John Williamson Nevin – The Anxious Bench (part 5)

Chapter Five

In chapter five Nevin demonstrates that the Bench is Vindicated on Insufficient Grounds: as bringing the sinner to a Decision; As involving him in a Committal; As giving force to his Purpose; As a penitential Discipline; As necessary for the purposes of Instruction; As opening the way for Prayer. He goes through this relatively quickly, and thus so shall I.

First he deals with the issue of “decisionism.” It is told to the sinner that they ought to avoid at all cost leaving the meeting without making a decision. It is pressed upon them to make a decision for Jesus, and this is obviously done at the Anxious Bench. This decision, though equated to making a decision for Jesus, is really a decision that decides nothing. There is no call to repentance as the Apostles did when they proclaimed the kingdom of God, there is just a call to “Come.” Nevin keenly observes that “if it be conversion to come out in this way, let the thing be openly affirmed at once; but if not, why mock us by calling it a decision, and pretending to find precedents for it in the Acts of the Apostles?”[1]

The second issue raisedReform1 is that of making a Committal. If sinners are not brought exactly to make a decision at the Anxious Bench, then they are at least brought to a committal, and this is considered to be something great. The sinner is encouraged while the seriousness of the matter is still fully in his mind, to make a commitment to seek the Lord. With the same amount of commitment he has toward the things of the world, he is encouraged to make toward the things of God. They are urged to go forward and not to “draw back unto perdition.”[2]

Low and jejune must be the conception of religion, which can allow such a view as this to be entertained. It is well indeed that sinners should bind themselves by an inward resolution, to seek the Lord, while he is to be found; and it is right that they should be urged to do this, on all suitable occasions. But such a resolution, to be of any account, must proceed from intelligent reflection and inward self-possession; and it can have no salutary force, except as entertained in the consciousness of God’s presence and God’s authority, to the exclusion comparatively of all inferior references. Nothing can be more irrational, than to think of making the sinner’s feelings in this case a trap for his judgment, and then holding him fast by the force of an outward bond. The circumstances, in which he is urged to put his soul thus under pledge, are the very worst that could well be imagined for the purpose.[3]

In a number of instances those who openly fall back into the world do so without a “feeling of humiliation and spite in the recollection of their own weakness; and their state subsequently is worse than it was before.” But there are those who do make it into the Church, and their profession seems to have a hold on them at least in the forms of external religion. In fact they might continue in such a condition until the day of their death, without any sense as to the falseness of the conversion.[4]

The third issue Nevin addresses is the argument that coming to the Anxious Bench gives the person the strength to continue on in the things of religion. The Bench is like the first step towards Christ, just as the signing of a temperance pledge by a drunk is the first step he takes toward sobriety. The most difficult step is the first step, and if we can get the person to take the first step, this is much better than no step at all.

On the surface this looks plausible, but the end in which signing a temperance pledge leads is much different than the end in which the Anxious Bench lays claim. “The one is fully within the compass of human will and human strength; the other is beyond it entirely.[5] The one may be mastered in the flesh; the other cannot be approached or understood, except in the spirit.”[6]

In any case however, vows and pledges that spring from excitement rather than reflection, are to be considered fanatical, and as such neither rational nor free; and though in certain cases, men may seem to be strengthened and supported by them, in the prosecution of good ends belonging to a lower sphere, they are ever to be deprecated in the sphere of religion, as tending only to delusion and sin.[7]

The fourth issue that Dr. Nevin addresses is the argument that the Bench is well suited to humble the sinner and break his pride. How is a person ever expected to humble themselves and come to the cross, if they can’t even come to the Anxious Bench?

If unwilling to stoop to the self-denial involved in coming to this, how can the awakened person be willing to do anything that religion requires. Thus the pride and wickedness of the heart, in relation to the gospel, are forced home upon the individual’s consciousness; and when at length, under the pressure of this conviction, he goes forward and joins himself openly with the anxious, his pride is prostrated, and he is no longer ashamed to appear earnestly concerned for the salvation of his soul.[8]

Nevin points out that any test could be submitted for which a persons’ pride might be humbled. A more Biblical example would be to have the person clothe themselves in sackcloth and ashes and parade themselves around the Church begging for the prayers of Christians. But in whatever forms his outward demonstration consists, it is no infallible test of the sinners feeling. In fact, one might come to the Anxious Bench for the purpose of puffing himself in the eyes of the congregation present, so he might feel himself to be more spiritual then those who have not submitted to the Bench.

Nevin demonstrates in his fifth point that the Anxious Bench is no suitable place for a sinner to receive instruction concerning matters of religion. It is the customary manner to fill the Bench with sinners, and then to have the minister come to each person individually, one by one, and ask them some questions concerning their spiritual condition. After all have been “instructed”, a general exhortation is given to the group as a whole. Each person is instructed for approximately three to four minutes, since there are a number of people to “instruct”, and the patience of the congregation must be taken into consideration as well. This whole process is called “spiritual instruction”! If a doctor were seen addressing a dozen or so patients in this manner, there would be a great cause for derision. But when the revivalists do it, they are highly esteemed.

One of the most difficult and delicate functions a minister is called to perform, is that of giving counsel to awakened sinners. None calls for more caution and discrimination. It is hard to ascertain correctly the state of the spiritual patient, and hard to suit the prescription wisely to his particular wants. It is so, where there may be the fullest opportunity for free, calm investigation, in the family visit, or in a private interview. But here, where all surrounding influences conspire to complicate the difficulty to the greatest extent, in the midst of commotion without and commotion within, it is pretended to dispose of a dozen such cases perhaps in the course of half an hour.[9]

If there is a large number of sinners that need to be “instructed” the minister will send some novice, or a young man who is in the process of heading into full time ministry, or one who was just recently born again, most likely by means of the Anxious Bench, to give these people instruction! The equivalent, says Nevin, would be for three or four doctors to go through a hospital attempting to diagnose the people’s condition, and then prescribing to all of them the same exact medication. Would not these doctors be called “Quacks” in the first degree? And yet it is not so with the ministers of the New Measures? “Is it possible that sensible men, in the fair use of their senses, fail to be struck with the absurdity of such a process?”[10]

Lastly, the sixth point that Nevin addresses is the argument that the unconverted should be called out in order that they might receive prayer. It is through the Anxious Bench that the Church knows for whom to pray. By looking upon such people, the Church will be stirred up in their pity to see such people be saved, which helps to make their prayers more fervent and effectual.

It is a suspicious kind of prayer at best that can be engaged, in such circumstances, only by the sight of its objects, theatrically paraded to produce effect, without the power of a more general interest. But it is not necessary that the awakened should be unknown, in the church to which they belong. They may be discovered without the aid of the Anxious Bench, and can be carried so upon the hearts of God’s people, in the sanctuary and in the closet, with an interest far more deep and active, than any that is produced in the other way.[11]


[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), 77.

[2] Ibid., 77-78.

[3] Ibid., 78-79.

[4] Ibid., 79-80.

[5] “Mr. Finney holds the pledge in the one case, a fair exemplification of the advantage gained by bringing a sinner to the bench, in the other. The idea is quoted also with approbation, by the Lutheran Observer, Dec. 1. 1843. Mr. Dam’s finds gross heresy, antinomianism, fatalism, &c., in the statement of the tract, just at this point, Plea, p. 50—54. He speaks forth boldly the error, that lies wrapped up in the very heart and core of the system he represents. “Does the sinner submit to God,” it is asked with an air of triumph, “or does the Holy Ghost ” The only proper answer to such a question is, The Holy Ghost in the sinner, or the sinner as born of the Spirit in Christ, submits to God. Any view that stops short of this is rotten as pelagianism itself.” This footnote appears on page 81 in “The Anxious Bench.”

[6] Ibid., 81.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. 82.

[9] Ibid., 84.

[10] Ibid., 84-85.

[11] Ibid., 88.

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