Dr. Miles Smith is an Assistant Professor of Government, History & Criminal Justice at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He previously taught at Texas Christian University and Hillsdale College. His teaching generally focuses on the Nineteenth Century United States, but he also enjoys lecturing on Europe and Latin America.
Very few ministers in the Presbyterian Church circa 2019 know the writings of John Williamson Nevin. Even fewer quote him on a given Sunday morning. But in the Nineteenth Century anyone in ministry in a Reformed church in North America not only knew who Nevin was, but most likely had a strong opinion on his writing. Nevin was a Presbyterian divine and intellectual who challenged the prevailing excesses among so-called Evangelicals and revivalists active during the early Republic. His 1846 work The Mystical Presence urged a return to Calvinist views on the Eucharist and challenged the Zwinglian understanding of the Lord’s Supper held by some prominent Presbyterians of the era, such as his one-time colleague Charles Hodge. Arguably his most important work, The Anxious Bench (1843), denounced the demagoguery, emotional coercion, and doctrinal deviation associated with revivalist movements that occurred during the so-called Second Great Awakening.
Nevin studied at Union College in New York and received his divinity training at Princeton Seminary, then closely affiliated with the College of New Jersey (modern day Princeton University). From 1830 to 1840, Nevin taught at what is now Pittsburgh Seminary. During his time in Pittsburgh, Nevin read the works of August Neander and other Protestant scholars. Nevin worried about the increased Puritan and Wesleyan influence on Reformed churchmanship and sacramentalism. Nevin especially saw appeals to emotion in order to gain dubious immediate “conversions” as a direct assault of the work of the Holy Spirit and the sacraments more generally. Inherent in the so-called Evangelicalism of the day was a penchant for showmanship and celebrity that conflated enthusiasm and passion with entire working of the third Person of the Trinity. Holy scripture and its un-inspired but ecclesiastically authoritative auxiliaries, creeds, confessions, and catechisms, should form the core of Protestant churchmanship, not emotionally driven opinions or narratives that hinged on no other authority than that of the speaker’s enthusiasm. “Who shall assure us,” asked Nevin, that every conversion made at a revival meeting—wherein many of the supposed convertees never went again to church or exhibited marks of piety—was “to be regarded with confidence, as the genuine fruit of religion? It is marvelous credulity, to take every excitement in the name of religion, for the work of God’s Spirit.” Emotionally driven faux-conversions places enormous demands the charity of devout Christians when they were “asked to accept in mass, as true and solid, the wholesale conversions that are made in this way.”
During the ten years that followed Nevin’s move to Pittsburgh, he spent much of his intellectual and ministerial energy on reorienting Reformed churches towards their historic fraternity with Lutherans and other sacramental Protestants. Nevin joined the German Reformed Church in 1840 in order to take a position as a professor at Mercersburg Seminary, but he remained well within the world of Reformed theologians. Presbyterians and the continental Reformed churches, Nevin knew, shared more with Lutherans than they did with New England’s Puritan Congregationalists and Wesleyans. Their revivalist and doctrinal deviations from historic Protestant doctrines became more worrisome to Nevin as revival upon revival swept across western New York and Pennsylvania. In their wakes they left a trail of heterodoxy and new churches such Joseph Smith Jr.’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Swedenborgians (precursors to Oneness Pentecostals), Millerites, Shakers, and other groups. Religious cacophony and religious demagoguery, a sort of “Evangelical” Führerprinzip, emerged wherein churches were driven by popularity and raw human will power.
Nevin and other orthodox sacramental Protestants watched in horror as word and sacrament were replaced by enthusiasm and successive “new measures” utilized by revivalist ministers to gain converts. Inevitably the newness of the measures would wear off, and revivalists would try and replicate the success of the preceding measures with even newer and often more outrageous measures, many of which took the form of unhealthy emotional coercion. The listeners who attended the revivals grew, said Nevin, “obtuse to the stirring show,” and felt themselves in “no connection with what is going forward, except as they find an opportunity, from time to time, to fall in with the catch of some familiar revival-song, which they shout forth as boisterously as anybody else.” Nevin argued that “fanaticism has no power to make God’s presence felt. It is wild, presumptuous and profane, where it affects to partake most largely of the power of heaven.” “No wonder,” Nevin wrote exasperatedly, “that the religion which is commenced and carried forward under such auspices, should show itself to be characteristically coarse and gross.” 
The Anxious Bench’s warnings went largely unheeded and North American religiosity proved increasingly driven by what Europeans called schwarmerei, or unbridled enthusiasm. Nevin went on to serve as president and professor at what is today Franklin & Marshall College. He authored several other well-received works of theology and church history. He and Philip Schaff collaborated regularly and Nevin encouraged his colleague to complete his magnificent eight-volume History of the Christian Church. A small but welcome reclamation of Nevin by Reformed historians and theologians has occurred in the twenty-first century. Jonathan G. Bonomo’s 2015 Incarnation and Sacrament contextualizes and explains the debate over eucharistic theology between Hodge and Nevin. D.G. Hart’s John Williamson Nevin: High-Church Calvinist is an excellent biography and primer on the robust ecclesiology that typified Nevin and other Reformed clerics in the United States during the Nineteenth Century. Bonomo and Hart’s works, one hopes, will not be the last on this useful and fascinating figure in the history of North American Reformed churches.
 For more on the eucharistic controversy see Linden J. Debie, Coena Mystica: Debating Reformed Eucharistic Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013); George W. Richards, “The Mercersburg Theology: Its Purpose and Principles,” Church History 20 (1951): 42-55; Richard E. Wentz, John Williamson Nevin, American Theologian (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).
 John Williamson Nevin, The Anxious Bench (Chambersburg: The German Reformed Church, 1844), 35-36.
 Nevin, The Anxious Bench, 109-110.