John Williamson Nevin & What I Learned Spending A Year With Him

John Williamson Nevin, 1803-1886

 

Jonathan David Faulkner

As a Historian, there are times I want to go inside the head of one of the people I have been studying. Like Churchill during the bombing of London, Luther at the Diet of Worms or Nelson Mandela after he had just been released from prison To know what they were thinking exactly at the moment of a major event, not the thoughts they wrote down afterward, but the things they were concerned about at the time. Doubtless, some did not realize they were part of a historical moment, the thoughts that did not get written down. These things fascinate me and I have enough of a historical imagination in regards to some to actually carry on totally fictitious conversations. These exercises not only help me understand their views on historical events, but help me understand the people themselves.

For the past year, as I have written my masters thesis on The Mercersburg Theology, I have been involved in these conversations with two historical figures named Philip Schaff and John Williamson Nevin. Schaff in particular has been my companion throughout graduate school as Jonathan Edwards was through my undergraduate days. I have written more papers on Schaff than I have on anyone else in Church History aside from perhaps Nicolas Ludwig Von Zinzendorf whom my undergraduate Church History professor loved and who had me write multiple papers on through three classes. Schaff’s ecclesiology has given me a biblically oriented answer to some of the theology I disagree with in the Calvinism I grew up with. He has also shown me a deeper and historically minded view of the church and its practices as well as corrected inherited views of the reformation that were passed down by the tradition I was raised in. Not that I can no longer be called a “Calvinist” but that I can more adequately take on the position of “reformed thinker” than I could before. Through Schaff I began reading the Church Father’s, a dangerous proposition, and learned a theology of life after the cross that puts the resurrection back in its proper place and draws out the implications of the event for the life of the believer.

It is his companion at Mercersburg however, John Williamson Nevin, who I have found the more intriguing of the two as I have studied my thesis. Not because he adds much to Schaff, as I argue in my thesis, Nevin takes the natural implications and applications of Schaff’s theology and applies them to the practical matters of his time, including the political situation, one that is not dissimilar to ours today. It is not just that, it is more so that I find in him a companion on my own theological and ecclesiastical journey, one who followed a growth pattern similar to my own and who parted from his former colleagues on major points of what he considered to be theological importance, mainly, the unity of the church and its life in a world where Christ has risen.

So, in my mind, I wonder what he was thinking in the moment when the young doctor who had just finished his doctorate at Halle in Germany, whom the German Reformed Synod had called to assist Nevin in his labors at the young Mercersburg Seminary. He had certainly heard of Philip Schaff, having already read his first major work “What is Church History?” in the late 1830s at Allegheny College. He was also familiar with Schaff’s professor, August Neander, who had befriended Charles Hodge during his time in Berlin in 1828, during which Nevin filled his chair at Princeton. So he was already acquainted with Dr. Schaff before he had been called from Germany to Mercersburg Pennsylvania and had already learned the German that he would use to translate Schaff’s works as the progressed. Still, as Schaff sat in his parlor that warm August night in 1844, I have to wonder if the older Nevin (Schaff was 25 at the time, Nevin was in his 30s) knew how deeply the young professor before him would impact him.

Nevin was born in 1803 to John and Martha Nevin in Franklin Pennsylvania. His father was what was known as a “Latin Farmer” an educated man who taught his children Latin, Greek and Hebrew and farmed on the side. He is considered by Theodore Appel, John Williamson Nevin’s biographer, as a kind of “Proto-Abolitionist” who gave his valedictorian speech in school as: “The Evil of Slavery.” Something his son and Dr. Schaff would later take up in their article “The Bible and Slavery” which appeared in The Mercersburg Review in 1861 where in the first paragraph the men write: “Slavery has no place in the kingdom.” Nevin was descended from Scotch Irish Presbyterians, which may have influenced his decision to enter Princeton when it was time for college. It was at Princeton that he took classes from Hodge who he later taught for and who would become the most vocal critic of Mercersburg and his former student and colleague.

Before reading Neander and Schaff, Nevin was, in all respects an old-school Presbyterian. Holding fervently to late puritan ideas of piety and Presbyterian ideas nurture through catechesis which at the time was the Westminster Standards. His first major work in 1843 “The Anxious Bench” was a scathing rebuke of Charles Finney’s New Measures which had taken over revivalism and which had appeared in The New York Evangelical in 1843. Needless to say, he was raised in the aftermath of Puritan, colonial America, having been born not even 30 years after the Revolutionary War. These views had begun changing even as early as 1836 when he was first introduced to Neander’s writings, but it is clear by reading “The Anxious Bench” that he still held to many of those founding puritan and Presbyterian Old-School ideas that he had been brought up with to Mercersburg and likely still held them as he sat across from the small-statured German in his parlor.

August of 1844 then marks the beginning of a more rapid transition from his former, schismatic and sectarian traditions towards the ideals of catholicity and divine union which would, in two short years, cause him and Dr. Schaff to be charged with heresy (Romanizing) by the German Reformed Synod (they were found not-guilty 42-1). In fact, if you track the changes in his writing from 1844-1849, it is clear that Nevin comes not just to criticize the individualism and sectarian nature of his upbringing but to outright reject it, even calling it “A great evil” and referring to it as “Anti-Christ.” The Tome that contains these writings in the Mercersburg Theology Study Series is called: “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic” a cursory read through reveals a rapidly changing view of the church and sacraments that Nevin continually roots first in Holy Scripture and then finds in the Church Fathers. It is clear that the younger Schaff, who would complete his edits of the Church Fathers in the 20 years he spent at Mercersburg, had a major influence on Nevin’s Ecclesiology and Sacramentology.

I suppose I should not say he completely rejects his upbringing. Mercersburg, we can say, was firmly on the “Nurture” side of the Old and New School debate as evidenced by their rejection of what they called “Crisis Conversionism” and use of the Heidelberg Catechism which they considered to be the authoritative catechism of the reformation. Still, they saw Princeton as promoting a “Desacramentalized, Individualistic Christianity” to use the words of Mercersburg Scholar W. Bradford Littlejohn. So they fought for a historical understanding of the reformation, not one that misread the reformation as a split from catholicity, but as one that tried to reform it back to scripture. Schaff and Nevin understood that Luther’s intent was the change the church from within, not split from him, only after his efforts to reform from within did he split as a last resort, though he retained much of the Catholic Churches teachings in many ways. Schaff himself sees the reformation as a sort of organic “coming of age” for the church where it left behind its youthful rebellions and returned to the truth of the Gospel, justification by faith alone.

To Schaff and Nevin this meant that we are not to break fellowship with one another, as Luther never formally did with the Catholic Church (he was kicked out). Sectarianism and Schism were great evils that were distortions of the doctrine and which violated the spiritual and organic unity of the church. This also meant we were not merely individuals who entered a man-made building, but a part of a group, a universal, global body which existed in divine union with Christ who gave the teachings to the Apostles, who then handed them down to us. He tried to balance individual rights with corporate identity and spoke against both total individuality and total tribalism, attacking the “Two Party System” of the political landscape for the same reasons as he rejected sectarianism. Further, because of Divine Union, Nevin’s sacramentology changes quickly from a semi-Calvinist view of the Lord’s Supper to a Coena Mystica, Mystical Presence that is closer to Luther than Calvin and which rejects a purely memorial view of the Lord’s Supper which was advanced by the Revivalist and which Hodge would more or less admit believing in his debate with Nevin over this doctrine.

Nevin’s life, especially the transformation from 1844-1849 show what can happen when we go back and really read the Church Fathers and start digging into the documents of the reformation. You actually see in his writings, a man who is confronted by the historical reality he had largely been starved of growing up in a post-puritan world which viewed the reformation as a necessary split and which gave us the Anti-Catholicism sentiment that is still alive and well in some parts of America today. The interesting thing to note is that for all their discoveries and growth, Schaff and Nevin never return to Rome, though they express admiration for the Tractarian Movement in the Anglican Church, which Nevin actually thought did not go far enough, and borrowing liturgy from the High Church Lutheran Prussian Movement which Schaff was a part of, even borrowing theology from the Eastern Orthodox. Nevin does not reject the ancient wisdom of the Church Fathers on the basis of post-enlightenment snobbery, instead he adopts the wisdom of those whom the Apostles first handed down their teachings too. Men like Cyricl of Jerusalem, Irenaus of Lyons, Origen, Tertullian of Carthage. They rejected the Platonic construction adopted by Augustine in “The City of God” which was passed down through Jan Has and John Calvin and which had become full-blown Gnosticism in the American context.

I can attest to what happens when you start to read the church fathers alongside the writings of first generations of reformers. You start to recover something that you did not know you had lost and you start to feel a little bit lied too. Not that I completely reject the conservative evangelicalism and semi-reformed faith I was brought up with. There are good ideas within these traditions, especially things like the four core doctrines of Evangelicalism or the theological fences of the reformed movement that keep us from diving off the cliffs of heresy. One of the reasons Schaff and Nevin never went back to Rome, or even Anglicanism, was because they recognized that different strains of thought could exist together so long as they held to essential doctrines of the faith, or what Schaff called, “evangelical catholicity.” That is why I have not rejected and even embraced congregationalism in the CCCC, because they have successfully brought together many strains on evangelicalism and reformed faith, including Pentecostals and asked them to confirm to what they consider catholic (universal) doctrines and encourage unity among the body to the point that as pastors we are ethically bound to maintain the bond of peace with other churches in our towns even when we disagree on nonessential doctrine. As a mentor of mine said when I first entered the CCCC: “it is a place where you (I) can be as reformed as I am, and still rub shoulders with believers of different strains like I enjoy doing.”

I gravitate towards Nevin because I see a lot of the journey God has brought me on in Nevin’s journey. After my encounter with an abusive pastor in high school, I needed a better definition of the Church and deeper ecclesiology than what I had. What I thought were “anti-sectarian” rantings were really just as sectarian because my solution to the problems was to form another of the very things I hated, denominations. I was raised to think there was only one tradition and that Catholic meant the Roman Church. The first time I read of catholicity, which was the first time I read about Schaff, it was jarring to me. I was raised with the remnant of puritan and revivalist theology, which Billy Graham famously described as: “A mile wide and an inch deep.” I grew up with conflicted sacramentology, from my dad, a five-point Calvinist, and the memorial view of the Baptist church we attended when dad went back to school. Before I started actually reading the documents of the reformation and of the Church Fathers I thought I had been trained in the fullness of Christianity. One read through of Clement of Alexandria proved that to be an easily eroded façade. I did not read them because Jonathan Edwards had said that the church was in dark heresy from the time of Augustine on and I thought Augustine knew Paul.

I identity with Nevin because I see a lot of my own journey in his, the difference is that his transformation was born out of intellectual pursuit and mine was born out of the pain of what I experienced in my youth. He had the benefit of a colleague to guide him in the growth he had already begun, if I did not believe in divine providence, I would almost think I stumbled upon this change when I was handed an assignment to map the historiographical method of some guy named Philip Schaff in a historiography class. Nevin’s growth was a natural one, mine was born our of disillusionment with the church and her people.

I share this to share part of my journey, part of the process of moving from a place of disdain for the church to a place of love and a desire to answer the call to be a shepherd of God’s people. The goal is not to proselytize, but to encourage others on their own journey’s and encourage the new organic reformation that I have written about in the past. Not to force upon my next congregation these things that I have found in my study, but to be: “All things to all people” as Paul says and to encourage unity in the body across the various strains of Christian Faith.

The challenge Nevin brings to us is this: are we willing to critically examine all that we have been taught in light of discourse that may dispute that teaching and adapt for the sake of the Church. I am firmly a congregationalist, especially given the CCCC’s emphasis on participation in the global body of Christ while maintaining involvement and autonomy at the local level while the denomination offers just enough oversight to make sure our churches are healthy and our pastors are preaching essential doctrine. However, I have a deeper understanding of what all of them means and I have learned much of that from Schaff & Nevin who have helped me better understand what I am reading in Scripture and the Church Fathers.

Nevin’s life is an example of what happens when we start to read and step out of our limited view of Christianity that beholds us to one specific tradition. We may find that what we are doing is looking at one grain of sand through a magnifying glass and mistaking it for the entire beach. When we collide with the actual teachings of the reformation and of the church fathers we may find we are less divided than we think and continue to see the old divisions heal as we move on from a spirit of sect, to a spirit of unity.

 

Jonathan D12973040_10154269785339245_3845786340930956602_oavid Faulkner is a Graduate student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary working on Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel in the North Shore of Boston and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. 

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