The Enduring Legacy of Mercersburg: A Brief Introduction to John Williamson Nevin and the Mercersburg Theology
Monday, September 17th, 2012
In April 2012 the good folks over at Wipf and Stock published an annotated edition of John Williamson Nevin’s masterpiece, The Mystical Presence. This was a much anticipated addition to the exponentially growing collection of studies in the Mercersburg Theology (including an effort from yours truly). Indeed it seems that in recent years an increasing number of historians, theologians, and Christian laypersons have been delighted to rediscover this fascinating little niche of American church history.
Here I’d like to offer a brief, fly-by introduction to the history and theology of Mercersburg, including some excerpts from the chief texts of the movement. In closing I’ll suggest a few reasons why this area of study continues to garner interest.
John Willliamson Nevin (1803-1886) chief architect of the Mercersburg theology, was born on Feb. 20, 1803 to a family of Scotch-Irish descent in Franklin County, PA. Here he was raised in a “high-church” Presbyterian environment at Middle Spring Church in Shippensburg. At age 15 Nevin enrolled at Union college in Schenectady, NY (notably, where he encountered Revivalism for the first time).
After a brief break following his collegiate studies, he spent time at Princeton, both as a student and eventually as a professor, filling in at the request of the illustrious Charles Hodge for two years (Hodge would later become one of Nevin’s primary theological interlocutors. See Bonomo’s Incarnation and Sacrament). From there Nevin was called as chair of Biblical Literature at Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburg and then to the German Reformed Church’s struggling seminary in Mercersburg, PA, in 1840. There, Nevin was joined by the renowned historian Philip Schaff, who was born in Sweden and educated quite broadly at Berlin, Tübingen, and Halle.
Over the next two decades, drawing from the well of German Idealism and Romanticism as well as Patristic and Reformation theology, Nevin and Schaff would offer one of the most insightful and penetrating critiques of Protestant theology and American revivalism to date.
Nevin’s engagement with revivalism at Union, as wall as the Old School vs. New School conflict among Presbyterians at Princeton, prompted a prolific career of criticizing revivalist and nominalist tendencies in the American church. In response to these tendencies, Nevin insisted upon a view of Christ and the church that emphasized the Incarnation, unity, the sacraments, and catholicity. In a letter, Nevin states quite clearly (and beautifully!) that the “cardinal principle” of the Mercersburg system is “the fact of the Incarnation.” He continues,
“This viewed not as a doctrine or speculation but as a real transaction of God in the world, is regarded as being necessarily itself the essence of Christianity, the sum and substance of the whole Christian redemption. Christ saves the world, not ultimately by what he teaches or by what he does, but by what he is in the constitution of his own person. His person in its relations to the world carries in it the power of victory over sin, death, and hell, the force thus of a real atonement or reconciliation between God and man, the triumph of a glorious resurrection from the dead, and all the consequences for faith which are attributed to this in the grand old symbol called the Apostles’ Creed.” 1
But few of Nevin’s writings were so cordial. The bulk of his career is characterized by numerous articles, tracts, and essays that are intellectually rigorous, argumentative, and critically engaged. Notable is Nevin’s The Anxious Bench (1844), a polemical tract which addresses the historical transmission of revivalist Puritanism into its early nineteenth-century manifestations via the Second Great Awakening.
The work is a scathing criticism and outright rejection of Charles Finney’s “New Measures” revivalism, recently employed by a visiting preacher in a local German Reformed congregation in Mercersburg. Finney, one of Nevin’s most frustrating opponents, emphasized the instantaneous conversion of the individual and a doctrine of the individual’s agency in Christian moral action (part and parcel of social reform during what historians have called the age of the “benevolent empire”).
Finney’s “new measures” included the “anxious bench,” which was essentially an intensified version of what is commonly known as an altar call within evangelicalism. Nevin’s hostility towards such trends, which he calls “mechanical and shallow,” 2 is displayed no more clearly than in his own words:
“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.” 3
The alternative to this “system of the bench” is what Nevin calls the “system of the catechism,” by which he means the “organic” life of the church that nurtures Christians over the course of a life time. Opposed to one-time conversion experiences, fiery sermons, and ecstatic enthusiasm, Nevin emphasized word and sacrament, catechesis, Christian nurture, and essentially that the whole (Christ’s body, the Church) always remains greater than the sum of its parts (individual Christians). He explains,
“In this view, the Church is truly the mother of all her children. They do not impart life to her, but she imparts life to them… 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 come into such a spiritual connection comprising the whole; but individual Christianity is the product, always and entirely, of the Church as existing previously, and only revealing its life in this way. Christ lives in the Church, and through the Church in its particular members; just as Adam lives in the humans race generically considered, and through the race in every individual man.” 4
As such, among the primary emphases of the Mercersburg movement is a rediscovery and recasting of Reformed ecclesiology. For Nevin and Schaff the Church is the primary means of communicating Christ and, accordingly, the salvation of mankind. The church is objective and unified in Christ; it is the extension of Christ incarnate through history. According to Nevin,
“Christ’s presence in the world is in and by his Mystical Body, the Church. As a real human presence, carrying in itself the power of a new life for the race in general, it is no abstraction or object of thought merely, but a glorious living Reality, continuously at work, in an organic historical way, in the world’s constitution.” 5
Thus for Nevin there is no presence of Christ in the world apart from the Church, which is the very form that Christ’s body has taken. Simply put, “No church, no Christ.” 6
Though by and large more amiable in tone than Nevin, Schaff likewise expressed grave concern over sectarianism and intemperate autonomy throughout the American Church: “The most dangerous foe with which we are called to contend,” he wrote, “is not the Church of Rome but the sect plague in our own midst; not the single pope of the city of seven hills, but the numberless popes – German, English, and American – who would fain enslave Protestants once more to human authority, not as embodied in the church indeed, but as holding in the form of mere private judgment and private will.” 7
Schaff, who fell in love with his adopted country (and dedicating a good bit of writing to this theme), nevertheless shared with Nevin apprehension over the sheer and unchecked democratization of the American church, which in their view resulted in throwing out the unity and wholeness baby with the authoritarian bathwater.
In 1846, Nevin composed his most important and influential work, The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic View of the Holy Eucharist, now considered by many to be a classic in American theological literature. Though not inherently polemical, the Mystical Presence presents an impressively comprehensive view of the Eucharist that deeply challenged many of Nevin’s contemporaries within his own reformed tradition and continues to challenge a wide variety of theologians to this day. Historically and theologically sophisticated, it is easily the most important work of the Mercersburg corpus. In keeping with his “cardinal principle,” Nevin develops his sacramentology on the basis of the Incarnation:
“His flesh is meat indeed – his blood drink indeed; aleithos, in reality, not in a shadowy or relative sense merely, but absolutely and truly in the sphere of the Spirit. The participation itself involves everlasting life; not in the form of hope and promise, but in the way of actual present possession; and not simply as a mode of existence of the soul abstractly considered, but as embracing the whole man in the absolute totality of his nature.” 9
Two years later, in 1848, Nevin took to his pen rather aggressively in a work titled Antichrist, or the Spirit of Sect and Schism. This work, following in the tradition of The Anxious Bench, focused specifically on the sectarian tendency of nineteenth century revivalism. Nevin goes as far as to suggest that the spirit of sectarianism is akin to the Antichrist of 1 John 4:1-3. His reasoning is as follows: If the Church is indeed Christ’s body, the objective, visible, and historical extension of the Incarnation, then the fragmenting of the church is no less than the dividing of Christ’s body. It is therefore, a rejection of the Incarnation and a promotion of Christological heresy.
Also notable among the Mercersburg corpus is the Mercersburg Review, spanning numerous volumes during the late 1840s and 1850s. Nevin served as editor of the Review, which for its time, aside from the well-known Princeton Review, had few rivals in terms of scope and scholarly acumen. Nevin was not only editor but was also the primary contributor to the Review, writing on a broad range of topics, including everything from philosophy to theology to politics to the Mexican-American war.
In the end, the revivalist impulse, combined with the “commonsense realist” approach of Princeton (and indeed the nation as a whole), proved too powerful for any “high-church” Protestant theological movement (especially one so indebted to a rather foreign German idealistic philosophy), and Mercersburg proved ineffective in terms of any major ecclesial influence. The short-lived tenure of Mercersburg is not to be dismissed, however, as it continues to shed light on the diversity of the Reformed tradition in the antebellum United States and offers insights into the life and practices of the church today.
The eminent historian Sydney Ahlstrom captured well the historical value of Mercersburg when he said that it revealed “with startling clarity that the basically Puritan forms of church life which had become so pervasive in America could be subjected to searching criticism by men who still honored Calvin and treasured the Reformation’s confessional heritage.” 10
There are several reasons why I think Mercersburg continues to retain interest:
1. In recent years, the postmodern penchant for tradition and shifts away from American revivalism for some, demonstrated for example by the emerging church movement, has resulted in the adoption of eclectic liturgical practices and theological expression, stemming from Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and other “high-church” traditions. Mercersburg has an appeal to this sort of sensibility as a Reformed movement that sought to retain the “high-church” sensibilities of the Reformation. That Mercersburg has such a broad, eclectic, and catholic appeal is demonstrated rather well by Brad Littlejohn’s work, The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity.
2. Along similar lines, unity and ecumenism have become all the rage, especially in mainline Protestant traditions. While the Mercersburg theologians would have serious reservations about the doctrinal content of many of these traditions, the Mercersburg tradition does serve well as a confessional, traditional expression of Protestantism that nevertheless values unity and decries the insular and sectarian tendencies of fundamentalism.
3. In an age when “philosophy,” “psychology,” and “sociology” have seemingly trumped the classical methods of “theology” proper, Mercersburg remains relevant as a philosophically sophisticated tradition that will simultaneously satisfy those who insist upon traditional methods of biblical theology. Nevin, it should be noted, wrote intelligently in the fields of psychology, philosophy, and the philosophy of history. Shaff, of course, was a historiographical giant.
4. Many American Reformed traditions are currently undergoing a liturgical renewal of sorts. More and more, confessional Presbyterians and reformed are returning to weekly communion, lectionaries, traditional liturgies, and other forms of “smells and bells.” Mercersburg serves as a wonderful precedent and resource on this side of the Atlantic for those who need an example of a thoroughly – but uniquely! – Reformed and American tradition.
5. Finally, many theological debates continue to get bogged down in the excruciating minutia of exegesis and doctrine (stemming, I would argue, from our American commonsense realist tendencies). The Mercersburg traiditon, while valuing exegesis and doctrine, in my view does a good job of majoring on the majors and minoring on the minors, of ensuring that everything points back to Jesus Christ (so much so that some have suggested a kindred spirit in Barth!)
I for one am very thankful to have been introduced several years ago to this intriguing piece of American Church history, and I am thrilled to be a part of larger project to annotate and publish a wide variety of writings form the Mercersburg tradition. Mercersburg has challenged me to always look for the marginalized philosophies, groups, and movements within American history. It turns out that these historical exceptions to the rule often teach us more about the vast movements of our history than we could ever anticipate.
 Letter from John Nevin to Henry Harbaugh, (between 1860 and 1867).
 John W. Nevin, The Anxious Bench (Chambersburg, Pa, 1844), vi.
 Anxious Bench, 28.
 Ibid., 67-68.
 Nevin, “Christ and the Church’ in James Hastings Nichols, ed. The Mercersburg Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 89.
 Nevin, The Church, 65-66.
 Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, ed. Bard Thompson and George H. Bricker (1845; Philadelphia, 1964), 154.
 Nevin, The Mystical Presence (1846), 199.
 Ibid., 226.
 Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale, 1973), 620.