John Williamson Nevin – The Anxious Bench (part 1)

In the year 1843 John Williamson Nevin, then professor of Theology in the Seminary of the German Reformed Church in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, wrote an indicting tract against the system of the “New Measures”, whose major proponent at that time was Charles Grandison Finney. The title of this tract was “The Anxious Bench.” The Anxious Bench was in Nevin’s estimation, to be understood as being the “type and representative of the entire system of what are technically denominated in our day “New Measures.”[1] In 1844, just one year after the publication of this tract, which caused a considerable uproar among those who were decidedly for the use of the Anxious Bench and the New Measures, Nevin set out again to republish the tract, except in an updated and expanded second edition, in which he sought to address some of the questions, comments, remarks, and insults that were hurled at him as a result of the first printing of the tract, and to answer the arguments of those men who believe the Anxious Bench and the use of New Measures to be “the great power of God.”[2]

Chapter One

In chapter one of “The Anxious Bench”, Nevin lays out the “Design of the Tract, the Occasion for Inquiry, and the Importance and Solemnity of the Subject.” Nevin understands the Anxious Bench to be a representation of

the New Measures, which he considers to be a system.[3] As a system, it is then “possible to estimate rightly their nature and character” so as to evaluate whether or not the Anxious Bench, which is the “most moderate and plausible sha

pe the system can well take”[4] is worthy of our confidence in helping to establish a “deep, thorough, and intelligent piety.” [5] If the Anxious Bench is found to be unworthy of our confidence to help establish true heart regeneration, then the whole system will be stripped of its title to give confidence of that thing which it so claims. And if the Anxious Bench cannot do what it claims, then the whole situation is only something worse than what we originally thought,[6] and therefore needs to be addressed.

Concerning the Occasion for Inquiry into the usage of the Anxious Bench, Nevin informs us that throughout the country, in places that the Bench was used and was well received, it had soon fallen into discredit. “It has been tried, and found wanting” Nevin says, “and it might have been trusted that this experiment would be sufficient to drive it completely out of use. But unfortunately, this is not the case.”[7] Even though the Anxious Bench naturally opens the way to other forms of aberration, and may be regarded as the threshold of all that is found to follow, even to the verge of extreme fanaticism and rant,[8] and despite the fact that various sects have been vying with one another in the measure of its irregularities, the editor of the Lutheran Observer is quick to praise it and recognize it as the “lever of Archimedes, which by the blessing of God can raise our German Churches to that degree of respectability and prosperity in the religious world which they ought to enjoy.”[9] The usage of the Anxious Bench and the adoption of the New Measures system, need to be examined. Whether these things really be of God, or not, it would be a wise thing, Nevin points out, to “test the spirits to see if they be of God”, and to ‘prove all things.”

If it should be found after all, to be not the wisdom and power of God unto salvation, but the fruitful source of error and confusion in religion, an occasion of reproach to the gospel and of ruin to the souls of men, it would be a heavy account surely, to answer for any part taken in its favor.[10]

Nevin points out those who have adopted the New Measures have also adopted a very sacred understanding of Revivals, to the effect that to question anything that be used in the cause of revival, despite how irregular it is, is untouchable and not to be subject to scrutiny. “No room must be allowed to criticism where the object proposed is to rescue souls from hell.”[11] There is great danger, according to the Finneyites, to “clog the chariot wheels of salvation” by brining into disrepute the measures that God is using to save souls. This indeed sounds like an honorable and noble thing, and nobody wants to hinder the work of God. But if in fact the New Measures are by no means the power of God unto salvation, but sheer emotionalism, and feeling, then it is an even greater danger to regard it as the power of God unto salvation, when in fact neither God not salvation accompany the Anxious Bench and the New Measures.

Meanwhile the disastrous consequences of false excitement, in the name of religion, are entirely overlooked. No account is made comparatively, of the danger of bringing both the truth and power of God into discredit, by countenancing pretensions to the name of a revival where the thing itself[12] is not present. The danger itself is by no means imaginary. Spurious excitements are natural and common. Gross irregularity and extravagance, carried often to the point of downright profanity, are actually at work, in connection with such excitements, on all sides. The whole interest of revivals is endangered, by the assumption impudently put forward, that these revolting excesses belong to the system. False and ruinous views of religion, are widely disseminated. Thousands of souls are deceived into a false hope. Vast obstructions are thrown in the way of true godliness. But of all this, no account is made by those who are so sensitively jealous of danger oh the other side. The only alternative they seem to see, is Action or No action. But the difference between right action and wrong action, one would think, is full as important, to say the least, as the difference between action and no action.[13]

In other words, Nevin, who was in fact a supporter of true revivals, thought that true revivals, when God chooses to bring them about, would be brought into discredit by the advocates of the New Measures, because they have been calling everything in which people get excited and aroused, a “revival.” Therefore when all that is present in these so-called “revivals” is emotionalism, and God is not really actually present doing a work, and than as a result, “false and ruinous views of religion are disseminated” and thousands of souls are deceived into a false hope, believing that it was God, when in fact, all they got was emotionalism, it can be rightly understood why Nevin should have written such a tract, and rightly called into question the system of the Anxious Bench.

In what could be described as something close to a prophetic utterance, Nevin saw the logical and inevitable outcome of those Church that had whole-heartedly adopted the New Measures.

The bearing of it [an inquiry into the merits of the Anxious Bench] upon the interests of religion in the German Churches, is of fundamental and vital importance. A crisis has evidently been reached in the history of these Churches; and one of the most serious points involved in it, is precisely this question of New Measures. Let this system prevail and rule with permanent sway, and the result of the religious movement which is now in progress, will be something widely different from what it would have been under other auspices. The old regular organizations, if they continue to exist at all, will not be the same Churches. Their entire complexion and history, in time to come, will be shaped by the course of things with regard to this point.[14]

The German Reformed Church eventually became the United Church of Christ, and has since embraced women’s ordination, homosexual ordination, advocacy for the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-and Transgendered (LGBT) movement in the Church, a complete abandonment of the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, the embracing of socialism, and many other ungodly and ruinous positions. The Lutheran Church in America, specifically the Evangelical

Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has just recently made provision for homosexual ministers to be ordained. The Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) is still orthodox, but even to this day, the New Measures are being applied in some way, shape, or form in these Churches, and systematically the Bible is being watered down. Nevin was indeed correct that as a result of the unharnessed reign of the New Measures and the Anxious Bench, these Church have become something completely different than what they were originally.


[1] John Williamson Nevin, “The Anxious Bench” edited by Charles Yrigoyon Jr., and George H. Bricker, in Catholic and Reformed: Selected Theological Writings of John Williamson Nevin (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 1978), 17.

[2] John Williamson Nevin, “The Anxious Bench”, 22.

[3] Nevin, 17.

[4] Ibid., 18.

[5] Ibid., 96.

[6] Ibid., 18.

[7] Ibid., 20.

[8] Ibid., 18.

[9] Ibid., 22, footnote.

[10] Ibid., 26.

[11] Ibid.

[12] I understand “the thing itself” to be referring to the “truth and power of God” in revival.

[13] Ibid., 26-27.

[14] Ibid., 23.

 

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2 thoughts on “John Williamson Nevin – The Anxious Bench (part 1)

  1. Thank God that “nobodies” like Nevin don’t get their honor and authority by current human ignorance & stupidity concerning the glorious things of glorious God (and the evils of man-centered depravity like vile James 4:4 adulteresses like Finney & his successors at Willow Creek) but from Almighty God Himself Who alone is worthy of anything, alone sufficient to deem what these “good and faithful servants” have done to be “well done” (Matt 25:21). Soli Deo gloria!

  2. This article is very interesting but I am not sure that it is completely historically accurate. John Williamson Nevin was a leader in the German Reformed Church. Most of the German Reformed Church agreed with his stand on this. Historically those in the German Reformed Church that embraced “the new measure” and were in anyway involved in the 2nd great awakening where dissociated with the denomination and kicked out, like John Winebrenner who later (1830) founded the “Church of God” (now the Church of God General Conference which still holds the infallibility and authoritative Scripture as their only rule for faith and practice and does not ordain Homosexuals or endorse the Homosexual lifestyle). It could be better stated historically that those who in fact did not embrace “the new measure” in the German Reformed Church would become the UCC with all their unbiblical practices. Many great movements birthed in the second great awakening (was everything that went on of God? emphatically NO). Many of those who apposed that great move of God still today are heaped in the dry rituals of man made religion and works unto salvation. We are called to engage our God with our entire being, “Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matt 22:37 NIV) This is our entire being, that we engage our God emotionally as well as intellectually, Spiritually and experientially. There needs for both.

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