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How Charles Finney Ruined Worship 1: Sola Scriptura

In order to understand how it is that Charles Finney ruined worship, we need to look at what happened at First Congregational Church in Oberlin, Ohio in the 1840s and 1850s.

But, for us to understand how Finney changed worship, we need to first understand what the Sunday worship of ordinary Americans would have been like before Finney changed it.

Weekly Preaching, Yearly Communion
For the worshipers in Oberlin, Ohio, like the great majority of all American churches in that era, Sunday worship meant hearing the Word of God. Prayers, singing, scripture readings, and sermons were the mainstay of Sunday worship. Worship was, as one man described it, the "school of Christ." Communion was celebrated only on special Sundays announced in advanced, usually once a year.

In reality, of course, the great majority (8 out of 10) of people identifying themselves as Christians on earth belong to a church that celebrates Communion every Sunday. Prior to the sixteenth century Reformation, that would have been 10 out of 10.

The reasons a segment of Christianity came to remove Communion from ordinary Sunday worship is a subject that needs more time than this one post. However, it is helpful to note, although Communion was always celebrated in the Mass, it appears to have been rarely shared by the laity. In 1500 ordinary laypeople didn't take Communion often. This was partly rooted in how much preparation was expected: confession, penance, fasting, and so forth. By the late Middle Ages those urging spiritual renewal were pleading with the laity to increase their frequency in taking Communion to once a year. Many still did not.

On top of that, the whole subject of Communion was a central causa belli for the religious divisions erupting across Europe, going all the back to Wycliffe and Hus. The Catholic explanation of transubstantiation was rejected by all Protestants. Among Protestants, though, there was nothing approaching a consensus. It is not surprising then, that when the Christians in Zurich did away with their rosaries and their statues of Mary, in order to worship and hear the word of God preached by married priests who were not wearing vestments, that Communion would not be an ordinary part of Sunday worship.

Protestant weekly worship was a dramatic expansion on the Service of the Word, often with all the liturgical wordings and memorized dialogues abandoned. Latin was replaced by the day to day language of the people. As the explosion in printed materials suggest, the Reformation was driven by words. Words printed. Words read aloud. Words preached about the Word. Sola scriptura was more than a principle, it was what weekly worship was all about. The homily, by then only an optional part of the Mass at best, was expanded in Protestant churches into extended powerful sermons. The central role of the pastor in worship transitioned from the performance of sacred rites to the public teaching of scripture.

And so, two centuries later, in the world of Charles Finney, child of an overwhelmingly Protestant young republic, ordinary Sunday worship was Bible-centered worship. There were prayers and singing, of course. But scripture read aloud and scripture preached was central. For all of their differences, this was true of the American Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Reformed churches.

Revive Us Again
A second essential component of Finney's world was the widespread presence and power of revivals. Revivals seem to have grown out of the days of preparation that Scots used to ready local churches for yearly communion. This period, often called the Sacramental Season, included a day or two or more of preaching in which Christians were urged to repent and the lost were urged to seek evidence that they were among the elect. By the 1620s, in both Ulster and Scotland, some of these meetings involved dramatic conversions and unusual behaviors.

These revivals had long lasting effects and even their critics acknowledged lives and whole churches were being dramatically changed. By the mid-eighteenth century, these preparation-for-communion gatherings could last many weeks and garner huge crowds. As many as 30,000 gathered near the small town of Cambuslang, Scotland, to hear the great George Whitefield and the descriptions of the crowd's responses parallel those we find sixty years later at Cane Ridge, Kentucky.

By the time of Finney, these gatherings, having long overshadowed the actual Communion observances of a local church, came to be planned and carried out as entirely independent events. It can be safely said that between 1800 and 1850 dramatic and emotional revivals were happening constantly somewhere in America.

In this era, Christian men who were extraordinarily gifted at teaching and moving large crowds of people often found themselves asked to preach for local revivals. In the case of a few, news of their preaching rapidly spread and soon they were traveling from place to place preaching. Revivals were increasingly planned and scheduled in advance. Ground would be cleared and raised platforms would be built. Information in newspapers or printed flyers would saturate the city and nearby towns. Then, the invited preacher would arrive and embark on weeks of daily preaching.

It is in this world that a law student named Charles Grandison Finney was dramatically converted, abandoned the practice of law, and began preaching. Although he did serve local churches, it was in the dramatic revivals that swept across New York state in the early 1830s that Finney's name became a household word. When the young Christian college at Oberlin, Ohio, persuaded Finney to move there in 1835, the college's reputation was instantly enhanced by their celebrity Professor of Theology. Two years later he assumed the pulpit at the First Congregational Church.

And, it is here, bolstered by his years of evaluating how to structure successful revivals, that Charles Finney will introduce changes in Sunday worship that will alter and then largely redefine both worship and evangelism for many Christians.

In the next post I will explain the changes Finney introduced into Sunday worship and why he introduced them.

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