Another tragic school shooting this week reminds of a great decay of conscience we face in America and the Western World.
There are practical solutions that can help. But we need a full-blown revival of conscience to truly stem the tide of evil.
Here are some insights from a great American revivalist–Charles Finney. He tells us what brings a decay of conscience to a once-godly nation.
What Brings a Decay of Conscience to a Nation
For hundreds of years, many Americans read their Bibles and understood the importance of maintaining a good conscience. This obedience produced a strong society whose family life, crime levels, and social arenas were relatively stable and predictable from the 1730s to the 1940s.
With a few exceptions, America was a secure and moral nation for eleven generations.
The past two-to-three have failed to let their conscience be their guide. Instead, a crippled conscience has become a painful reality producing a massive crime wave, many broken relationships and a society being consumed by violence and death.
In the mid-to-late-1800s, America was going through another time of national decline. Onto the stage of history walked Charles Finney. Following his conversion to Christ at age twenty-nine, he launched a successful career as an evangelist, author, and college professor.
In the 1820s and 30s, powerful revivals followed his ministry. He laid bare the hearts and consciences of men and women with the God’s laws and his Good News in Jesus. In some meetings, people shook with fear as he clearly exposed their sins.
Finney awakened the consciences of Americans by proclaiming God’s truth. Doctors, lawyers, professors, businessmen–people from all walks of life–came to hear this impassioned preacher who appealed to their minds and emotions.
Finney preached a message of changed hearts and lives through a conscience that was awakened to God. He was on the forefront of the anti-slavery movement, and helped found Oberlin College, a prominent gathering place for anti-slavery coalitions.
Of the hundreds of thousands who became Christians under his ministry, it’s estimated that 70-80% stayed true to their conversion. In today’s evangelistic crusades, under 10% of those who make decisions follow Christ for a lifetime.
His secret? He appealed to people’s consciences then led them to the cross.
A generation ago, Reader’s Digest wrote an article entitled “Our Kindest City” on Finney’s ministry in Rochester, New York almost one hundred and eighty years after his last visit.
“Finney spent six months in Rochester and converted hundreds of residents. He scorched their consciences and urged them not to follow the selfish ways of the world…The influence of Finney’s powerful message is still felt in Rochester because it was passed down in so many different ways. Parents who heard the evangelist told their children. Ministers and Sunday-school teachers carried the word to their flocks. And generation after generation of Rochesterians stayed in the city and preserved the Finney legacy.”
Rochester was once considered America’s kindest city. All because one man awakened the conscience of his converts to reject sin and make Jesus the Lord of their lives. There was no easy-believing or seeker sensitivity.
People needed to change and be empowered by Jesus Christ.
In the 19th century, America was going through some incredible changes. The new country that was born in a time of revival and forged through the bloodshed and travail of the Revolutionary War was catapulted onto the world scene as a new and emerging power.
The map changed as the nation grew. The economy changed because of the Industrial Revolution. Family life changed as people left their farms. And faith became nominal–or non-existent.
By mid-century, with the Civil War looming, America was deeply divided and troubled in conscience and soul. In 1857 the Stock Market crashed bringing further anxiety. War now seemed inevitable as states began to vote to secede from the Union.
It was into this state of deepening darkness that Charles Finney and others appealed to the hearts of men and women. America needed a wake-up call. And it needed to begin with a renewal of private and public conscience before a Holy God.
As public morality worsened, Mr. Finney sounded the trumpet of alarm. The conscience of America needed awakening. Carefully read his prophetic words:
“I believe it is a fact generally admitted that there is much less conscience manifested by men and women in nearly all walks of life than there was forty years ago. There is justly much complaint of this, and there seems to be but little prospect of reformation. The rings and frauds and villainies in high and low places, among all ranks of men, are most alarming, and one is almost compelled to ask: ‘Can anybody be safely trusted?’
Doesn’t that sound familiar? Notice where Mr. Finney placed the blame:
“Now is the cause of this degeneracy? Doubtless there are many causes that contribute more or less directly to it, but I am persuaded that the fault is more in the ministry and public press than in any and all things else. Ministers have ceased in great measure to probe the consciences of men with the spiritual law of God. So far as my knowledge extends, there has been a great letting down and ignoring the searching claims of God’s law as revealed in His Word. This law is the only standard of true morality. ‘By the law is the knowledge of sin.’ The law is the quickener of the human conscience. Just in proportion as the spirituality of God’s law is kept out of view there will be manifest a decay of conscience. This must be the inevitable result.”
Over a forty year period–just one generation–Mr. Finney lamented that the consciences of the American people had radically changed. This led to a breakdown of trust in every aspect of society.
Who had failed?
First, the Christian leaders–the pastors of the day. They were not preaching the truth about sin and uplifting God’s Law as the only basis of a safe and civil society.
Secondly, the press (media) wasn’t encouraging public virtue and morality but filling the nation with trash and filth. Liquor ads now stood where sermons had once been published. Tobacco smoking and chewing was being touted as a preferred social grace.
The result: A decay of conscience. As tooth decay rots the teeth and often leads to their removal, the decay of conscience in people’s lives was rotting the nation.
Charles Finney’s final blast accused pastors of not declaring truth from the pulpit. In faith-based America, the pastors had let darkness put out the light:
“If there is a decay of conscience, the pulpit [pastors] is responsible for it. If the public press [media] lacks moral discrimination, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the Church is degenerate and worldly, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the world loses its interest in religion (Christianity), the pulpit is responsible for it. If Satan rules in our halls of legislation, the pulpit is responsible for it. If our politics [government] become so corrupt that the very foundations of our government are ready to fall away, the pulpit is responsible for it. Let us not ignore this fact my dear brethren; but let us lay it to heart and be thoroughly awake to our responsibility in respect to the morals of this nation.”
We must face our own national decay of conscience today. God awakened us before and he can do it again.
Over the next few weeks I will share how we can awaken our God-given consciences.