A faith performed: a performance analysis of the religious revivals conducted by Charles Grandison Finney at the Chatham Street Chapel, 1832-1836

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Griffin, Bradley Wright

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Charles Grandison Finney was a self-trained Presbyterian minister whose career spanned the greater part of the nineteenth century. From the date of his ordination as an evangelist in 1824 until his death in 1875, Finney preached an unorthodox gospel that privileged the performance of Christianity in everyday life as the chief indicator of one’s faith. After holding a successful series of revival meetings in the winter of 1830-1831, he gained national prominence and received invitations to preach revivals all across the eastern United States and even in Great Britain. In 1832, Finney was installed as pastor of the Chatham Street Chapel in New York City. Located on Manhattan’s lower east side, the chapel had been built eight years earlier as the Chatham Garden Theatre. At a cost of $7000, the theatre was leased and converted into a church. Standing on a proscenium-arch stage and preaching to packed houses of 2,500 spectators, Finney developed and perfected a style of worship performance that would forever change the course of revivalism. While scholars in the field of religious studies have written extensively about Finney, my research approaches his ideas and practices from a performance perspective and asks the following question: “How did Charles Finney reconstruct the performance of public worship through the preparation and enactment of his revivals in New York City, from 1832 to 1836?” To answer this question, I have adapted a methodology of performance analysis first articulated by performance theorist and practitioner Richard Schechner in his essay, “Drama, Script, Theater, and Performance.” Schechner deconstructs the elements of the performance event in order to understand how the fluid line delineating performers and spectators is so often and so easily crossed. In my work, I have adapted Schechner’s four-fold model to examine Finney’s theology, performance style, venue, and audience. Using Finney’s lectures and memoirs, his personal correspondence, and the recorded memories of colleagues and former students, I have reconstructed a typical Finney revival. My work positions Finney’s career within the theatre culture of the early nineteenth century and puts his revivals in conversation with the performance traditions of his day.