In 1818, Finney’s parents persuaded him to enter the law office of Judge Benjamin Wright in Adams, New York, not far from their home near Lake Ontario. Though he had never attended law school, young Finney’s mind took to the law profession with a passion.
It was in Adams that Finney met Reverend George W. Gale, the pastor of the town’s Presbyterian church. While Finney was not greatly moved by Gale’s sermons, he spent a good deal of time discussing them. Finney was determined to make sense of what he heard, but the more he talked with Gale, the more questions formed in his mind. Gale found Finney well-informed about religion but hardened to it.
At the same time, as Charles studied the law, he began to notice how writers quoted the Bible as a basis for many of the great principles of common law. This piqued Finney’s curiosity to the point that he went out and purchased his first Bible. Then, when he would come across legal texts that referred to Scripture passages, he would check the references and their biblical context. He soon found himself reading the Bible more and more, and with greater and greater interest.
Is God a Lie?
On Wednesday morning, October 10, 1821, Finney prepared himself for work, still mulling over these questions of God’s existence and the state of his eternal soul. When he set out for the law office that morning as he always did, a voice within confronted him: “What are you waiting for? Did you not promise to give your heart to God? And what are you trying to do? Are you endeavoring to work out a righteousness of your own?”1 The answer to these questions came just as suddenly:
Just at this point the whole question of Gospel salvation opened to my mind in a manner most marvelous to me at the time. I think I then saw, as clearly as I ever have in my life, the reality and fullness of the atonement of Christ. . . .
Without being distinctly aware of it, I had stopped in the street right where the inward voice seemed to arrest me. How long I remained in that position, I cannot say. But after this distinct revelation had stood for some little time before my mind, the question seemed to be put, “Will you accept it now, to-day?” I replied, “Yes; I will accept it to-day, or I will die in the attempt.” 2
Instead of going to work, he went into the woods and hiked over a small hill - he retreated to a place where some trees had fallen and formed a partially covered enclosure.
As he tried to pray, the words wouldn’t come. He was too concerned that someone would see him. When he realized what was holding him back, he said to himself, “What! . . . such a degraded sinner as I am, on my knees confessing my sins to the great and holy God; and ashamed to have any human being, and sinner like myself, find me on my knees endeavoring to make my peace with my offended God!” 3 A Scripture passage came to his mind: “Then shall ye . . . go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you.[Then] ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:12–13). Charles seized this message, crying out, “Lord, I take thee at thy word. Now thou knowest that I do search for thee with all my heart, and that I have come here to pray to thee; and thou hast promised to hear me.” 4
Charles’s heart opened, and God filled it with promises from His Word. He accepted each personally, as if it had been made to him alone. Soon, Finney found himself on his way back to town with no idea how long he had been in the woods. He thought, “If I am ever converted, I will preach the Gospel.” He then realized that the despair for his soul was completely gone.