John Williamson Nevin – The Anxious Bench (part 4)

Chapter Four

In Chapter Four Nevin outlines the dangers of the Anxious Bench. These four can be described:

1. it creates a false issue for the conscience. The real issue for a sinner is, “Will he repent?” The anxious bench changes the issue to, “Will he perform a physical action?” The sinner is thus disastrously distracted from the real issue.
2. the use of the anxious bench obstructs and diverts the action of truth in the minds of the genuinely awakened.
3. the anxious bench fosters spurious conversions.
4. following on inevitably from these three dangers, harm and loss to the souls of men will surely stem from the use of the anxious bench.[1]

Let us then examine the arguments thus laid out. Nevin says that the Anxious Bench created a false issue for the conscience. “God has a controversy with the impenitent” says Nevin. “He calls upon them to acknowledge their guilt and misery, with true repentance, and to submit themselves by faith to the righteousness of the gospel. It is their condemnation that they refuse to do this.”[2] When God begins to awaken a sinner, the sinner begins to see his condition and his relationship to God. This brings about conviction, which is healthy, and is the first-fruits of repentance. He is to continue to see the nature of this controversy that he is in with God, until finally he finds himself to inwardly lay down his weapons of rebellion against God and His Christ, and decidedly casts himself upon the mercy of God in Christ Jesus. The question then, as Nevin sees it, is:

will he repent and yield his heart to God or not? This is the true issue to be met and settled; and it is all important that he should be so shut up to this in his thoughts, that he may have no power to escape the force of the challenge which it involves. That spiritual treatment must be considered best in his case, which serves most fully to bring this issue into view and holds him most effectually confronted with it in his conscience, beneath the clear light of the Bible.[3]

But when in a revivalist meeting where New Measures abound and the Anxious Bench is employed, the question is then something completely different all together. It is no longer, “will he repent or not?” but, “will he go to the Anxious Bench or not?” When this happens, the true issue that needs to be addressed, the issue that God has been dealing with the man about, is pushed to the side and out of the forefront of the mind, only to be replaced by a different issue, and one that has nothing to do with a person’s salvation. This is in fact one of the greatest dangers of the Anxious Bench. Those who employ the Anxious Bench have a desire to remove all stumbling blocks and hindrances to the cross, and to bring a person to Jesus for salvation. But in doing so, they place the Anxious Bench in the way of the sinner which then prevents the person from coming to Jesus, and yet deceives them from thinking that because they came to the Anxious Bench they came to Jesus, and thus they are now saved.

It is certainly a little strange, that the class of persons precisely who claim to be the most strenuous, in insisting upon unconditional, immediate submission to God, scarcely tolerating that a sinner should be urged to pray or read the bible, lest his attention should be diverted from that one point, are as a general thing nevertheless quite ready to interpose this measure in his way to the foot of the cross, as though it included in fact the very thing itself. And yet a pilgrimage to the Anxious Bench, is in its own nature as much collateral to the duty of coming to Christ, as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.[4]

Some think that this is a weak argument, and that it is an easy thing to come to the Anxious Bench. But as anyone knows who has experienced such a thing, it is quite an inward battle that takes place inside of the person. Fearing embarrassment, or shame, or a whole host of other feelings, the sinner becomes so overwhelmed with the sheer thought of going to the Anxious Bench, or to the altar, that he is filled with such emotion, and butterflies in the stomach, and other inward turmoil, that Nevin is absolutely correct when he says that the mind becomes preoccupied with a completely different matter altogether. For this reason it ought not to be used, since it is self refuting, because it places the soul in danger of false assurance and hope, and not in the assurance of the true power of the Spirit of God in regeneration and in the New Birth.

The second issue Nevin deals with is really one and the same with the first, yet he provides an illuminating example of how it is that a person is actually hindered from coming to Christ by means of the Anxious Bench. I shall reiterate the text here in full, for the effect of the argument, which is made powerful by the story being told in full.

Take a single case, in illustration of the way in which the system may be expected to work. Here is a gentle girl, sixteen or seventeen years of age. She finds herself in the midst of a large congregation, where at the close of the sermon, the minister, encouraged by the general seriousness of the house, invites all who are concerned for the salvation of their souls, to come forward and place themselves on the anxious seat. She has been perhaps a long time under some concern, or it may be that God’s truth has been felt for the first time on this occasion; not with great force perhaps, but so at least as to bring her spirit to a solemn stand in the presence of her Maker. She hears the invitation, but shrinks from the thought of doing what the minister demands. The call however is reiterated, and enforced by the most exciting appeals to the imagination. After a few moments there is a stir; one is going forward to the bench, and then another, and another. She is struck, moved, agitated. A struggle has commenced in her bosom, which she herself is not prepared to understand. May she not be fighting against God, she asks herself, in refusing to go forward with the rest? May it not be in her case, at this moment, now or never? All this is solemnly crowded on her alarmed conscience by the whole character of the occasion, in the way in which it is managed by the minister. Already her soul has passed from the element of conviction into the element of excitement. The “still small voice” of the Spirit is drowned amid the tumult of her own conflicting thoughts. But see, she yields. With a desperate struggle, she has thrown herself forth into the aisle. Trembling and agitated in every nerve, poor victim of quackery, she makes her way, consciously in the eye of that large watching assembly, from one end of the house to the other, and sinks, half fainting with the effort, into a corner of the magic seat. And now, where is she, in spiritual position? Are her tears the measure of her sorrow for sin? Alas, she is farther off from God, than she was before this struggle commenced in her father’s pew. Calm reflection is departed. Her hold upon the inward has been lost. Could any intelligent Christian parent truly anxious for the salvation of his daughter, deliberately advise her in the circumstances which have been supposed, to seek religion in this way? Can the pastor be wise, who is willing to subject the: lambs of his flock to such a process, with the view of bringing the good seed of the word, to take root, and vegetate in their hearts?[5]

The third issue which Nevin attacks is the idea that coming to the Anxious Bench is equivalent to making a true and real decision to follow Christ. Some have even made it sound like the very act of coming to the Bench is equivalent to coming to Christ Himself. In fact, this is the logical end of the Bench, and its’ very purpose.

Indeed I do not see well, how the measure could be employed in any case with much effect, without the help of some such representation. We find accordingly that the whole process, as it were in spite of itself, runs ordinarily into this form. Sinners are exhorted to come to the anxious bench, as for their life, by the same considerations precisely that should have force to bring them to Christ, and that could have no force at all in this case, if it were not confounded more or less to their perception with the other idea.[6]

The opposite idea is also communicated to those that refuse to come to the Anxious Bench, namely, that by refusing to do so, a person is rejecting and spurning the person of Christ Himself.

After coming to the Bench, the person is then exhorted and encouraged to “continue on” in the life of faith, as if they actually have begun a divine life, and have been regenerated, simply because they sat on a seat. Just as the Baptismal font is the laver of regeneration in the Romish Church, so too, the Anxious Bench has become the laver of regeneration, the gate of paradise, the womb of the New Jerusalem for the Finneyites.[7] The whole measure is so ordered to promote the delusion that the use of the Anxious Bench serves some purpose in the regeneration of the soul.[8]

Subsequently then, the fourth point that Nevin deals with in this chapter, is the inevitable result of the first three – harm and loss to the souls of men flow largely from use of the Anxious Bench. Some men will have no desire to be saved, have no inward conviction of sin, and yet, these same ones might very well be envious of attention, or do not want to be left behind as their family and friends go to the Bench, and thus be looked upon as different, or a number of other impure motives might take place in the hearts of men, when called upon to come to the Bench.

The person then, whatever their motive, will almost undeniably feel faith, because feelings and emotionalism and excitement rules the hour. Is it a strange thing to imagine that a person, who has no real interest in religion, would get caught up in an emotional frenzy, with the breaking point being that of the Anxious Bench.

How natural that this relaxation, carrying with it the sense of relief as compared with the tension that had place before, should be mistaken on such an occasion for the peace of religion, that mysterious something which it is the object of all this process to fetch into the mind. And how natural that the wearied subject of such experience, should be hurried into a wild fit of joy by this imagination, and stand prepared, if need be, to clap his hands and shout hallelujah, over his fancied deliverance.[9]

In other words, the person gets emotionally manipulated into thinking that he has become a Christian, simply because he had an experience. Not a conversion experience, which he would so believe it to be, but really an emotional experience. And once the high of the excitement wears down, there is a feeling of rest and relaxation, which the person is told that what they are feeling now is “the peace of God.” This obviously produces a false conversion. The minister, since most of them are likely to be Arminian, or perhaps even Pelagian, would have probably told them after they had come to the bench, that not only are they now saved, but once they are saved, they are always saved, and God will never leave them or forsake them. The problem is that God has never embraced them, and they never embraced God. All these people did is embrace an emotional experience, and then was given the word of authority from the man of God that what they all had just experienced was indeed the Holy Spirit. Thus Nevin observes that, because of the very large number of false conversions, which openly and plainly manifest themselves once the protracted meetings move along, that it must be evident that “this system is in all respects suited to produce spurious conversions, so it is continually producing them in fact, to a terrible extent.”[10] Some openly reject the Church, others remain inside the Church believing themselves to be alive though they are still actually dead. “They have had their ‘experience,’ centering in the Anxious Bench, on which they continue to build their profession and its hopes; but farther than this they give no signs of life. They have no part, nor lot in the Christian salvation.”[11] The ministers then make it sound like they are building the kingdom of God with gold, silver and precious metals, and others who rely on the system of the catechism, are actually the ones who are regarded as building with wood, hay, and stubble. “Wonderful infatuation! Stupendous inconsistency!”[12]

[1] Nick Needham, “Charles Finney and His Critics.”

[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), 59.

[3] Ibid., 60.

[4] Ibid., 61.

[5] Ibid., 63-64.

[6] Ibid., 66.

[7] Ibid., 67.

[8] Ibid., 68.

[9] Ibid., 70-71.

[10] Ibid., 72.

[11] Ibid., 73.

[12] Ibid., 74.


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