Remembrances of Charles Finney

By Willard Warch '31

Willard Warch taught music theory and cello at the Conservatory from 1941 until his retirement in 1975. He enjoyed, during his last years of teaching, hearing the tales of former president Charles G. Finney, whose influence, says Warch, shapes Oberlin still because of the unique degree of power he put into the hands of the faculty.

LEFT: A young Willard Warch poses with his cello in 1929.

It was 1832 when the idea of an Oberlin College and colony originated. John Jay Shiperd, pastor of the Elyria First Presbyterian Church, and his friend Philo Stewart decided to found "A new Jerusalem, a city without sin, in the wilderness." In 1833 the Oberlin Collegiate Institute opened to 30 scholars, but, in just two years, the Institute went broke. Oberlin was rescued from this catastrophe by New York abolitionist businessman Arthur Tappan on the conditions that revivalist Charles Grandison Finney be named professor of theology and that African-Americans be admitted as students on equal terms with whites.

As a young man Charles Finney was a worldly lawyer. He was fond of dancing, had a fine tenor voice, and played the cello. Like Saul on the road to Damascus, he had a three-day experience in 1821 that transformed him into a fiery and extraordinarily effective evangelist-the Billy Graham of his day. During a 1992 conference in Oberlin celebrating the bicentennial of Finney's birth, theologian Martin Marty said, "Had I a Mount Rushmore in which to carve four evangelists' heads, I would choose Jonathan Edwards, Dwight Moody, Billy Graham, and Charles G. Finney."

The Prayerful Postscripts

A folktale concerning Finney and his urgent task of saving souls involves the Oberlin church choir's performance of the hymn "Tallis Canon." For Finney, who was named pastor of the church shortly after his arrival at Oberlin, the Christian message of the lyrics was more important than the music. In this hymn, the sopranos sang the first phrase as the tenors, altos, and basses took the same words an octave lower, each one a measure behind. In his prayer following the anthem, Finney was not simply asking them to improve their diction when he added, "Oh Lord, bless the choir. Thou knowest what they have been singing about. We do not."

Because Finney was frequently absent for weeks or even months at a time leading revivals in England and begging money for Oberlin, assistant pastor John Morgan was in charge of running the church's affairs. Morgan did not always acquit himself to Finney's perfectionist satisfaction. The congregation allegedly learned this on one famous occasion when Finney's prayer concluded: "Oh, Lord, bless Brother Morgan. He is the most talented of all of us. And, Lord, thou knowest, too, how lazy he is!"

Another Finney anecdote has been told in several variations, the most likely coming from Emeritus Professor George T. Jones '20, who died last March at the age of 100. A young widow left on a farm to care for a household of children was separated from downtown Oberlin by a muddy and difficult road. She decided to don a pair of men's trousers and ride into town. Finney saw the young woman and reproved her for riding her horse astride. Sometime later, when he saw her riding again in the same way, he called out to her, "Good morning, daughter of the Devil," whereupon she answered sweetly, "Good morning, Father."

LEFT: Charles Grandison Finney

The First Female Minister
Survives Finney's Onslaught

Oberlin historians may recognize the name of Antoinette Brown, the young woman who arrived at Oberlin 1846 to study for the Christian ministry against stout opposition from most members of the male Oberlin faculty. She described the situation in these words: "Professor Morgan was my teacher and he said, 'Antoinette, if I had the power to stop you I certainly would, but as I have not that power, I will do all I can to give you a good training,' which he did. Professor Finney, who taught theology, would shake our names together in a hat and draw them out at random, and each student spoke as long as he or she could on the subject in hand," the young woman continued. "This method taught us to be ready and self-possessed. When Professor Finney heard me give my reasons for wishing to become a minister, he said, 'Undoubtedly some women have been called (by God) to preach in the past.'

"The faculty finally decided that I might be allowed to act upon my own responsibility. The first Mrs. Finney used to argue and beg me to give up the idea. She said, 'Would you set your opinion against all those learned and wise men?' The second Mrs. Finney was very liberal and said, 'Antoinette, always follow your own convictions.'" And so she did, and became the first woman in the United States to be ordained in the Protestant ministry.

Vying for Brides

Among Finney's students in the 1840s was the future Ohio state senator James Monroe who later returned to his alma mater to teach. Monroe, desiring to remarry, thought it wise to consult his colleague. He told Finney that he had made a list of three eligible ladies and said he would would like his advice. Monroe named his first choice, to which Finney replied, "Totally unsuitable," and, before his friend could name a second choice, interjected, "Have you considered my daughter, Julia?" Julia Finney at that time was her father's hostess and had a temperament much like his own. Monroe did consider Julia, who was much younger than he, and married her. Shortly after their wedding, Finney married the lady he had pronounced "totally unsuitable" for Monroe.

Finney Not First President

Many people believe that Charles Finney was Oberlin's first president, a distinction actually belonging to Asa Mahan. Finney followed Mahan as president of the College from 1851 until 1866. He continued his pastorship at the church until 1872, occasionally lecturing at the College until his death in 1875.

WILLARD WARCH and his wife, Polly Hawke Warch '35, reside at Kendal at Oberlin.