Reformed Churchmen

We are Confessional Calvinists and a Prayer Book Church-people. In 2012, we remembered the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer; also, we remembered the 450th anniversary of John Jewel's sober, scholarly, and Reformed "An Apology of the Church of England." In 2013, we remembered the publication of the "Heidelberg Catechism" and the influence of Reformed theologians in England, including Heinrich Bullinger's Decades. For 2014: Tyndale's NT translation. For 2015, John Roger, Rowland Taylor and Bishop John Hooper's martyrdom, burned at the stakes. Books of the month. December 2014: Alan Jacob's "Book of Common Prayer" at: January 2015: A.F. Pollard's "Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation: 1489-1556" at: February 2015: Jaspar Ridley's "Thomas Cranmer" at:

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Revivalists, Pentecostalists, Baptists and Others: "The Anxious Bench" by John Williamson Nevin (1803-1866)

Professor John Williamson Nevin (1803-1866)

"The Anxious Bench" by John Williamson Nevin (1803-1866).  A few notes about Nevin, prior to posting excerpts from his book.  Nevin was reared as a Presbyterian. He graduated from Union College (1821), studied theology at Princeton Theological Seminary (1823-1828).  He studied under the infamous and magnificent Charles Hodge (1826-1828).  Nevin was professor of Biblical literature at Western Theological Seminary (now Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) from 1830-1840.  In 1840, he resigned his chair and taught in the (German Reformed) Theological Seminary at Mercersburg, PA. "The Anxious Bench—A Tract for the Times" was written in 1843.  In it, he attack the excesses of revivalistic methods then gaining cross-denominational influence.  Dr. Nevin was also a co-labourer alongside one of America's premier historian, Dr. Philip Schaff (e.g. the three-volume Creeds of Christendom and the eight-volume History of the Christian Church, both "must reads"). 

Some excerpts from Dr. Nevin's "The Anxious Bench" in quotation marks, with emphasis added in italics, with sundry comments outside the quotation marks.

Truly, the Finneyite system and Anabaptification of American churches has curved in on itself, as source of their own embarrassment. 

"With the reproaches that have been showered upo/ me personally, in different quarters, I have not a I lowed myself to be much disturbed. I had looked foi it all beforehand ; knowing well the spirit of the system, with which I was called to deal. I knew o) course, that I should be calumniated as an enemy to revivals, and an opposer of vital godliness. But I felt satisfied at the same time, that the calumny would in due season correct itself, and recoil with disgrace on the heads of those from whom it might proceed. It has begun to do so already, and will continue to do so, no doubt, more and more."

Reformation Churches would oppose the anxious bench, altar calls like Billy Graham's, and the mechanistic gimmickry of Anabaptistic and Pentecostalist evangelicals, said to include, but not limited to:  Rick Warren, TBN, etc.

"It is with a very bad grace, that reference is made occasionally by some, to the idea of a foreign spirit in the tract, as related to the German Churches. It is in full sympathy with the true life of these Churches, as it stood in the beginning. The charge of seeking to force a foreign spirit on them, lies with clear right against the other side. The system of New Measures has no affinity whatever, with the life of the Reformation, as embodied in the Augsburgh Confession and the Heidelbergh Catechism. It could not have found any favor in the eyes of Zuingli or Calvin. Luther would have denounced it, in the most unmerciful terms. His soul was too large, too deep, too free, to hold communion with a style of religion so mechanical and shallow."

Almost prophetic, namely, that the Revivalist "Anxious Bench" proceeds where ignorance rules and is a fertile ground for the Anabaptification and Pentecostalification of the gullible. Our sense is that this prevailed more largely in the U.S. than in England.

"The general mind unhappily has not been furnished thus far with proper protection and guidance, in the way of full religious teaching ; and the result is that in these interesting circumstances it has become exposed more or less, at almost every point, to those wild fanatical influences, which in this country are sure to come in like a desolating flood wherever they can find room. Upstart sects have set themselves to take possession if possible of the entire field in this way, on the principle that the old organizations are corrupt and deserve to be destroyed. Their reliance of course in this work of reformation, is placed largely on New Measures! Thus a whole Babel of extravagance has been let loose upon the community, far and wide, in the name of religion, one sect vieing with another in the measure of its irregularities."

The enthusiasts, Methodo-Anabaptifiers and Pentecostaholics, on Nevin's view, predictably produce doctrinal falseness, shallowness and non-accountability.

"No account is made comparatively, of the danger of bringing both the truth and power of God into discredit, by countenancing pretensions to the name of a revival where the thing itself is not present. The danger itself is by no means imaginary. Spurious excitements are natural and common. Gross irregularity and extravagance, carried often to the point of downright profanity, are actually at work, in connection with such excitements, on all sides. The whole interest of revivals is endangered, by the assumption impudently put forward, that these revolting excesses belong to the system. False and ruinous views of religion, are widely disseminated."

Pentecostalism, one direct fruit of the gimmick-meisters of extravagance, rant, noise and disorder. "Justified by feeling" is a choice phrase below.

"If Finneyism and Winebrennerism, the anxious bench, revival machinery, solemn tricks for effect, decision displays at the bidding of the preacher, genuflections and prostrations in the aisle or around the altar, noise and disorder, extravagance and rant, mechanical conversions...justification by feeling rather than faith, and encouragement ministered to all fanatical impressions ; if these things, and things in the same line indefinitely, have no connection in fact with true serious religion and the cause of revivals, but tend only to bring them into discredit, let the fact be openly proclaimed."

I recently attended a Pentecostalist hothouse.  See:  Quite in keeping with that experience, Nevin rightly claims:

"It is a popish maxim, by which ignorance is made to be the mother of devotion."

Luther strongly resisted the Enthusiasts and wild Phrygian Montanists in Germany; Calvin did also. Cranmer also resisted should we today.

Old snake-eyes himself, Charles Finney (1792-1875)
We say rather, Let there be light. The cause of the Reformation was more endangered by its own carricature, in the wild fanaticism of the Anabaptists, than by all the opposition of Rome. Luther saved it, not by truckling compromise, but by boldly facing and unmasking the false spirit, so that all the world might see, that Lutheran Christianity was one thing, and wild Phrygian Montanism, with its pretended inspiration, quite another. So in the present crisis, the salvation of the old German Churches in this country is to be accomplished, not by encouraging them to `believe every spirit,' but by engaging them, if possible, to `try the spirits, whether they be of God.' Let things that are wrong be called by their right names, and separated from things that are right."

Success is claimed for the "New Measures" (e.g. Gimmicks like the anxious bench, provocative speech and more).  Ultimately, the Word itself and Sacraments themselves are belittled and His Majesty's work through these "ordinary means of grace."  It sounds like Church-growth philosophies, e.g. Rick Warren.

"The patrons of the system, it is plain, make much account of its popularity, of the success with , which it seems to be attended, and of the power it is supposed to manifest on the part ot those who can use it with effect. But all who are at all acquainted with the world, know, that the worst things may thus run for a season and be glorified, in the popular mind. And especially is this the case, where they hold their existence in the element of excitement, and connect themselves with religion, the deepest and most universal of all human interests. No weight of fashion enlisted in favor of the Anxious Bench can deserve to be much respected, in such a trial of its merits as We are here called to make."

Word, Sacrament, and due diligence in discipline is in order.  When these factors prevail, the modern experiments in enthusiasm and excitement, including bongo-drumming enthusiasts, as efforts to reach the unchurched...these new measures fall and fail.  These gimmicks belittle the Word and Sacraments. 

"It is marvellous credulity, to take every excitement in the name of religion, for the work of God's Spirit. It is an enormous demand on our charity, when we are asked to accept in mass, as true and solid, the wholesale conversions that are made in this way. It will soon be made to appear, that there is the greatest reason for caution and distrust, with regard to this point."

An example from the fifth century.  God uses oddballs, quacks, as His Majesty pleases, but this is not the ordinary, prescribed, and biblical method of nurturance.   God uses oddballs, quacks, loons, windbags, gasbags, and others as His Majesty pleases, but this is not the ordinary, prescribed, and biblical method of nurturance. Nevin observes:

"Simeon, the Stylite, distinguished himself, in the fifth century, by taking his station on the top of a pillar, for the glory of God and the benefit of his own soul. This whimsical discipline he continued to observe for thirty seven years. Meanwhile he became an object of wide-spread veneration. Vast crowds came from a distance to gaze upon him, and hear him preach. The measure took with the people wonderfully. Thousands of heathen were converted, and baptized by his hand. Among these, it may be charitably trusted were some, whose conversion was inward and solid. God made use of Simeon's Pillar, to bring them to himself. The seal of his approbation might seem to have rested upon it, to an extraordinary extent. No wonder the device became popular. The quackery of the Pillar took possession of the Eastern world, and stood for centuries a monument of the folly that gave it birth. We laugh at it now ; and yet it seemed a good thing in its time, and carried with it a weight of popularity such as no New Measure can boast of in the present day."

Rome and Anglican ritualism claim the same, success in piety.  Let's introduce monkery and conventicles again.

"The Romish Church has always delighted in arrangements and services, animated with the same false spirit. In her penitential system, all pains have been taken to produce effect by means of outward postures and dress, till in the end, amid the solemn mummery, no room has been left for genuine penitence at all. Yet not a ceremony was ever introduced into the system, that did not seem to be recommended by some sound religious reason at the time."

Sounds quite modern, although Nevin is describing the "hothouse" American revivalists.  It sounds like Church-growth Anabaptists and Pentecostalists.

"Commonly indeed, those who deal in the anxious seat, rely far less upon the presentation of truth to the understanding, than they do upon other influences, to bring persons forward. Pains are taken rather to raise the imagination, and confound the judgment. Exciting appeals are made to the principle of fear. Advantage is taken in every way of the senses and nerves. Especially the mysterious force of sympathy is enlisted in support of the measure, and made to tell in many cases with immense effect."

How utterly modern are these comments by Nevin on the hot-bench enthusiast of his time, Charles Finney. 

"It shows no inward power whatever, to be able to move a congregation in this way. It can be done without eloquence, and calls for no particular earnestness or depth of thought. It is truly wonderful indeed, with how little qualification of intellect and soul a man may be fitted to carry all before him at certain times, and to show himself off to the eyes of a bewitched multitude as `the great power of God,' by having recourse to new measures. He may be vulgar, coarse and dull, and so pointless and sapless in his ordinary pulpit services, that it will be a weariness to hear him ; and yet you shall find him, from time to time, throwing a whole community into excitement, gathering around him crowded houses night after night, and exercising as it might seem, far the space of three or four weeks, an irresistible sway, in favor of religion. Such cases are by no means Uncommon. Some of the most successful practitioners in the art of the Anxious Bench show themselves lamentably defective in the power of serious godliness, as well as in mental cultivation generally. The general habit of their liyes is worldly and vain and their religion, apart from the occasional whirlwinds of excitement in which they are allowed to figure in their favorite way, may be said to be characteristically superficial and cold. Nay, the evidence. may be palpable, that religion has nothing at all to do with the system, in cases where it is employed with the greatest apparent effect. Nothing is more common, than for those even who glory in the power of the Anxious Bench, as employed within their own communion, to look with entire distrust on its results as exhibited in the practice of other sects."

Bill Hybels of Willow (Dried-up) Creek, a church-growth outfit, learned this the hard way. Billy learned that his spiritually hungry were most put off by the (Dried-up) Willow Creek services. In short, the services were unedifying, unhelpful and unsustaining.  They would have to become "self-feeders" outside of divine worship.  From Nevin:

"In the sphere of religion, as indeed in the world of life generally, the outward can have no value, except as it stands continually in the power of the inward. To estimate the force of appearances, we must try their moral constitution."

How very modern, that is, the church-growth, CCM, and Pentecostalist hype-jobs throughout the USA.  Quack-shops and quack-jobs.  At root, it is about foundational UNBELIEF IN THE WORD AND SACRAMENTS.

"It has been shown, that the successful Use of the Anxious Bench calls for no spiritual power. It is within the reach of fanaticism and error, to be employed in their service, with as much facility as it may be enlisted in the service of truth. It is no argument of strength, as is often imagined, that a preacher is able to use such an agency with effect. I now go a step farther and pronounce it an argument of spiritual weakness that he should find it either necessary or desirable to call in such help. There is a measure of quackery in the expedient, which always implies the want of strength, so far as it may be relied on at all, as being of material account, in carrying on the work ot God."

What is a "theological quack?"   Nevin wrote when medical quacks in the USA were unregulated. I think it was 1909 when standards were introduced to the USA to reduce medical quacks and quackdom. What about modern pulpits and quacks? Quack, quack, sounds like a dumb duck.

"The self-styled physician, who without any knowledge of the human frame, undertakes to cure diseases by a sovereign panacea, in the shape of fluid, powder, or pill, is a quack; and there is no doubt abundance of quackery in the medical profession, under more professional forms, where practice is conducted without any true professional insight and power. Such practice may at times seem eminently successful, and yet it is quackery notwithstanding."

Religious quackjobs. Nevin must have been thinking about the Western frontiermen in America where revivalist ignoramuses gained a foothold. Finney wasn't too well accepted in the educated and reading classes. Quack-jobs, USA.  From Nevin,

"Quack lawyers, quack statesmen, quack scholars, quack teachers, quack gentlemen, 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."

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