Nevin: Why Revivals Aren't the Answer

This is an account of Nevin’s experience as an undergraduate at Union College. It shows what happens to children of the covenant, away at college, when confronted with the modern revival system. And this was only 1819. Yikes!

Being of what is called Scotch-Irish extraction, I was by birth and blood also, a Presbyterian; and as my parents were both conscientious and exemplary professors of religion, I was, as a matter of course, carefully brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, according to the Presbyterian faith as it then stood. I say with purpose as it then stood; for I cannot help seeing and feeling, that as a very material change has come upon since, and this in a way not without serious interest for my own religious life.

What I mean, will appear at once, when I state, that the old Presbyterian faith, into which I was born, was based throughout on the idea of covenant family religion, church membership by God’s holy act in baptism, and following this a regular catechetical training of the young, with direct reference to their coming to the Lord’s table. In one word, all proceeded on the theory of sacramental, educational religion, as it had belonged properly to all the national branches of the Reformed Church in Europe from the beginning. In this respect the Reformed Churches of Switzerland, France, Germany, Holland and Scotland were of one mind; and this mind still ruled, at the time to which I now refer, the Presbyterianism of this country. True, there was no use here of the rite of confirmation in admitting catechumens to full communion with the Church; but there was, what was considered to be substantially the same thing, in the way they were solemnly received by the church session. The system was churchly, as holding the Church in her visible character to be the medium of salvation for her baptized children, in the sens of that memorable declaration of Calvin (Inst 4.1.4), where, speaking of her title, Mother, he says: “There is no other entrance into life, save as she may conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us from her breasts, and embrace us in her loving care to the end” . . . .

We had no religion in college, so far at least as morning and evening prayers went; and we were required, on Sundays, to attend the different churches in town. But there was no real church life, as such, in the institution itself. . . . . All this involved, of course — although, alas, I knew it not then — a very serious falling away from the educational and churchly scheme of religion, in which I had been previously born and bred. It was my very first contact with the genius of New-England Puritanism, in its character of contradiction to the old Reformed faith, as I had been baptized into it, in its Presbyterian form. . . . It is hardly necessary to say, that circumstanced as I then was, I had no power to withstand the shock. It brought to pass, what amounted for me, to a complete breaking up of all my previous Christian life. For I had come to college, a boy of strongly pious dispositions and exemplary religious habits, never doubting but that I was in some way a Christian, though it had not come with me yet (unfortunately) to what is called a public profession of religion. But now one of the first lessons inculcated on me indirectly by this unchurchly system, was that all this must pass for nothing, and that I must learn to look upon myself as an outcast from the family and kingdom of God, before I could come to be in either in the right way. Such, especially, was the instruction I came under, when a ‘revival of religion,’ as it was called, made its appearance among us, and brought all to a practical point. . . . For I, along with others, came into their hands in anxious meetings, and underwent the torture of their mechanical counsel and talk. One after another, however, the anxious obtained ‘hope;’ each new case, as it were stimulating another; and finally, among the last, I struggled into something of the sort myself, a feeble trembling sense of comfort — which my spiritual advisers, then, had no difficulty in accepting as all that the case required. In this way I was converted, and brought into the Church — as if I had been altogether out of it before — about the close of the seventeenth year of my age. My conversion was not fully up to my own idea, at the time, of what such a change should be; but it was as earnest and thorough, no doubt, as that of any of my fellow-converts. . . . It was based throughout on the principle, that regeneration and conversion lay outside of the Church, had nothing to do with baptism and Christian education, required rather a looking away from all this as more a bar than a help to the process, and were to be sought only in the way of magical illapse or stroke from the Spirit of God;. . . An intense subjectivity, in one word — which is something always impotent and poor — took the place of a proper contemplation of the grand and glorious objectivities of the Christian life, in which all the true power of the Gospel at last lies. My own ‘experience’ in this way, at the time here under consideration, was not wholesome, but very morbid rather and weak.

Alas, where was mother, the Church, at the very time I most needed her fostering arms? Where was she, I mean, with her true sacramental sympathy and care? How much better it had been for me, if I had only been properly drawn forth from myself by some right soul-communication with the mysteries of the old Christian Creed. (My Own Life, 1870)


35 thoughts on “Nevin: Why Revivals Aren't the Answer

  1. Dr. Hart:

    An excellent, excellent post! This is the kind of historical work that caused me to say, “Wow, no wonder he (Dr. Hart) is so firm in his convictions regarding revivalism, pietism and unorthodox piety.”

    I’ve been reading this site with interest for the past few months re: Edwards and the Great Awakening. It’s almost as if you have been inviting challenges to your arguments knowing that an article such as this would come forth and make your case in spades. This is very compelling. Thanks for your work in this regard. Outstanding!


  2. I can’t speak for Dr Hart but I believe others have of late invoked his work on Nevin. They asked for it. My own very old school, vehemently anti-FV pastor wrote an appreciative review of the doctor’s Nevin bio so I’ll not buy the criticism that is sure to follow any invocation of the N-word.


  3. Almost makes you think that anyone who trades in “dead orthodoxy” arguments has never heard a pastor or elder lovingly walk a small child through the great truths of a catechism.

    “How does this comfort you?”

    And it reminds you that revivalism is in large part a judgment on the church for her sins.


  4. Of course, the half-way covenant idea of the Puritans with its “conversion experience” was an attempt to solve the problem of a “secularized” church — that is, where there’s plenty of objectivity but no life. How was Nevin’s high church view any better? Instead of looking to faith, the Puritans were looking for experiences, while Nevin was looking back to mere form.

    The starting point and ending point of the Christian life should always be justification by faith alone. It should never be justification by experience, or justification by mother church.


  5. I am wondering if the pastor who started this “Nevin is not the answer” will ever chime in here.

    It seems that a follow-up to a hit-and-run provocation, in light of a thorough response to same, is in order.


  6. Of course, the half-way covenant idea of the Puritans with its “conversion experience” was an attempt to solve the problem of a “secularized” church

    Where this gets really ironic is that in attempting “to solve the problem of a ‘secularized’ church” they were introducing secular rituals instead of revitalizing churchly ones. Which makes Nevin’s approach far, far better than your interpretation of the Puritans’ approach, as it, at least, has the potential to correct the basic problem. If the problem is that Christians are not appreciating the life of the church, surely the solution is not to introduce new and innovative things but rather to educate and shepherd.

    Instead of looking to faith, the Puritans were looking for experiences, while Nevin was looking back to mere form.

    Really? Doesn’t seem to be any indication in the excerpt that this is the case. On the contrary, the substance of the argument seems to be that it is the means of grace and the institutions of the church, not extra-ecclesiastical rituals, which feed our faith. I just don’t know where you’re coming from here.


  7. Vern, the secularized church of the Puritans of which you speak was also the state church of the Puritans. So all of your desire for a church engaged in politics is what you had with New England. Has this not occurred to you?

    And have you not considered that Justification by faith is a form — it is a set of words and arguments. For that form to come alive, the spirit needs to work. Otherwise, it is simply a proposition.


  8. “Maybe Nevin simply wasn’t regenerate? Hodge had lots of problems with him.”

    How different is this from the revivialist position that if you are having problems in your christian walk perhaps you need to be born again again?


  9. Ummm….Vern the “half-way” covenant was an invention of Solomon Stoddard and eventually caused Jonathan Edwards to lose his job in Southampton because he challenged the notion of a “half-way” covenant. It is not a “Puritan” concept.


  10. Joseph-

    My meaning is, the original post on “Nevin not being the answer” was provocative, DGH has thoroughly responded, and now the original poster should follow-up and interact with DGH’s response.

    Thanks for the compliment, but my IQ is a bit less than 150.


  11. Benjamin P. Glaser:
    Edwards, who lived in Northampton (not Southampton) was primarily ejected because he did not hold that the Lord’s Supper was a converting ordinance, which is not the same thing as the Halfway Covenant, though it is related to it. (Sorry, all, for being so literal).


  12. Vern, where do you get that Nevin is suggesting “justification by mother church”? The words used are “fostering, sympathy and care.” I mean, when I say my mother fostered and cared for me, or even that she gave me life, it seems like an over-reaction to point out in response that she didn’t make me.

    To say that mother church fosters and nurtures my justification isn’t the same as saying she justifies me.


  13. Allan, thanks. You must be talking about Ligon Duncan’s Bavinck vs. Nevin over at Ref. 21. But I’m less sure Darryl would say Nevin is the answer, than that he would object to the pietism and revivalism that Duncan apparently thinks always has a right to exist where the only other option is “dead orthodoxy” (read: orthodoxy that is not as earnest and feeling as I wanna be).


  14. Darryl:

    1. I was reared on HM’s near-infallible catechism, the Westminster Shorter. Memorizing it was akin to the maternal exhortations to “eat the brocoli and spinach.”

    2. By 1980, I became an adopted son of the BCP school without losing the old ways.

    3. This little catechism is “in the blood” and enables me to ward off the half-wits and half-loons on every hand, including the lying pols and budgetary debates, e.g. the 9th. Thank HM for Mum and Dad, despite the exhortations about brocoli. Away with the Baptacostaholics on every hand, including ACE, if not Ligonier.

    Donald Philip Veitch


  15. And, oddly, somewhere from Mr. Frame, he notes that WTS-Phila never ensured catechetization. John expressed surprise and curiosity as he entered the OPC. John did very little to advance catechetization in the 2-3 courses to be had in my day. John just didn’t have the background then. Sad.


  16. Mr. Veitch,

    If you don’t mind me butting in, you were among some pretty fine BCP-ers if they’d let you hang on to the WSC. Where did you find such as these? The BCP-ers I know get a case of hives at the mention of the Thirty-Nine Articles; how much worse with the WSC (if they even know what it is). I have heard of Calvinist Anglicans, but I don’t believe I’ve ever met one.



  17. I didn’t realize I had something else in common with Nevin (besides Calvinism) – we’re alumni of the same college!
    I suppose it wasn’t as easy in those days to find out if there was a suitable church near one’s (secular) school. Union College in an earlier incarnation was a Dutch Reformed academy; I’m surprised to find that less than a generation later that Nevin could not have found such a church, but perhaps there was a cultural barrier then? Now I’ll have to read Nevin’s biography.


  18. On the occasion of his “godchild’s” confirmation, C.S. Lewis writes to her saying, “And the bit of advice that comes into my head is this; don’t expect (I mean, don’t count on and don’t demand) when you are confirmed, or when you make your first Communion, you will have all the feelings you would like to have. You may, of course: but you also may not. But don’t worry if you don’t get them. They aren’t what matter. The things that are happening to you are quite real things whether you feel as you would wish or not, just as a meal will do a hungry person good even if he has a cold in the head which will rather spoil the taste. Our Lord will give us the right feelings if He wishes – and then we must say Thank you. If He Doesn’t, then we must say to ourselves (and Him) that He knows us best.”

    Lewis may be no old school Presbyterian, but what insight into the importance and value of keeping the objective primary over the subjective!


  19. Michael T., thanks for the reminder of the great Lewis quote. Lewis was wise about such things. He placed little stock in feelings in religious matters, recognizing that they are unreliable tests of truth. The truth mattered to Lewis, feelings not so much. On the quote itself, I have found that most evangelicals (what you’d probably term “pietists”) agree with Lewis’s quote.


  20. Nevin: “Alas, where was mother, the Church, at the very time I most needed her fostering arms? Where was she, I mean, with her true sacramental sympathy and care?”

    Not so sure I’d want Nevin’s Church and her sacramental care when Hodge said that Nevin’s view of the Lord’s Supper was “a radical rejection of the doctrine and theology of the Reformation church” and suggests that Nevin held to regeneration by the church. Hmmm.


  21. Hugh, what goes on in your prayer closet is a matter between you and your session/consistory. But I will say I found Hanko’s article more refreshing than Hulse’s.


  22. I was really liking the Hanko essay until he blamed revivalism on the free offer of the gospel and covenant theology.


  23. David R., that’s a Protestant Reformed tick. But the affirmation of the free and liberal proclamation of the gospel only leads to revivalism if one is a hyper-Calvinist. At the same time, I suppose anti-revivalist beggars can’t be choosers and one has to take what he can get and hold his breath. Sort of like being a 2k public school advocate taking what he can get from a CRC transformer…

    …against more PRC foibles:


  24. I am not sure that calling persons “hyper-Calvinists” means much except that you disagree with them. Does it mean that they say “providence” instead of “common grace”? Does it mean that they deny that God loves the non-elect? Does it mean that their version of covenant theology is different from yours?

    It certainly is not fair to Hanko to summarise his essay as against “covenant theology”. He denies the “conditional covenant”, but unless you want to say your own “covenant theology” is the only “covenant theology”, then it would best to be some more specific.

    And no, I am not saying that all who talk about “covenants” in any way are still “covenant theologians”. I will concede the term to paedos who talk about

    a. one covenant, with various administrations
    and who say that b. these administrations are different when it comes to civil penalties but not to infant initiation

    By that most basic standard, Hanko is a “covenant theologian”.

    Hey, maybe I could even say that he is representative for all covenant theologians

    After all, the Munster revolutionaries (along with sister Aimee) are the representatives for all who who dare oppose “covenant theology”, are they not?


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