Saturday, 9 June 2012

Charles Grandison Finney

I've been trying to write a song tonight about a chap called Charles Grandison Finney. Finney was a pastor in the rural town of Rochester, in Western New York in the early 1830s and had been extremely successful as an evangelical preacher, doubling the town's church membership in six months. Rochester was a fascinating place around this time and is a wonderful picture of some the changes America was experiencing, socially, politically and industrially. With the building of the Erie Canal through the region, Rochester, along with other canal towns,  experienced something of a boom, as trade flourished. Industries sprung up overnight and a hierarchy was quickly established, as previous artisans and tradesmen found themselves on the payroll for companies they could not compete with. At the same time, the 1828 presidential election brought with it nearly complete suffrage for white males. Whereas previously, it was the state legislature that apportioned its votes to the electoral college, now the election of the nation's president was directed by the people, all be it excluding women, blacks and Indians. This new empowerment, combined with a growing industrialisation, caused huge class divisions. Additionally, the Second Great Awakening, the revival sweeping the north-west of America, hit full force in western New York, which became known as the burnt-over district, such was the frequency and potency of the evangelical movement in this region. As such, many of Rochester's town leaders were converted - quite often by their wives - and in turn, the workers of newly converted businessmen were also encouraged to see the light; encouragement being in the form of rewards for those who attended church on a Sunday. A canny way of controlling an increasingly volatile workforce, empowered by the vote. A further tactic - supported by the town's now large religious community - was to turn the town dry; to ban the sale and consumption of alcohol.

Map of the New York State Canals (1853)

Finney saw an opportunity to unite the town's leaders in his mission against the "demon rum". The factions of old political aristocracy and the new anti-Mason movement, had created a hugely hostile and bitter political atmosphere. Finney had huge influence over those he had converted but the old wounds amongst the leaders needed healing if he was to achieve his goal. They were soon to be united into the cohesive Whig Party. In order to compete with Jackson and the party machine of the Democrats, they had to get organised and to do that, they had to bury the hatchet. Religion did the trick and Finney played his part. Harry L. Watson, in his book on Jacksonian America summarises it well: "Finney had converted large numbers of middle-level employees, who now joined the party of their employers and gave the forces of temperance and order an effective political majority at last."

So, I'm trying to write a song about this figure, who fascinates me. I've already got a picture in my head of what he looks like. My idea is to write from the perspective of Finney, as he speaks in a meeting of the Rochester's town leaders. I've got a verse so far but I'm not entirely sure where it's leading. I like the idea though and most importantly, I'm getting into this character - he's fantastic!


  1. Actually, just found a picture of him! No need to imagine...booo! Preferred my image of him.

  2. Fascinating subject for a treatment. And welcome to the frequently frustrating world of the documentary historian where often material doesn't turn up when you need it and occasionally does when you don't want it! You gonna post the picture or think it might spoil the song? Good luck with it Pete.

  3. Yeah, he was a bit of a badass was Finney. An abolitionist and he encouraged women to pray in mixed gender meetings. Doesn't sound like much but pushing the boundaries back in the day. Think I'll let everyone else imagine what he looks like.

    Anyway, I debuted the song tonight at rehearsal and it went pretty well! That's all credit to my amazing band though.