Pelagius, Charles Finney and the Origins of Mormonism

A podcast I listen to about Christians solutions to poverty makes a big point on the tragedy of taking shortcuts.  The implications of shortcuts were ringing in my ears as I listened to this Stand to Reason podcast about Charles Finney

Direct link here. Full episode here.

Charles Finney was a Presbyterian minister who was largely responsible for the Second Great Awakening, an American revival in the early 19th Century. He’s credited with inventing the modern day “altar call” and born-again experience.  What most people don’t know is that Finney was largely influenced by Pelagius, a 4th Century monk and heretic, who didn’t believe in vicarious atonement or original sin. Finney sought to gather people around Jesus as merely a moral figure and make the church a moral reform society.  Finney preached that “deeds not creeds” should be our focus to that end.

Probably the worst thing that came out of Finney’s revivals was the “get saved” mentality which sought out converts rather than disciples.  It was Finney’s philosophy to do and say whatever necessary to get people to make a decision at that moment.  Unfortunately that led to a rather shallow depth of faith for his converts.  As other revivals came through the area people were switching back and forth between denominations based on the powerful calls to action the revival preachers offered rather than a rich understanding of the tenets of their faith.

Because of the intense revivalist battles the area eventually earned the name the “burned-over district“.  It also became known as the psychic highway.  It became a sort of  past time in the area to have intense spiritual experiences and to create new religions around those experiences.  Among those religions, Mormonism.

This podcast also has a great number of implications and insights into our recent discussion on liberal Christianity and “faithless” religion.


12 thoughts on “Pelagius, Charles Finney and the Origins of Mormonism

  1. Yeah, the story of the burned-over district is an interesting one. It’s amazing how many religious movements came out of a relative small geographic area over just a few decades. And what some of the groups then taught makes early LDS polygamy sound pretty tame.

    Tim said:

    Probably the worst thing that came out of Finney’s revivals was the “get saved” mentality which sought out converts rather than disciples. It was Finney’s philosophy to do and say whatever necessary to get people to make a decision at that moment.

    That reminds of the “baseball baptisms” of somewhat recent LDS history. That sort of thing doesn’t produce lasting growth except in the most unusual of circumstances.

  2. For those who are tempted to think that Baptist=altar call, I’m told that Charles Spurgeon fought the ‘altar call’ methodology till his dying day, and refused to use it. A very passionate preacher, he considered the message itself the “call” and if THAT didn’t do it, then it wasn’t that person’s time… these methods were adopted at his church, I think, after Spurgeon’s death…. I’m sure Charles was looking on with some displeasure at that.

    I try to extend grace and flexibility to ALL preachers, but to ask for “every eye to close, and every head bow….” still makes me GAG…..


  3. I would like to reproduce this post on my blog (with links to your blog) in the near future, if that would be alright with you.

    Thanks for your consideration.

    – Steve M.

  4. I find it funny how people have so much hearsay on Finney. He denied Pelagius and even shouted against him. Just because he denied the dogmatic doctrine of original sin which includes infant baptism as a necessary atonement for a child, which was drafted by Augustine and later adopted by many others, does not mean he was a heretic. If you read his Systematic theology, you will see the vast opposite of almost half of what you are saying… I find it crazy that the internet is flooded with such false dirt on Finney. Did you know that precious Luther believes in infant baptism and adopted the “doctrine” of original sin. And your “deeds not creeds” comment is very off. You should look up the doctrine of disinterested benevolence, chiefly adopted by Finney. God looks at the intents of the heart above all from “dead works” and He preached this MANY times and brought all theological concepts in his treatise back to it. He followed Jonathan Edwards in the doctrine of disinterested benevolence even though he was vastly leaning opposite on the interpretation of the doctrines of election, being an extreme non-fatalist. I’m sure you are a brother in Christ and believe 95% of what I do at least, but I would challenge you to actually read something he wrote, which you might have and misinterpreted it. Do I agree with everything he wrote…absolutely not…,but I will include one more detail: The man was a tireless disciple, preached intensely on the duty of man to repent before accepting Christ, did not invent the “modern alter call”, and most certainly did not have legalistic concepts but in fact spoke against them.

  5. Finney was a heretic. He denied, fought against the central doctrine of Christianity, Justification by faith, as well as dismissed original sin, and that Jesus Christ needed to justify himself by upholding the law, and that when Jesus Christ was crucified he died for himself, nobody else, that Jesus Christ atoned for no sins, that he was not the vicarious sacrifice that the Bible speaks of. This is but the beginning of his heresies.

  6. I have just read, again,Christopher Svochak’s comment on his ascertion that Finney “most certainly did not have legalistic concepts but in fact spoke against them.” This is untrue. All throughout Finney’s lengthy writings the law for justification is upheld, that we are justified as far as we are able to honour and uphold the law. This is stated, time and time again. This is beside the fact that Finney actually claimed that we can fulfill the law: “It is self-evident that entire obedience to God’s law is possible on the grounds of natural ability. To deny this is to deny that a man is able to do as well as he can.” (Finney’s ‘Systematic Theology.’ Pg.407).

  7. William, I am not here to go on at length on what you see as false but would like to clarify a few things. Did you actually read Systematic theology, or did you just briefly search?, because that seems like most of the things I see on here. I’m not going to “google and quote” his writing, but he certainly wrote in systematic theology in his chapters titled ‘atonement’ by the blood of Christ being the only way to be free for past sins and did not preach conformity to law to be justified for past sins. He preached true submission to God and repentance followed by and a true holy life following the transformation and indwelling of the holy spirit. He also said that he denied “the doctrine of original sin” as put forth by St. Augustine, which most do these days (it includes infant baptism among other things). When you quoted him on natural ability, I believe he was speaking about Jonathan Edward’s writings in that passage. That was a very deep passage, and he was not saying that “upholding the law without God is possible on man’s own strength”. Rather, he was saying that if you believe God’s laws are impossible to follow, then either He is tyrannically unjust for punishing you, or his law is incomplete and imperfect. Either way, I wish you well and hope we both know greater of who God is and seek Him more not for our theology sake, but for the lost who need Him.

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