Charles Grandison Finney, flamboyant evangelist of the Second Great Awakening, served as the second President of Oberlin College (1851-65). He was born in Warren, Connecticut on August 29, 1792 to Sylvester (1727?-1842) and Rebecca (Rice) Finney (1759-1836). When Finney was two years old, his family joined the westward migration and settled in the frontier town of Hanover in Oneida County, New York. Finney is believed to have attended Oneida Academy in Clinton, where he developed his gifts for music and for sports. From 1808 to 1812, Finney taught in the district school at Henderson. For two years, he studied independently while living in Warren, Connecticut, preparing to enter Yale College. In 1814, he moved to New Jersey where, on his schoolmaster's advice, he began working through Yale's college curriculum. After two years, he entered the law office of Judge Benjamin Wright in Adams, New York. He was admitted to the bar in 1818.
On October 10, 1821 in Adams, Finney underwent a dramatic religious conversion, which altered the course of his life. Abandoning the practice of law, he transferred his oratorical skills, powers of reason, and belief in human accountability to the preaching of the Christian gospel. In 1823, Finney put himself under the care of the St. Lawrence Presbytery as a candidate for the ministry; he was ordained in July 1824. He left the Presbytery in 1836 and from then on indentified himself as a Congregationalist.
For nearly a decade, from 1824 to 1833, Finney conducted unusual revivals in the Middle and Eastern states, but especially in the towns of New York: Rome, Rochester, Utica, Clinton, Antwerp, Evans' Mills, Western, and Gouverneur. In 1832, he became pastor of the Second Free Presbyterian Church, New York City. In 1835, the wealthy silk merchant and benefactor Arthur Tappan (1786-1865) offered financial backing to the newly founded Oberlin Collegiate Institute (as Oberlin was known before 1850), and he invited Finney, on the recommendation of abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld (1803-95), to establish its theological department. After much wrangling, Finney accepted, on the conditions that he be allowed to continue to preach in New York, that the school admit blacks, and that free speech be guaranteed at Oberlin.
At Oberlin Theological Seminary, Finney held the posts of Professor of Systematic Theology (1835-58) and Professor of Pastoral Theology (1835-75), teaching courses in Didactic and Polemic Theology, Pastoral Theology, and Mental and Moral Philosophy. He served simultaneously as pastor of Oberlin's First Congregational Church (1837-72) and was a member of the Oberlin College Board of Trustees from 1846 until 1851 when he was elected president. For much of the academic year, he carried on his immensely successful evangelistic work, visiting Great Britain in 1849-50 and again in 1859-60. Through the Oberlin Evangelist, established in 1839, he expressed his views on doctrinal and practical matters, collectively referred to as "Oberlin Theology" or "Oberlin Perfectionism." Finney taught that the individual has a limitless capacity for repentance. He also taught that an exalted state of spirituality was attainable by leading a Christian life. These New School Calvinist views, opposed by conservative Calvinists, included prohibitions against tobacco, tea, coffee, and most popular amusements. Finney's brand of theological perfectionism placed Oberlin on the theological map for more than a century.
In 1869, Finney published The Character, Claims, and Practical Workings of Freemasonry, attacking the order of which he had once been a member. His Lectures on Systematic Theology were published in 1846 and 1847. Among his other works are: Sermons on Important Subjects (3rd ed., 1836); Lectures to Professing Christians (1837); and Skeletons of a Course of Theological Lectures (1840). In 1867, Finney began writing Memoirs of Rev. Charles G. Finney. Edited by James Harris Fairchild and published in 1876, the memoirs deal chiefly with his evangelistic activities; they do not constitute an autobiography. Finney taught up until his eighty-third year, submitting his resignation from the presidency in 1865. He died in Oberlin in August 1875 following a heart ailment.
During his life, Finney had three wives. In 1824, he married Lydia Root Andrews (1804-47). They had six children: Helen C. Finney (b. 1828); Charles Grandison Finney (b. 1830); Frederick Norton Finney (b. 1832); Julia R. Finney (b. 1837); Sarah Sage Finney (1841-43), and Delia Andrews Finney (1844-52). Finney's second wife was Elizabeth Ford Atkinson (1799-1863, m. 1848) and his third wife Rebecca Allen Rayl (1824-1907, m.1865). All three women shared in Finney's revival work, accompanying him on his travels and even developing parallel ministries, as Elizabeth Ford Atkinson did during the two evangelistic trips in England. In Oberlin, they were active in various women's organizations, including the Maternal Association, the Infant School, and the Oberlin Female Moral Reform Society. Rebecca Rayl served as Assistant Principal of the Ladies Department at Oberlin College between 1856 and 1865, prior to her marriage.