is an important office of the director.” He taught song leaders how using certain songs and directing methods could create the right “emotional conditioning.”7 Liturgically, a new service structure developed that consisted of a “song service,” the sermon, and a climactic altar call.

A New Worship Tradition

All of these influences converged to create what liturgical historian James White argues was a new worship tradition, which he suggests was adopted by “most of the traditions of Protestant worship” and “provided a ‘black hole’ that tended to swallow up many of the distinctive characteristics of previous traditions.”8 This new tradition minimized the Lord’s supper and baptism, a “concert-stage arrangement with the choir elevated and facing the congregation” developed, services celebrating distinctly American holidays replaced the Christian year, and extemporaneous prayer became the established norm. Church music, in particular, took on an entirely different function within services. Its purpose now became preliminary preparation for the sermon, used to unite the congregation and create a “sense of expectancy.” The music had no identifiable liturgical function; rather, “it was used to embellish, and the actual sequence during the first minutes did not seem of great importance.”9

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Charles Grandison Finney, Lectures on Systematic Theology (London: William Tegg and Co., 1851), 391. []
  2. Ibid., 408. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. Ibid., 405–7. []
  5. Charles G. Finney, Revivals of Religion (Boston: John P. Jewett & Company, 1858), 9. []
  6. Ibid., 11. []
  7. Homer Rodeheaver, Song Leadership: A Practical Manual for All Who Want to Help Folks Sing Together (Winona Lake, IN: Rodheaver, 1941), 8, 30. []
  8. James F. White, Protestant Worship: Traditions in Transition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989), 178–79. []
  9. Ibid., 185. []