John Williamson Nevin – The Anxious Bench (part 7) Conclusion

Chapter Seven

This brings us to our final chapter. In this chapter Nevin describes in detail what the system of the Catechism consists of. He describes its theological ground and constitution, its general method and forms of action, and a historical exemplification of its use.

Just as the Anxious Bench was the type of a certain religious system, so too the Catechism is a type of a religious system, a system that is in direct opposition to that of the Anxious Bench.

The first distinguishing characteristic is the issue of salvation. The Bench is thoroughly Pelagian to the core, while the Catechism consists not of the sinners own power and strength, but consists of the new creation in Christ Jesus by the power of God. The Bench is all about what man does, the Catechism is all about what God does.

Man is the subject of it, but not the author of it, in any sense. His nature is restorable, but it can never restore itself. The restoration to be real, must begin beyond the individual. In this case as in the other, the general must go before the particular, and support it as its proper ground. Thus humanity, fallen in Adam, is made to undergo a Resurrection: in Christ, and so restored, flows over organically, as in the other case, to all in whom its life appears. The sinner is saved then by an inward living union with Christ, as real as the bond by which he has been joined in the first instance to Adam. This union is reached and maintained, through the medium of the Church, by the power of the Holy Ghost. It constitutes a new life, the ground of which is not in the particular subject of it at all, but in Christ, the organic root of the Church… Thus his salvation begins, and thus it is carried forward, till it becomes complete in the resurrection of the great day. From first to last, it is a power which he does not so much apprehend, as he is apprehended by it, and comprehended in it, and carried along with it, as something infinitely more deep and vast than himself. [1]

Those whom employ the Catechism have a much deeper respect for the Church, and must not see the church as merely a collection of saved individuals, as revivalists do. But instead we must see that Church as a divine organism with its own supernatural life. The Church is the institution whereby the means of grace and the system of the catechism find their home and efficacy. Thus is can rightly be said that the Church is truly the mother of all her children, because they do not impart life to her, but she imparts life to them through the means of grace. “The church is in no sense the product of individual Christianity, as though a number of persons should first receive the heavenly fire in separate streams, and then came into such a spiritual connection comprising the whole: but individual Christianity is the product, always and entirely, of the church.”[2]

This system also includes the wide range of the proper pastoral work, as distinguished from that of the pulpit. The faithful minister is found preaching the gospel from house to house, as well as in a more public way; visiting the families that are under his care, expressly for this purpose; conversing with old and young, on the great subject of personal religion; mingling with the poor, in their humble dwellings, as well as with those in better circumstances: ministering the instructions of religion, or its consolations, at the bed-side of the sick or dying; and in one word laying himself out in continual labors of love towards all, as the servant of all for Jesus’ sake. The holiness of his own life particularly becomes, in these circumstances, an agency powerful beyond all others, to recomm end and enforce the gospel he is called to preach. To all who know him, his very presence carries with it the weight of an impressive testimony in favor of the truth.[3]baxter

One of the most effective ministers in this system was Richard Baxter. His most famous work that he produced which describes his work is The Reformed Pastor. “Kidderminster, when he began to preach there, was a most neglected, unpromising charge, like many others in England at that time. His predecessor had been a common tippler and drunkard, without any fitness whatever for his work. The congregation was large, but composed for the most part of ignorant, careless rough mannered people.”[4]

The parish of Kidderminster would seem to have been one, precisely of that sort, which those who glorify “New Measures” in our day are accustomed to consider specially in need of being wrought upon in this way. Were one of this school planted down in the midst of such a congregation, rude, ignorant, immoral, and having no sense whatever of the power of godliness as distinguished from its forms, his very first thought would be probably that nothing could be done to purpose, till the whole community should be roused and stimulated into violent action, in some sudden wholesale way. So perhaps he would appoint a protracted meeting, call in the aid of some professional revivalist, bear down with the whole apparatus of his favorite system upon the people, drive excitement to the uttermost; and then when the field should seem to be carried in this style, it might be trumpeted, with due nourish, in some religious paper, that the parish had become morally regenerated. A most summary and convenient method truly of turning a dry barren Kidderminster into a fruitful field, and causing it to put forth blossoms as the rose.[5]

But Baxter did not yield to such fanaticism and quackery. “Mere excitement was of little account in his eyes, except as it might spring from the truth; and he had no conception or expectation of any general good to be accomplished by his ministry, except in the way of a patient, constant attendance upon the work itself, in its most minute details, kept up with prayer and faith from one end of the year to the other.”[6] Baxter preached once every Thursday, and on the same day he held prayer meetings in his own home, meeting with one or two families at a time. Besides that the young people held separate prayer meetings. Two days a week, he and another assistant minister would catechize the people, some fourteen families between the two of them. And many other such things characterized Baxter’s ministry.

Such was the general method of Baxter’s ministry. It was constant, regular, earnest; not marked with noise and parade; but like the common processes of nature, silent rather, deep, and full of invisible power. He was a man of prayer, and his whole soul was in his work. Thus his ministrations were clothed with uncommon interest and force. Prejudice and opposition gradually gave way. The pastor became the centre of all hearts. In the end, the change was complete. We hear of no sudden general excitement, no pains taken to secure anything of that sort; no revival, in the ordinary acceptation of the term, as denoting an occasional and transient awakening in the history of a church. But the life of religion in the place was constantly progressive, and the power of a quiet revival might be said to reign, at Kidderminster all the time. The result was wonderful.[7]


In conclusion, we have seen that Nevin has very poignantly and accurately presented his case against the Anxious Bench. He has demonstrated over and over again that the power which these revivalist ministers so proudly claim to have is nothing more but pure quackery, and is a chief cause of much spiritual delusion, false conversiCommunion bread and wineon, irreverence for God, His Word, His Sacraments, His Church, and His Holy Spirit. He has correctly diagnosed this spiritual disease as heresy, and he has done so, not out of spite for these people who are so caught up in the emotional fanaticism of it, but exactly the opposite, because he loves them, he cares about their souls, and he has too much reverence for God and love for His Church. He has clearly seen that the result of these New Measures will produce a Church that is largely different than what they were once historically, and have we not seen that pan out into our very own day with his own denomination in which he was a part? The only safe “measure” we can use to make sure that the soundness of conversions is more likely, and that a more godly respect for true and deep and pious religion abounds, is by means of the Catechism. It worked for Richard Baxter, whose congregation was not unlike the congregation of most of the revivalists of Nevin’s day. Yet patient godly pastoral teaching, preaching, counseling, catechizing, and visitation proved way more effective than anything Charles Finney and his new measures have ever seen. Nevin offers us keen insight into the psyche of the Anxious Bench, and has clearly shown it to be unstable, and incompetent to offer any true assurance of salvation, and only false and vain hope based upon feelings and not true heart religion brought about by the sovereign grace of God in Christ. It would do us well to listen to Nevin even today, for Finney’s legacy still lives on in American evangelicalism, and one solid way to combat the insanity, is to resurrect the spirit of John Williamson Nevin. May God give us the grace and the wisdom and the strength of heart to do just that.

[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), 107-108.

[2] Ibid., 111.

[3] Ibid., 114.

[4] Ibid., 122.

[5] Ibid., 123.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibd., 124.


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