Ohio History Journal

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The Philosophy of Charles G. Finney:

Higher Law and Revivalism





As it related to the antislavery crusade in the United States, the "higher law" doc-

trine involved an insistence that slavery was contrary to the principles upon which

the nation was established, in that there were rules of right existing in the public

mind prior to the framing of the Constitution. These rules were expressed in the

Declaration of Independence, the true basis of government. In American history

the doctrine derives its importance from the refusal of the Supreme Court and

southern states' righters to recognize the Declaration of Independence or the Pre-

amble of the Constitution as a part of fundamental law. In its most common appli-

cation, as an appeal to conscience to justify violation of human legislation, "higher

law" thinking should be viewed in context with certain other individualistic phe-

nomena of mid-nineteenth century America-Arminianism in religion, Romantic-

ism in literature, and Transcendentalism in philosophy-as a significant factor in the

agitation pattern that drove the sections to civil war.'

An early contributor to the fashioning of a "higher law" doctrine as an instrument

in antislavery agitation was Charles G. Finney, whose role has been obscured by at-

tention to his evangelistic activities. The purpose of this paper is threefold: first, af-

ter laying a necessary background, to set forth Finney's "higher law" philosophy

contained in resolutions presented to the Ohio Antislavery Society in 1839; second,

to examine his philosophy in the context of other "higher law" expressions, espe-

cially in the tense decade preceding the outbreak of civil war; and, finally, to weigh

a charge leveled at Finney by contemporaries and present-day critics alike that his

preoccupation with revivalism compromised an activist posture on his part beyond

initial lip-service to the principle of "higher law."

Most Americans, regardless of their views on slavery, venerated the Constitution;

challenges to the institution of slavery were generally effective only at those points

where the Constitution did not apply or where its meaning lacked certainty. Such

points were to be found in provisions pertaining to the interstate slave trade, obliga-

tions to return fugitives, and slavery in the territories. By 1839, Charles G. Finney



1. Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery; A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago,

1968), 142, 150. See Elkins, "Slavery and Ideology," in Ann J. Lane, ed., The Debate over Slavery; Stan-

ley Elkins and His Critics (Chicago, 1971), 361, where the author defends-and compromises somewhat-

his indictment in the earlier work of a rampant individualism and anti-institutionalism that characterized

the antislavery crusade in the three decades prior to the Civil War.


Mr. Parker is Associate Professor of History at Maryville College.