John Williamson Nevin was born in 1803 near Shippensburg, Pennsylvania to Martha and John Nevin. John Sr. was a well-educated Presbyterian (Scotch-Irish) farmer. According to his biographer Theodore Appel, John considered it “an important part of his youthful training and worthy of note” that he grew up on a farm “in the midst of a people of plain and simple manners.”(1) More important still was his baptism and catechetical training in the Presbyterian Church in Middle Springs under John Moody, who served the congregation for fifty years. The church life of the Middle Springs had retained much of its old world, Scotch-Irish heritage, and had not been dramatically Americanized during Nevin’s childhood. Appel describes the style of Presbyterianism that nurtured young Nevin as “sacramental,” “educational,” and “churchly”. He continues, “It was staid, systematic, grave and somewhat sombre, making much account of sound doctrine; wonderfully bound to old established forms, and not without a large sense of the objective side of religion as embodied in the means of grace. There was much of this manifested, more particularly in the use of the holy sacraments.” (2)
At the age of fourteen Nevin would leave home and church to attend Union College in Schenectady, New York – a privilege made possible by his uncle Captain John Williamson. Appel considers it a mistake to have sent John to college at such a young age and it certainly proved to be challenging for Nevin as a timid, small boy. The spiritual challenges were great also. At Union, Nevin came under the influence of an “unchurchly piety” that left him reeling. Appel comments,
“He had come to college as a boy of strongly pious dispositions and exemplary religious habits, pious without exactly knowing it, never doubting that he was in some way a Christian, although, unfortunately, as he says, he had not as yet made a public profession of religion. But now one of the first lessons inculcated on him by this unchurchly system was that all this must pass for nothing, and that he must learn to look upon himself as an outcast from the family and kingdom of God—in the gall of bitterness and the bonds of iniquity—before he could get into either in the right way.” (3)
During his time at Union he experienced a conversion under the revival ministry of Asahel Nettleton. By all accounts, Nettleton was a responsible itinerant and not a manipulative showman. In other words, Nettleton was the best representative of revivalistic Protestantism at the time. Indeed, Nevin held Nettleton in high esteem; however, Nevin would still refer to his experience as coming under "the torture of their mechanical counsel and talks," and of the vague notion of hope he received and which was counted as “all that the case required.”(4) The shift away from an assurance based on the objective historical facts of the gospel to an assurance based on an intensely subjective experience was not healthy for Nevin. In fact, upon graduation from Union, Nevin returned to the family farm for a two year convalescence, sick in body (dyspepsia) and soul.
In 1823, having regained a modicum of health, he took up preparation for Presbyterian ministry at Princeton. Unlike his experience at Union, Nevin would look back on his time at Princeton as “the most pleasant part of my life”(5). Nevin spoke in his autobiography of the great privilege of sitting under men like Dr. Alexander, Dr. Miller, and Professor Hodge(6). Despite his recollections of the pleasantness of his study, he still struggled in his soul between the two competing forms of piety that refused to reconcile themselves to each other. During this time, Nevin threw himself into the study of Hebrew and the continental theologians and church historians, including Augustus Neander (7). Brenner points out that Neandar’s evolutionary theory of history opened for Nevin “vast domains of thought for re-exploration.”(8) While Nevin’s exposure to Neander would prove to have a programmatic influence on Nevin’s thought life for decades, his mastery of Hebrew would also prove important as he was selected to substitute as the seminaries Hebrew teacher in Hodge’s absence, having traveled to Europe for further study. During those two years Nevin published his first book, A Summary of Biblical Antiquities.
Upon graduation from Princeton, Nevin was licensed to preach by the Carlisle Presbytery. After a short stint in pastoral ministry, Nevin was called as professor of biblical literature at Pittsburgh’s Western Theological Seminary in 1838. During his time at Western he was ordained by the Presbytery of Ohio and threw himself into the study of church history, especially Neander, in preparation to teach on the subject at Western. In 1840 Nevin accepted, somewhat reluctantly, a call by the German Reformed Church to lead the denominational seminary in Mercersburg. Brenner describes the moves, “Nevin found himself head of a Seminary that had no money, no professors, and a student body that always reminded him of the collect ‘where two or three are gathered together.’”(9) In 1841 Nevin added to his duties the position of president of Marshall College.
Nevin did not wait long to enter into controversy. The first wave of it came in 1842 when Nevin refused to support, and for all intents and purposes blocked, the call of Williams Ramsey as pastor of the German Reformed church in Mercersburg. Ramsay had utilized the anxious bench in his candidating sermon, thus showing his revivalistic tendencies. In 1843 Nevin published The Anxious Bench, a heated polemic against the New Measure of Finney. So began Nevin’s career as a controversialist, a career that would indeed be long.
In 1844 Nevin was joined at Mercersburg by Phillip Schaff, and again controversy found Nevin after the delivery and publication of his sermon “Catholic Unity.” The charge of being too Roman began in 1844, but is one that would follow Nevin his entire life. In 1846 Nevin published The Mystical Presence, and controversy escalated as Charles Hodge became an outspoken critique of Nevin. Beginning in 1849, Nevin wrote extensively for the Mercersburg Review, contributing over 75 articles in his career (10).
In addition to controversy and poor health, Nevin was facing a spiritual crisis regarding the nature of the church, a crisis that many thought would lead Nevin to Roman Catholicism. In 1852 Nevin entered into a period of retirement in which he was free to consider his theological position in relation to Protestantism without the encumbrance of teaching and writing. The retirement would last until 1861, though during this period he was still somewhat active in the pulpit and college life. After 1861 Nevin began lecturing again on church history and philosophy. In 1866 Nevin was thrust back into the role of president and would remain in that role until 1876.
The liturgical controversy in the German Reformed Church found Nevin, as it seems bound to have. The controversy put him into conflict with John H.A. Bomberger and would, in many ways, serve as a referendum on Nevin and Schaff’s theology. The controversy over a revised liturgy would last several decades and led to the publication of Nevin’s A Vindication of the Revised Liturgy. The controversy deeply divided the German Reformed Church and in the end, the liturgy fell into disuse.
Nevin finally retired in 1876, but lived an additional ten years outside the theological spotlight, dying in 1876. Nevin’s funeral, as Hart points out, shows how obscure a theologian Nevin was even in his own day. The service was not attended by dignitaries, theological or otherwise. Of those who spoke at his funeral, only A.A. Hodge (son of Charles Hodge) was of note to those outside the German Reformed Church (11). Despite his obscurity, Nevin’s theological scheme is worth examining at some length - stick with me, it gets a lot more interesting!
1 Theodore Appel, The Life and Word of John Williamson Nevin (Philadelphia: Reformed Church Publication House, 1889), 29. Google Books. Web. 06 December 2010.
2 Ibid, 31.
3 Ibid, 37.
4 Theodore Appel, The Life and Work of John Williamson Nevin, 38. Appel quotes from Nevin’s My Own Life without citation.
5 John Williamson Nevin, My Own Life: The Earlier Years (Lancaster, PA: Historical Society of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, 1964, 26. Quoted in D.G. Hart, John Williamson Nevin (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2005), 47.
6 Appel, The Life and Work of John Williamson Nevin, 46. Appel quotes Nevin’s My Own Life without citation.
7 Scott Francis Brenner, “Nevin and the Mercersburg Theology,” Theology Today 12.1 (April 1955): 48.
8 Ibid, 48.
9 Brenner, “Nevin and the Mercersburg Theology,” 50-51.
10 Sam Hamstra Jr. and Arie J. Griffioen, eds., Reformed Confessionalism in Nineteenth Century America: Essays on the Thought and Life of John Williamson Nevin (Lantham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1995), xvi.
11 Hart, John Williamson Nevin, 226.