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Is All Revivalism Guilty of Emotionalism?

Dear Ben,

Thanks for your recent video, Casting Out the Ghost of Charles Finney. I affirm many of your concerns with his preaching and ministry. Charles Finney stood atop pulpits and altar railings preaching a fire and brimstone message that ironically had sociological tricks in tow. The altar call with plants in the audience is again being mimicked by new emotionalists. He was a showman and a strange part of the holiness movement. I think you are right in the dangers of his theology. But what about the dangers of his methods? Finney was a great example of the emotional aspects of the faith being given more credence than the intellectual aspects. So what would you say about the criticism that much of today’s church lacks any real emotional interaction with the gospel? Even Pentecostal and Charismatic groups are leaving emotion and increasing the educational requirements for their leadership. What are we to make of this and how do you think it affects our regular worship experience? I look forward to hearing back from you.

In Christ,

Your friend Michael.


Hey Michael,

This is a very interesting question. So let me say right up front that I believe Christianity should not be devoid of emotion. Emotion is an important part of our interaction with the gospel. The whole person is intended to benefit from what it teaches. That said, in the context of my presentation on Finney, let me offer a few additional pieces of back ground information that are relevant both to my talk as well as to my answer to your question.

As any careful read of the history will show, Finney apparently believed that people were converted to Christ through what he and others called "religious excitements". It is interesting that this language was not original to Finney himself, but was rather borrowed terminology from the first Great Awakening. Jonathan Edwards had used the phrase often and his son, Jonathan Edwards Jr., sought to find a way to ensure that the highly emotional experiences of the New England awakenings would be available and accessible to future generations. So he joined with a number of like-minded clergy to form what eventually became known as the "New Divinity School" in the New England area.

Unfortunately, the group de-emphasized careful proclamation of God's Word (something which J. Edwards Sr. would have certainly found questionable). They seemed to think that the emotional aspects of the faith were more important than the simple knowledge of pure, biblical doctrine. By thus overemphasizing Edwards Sr.’s calculated attempts to make his own preaching deliberately emotionally arresting, the “New School” soon developed its own flavor of theology in Presbyterian enclaves throughout the upper north-east part of the country. This eventually gave birth to full-on progressive and even liberal Protestant theology—something which Princeton Theological Seminary has actually never recovered from.

Perhaps it is therefore not surprising that Edwards Sr. came to question the emotional outbursts that became typical after the Awakenings began. Sometimes they would occur right in the middle of preaching and so all traces of “order” and “process” went to the winds. For this reason, Edwards himself went on to try to settle the church down, eventually writing a book entitled: “The Distinguishing Marks Of A True Work of God, Applied To That Uncommon Operation That Has Lately Appeared On the Minds Of the People Of New England: With A Particular Consideration Of The Extraordinary Circumstances With Which This Work Is Attended.” A mouth-full of a book title to say the least!

Personally, I believe that Edwards Sr. had gradually become suspicious of what he was seeing. I wonder at times if the things he witnessed were at all dissimilar from the “Toronto Airport Blessing”. In fact, this is exactly what Finney himself had sought to imbibe; the idea that emotionalism was necessary to “excite conversion”. Sadly, the phenomenon may not have been very different from what the Reformers centuries earlier had pejoratively called “Enthusiasm.” It was a kind of crass "zeal without knowledge" and it created huge "up-front" results followed by as much as a 95% drop-off rate from its anxious volunteers. This sounds a good deal worse then the drop-off rate one might predict from Jesus’ "Parable Of The Soils" (though I certainly wouldn't seek to extract any literal ratios from the story).

For this reason, I am inclined to think that something had gone direly wrong with Charles Finney’s ministry. Emotionalism aside, it was his theology that has lately concerned me the most. He seemed very capable of reducing an entire audience, with much labor, to screaming, retching, jerking, and weeping uncontrollably, but was also very incapable of establishing his listeners in a sense of abiding grace. And how, after all, could he accomplish this? He apparently didn’t believe in allowing for it. He had no innate basis for such an experience because his theology systematically precluded it. As Clive Taylor noted, Finney was simply too good a Pelagian to allow for such "quietism".

I have therefore come to believe that emotionalism should not be a goal in preaching at all. Rather, clear conviction, faith, repentance, conversion, and Holy Spirit Baptism (all of which I believe in) should follow the preaching of God's word. This is the pattern in the apostles ministry. Their preaching produced an experience of both repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Hence, when our preaching fails to produce a knowledge of these, it seems to me that this is a sign that something has gone wrong.

I have thus in my later years come to view with a degree of suspicion, Jonathan Edwards' own admission that he was only able to bring “some” of the people that heard his message ("Sinners In The Hands of An Angry God") to a place of peace in the knowledge of God’s grace. My question is why? Why couldn't he do this? All he needed to do was preach it. The word produces it because of what it announces. So why the trouble in Edwards' case? Obviously, any answer which ventures to say “They failed to meet the requirements for true repentance” becomes guilty of viewing repentance and justification (rather than faith and justification) as biconditional. And that is simply a confusion of law and gospel.

So in conclusion, I am not much of a fan of any “revival” which fails at matters which are so fundamental and basic. If the goal of revival is to lube up the conversion process, why has it failed to do so in so many cases? Personally, I have witnessed true revival at least twice. But I have far more often witnessed things which appear to be highly suspect. So I am willing to say at this point that heavy crying and weeping for our sins that won’t stop the same day it starts isn’t necessarily a good thing. In fact, it could simply be a sign that we’ve hung a dark pall of death upon the cross and draped the doctrine of justification in the morticians cloth. At the end of the day, both repentance and forgiveness need to occur in one and the same heart for salvation to be a legitimate experience. And how could the same be untrue for revival? So I welcome a sense of emotion in preaching, worship and prayer. But I am equally wary of "Finneyism" as I am of "dead orthodoxy". So hopefully that speaks into the question you are asking. And thanks for dropping a line Michael! Blessings man!

In Christ,

Ben Fischer <><

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