ROM Lancaster, about mid-summer, 1830, I returned to Oneida county, New York, and spent a short time at my father-in-law's. I think it was at that time, during my stay in Whitestown, that a circumstance occurred of great interest, and which I will relate. A messenger came from the town of Columbia, in Herkimer county, requesting me to go down and assist in a work of grace there, which was already commenced. Such representations were made to me as induced me to go. However, I did not expect to remain there, as I had other more pressing calls for labor. I went down, however, to see; and to lend such aid as I was able for a short time.
At Columbia was a large German church, the membership of which had been received, according to their custom, upon examination of their doctrinal knowledge, instead of their Christian experience. Consequently the church had been composed mostly, as I was informed, of unconverted persons. Both the church and congregation were large. Their pastor was a young man by the name of H. He was of German descent, and from Pennsylvania.
He gave me the following account of himself, and of the state of things in Columbia. He said he studied theology with a German doctor of divinity, at the place where he lived, who did not encourage experimental religion at all. He said that one of his fellow students was religiously inclined, and used to pray in his closet. Their teacher suspected this, and in some way came to a knowledge of the fact. He warned the young man against it, as a very dangerous practice, and said he would become insane if he persisted in it, and he should be blamed himself for allowing a student to take such a course. Mr. H said that he himself had no religion. He had joined the church in the common way, and had no thought that anything else was requisite, so far as piety was concerned, to become a minister. But his mother was a pious woman. She knew better, and was greatly distressed that a son of her's should enter the sacred ministry, who had never been converted. When he had received a call to the church in Columbia, and was about to leave home, his mother had a very serious talk with him, impressed upon him the fact of his responsibility, and said some things that bore powerfully upon his conscience. He said that this conversation of his mother he could not get rid of; that it bore upon his mind heavily, and his convictions of sin deepened until he was nearly in despair.
This continued for many months. He had no one to consult, and did not open his mind to anybody. But after a severe and protracted struggle he was converted, came into the light, saw where he was, and where he had been, and saw the condition of his church, and of all those churches which had admitted their members in the way in which he had been admitted. His wife was unconverted. He immediately gave himself to labor for her conversion, and, under God, he soon secured it. His soul was full of the subject; and he read his Bible, and prayed and preached with all his might. But he was a young convert, and had had no instruction such as he needed, and he felt at a loss what to do. He rode about the town, and conversed with the elders of the church, and with the principal members, and satisfied himself that one or two of his leading elders, and several of his female members, knew what it was to be converted.
After much prayer and consideration, he made up his mind what to do. On the Sabbath he gave them notice that there would be a meeting of the church, on a certain day during the week, for the transaction of business, and wished all the church, especially, to be present. His own conversion, and preaching, and visiting, and conversing around the town had already created a good deal of excitement, so that religion came to be the common topic of conversation; and his call for a church meeting was responded to, so that, on the day appointed, the church were nearly all present.
He then addressed them in regard to the real state of the church, and the error they had fallen into in regard to the conditions on which members had been received. He made a speech to them, partly in German, and partly in English, so as to have all classes understand as far as he could; and after talking until they were a good deal moved, he proposed to disband the church and form a new one, insisting upon it that this was essential to the prosperity of religion. He had an understanding with those members of the church that he was satisfied were truly converted, that they should lead in voting for the disbanding of the church. The motion was put; whereupon the converted members arose as requested. They were very influential members, and the people looking around and seeing these on their feet, rose up, and finally they kept rising till the vote was nearly or quite unanimous. The pastor then said, There is now no church in Columbia; and we propose to form one of Christians, of people who have been converted.
He then, before the congregation, related his own experience, and called on his wife, and she did the same. Then the converted elders and members followed, one after another, as long as any could come forward, and relate a Christian experience. These, they proceeded to form into a church. He then said to the others, "Your church relations are dissolved. You are out in the world; and until you are converted, and in the church, you cannot have your children baptized, and you cannot partake of the ordinances of the church." This created a great panic; for according to their views, it was an awful thing not to partake of the sacrament, and not to have their children baptized; for this was the way in which they themselves had been made Christians.
Mr. H then labored with all his might. He visited, and preached, and prayed, and held meetings, and the interest increased. Thus the work had been going on for sometime, when he heard that I was in Oneida county, and sent the messenger for me. I found him a warm-hearted young convert. He listened to my preaching with almost irrepressible joy. I found the congregation large and interested; and so far as I could judge, the work was in a very prosperous, healthful state. That revival continued to spread until it reached and converted nearly all the inhabitants of the town. Galesburg, in Illinois, was settled by a colony from Columbia, who were nearly all converts, I believe, of the revival. The founder of the colony and of Knox College, located there, was Mr. Gale, my former pastor at Adams.
I have told facts, as I remember them, as related to me by Mr. H. I found his views evangelical, and his heart warm; and he was surrounded by a congregation as thoroughly interested in religion as could well be desired.
They would hang on my lips, as I held forth to them the Gospel of Christ, with an interest, an attention, and a patience, that was in the highest degree interesting and affecting. Mr. H himself, was like a little child, teachable, and humble, and earnest. That work continued for over a year, as I understood, spreading throughout that large and interesting population of farmers.
After I returned to Whitestown, I was invited to visit the city of New York. Anson G. Phelps, since well-known as a great contributor, by will, to the leading benevolent institutions of our country, hearing that I had not been invited to the pulpits of that city, hired a vacant church in Vandewater street, and sent me an urgent request to come there and preach. I did so, and there we had a powerful revival. I found Dr. Phelps very much engaged in the work, and not hesitating at any expense that was necessary to promote it. The church which he hired, could be had only for three months. Accordingly Mr. Phelps, before the three months were out, purchased a church in Prince street, near Broadway. This church had been built by the Universalists, and was sold to Mr. Phelps, who bought and paid for it himself. From Vandewater street, we went therefore, to Prince street, and there formed a church, mostly of persons that had been converted during our meetings in Vandewater street. I continued my labors in Prince street for some months, I think until quite the latter part of summer.
I was very much struck, during my labors there, with the piety of Mr. Phelps. While we continued at Vandewater street, myself and wife, with our only child, were guests in his family. I had observed that, while Mr. Phelps was a man literally loaded with business, somehow he preserved a highly spiritual frame of mind; and that he would come directly from his business to our prayer meetings, and enter into them with such spirit, as to show clearly that his mind was not absorbed in business, to the exclusion of spiritual things. As I watched him from day to day, I became more and more interested in his interior life, as it was manifested in his outward life. One night I had occasion to go downstairs, I should think about twelve or one o'clock at night, to get something for our little child. I supposed the family were all asleep, but to my surprise I found Mr. Phelps sitting by his fire, in his nightdress, and saw that I had broken in upon his secret devotions. I apologized by saying that I supposed he was in bed. He replied, "Brother Finney, I have a great deal of business pressing me during the day, and have but little time for secret devotion; and my custom is, after having a nap at night, to arise and have a season of communion with God." After his death, which occurred not many years ago, it was found that he had kept a journal during these hours in the night, comprising several transcript volumes. This journal revealed the secret workings of his mind, and the real progress of his interior life.
I never knew the number converted while I was in Prince and Vandewater streets; but it must have been large. There was one case of conversion that I must not omit to mention. A young woman visited me one day, under great conviction of sin. On conversing with her, I found that she had many things upon her conscience. She had been in the habit of pilfering, as she told me, from her very childhood. She was the daughter, and the only child, I think, of a widow lady; and she had been in the habit of taking from her schoolmates and others, handkerchiefs, and breastpins, and pencils, and whatever she had an opportunity to steal. She made confession respecting some of these things to me, and asked me what she should do about it. I told her she must go and return them, and make confession to those from whom she had taken them.
This of course greatly tried her; yet her convictions were so deep that she dare not keep them, and she began the work of making confession and restitution. But as she went forward with it, she continued to recall more and more instances of the kind, and kept visiting me frequently, and confessing to me her thefts of almost every kind of articles that a young woman could use. I asked her if her mother knew that she had these things. She said, yes; but that she had always told her mother that they were given her. She said to me on one occasion, "Mr. Finney, I suppose I have stolen a million of times. I find I have many things that I know I stole, but I cannot recollect from whom." I refused altogether to compromise with her, and insisted on her making restitution in every case, in which she could, by any means, recall the facts. From time to time she would come to me, and report what she had done. I asked her, what the people said when she returned the articles. She replied, "Some of them say that I am crazy; some of them say that I am a fool; and some of them are very much affected."
"Do they all forgive you?" I asked. "Oh yes!" said she, "they all forgive me; but some of them think that I had better not do as I am doing."
One day she informed me that she had a shawl which she had stolen from a daughter of Bishop Hobart, then Bishop of New York, whose residence was on St. John's square, and near St. John's church. As usual, I told her she must restore it. A few days after, she called and related to me the result. She said she folded up the shawl in a paper, and went with it, and rung the bell at the Bishop's door; and when the servant can, she handed him the bundle, directed to the Bishop. She made no explanation, but turned immediately away, and ran around the corner into another street, lest someone should look out and see which way she went, and find out who she was. But after she got around the corner, her conscience smote her, and she said to herself, "I have not done this thing right. Somebody else may be suspected of having stolen the shawl, unless I make known to the Bishop who did it."
She turned around, went immediately back, and inquired if she could see the Bishop. Being informed that she could, she was conducted to his study. She then confessed to him, told him about the shawl, and all that had passed. "Well," said I, "and how did the Bishop receive you?" "Oh," said she, "when I told him, he wept, laid his hand on my head, and said he forgave me, and prayed God to forgive me." "And have you been at peace in your mind," said I, "about that transaction since?" "Oh yes!" said she. This process continued for weeks, and I think for months. This girl was going from place to place in all parts of the city, restoring things that she had stolen, and making confession. Sometimes her convictions would be so awful, that it seemed as if she would be deranged.
One morning she sent for me to come to her mother's residence. I did so, and when I arrived I was introduced to her room, and found her with her hair hanging over her shoulders, and her clothes in disorder, walking the room in an agony of despair, and with a look that was frightful, because it indicated that she was well-nigh deranged. Said I, "My dear child, what is the matter?" She held in her hand, as she was walking, a little Testament. She turned to me and said, "Mr. Finney, I stole this Testament." I have stolen God's word; and will God ever forgive me? I cannot recollect which of the girls it was that I stole it from. I stole it from one of my schoolmates, and it was so long ago that I had really forgotten that I had stolen it. It occurred to me this morning; and it seems to me that God can never forgive me for stealing His word." I assured her that there was no reason for her despair. "But," said she, "what shall I do? I cannot remember where I got it." I told her, "Keep it as a constant remembrance of your former sins, and use it for the good you may now get from it."
"Oh," said she, "if I could only remember where I got it, I would instantly restore it." "Well," said I, "if you can ever recollect where you got it, make an instant restitution, either by restoring that, or giving another as good." "I will," said she.
All this process was exceedingly affecting to me; but as it proceeded, the state of mind that resulted from these transactions was truly wonderful. A depth of humility, a deep knowledge of herself and her own depravity, a brokenness of heart, and contrition of spirit, and finally, a faith, and joy, and love, and peace, like a river, succeeded; and she became one of the most delightful young Christians that I have known.
When the time drew near that I expected to leave New York, I thought that someone in the church ought to be acquainted with her, who could watch over her. Up to this time, whatever had passed between us had been a secret, secretly kept to myself. But as I was about to leave, I narrated the fact to Mr. Phelps and the narration affected him greatly. He said, "Brother Finney, introduce me to her. I will be her friend; I will watch over her for her good." He did so, as I afterwards learned. I have not seen the young woman for many years, and I think not since I related the fact to Mr. Phelps. But when I returned from England the last time, in visiting one of Mr. Phelps' daughters, in the coupe of the conversation, this case was alluded to. I then inquired, "Did your father introduce you to that young woman?" "Oh yes!" she replied, "we all knew her;" meaning, as I supposed, all the daughters of the family. "Well, what do you know of her?" said I. "Oh," said she, "she is a very earnest Christian woman. She is married, and her husband is in business in this city. She is a member of the church, and lives in street," pointing to the place, not far from where we then were. I inquired, "Has she always maintained a consistent Christian character?" "Oh yes!" was the reply; "she is an excellent, praying woman." In some way, I have been informed, and I cannot recollect now the source of the information, that the woman said that she never had had a temptation to pilfer, from the time of her conversion; that she had never known what it was to have the desire to do so.
This revival prepared the way, in New York, for the organization of the Free Presbyterian churches in the city. Those churches were composed afterward, largely, of the converts of that revival. Many of them had belonged to the church in Prince street.
At this point of my narrative, in order to render intelligible many things that I shall have to say hereafter, I must give a little account of the circumstances connected with the conversion of Mr. Lewis Tappan, and his connection afterward with my own labors. This account I received from himself. His conversion occurred before I was personally acquainted with him, under the following circumstances: He was a Unitarian, and lived in Boston. His brother Arthur, then a very extensive dry goods merchant in New York, was orthodox, and an earnest Christian man. The revivals through central New York had created a good deal of excitement among the Unitarians; and their newspapers had a good deal to say against them. Especially were there strange stories in circulation about myself, representing me as a half-crazed fanatic. These stories had been related to Lewis Tappan by Mr. W, a leading Unitarian minister of Boston, and he believed them. They were credited by many of the Unitarians in New England, and throughout the State of New York.
While these stories were in circulation, Lewis Tappan visited his brother Arthur in New York, and they fell into conversation in regard to those revivals. Lewis called Arthur's attention to the strange fanaticism connected with these revivals, especially to what was said of myself. He asserted that I gave out publicly that I was the Brigadier General of Jesus Christ. This, and like reports were in circulation, and Lewis insisted upon their truth. Arthur utterly discredited them and told Lewis that they were all nonsense and false, and that he ought not to believe any of them. Lewis, relying upon the statements of Mr. W, proposed to bet five hundred dollars that he could prove these reports to be true; especially the one already referred to. Arthur replied, "Lewis, you know that I do not bet; but I will tell you what I will do. If you can prove by credible testimony, that that is true, and that the reports about Mr. Finney are true, I will give you five hundred dollars. I make this offer to lead you to investigate. I want you to know that these stories are false, and that the source whence they come is utterly unreliable." Lewis, not doubting that he could bring the proof, inasmuch as these things had been so confidently asserted by the Unitarians, wrote to Rev. Mr. P, Unitarian ministry in Trenton Falls, New York, to whom Mr. W had referred him, and authorized him to expend five hundred dollars, if need be, in procuring sufficient testimony that the story was true; such testimony as would lead to the conviction of a party in a court of justice. Mr. P, accordingly, undertook to procure the testimony, but after great painstaking, was unable to furnish any, except what was contained in a small Universalist newspaper, printed in Buffalo, in which it had been asserted that Mr. Finney claimed that he was a Brigadier General of Jesus Christ. Nowhere could he get the least proof that the report was true. Many persons had heard, and believed, that I had said these things somewhere; but as he followed up the reports from town to town, by his correspondence, he could not learn that these things had been said, anywhere.
This in connection with other matters, he said, led him to reflect seriously upon the nature of the opposition, and upon the source whence it had come. Knowing as he did what stress had been laid upon these stories by the Unitarians, and the use they had made of them to oppose the revivals in New York and other places, his confidence in them was greatly shaken. Thus his prejudices against the revivals and orthodox people became softened. He was led to review the theological writings of the Orthodox and the Unitarians with great seriousness, and the result was that he embraced orthodox views. The mother of the Tappans was a very godly, praying woman. She had never had any sympathy with Unitarianism. She had lived a very praying life, and had left a strong impression upon her children.
As soon as Lewis Tappan was converted, he became as firm and zealous in his support of orthodox views and revivals of religion, as he had been in his opposition to them. About the time that I left New York, after my first labors there in Vandewater and Prince streets, Mr. Tappan and some other good brethren, became dissatisfied with the state of things in New York, and after much prayer and consideration, concluded to organize a new congregation, and introduce new measures for the conversion of men. They obtained a place to hold worship, and called the Rev. Joel Parker, who was then pastor of the Third Presbyterian church in Rochester, to come to their aid. Mr. Parker arrived in New York, and began his labors, I think about the time that I closed my labors in Prince street. The First Free Presbyterian church was formed in New York, about this time, and Mr. Parker became its pastor. They labored especially among that class of the population that had not been in the habit of attending meeting anywhere, and were very successful. They finally fitted up the upper story of some warehouses in Dey street, that would hold a good congregation, and there they continued their labors.