What Saith the Scripture?

National Fast Day

by Charles Grandison Finney
President of Oberlin College

from "The Oberlin Evangelist" Publication of Oberlin College
Lecture XXXIV
June 9
, 1841

Public Domain Text
Reformatted by Katie Stewart

Text.--Isaiah 58:1 "Cry aloud, spare not; lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins," &c. &c.

My design is not to enter into a critical exposition of this chapter, but merely to make it the basis of some remarks upon private and public FASTING. In doing this I shall show:

I. What is implied in an acceptable fast.

II. The importance of abstinence from food on such occasions.

III. That human governments are a divine institution.

IV. The principle upon which God deals with nations as such.

V. Notice the design, propriety, and use of national fasts.

VI. Point out the duty of citizens, and especially of Christians as citizens, in respect to them.

VII. Notice some of the national sins which call this nation to fasting, humiliation and prayer.

I. What is implied in an acceptable fast.

II. Abstinence from food important.

III. Human governments are a divine institution.

I remark upon the divine authority of governments in this place, because of the manifest propriety of recognizing them, upon a celebration of a National Fast. You will indulge me in speaking more at length upon this head, as their divine authority has of late been questioned. And I will quote from my recently published Skeletons on Theology:

FIRST. Human governments are a necessity of human nature.

SECOND. This necessity will continue as long as human beings exist in this world.

THIRD. Human governments are plainly recognized in the Bible as a part of the moral government of God.

FOURTH. Whose right and duty it is to govern.

FIFTH. In what cases human legislation imposes moral obligation.

SIXTH. It is the duty of all men to aid in the establishment and support of human governments.

SEVENTH. It is a ridiculous and absurd dream, to suppose that human governments can ever be dispensed with in the present world.

EIGHTH. The reasons why God has made no form of church or state government universally obligatory.

NINTH. The particular forms of church and state governments, must and will depend upon the virtue and intelligence of the people.

TENTH. The true basis on which the right of human legislation rests.

Under this head, I need only to repeat the substance of what has already been said, that the right of human legislation is founded in the necessities of mankind--that the nature and ignorance of mankind lie at the foundation of this necessity--and, that their wickedness, the multiplicity and variety of their wants, are additional reasons, demanding the existence of human governments. Let it be understood, then, that the foundation of the right of human governments lies not in the arbitrary will of God; but in the nature, relations, and circumstances of human beings.

ELEVENTH. Revolutions become necessary and obligatory, when the virtue and intelligence, or the vice and ignorance of the people demand them.

TWELFTH. In what cases human legislation is valid.

IV. The principles upon which God deals with nations as such.

V. The design, propriety, and use of national fasts.

VI. The duty of citizens, and especially of Christians as citizens, in respect to fasts.

VII. Some of the national sins which call this nation to fasting, humiliation, and prayer.

There are numerous other sins of this nation to be confessed and put away. But I have not time to call your attention to any more at present.


1. As Christians, we ought to confess and lament the sectarianism and divisions of the Church, as lying at the foundation of, and as giving countenance to the strivings, slang and slander of party politics. Who can look into the religious periodicals without agony, at seeing that there is almost as much party spirit, division, censoriousness, and slander in the Church, as among party politicians. Indeed the difficulty is, the politics existing in the Church are continually keeping in countenance those political contests that are working the destruction of this nation. I say this with humiliation and trembling, because it has become so common to accuse those who would deal faithfully with the sins of the Church, of being slanderers.

2. As Christians, we ought to confess the wickedness of the Church in view of its bearing toward and treatment of those national sins of which I have spoken. What is the conduct of the Church as a body, and what is her attitude in respect to the dreadful sin of slavery. O tell not the shameful story in Gath, nor let the sound reach Askelon, that the American Church is to such a shameful extent, an apologist for slavery. And what has the Church, as such, ever done to reprove and rebuke this nation for its treatment of the Indians? Why has not her voice been heard? Why has not the Church as a body respectfully remonstrated? Why has she not at least lifted up her voice and wept in view of these abominations? And what is the conduct of the Church in respect to party politics? Why, there have always been professed Christians enough in this country to hold the balance of power. It has always been in the power of Christians to elect or defeat the election of any candidate for President who has ever been proposed. Would the Church only be in earnest in maintaining correct principles, would they be agreed in letting the world know that they would vote for no man who did not fear God, no party in that case would think of proposing a candidate of loose, or even of doubtful character. If they would be united in going always for a man of the highest moral standing, such candidates, and such only, would be proposed by the respective parties. But as it is, they have adopted the miserably wicked policy of choosing between two moral evils. Instead of choosing the best of two good men, they consent to vote for the least immoral of two bad men, thus rendering themselves responsible for the sins of this nation. It is completely within the power of the Church effectually to rebuke and put away all the sins that disgrace the nation. And how long shall the skirts of the Church be defiled with these abominations?

3. The righteous may well be expected to be included and share largely in national judgments. They really deserve it.

4. How absurd it is to say, that Christians have nothing to do with human governments. They should immediately set about the moral reformation of government. But here the question arises, how can such a reformation be brought about? I answer:

(1.) It never can be brought about by that kind of party movement--such party men and party measures as have brought this nation to such a pass of wickedness. Such party measures can never work a reformation of public morals. They are of themselves a vile and loathsome offense to public morals.

(2.) The needed reformation can never be brought about by contending for truth in a wrong spirit. There is something very remarkable in the Providence of God in this respect. Facts in the history of the world demonstrate that God would rather even truth should suffer a temporary defeat than triumph when maintained in a bad spirit. Besides there is something in the spirit which in such instances contradicts the truth, and prevents it from being received as truth. Whenever any set of men, however much truth they may have on their side, get into a wrong spirit, in the proclamation and defense of it, they may expect that God will give them up to defeat. Men who hold the truth are very apt to be presumptuous, to take it for granted, and to boast, that they shall prevail because they have the truth. But mark me, and mark the fact when you will, that in this they will be disappointed. The truth will indeed eventually prevail, but not in their hands. God will give them over as individuals and as a party, to ultimate defeat, and in his own time, through other instrumentalities, cause his truth to prevail.

(3.) This reformation must be brought about and may be brought about by promoting union among Christians, and by extending correct views on the subject of Christian responsibility in regard to their relation to government. Any thing that will unite the Church, and consolidate her efforts, and direct them wisely on this point, will correct the national morals, and nothing else can.

5. The private views, character, or motives of the rulers in appointing a fast have nothing to do with the obligation of citizens in respect to its observance. If the ruler were an infidel, or whatever his private views or designs might be, in appointing a public fast, it is the business and duty of the people to celebrate the fast, confess and lament the real sins of the nation. If the present chief magistrate of the United States had been consulted in respect to the sins he would have the people confess, it is very probable that among them he would have mentioned the efforts of abolitionists to effect the overthrow of slavery, or as he would more probably have expressed it, the heinous crime of northern interference with the domestic institutions of the South, and an unrighteous attempt to divide the Union. Now with his private opinion on such questions the nation has nothing to do. Our business is to confess, among other enormities, the disgraceful and God-provoking sin of slavery, together with the wicked opposition of this nation to the efforts of abolitionists to bring about its overthrow.

6. Before I close this discourse, I must add a few words on the necessity of abstinence from food, as in many cases entirely indispensable to a right state of religious feeling. If the alimentary organs be continually taxed to the amount of their capability, the mind can be exercised to but a limited extent. Especially is it next to impossible, that much emotion should exist, while the digestive organs are laboriously employed in the process of alimentation. As I have before remarked, so great a determination of blood to these organs, is imperiously demanded during the process of digestion, that the mind, whose organ is the brain, must be, comparatively, and in many instances, to a great degree sluggish in its operations. Who has not learned, by his own experience, that if he is about to make a great mental effort, he must not indulge himself in a full meal immediately preceding it? Many persons, either because they are so much under the dominion of their appetite, or because they have imbibed a false notion, that to drop now and then a meal will seriously impair their health, continually and regularly load their alimentary organs to such an extent, as to render it impossible for their minds to be strongly exercised on any subject. Fasting is often useful, and sometimes indispensable, as a means of giving the mind a thorough opportunity to exercise itself, without being impeded in its action by a determination of the blood to the alimentary organs.

7. Persons in fasting should always guard against a self-righteous state of mind. Self-righteous fasting is worse than no fasting at all.

8. Fasting, either public or private, without reformation, is a great abomination to God. It is to be hoped, that our President did not intend to substitute national fasting for national reformation. But we shall see, what course they will take in regard to slavery, the treatment of the Indians, the sanctification of the Sabbath, licentiousness, dueling, intemperance, & c., at the next session of Congress. Our rulers may expect, of course, that the people will have their eye upon them, and anxiously wait to see whether they expect to escape the judgment of God, by fasting without reformation. O, it would be dreadful, if, notwithstanding their fastings, they should persist in their sins! If they should forget that the fast was a national fast, and merely expect the reformation of individuals, without national reformation, it would be but the more offensive to God; and our fasting would but hasten our destruction.

9. Let Christians every where continue to pray, that God may reform the nation, and that our rulers may not be guilty of so gross a hypocrisy as to appoint a national fast, and then persevere in our national abominations. If they do this, it will not be surprising, if the nation should soon be called to mourn the death of another President, or that some judgment infinitely more deplorable than this, should soon desolate our country.

10. We are to be especially on our guard in contemplating the sins of this nation, certainly those of us who are, and from principle always have been opposed to those sins, lest we imbibe a censorious, angry spirit, instead of feeling a deep and real sorrow for those sins. It is of no use to scold about our national sins. Our business is to lament them, to warn, entreat, respectfully expostulate, petition Congress, and petition God, that they may be put away.

11. Let no man say, that ministers are out of their place in exposing and reproving the sins of this nation. The fact is, that ministers, and all other men, not only have a right but are bound to expose and rebuke the national sins. We are all on board the same ship. As a nation, our very existence depends upon the correct moral conduct of our rulers. And shall they deafen their ears to our petitions, expostulations, and entreaties? Shall ministers be told, shall any man be told, that he is meddling with other men's matters, when he reproves, and rebukes the abominations of slavery? As well might a man be accused of meddling with that which does not belong to him, who is on board a ship in the midst of the Atlantic ocean, because he should expostulate with and rebuke a man who should attempt to scuttle the ship.

of easily misunderstood terms as defined by Mr. Finney himself.
Compiled by Katie Stewart

  1. Complacency, or Esteem: "Complacency, as a state of will or heart, is only benevolence modified by the consideration or relation of right character in the object of it. God, prophets, apostles, martyrs, and saints, in all ages, are as virtuous in their self-denying and untiring labours to save the wicked, as they are in their complacent love to the saints." Systematic Theology (LECTURE VII). Also, "approbation of the character of its object. Complacency is due only to the good and holy." Lectures to Professing Christians (LECTURE XII).

  2. Disinterested Benevolence: "By disinterested benevolence I do not mean, that a person who is disinterested feels no interest in his object of pursuit, but that he seeks the happiness of others for its own sake, and not for the sake of its reaction on himself, in promoting his own happiness. He chooses to do good because he rejoices in the happiness of others, and desires their happiness for its own sake. God is purely and disinterestedly benevolent. He does not make His creatures happy for the sake of thereby promoting His own happiness, but because He loves their happiness and chooses it for its own sake. Not that He does not feel happy in promoting the happiness of His creatures, but that He does not do it for the sake of His own gratification." Lectures to Professing Christians (LECTURE I).

  3. Divine Sovereignty: "The sovereignty of God consists in the independence of his will, in consulting his own intelligence and discretion, in the selection of his end, and the means of accomplishing it. In other words, the sovereignty of God is nothing else than infinite benevolence directed by infinite knowledge." Systematic Theology (LECTURE LXXVI).

  4. Election: "That all of Adam's race, who are or ever will be saved, were from eternity chosen by God to eternal salvation, through the sanctification of their hearts by faith in Christ. In other words, they are chosen to salvation by means of sanctification. Their salvation is the end- their sanctification is a means. Both the end and the means are elected, appointed, chosen; the means as really as the end, and for the sake of the end." Systematic Theology (LECTURE LXXIV).

  5. Entire Sanctification: "Sanctification may be entire in two senses: (1.) In the sense of present, full obedience, or entire consecration to God; and, (2.) In the sense of continued, abiding consecration or obedience to God. Entire sanctification, when the terms are used in this sense, consists in being established, confirmed, preserved, continued in a state of sanctification or of entire consecration to God." Systematic Theology (LECTURE LVIII).

  6. Moral Agency: "Moral agency is universally a condition of moral obligation. The attributes of moral agency are intellect, sensibility, and free will." Systematic Theology (LECTURE III).

  7. Moral Depravity: "Moral depravity is the depravity of free-will, not of the faculty itself, but of its free action. It consists in a violation of moral law. Depravity of the will, as a faculty, is, or would be, physical, and not moral depravity. It would be depravity of substance, and not of free, responsible choice. Moral depravity is depravity of choice. It is a choice at variance with moral law, moral right. It is synonymous with sin or sinfulness. It is moral depravity, because it consists in a violation of moral law, and because it has moral character." Systematic Theology (LECTURE XXXVIII).

  8. Human Reason: "the intuitive faculty or function of the intellect... it is the faculty that intuits moral relations and affirms moral obligation to act in conformity with perceived moral relations." Systematic Theology (LECTURE III).

  9. Retributive Justice: "Retributive justice consists in treating every subject of government according to his character. It respects the intrinsic merit or demerit of each individual, and deals with him accordingly." Systematic Theology (LECTURE XXXIV).

  10. Total Depravity: "Moral depravity of the unregenerate is without any mixture of moral goodness or virtue, that while they remain unregenerate, they never in any instance, nor in any degree, exercise true love to God and to man." Systematic Theology (LECTURE XXXVIII).

  11. Unbelief: "the soul's withholding confidence from truth and the God of truth. The heart's rejection of evidence, and refusal to be influenced by it. The will in the attitude of opposition to truth perceived, or evidence presented." Systematic Theology (LECTURE LV).

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