John Williamson Nevin – The Anxious Bench (part 2)

Chapter 2

In chapter two of The Anxious Bench, Nevin presents a negative argument against some of the arguments used to advocate the use of the Anxious Bench. The arguments that are used to justify the use of the Bench are: its popularity; its seeming success; certain circumstances in which it is found to prevail; and that no spiritual force is required to give it effect. Let us hear what Nevin has to say concerning these issues.

First, concerning its popularity; It is believed by some that God must be blessing the Church with the use of the Bench because it so widely used throughout the Churches. In some cases, Churches have seemingly little to no spiritual life without it. “Scores of ministers and congregations” says Nevin, “are found to glory in it as the very ‘gate of heaven.’ And consider it no less essential than the pulpit itself to the progress of any considerable revival.”[1] But this does not persuade Nevin one bit. He is wise enough to know, and anyone who is at all acquainted with the world, that it is regularly the popular things that are glorified in the minds of the masses and that only for a season, which prove themselves to be the worst things. “And especially is this the case where they hold their existence in the element of excitement, and connect themselves with religion, the deepest and most universal of all human interests.”[2]

Nevin then considers the question of whether or not the popularity of the Bench is even a reality at all. On hearing of numerous Congregational and Presbyterian Churches in New England and New York which once adopted the Bench, but then soon abandoned it for “a more excellent way”, he holds that “no great account is to be made of its present credit in any way.”[3] Simply put, the argument is: The Anxious Bench ought to be used because everybody’s doing it. Nevin’s response: No they’re NOT.” Simple. Effective. True.

Concerning the apparent success of the Bench in the service of religion, Nevin has a few more words to say. It is argued that God has owned the Anxious Bench, and “impressed his seal upon it, by working, through it mightily as a means of salvation; and if he choose to honor it in this way, who are we that we should find fault or condemn?” Hundreds, if not thousands of people are being awakened and converted in connection with its use, it is argued. And according to the Lutheran Observer,

“Who can behold a congregation of Christians wrestling, for an altar-full of penitent, anxious sinners, and witness the success of such instrumentality, and say, this is ignorance or fanaticism? God blesses only one way, which is the right way; he has blessed this way, therefore it is the right way.”[4]

Obviously Nevin is not persuaded. He first contests the notion that excitement in the name of religion is automatically a work of God. It is “marvelous credulity to take every excitement in the name of religion for the work of God’s Spirit.” In fact, Nevin makes the point that it is because of such excitement in the name of religion that we ought to be questioning its validity. “Spurious revivals are common, and as the fruit of them, false conversions lamentably abound.”[5] Nevin does indeed agree that there have been instances in which a true revival has taken place and the Anxious Bench was in use. But it would be unwise to say that God used the Anxious Bench to bring men to salvation, but rather, God brought men to salvation in spite of the new measures with which the revival was encumbered.[6] It will not do us well to evaluate the genuineness of such conversions by the use of the Bench, simply because of the immediate visible effects that have accompanied its use. Looks may be deceiving. “Piles of copper, fresh from the mint, are after all something very different from piles of gold.”[7]

It does not follow logically for Nevin, that a thing be considered right and good and ought to be used regularly simply because God might have worked through it. The Bench might still need to be opposed and banished from the Church despite the fact that God used it. Why? Because, as Nevin inferred just previously, God worked in spite of such obstacles. Yes, the Holy Spirit had chosen to use it to save a person, but that does not at all mean that the Spirit has chosen this measure to save all men. The gospel is the means that the Spirit uses to save men, not emotionalism and manipulation. In fact, it is exactly the amount of men that God actually saves through the means of the Bench that concerns Nevin.

It is sometimes said indeed, that if only some souls are saved by the use of new measures, we ought thankfully to own their power, and give them our countenance; since even one soul is worth more than a world. But it should be remembered, that the salvation of a sinner may notwithstanding cost too much! If truth and righteousness are made to suffer for the purpose, more is lost than won by the result. We must not do wrong, even to gain a soul for heaven. And if for one thus gained, ten should be virtually destroyed, by the very process employed to reach the point, who will say that such a method of promoting Christianity would deserve to be approved?[8]

If Nevin were alive today, perhaps he would have said that these men, by their logic, would make great congressman, since they would advocate borrowing ourselves out of debt.

The circumstances in which the Anxious Bench seems to prevail are places in which the majority of the people are often given over to feelings more than over to rational judgment. These people are swayed by impulse more than reflection. A large proportion of the people who come forward to the Anxious Bench are females and young people. In countering Nevin, one person said, “Low and jejune indeed must be the conception of a religion, which can allow a divine to attempt to destroy a “measure,” through which ‘females, girls and boys,’ run to, as a means to enable them to flee the wrath to come.” But this is exactly Nevin’s point. The Anxious Bench and the New Measures are no sure way of assuring a person of their salvation, or of actually brining about a real conversion. If these revivalists were so concerned about the souls of women, and girls and boys, than their target audience would not be those who are ignorant concerning the essence of true religion, and who are easily given over to emotional manipulation.

This brings Nevin to his next point, which is, that no spiritual power is necessary to bring a person to the Anxious Bench. All that is needed is the ability to get the people into an emotional frenzy, and then bring them through the Anxious Bench.

It shows no inward power whatever, to be able to move a congregation in this way. It can be done without eloquence, and calls for no particular “earnestness or depth of thought. It is truly wonderful indeed, with how little qualification of intellect and soul a man may be fitted to carry all before him at certain times, and to show himself off to the eyes of a bewitched multitude as “the great power of God,” by having recourse to new measures. He may be vulgar, coarse and dull, and so pointless and sapless in his ordinary pulpit services, that it will be a weariness to hear him; and yet you shall find him, from time to time, throwing a whole community into excitement, gathering around him crowded houses night after night, and exercising as it might seem, for the space of three or four weeks, an irresistible sway, in favor of religion. Such cases are by no means uncommon. Some of the most successful practitioners in the art of the Anxious Bench show themselves lamentably defective in the power of serious godliness, as well as in mental cultivation generally.[9]

Nevin criticizes these revivalists for being all external, and having no internal fortitude in their work of “religion.” To have the appearance of godliness but to lack the strength thereof, is the nature of quackery. Quackery, is by far Nevin’s favorite characteristic of these Anxious Bench advocates, and he will go into detail in chapter three concerning the details of what exactly quackery consists of.


[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), 33.

[2] Ibid., 34.

[3] Ibid., 34-35.

[4] Ibid., 35.

[5] Ibid., 36.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 37.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 42-43.

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