John Williamson Nevin – The Anxious Bench (part 6)

Chapter Sixrevival

In this chapter, Nevin argues that the system of the Anxious Bench tends toward disorder; connects itself with a vulgar and irreverent style in religion; women praying in public; unfavorable influence toward deep and earnest piety; and finally he compares the Bench to the system of the Catechism.

The first issue is that of disorder. It is argued by the proponents of the Bench that it would be a foolish and ungodly thing to oppose the so-called “disorder” for the sake of “decency”, when in fact it is the power of God Himself that has brought such sinners to a state of wailing, and groaning, and crying, and prostration. Some people also argue that screaming, shouting, jumping, tumbling, and in one word, the whole wildfire of fanaticism, including the “holy laugh,” and the “holy grin,” might be vindicated in the same way. Only let persons persuade themselves that the “power of God” within them must reveal itself in this style, and all becomes at once rational and right.” Mr. Winebrenner himself said that he approves only of that which is from heaven, and then proceeds to justify all of the preceding things just mentioned as being from heaven. It is then made obviously clear that those things are “from heaven” which of course advance the position of the revivalists. To object to such fanaticism is then to object to the very workings of God. But the truth is, that no satisfactory stopping place can be found in the system of New Measures.[1]

Vulgarism is also present in the system of the Anxious Bench. In fact, in order to stir up the people, Nevin insists the vulgarism must prevail.

High excitement always tends to destroy men’s reverence for God and sacred things. And so this ‘high pressure’ system, as it is sometimes called, in proportion as it prevails, is always found to work. It gives rise to a style of preaching which is often rude and coarse, as well as uncommonly vapid; and creates an appetite for such false aliment, with a corresponding want of taste for true and solid instruction. All is made to tell upon the one single object of effect. The pulpit is transformed, more or less, into a stage. Divine things are so popularised as to be at last shorn of their dignity as well as their mystery. Anecdotes and stories are plentifully retailed, often in low, familiar, flippant style. Roughness is substituted for strength, and paradox for point. The preacher feels himself and is bent on making himself felt also by the congregation; but God is not felt in the same proportion. In many cases self-will and mere human passion, far more than faith or true zeal for the conversion of souls, preside over the whole occasion. Coarse personalities and harsh denunciations, and changes rung rudely on terms the most sacred and things the most solemn, all betray the wrong spirit that prevails.[2]

Nevin insists that there is nothing in the scene to impress those present with the sense of God’s awful, heart-searching presence. In fact, not only does fanaticism have no power whatsoever to make God’s presence felt, it is wild, presumptuous, and profane where it affects to partake more largely of the power of heaven. [3]

Concerning women preachers, Nevin’s most powerful statement is simply this, “There can be no surer sign of grossness and coarseness in religion, than a disposition to tolerate this monstrous perversion, under any form.”[4]

Nevin believes that the Anxious Bench is an unfavorable influence toward deep and earnest piety. That the experience of the Anxious Bench is commonly shallow is clearly manifest. It is argued that the awakening of these people is indeed the very power of God, and that they are the ones who truly experience the “depths” of experimental piety. Those who oppose these measures have no idea, it is argued, about the true power of the new birth. For if they did, they would not be so offended at the noise that and disorder of poor souls agonizing at the altar. But this is no Biblical argument. For if they had truly met God, and had truly come to a real sense of their own sins, then all the noise at the altar would be simultaneously hushed. For when Job met God, he said that when he met Him, he then abhorred himself and repented in dust and ashes. Therefore it is not the depth of the Anxious Bench and camp meeting conversions, but their utter want of depth that exposes them to complaint.[5]

Another thing to seriously consider, Nevin insists, is his charge that the system of New Measures is heresy. He says this not inconsiderately, or for mere rhetorical effect, but with sober calculation and design. The ground for the sinners salvation is made to rest at the last in his own person. This is nothing but Finneyism and Taylorism reduced to practice, the speculative heresy of New Haven actualized in common life.[6] “Religion does not get the sinner, but it is the sinner who ‘gets religion.’ Justification is taken to be in fact by feeling, not by faith; and in this way falls back as fully into the sphere of self-righteousness, as though it were expected from works under any other form.”[7]

In comparing the system of the Anxious Bench and that of the Catechism, Nevin says this of the Catechetical system.

shorter catechismIt is a different system altogether that is required, to build up the interests of Christianity in a firm and sure way. A ministry apt to teach; sermons full of unction and light; faithful, systematic instruction ; zeal for the interests of holiness; pastoral visitation; catechetical training; due attention to order and discipline; patient perseverance in the details of the ministerial work; these are the agencies, by which alone the kingdom of God may be expected to go steadily forward, among any people. Where these are fully employed, there will be revivals; but they will be only as it were the natural fruit of the general culture going before, without that spasmodic, meteoric character, which too often distinguishes excitements under this name; while the life of religion will show itself abidingly at work, in the reigning temper of the Church, at all other times…We may style it, for distinction sake, the system of the Catechism. It is another system wholly from that which we have been contemplating in this tract. We find the attempt made in some cases, it is true, to incorporate the power of the Catechism with the use of new measures. But the union is unnatural, and can never be inward and complete. The two systems involve at the bottom, two different theories of religion. The spirit of the Anxious Bench is at war with the spirit of the Catechism.[8]


[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), 92.

[2] Ibid., 93.

[3] Ibid., 94.

[4] Ibid., 95-96.

[5] Ibid. 97.

[6] Ibid., 98.

[7] Ibid., 99.

[8] Ibid., 100-101.

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