At Pentecost, we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit – the Comforter that Jesus promised to send us before He ascended back into heaven. But the Spirit did not descend only once, 2000 years ago; it has visited the earth again and again, over the centuries, wherever and whenever hearts long for its bracing, cleansing wind.
One of those times and places was upstate New York in the early 19th century, when a young lawyer named Charles Finney experienced a conversion so powerful that its impact was felt around the world. This story is told best by Finney himself, in memoirs first published in 1876 (edited for this web posting):
I was born in Litchfield County, Connecticut, in 1792.
My parents were not religious people. I seldom heard a sermon, unless it was from some ignorant traveling minister, and I recollect very well that the people would return from meeting laughing at the mistakes which had been made and the absurdities which had been advanced.
In 1818, when I was 26, I entered the law office of Squire W—, at Adams, in Jefferson County, upstate New York, as a student.
Up to this time I had never lived in a praying community, except when I was attending high school in New England. The preaching in that place was by an aged clergyman, an excellent man, but he read his sermons in a monotonous, humdrum manner that left no impression whatever on my mind.
Thus when I went to Adams to study law, I was almost as ignorant of religion as a heathen.
In studying the law, I found that the authors frequently quoted Scripture, and referred especially to Moses as authority for many of the principles of common law. This excited my curiosity so much that I went and purchased a Bible, the first I had ever owned; and whenever I found a reference to the Bible, I turned to the passage and consulted it in its connection. This soon led to my taking a new interest in the Bible, and I read and meditated on it much more than I had ever done before in my life. However, much of it I still did not understand.
I began to talk to the local minister, but found it impossible to attach any meaning to many of the terms which he used. What did he mean by repentance? And what did he mean by faith? And I was particularly struck by the fact that the prayers that I listened to, from week to week, were not, that I could see, answered. And so as I read my Bible and attended prayer meetings, I became very restless.
But I was very proud without knowing it. I had no regard for the opinions of others, and was unwilling to have anyone know that I was seeking the salvation of my soul. When I prayed I would only whisper, after having stopped the key-hole to the door, lest someone should discover me. And I kept my Bible out of sight. If I was reading it when anybody came in, I would throw my law books upon it, to create the impression that I had not had it in my hand. I was unwilling to converse with the minister, because I did not want to let him know how I felt, and for the same reason I avoided conversation with the elders of the church.
Then one night in October 1821 a strange feeling came over me, as if I was about to die. I knew that if I did I should sink down to hell; but I quieted myself as best I could until morning.
At an early hour I started for the office. But just before I arrived at the office, something seemed to confront me: “What are you waiting for? What are you trying to do? Are you endeavoring to work out a righteousness of your own?”
Just at this point the whole question of salvation opened to my mind in a manner most marvelous to me. I saw, as clearly as I ever have since, the reality and fullness of the atonement of Christ. I saw that his work was a finished work; and that instead of having, or needing, any righteousness of my own to recommend me to God, I had to submit myself to the righteousness of God through Christ.
Salvation seemed to me an offer to be accepted; it was full and complete; and all that was necessary on my part, was to give up my sins, and to accept Christ. North of the village lay a piece of woods, and I turned and bent my course toward these woods, feeling that I must be alone, and away from all human eyes and ears, so that I could pour out my prayer to God.
But still my pride showed itself. As I went over the hill, it occurred to me that someone might see me and suppose that I was going away to pray. Probably there was not a person on earth that would have suspected such a thing, had he seen me going. But so great was my pride, and so much was I possessed with the fear of man, that I crept along under the fence, till I got so far out of sight that no one could see me. Then I penetrated into the woods and knelt down for prayer, vowing that I would give my heart to God, or never come down from the woods again.
As I returned to the village, I found that my mind had become wonderfully quiet and peaceful.
No words can express the love that was in my heart. I wept aloud with joy; and I literally bellowed out the unutterable gushings of my heart.
The next morning, a client came into the office and said to me, “Mr. Finney, do you recollect that my cause is to be tried at ten o’clock this morning? I suppose you are ready?” I had been retained to attend this suit as his attorney. I replied to him, “Mr. B-, I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause, and can no longer plead yours.” He looked at me with astonishment, and said, “What do you mean?” I told him, in a few words, that I had enlisted in the cause of Christ; and that he must go and get somebody else to attend court; I could not do it. Without making any reply, he went out, and I sallied forth from the office to converse with those whom I should meet about their souls. I had the impression, which has never left my mind, that God wanted me to preach the Gospel, and that I must begin immediately.
No longer had I any desire to practice law. Everything in that direction was shut up. My whole mind was taken up with Jesus and his salvation; the world seemed to me of very little consequence. Nothing, it seemed, could be put in competition with the worth of souls; no labor could be so sweet, and no employment so exalted, as that of holding up Christ to a dying world.