Finney, an American Presbyterian minister who was a leader of the Second Great Awakening, had gained prominence as an evangelical preacher in upstate New York by the time Joseph Smith Jr., living in the same region, had begun his personal quest for religious truth. According to history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Smith’s family had visited several sects of Christianity in the area of Palmyra, New York, by the time he was 15, and several members of Smith’s family had joined the Presbyterian church (Joseph Smith — History 1:5-6).
According to his own Memoirs, Charles Finney started studies in 1821 at age 29 to become a licensed minister in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Despite being a Presbyterian minister, Finney expressed many misgivings with the fundamental doctrines taught in that denomination, in his major works such as Religious Revivals. For instance, in his Systematic Theology, he once mentioned, “I have felt greater hesitancy in forming and expressing my views upon this Perseverance of the saints, than upon almost any other question in theology.”
Finney also deviated from Christian orthodoxy in many other ways. He was most active as a “revivalist” in 1825 through 1835 — again, the exact time period of Joseph Smith’s alleged experiences involving the Book of Mormon — in Jefferson County, New York, and for a few years in Manhattan. The “burned-over district” denotes the western and central regions of New York in the early 19th century, where religious revivals and the formation of new religions movements of the Second Great Awakening took place.The term was coined by Finney, who in Autobiography of Charles G. Finney, 1876, referred to a “burnt district.” He believed the area had been so heavily evangelized as to have no “fuel” — unconverted population — left over to “burn” — that is, to convert.
Joseph Smith’s own testimony recounts the atmosphere of intense religious energy and division that informed his thinking. As Finney was an active religious leader in the vicinity where Joseph Smith lived, he likely had an influence on Joseph Smith’s reasons to reject Presbyterianism and found Mormonism, however deluded that might have been.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, which largely defines Presbyterianism, in its earliest version in 1646 identified the Roman pontiff as “the Antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God.” When the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America was formed in 1788, it adopted the Westminster Standards, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.
Presbyterians uphold the Westminster Standards as a faithful reproduction and helpful ordered summary of what the Bible teaches — but we don’t claim that the Standards are God-breathed and infallible. That is reserved for Holy Scripture alone. Though Protestantism had many things correct, admittedly, anyone who undertakes the task of reforming an entire belief system is prone to overcorrection. The need to tone down some of Protestantism’s language apparently was recognized at least by the early 20th century. In 1936, the First General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church met to constitute a new denomination, and as part of its process, the Assembly adopted a recommendation to remove the reference of the Pope as the Antichrist in chapter 25.6.
However, the damage was already done. We would be remiss not to mention in this discussion that the hands of Protestantism were not completely clean in the instigation of 19th-century American cultism. Protestants, while theologically precise, until rather recently unfortunately were more often inimical toward Roman Catholics, rather than irenic. The antipathy between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism had, by the 1830s, been woven into the fabric of American culture — and had fomented into the new monstrosity of Mormonism, which introduced “new” errors to American society.
It’s been said that there are no new truths of God being revealed — just the rediscovery of old truth. Likewise, as we are about to learn, new errors are really nothing more than “repackaged” old errors.