John Williamson Nevin – The Anxious Bench (part 3)

Chapter Three

In Chapter Three, Nevin demonstrates that the nature of Quackery is to rely on forms or measures, which demonstrates inward weakness. Quackery is thus “the pretension to possess an inward power merely because one can produce an outward effect.”[1] It is thus inherent in those who use the Anxious Bench, to have a spirit of quackery about them. There are quack doctors…

…quack lawyers, quack statesmen, quack scholars, quack teachers, quack gentleman, quacks in a word of every name and shape, meet us plentifully in every direction. We need not be surprised, then, to find the evil fully at home also in the sphere of religion. Indeed it might seem to be more at home here, than anywhere else. Here especially the heart of man, “deceitful above all things and desperately wicked,” has shown itself most ingenious in all ages, in substituting the shadow for the reality, the form for the substance, the outward for the inward. The religion of the world has always been, for the most part, arrant quackery. Paganism can exist under no other form.[2]

Nevin continues with examples of quackery in the Church, discussing the “mummery of Rome”, as well as the quackery of Simon Magus who had no spiritual strength of himself and thus sought to purchase the Holy Spirit of God from St. Peter. “He was a quack; the prototype and prince of evangelical quacks.”[3] Gnosticism is also quackery, and soon after the Reformation, it did not take long for the Protestants to turn to quackery. All form. No power.

But this does not mean that religion must not have forms, for religion must have forms, as well as an inward living force. But these forms can have no value, unless they are derived from the living inward power first. “The inward must be bearer of the outward. Quackery however reverses the case. The outward is made to bear the inward. The shrine, consecrated with the proper ceremonies, must become a shechinah.”[4] The quackery of the Anxious Bench seeks to establish the Bench first, pump it up, get people to dance around, scream, get emotional, rant, rave, laugh, cry, howl, etc., and then claim that the reason this is happening because of the inherent power within the system of the Bench. But this is patently false and self contradictory. For Nevin knows what it is to have true inward power, and to not rely upon the quackery of the Anxious Bench to produce “results.”

Let the power of religion be present in the soul of him who is called to serve at the altar, and no strange fire will be needed to kindle the sacrifice. He will require no new measures. His strength will appear rather in resuscitating, and clothing with their ancient force, the institutions and services already established for his use. The freshness of a divine life, always young and always new, will stand forth to view in forms that before seemed sapless and dead. Attention will be engaged; interest excited; souls drawn to the sanctuary. Sinners will be awakened, and born into the family of God. Christians will be builded up in faith, and made meet for the inheritance of the saints in light. Religion will grow and prosper. This is the true idea of evangelical power.[5]

But the New Measures minister has to resort to quackery. He has no other choice, nor does he know any other way. He is not able to preach well, he spurns the notion of the Catechism, he does not visit his parishioners, nor visit the sick and elderly. He has no time nor desire to be about the business of Pastoral work. He has greater things to attend to than meeting with people.

The man who appeared to be all on fire for the salvation of souls, and ready to storm even the common proprieties of life for the sake of the gospel, shows himself now marvelously apathetic towards the whole interest. He has no heart to seize common opportunities, in the house or by the way, to say a word in favor of religion. It is well indeed if he be not found relaxing altogether his ministerial activity, both in the pulpit and from house to house. The truth is, he has no capacity, no inward sufficiency, for the ordinary processes of evangelical labor.[6]

And yet, because the revivalist is known to gather a crowd, and many people have been known to come to the Anxious Bench and many have professed faith in Christ, and because there is great enthusiasm and emotion flowing freely throughout the whole congregation assembled, wherever the man may go, he is seen as being, and understood to be, a great man of God, whom the Holy Spirit has chosen to take residence in and anoint for the great task of soul winning. Unfortunately, this so-called minister probably knows very little about the Bible, about holiness, about the Pastoral Ministry, about the Catechism. Thus the result will most likely end up being, the blind leading the blind. Both will fall into a ditch, and the minister who is supposed to be the great power of God, has actually this whole time practically deceived every person into believing they were saved, simply because they got emotional. Which brings us to our next point, false assurance derived from the Anxious Bench.

[1] Nick Needham, “Charles Finney and His Critics”; Available from article_detail.php?1071; Internet; Accessed 22 November 2009.

[2] 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), 46.

[3] Ibid., 47.

[4] Ibid., 48.

[5] Ibid., 49-50.

[6] Ibid., 54.


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