In 1843, John Williamson Nevin wrote a book simply entitled The Anxious Bench. He was writing during the time when Charles Finney’s revivalism was sweeping american churches. These revivals downplayed substantive Christian teaching of any kind, and instead heightened the experience of a salvific moment in one’s life. Knowing the Bible, being catechized, having a sound understanding of who Christ is and what he has done for his people, a real understanding of what kind of obedience was required in the Christian life – all of these things were downplayed so long as a person could point to a moment in their life where they “accepted Christ.” Getting the greatest number of conversions was the new endgame of Christian ministry. No longer did pastors need to invest in long term pastoral care, affective Christian preaching, or learning sound doctrine. Instead, they began to use what would soon be called the “new measures.” These “new measures” were essentially any method, by any means necessary, where a preacher would manipulate a person into making a Christian confession.
One such method was known as the “anxious bench.” Think of modern day methods of “everyone close your eyes and bow your heads but raise your hand if you want to become a Christian,” except more intense. Essentially there was a bench at the front of a church where a preacher would force people at the end of a service to come up to the bench, and would not allow them to leave until they made a public profession of faith. Capitalizing on people’s anxiety of being put up in front of a church, this method was hailed as the greatest sign of spirituality and revival in a church.
Writing against the “anxious bench” and the “new measures,” Nevin came down hard on this method and its widespread use. This was for multiple reasons:
1) It gave people a false assurance of their salvation. Just because you had this experience where you gave in to pressure and your anxieties doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit actually did anything in your heart.
2) Man cannot control the movement of the Holy Spirit.
3) Professing Christians no longer had any idea of what the Scriptures taught (since catechesis and sound preaching were thrown out the window), and therefore had no idea how to live the Christian life.
4) Any sort of Christian knowledge is perceived as “cold” and “dead” – antithetical to the “spirituality” of a conversion experience.
5) Pastors and preachers no longer had any sort of inward spiritual strength, but instead relied on their own talent and skill to manipulate others into a “Christian” profession.
Writing specifically on this last point, Nevin says this:
“The man who had no power to make himself felt in the catechetical class (that is, teaching), is deceived most assuredly and deceives others, when he seems to be strong in the use of the anxious bench. Old forms must needs be dull and spiritless, in his hands. His sermons have neither edge nor point. The services of the sanctuary are lean and barren. He can throw no interest into the catechism. He has no heart for family visitation, and no skill to make it of any account. Still he desires to be doing something in his spiritual vocation, to convince others, and to satisfy himself, that he is not without strength. What then is to be done? He must resort to quackery; not with clear consciousness, of course; but instinctively, as it were, by the pressure of inward want. he will seek to do by the flesh, what he finds himself too weak to effect by the spirit. Thus it becomes possible for him to make himself felt. New measures fall in exactly with his taste, and are turned to fruitful account by his zeal. He becomes theatrical; has recourse to solemn tricks; cries aloud; takes strange attitudes; tells exciting stories; calls out the anxious, etc. In this way possibly he comes to be known as a revivalist, and is counted among those who preach the gospel “with the demonstration of the Spirit and with power.” And yet when all is done, he remains as before without true spiritual strength. New measures are the refuge of weakness.
The system of New Measures then is to be deprecated, as furnishing a refuge for weakness and sloth in the work of ministry, and in this way holding out a temptation, which, so far as it prevails, leads ministers to undervalue and neglect the cultivation of that true and inward strength, without which no measures can be at last of much account. This is a great evil.
A man may be mighty in the use of new measures, preaching every day if need be for three weeks to crowded congregations, excited all the time; he may have the anxious bench filled at the close of each service, and the whole house thrown into disorder; he may have groaning, shouting, clapping, screaming, a very bedlam of passion, all around the alter; and as the result of all, he may be able to report a hundred converts or more, translated by the process, according to this own account, from darkness into God’s marvelous light. A man may so distinguish himself, and yet have no power to study, think or teach. He may be crude, chaotic, without cultivation or discipline. He may be too lazy to read or write. There may be no power whatever in his ordinary walk or conversation, to enforce the claims of religion. Meet him in common secular connections, and you find him in a great measure unfelt, in the stream of worldliness with which he is surrounded. Often he is covetous; often vain; often without a particle of humility or meekness. The truth is, he has no capacity, no inward sufficiency, for the ordinary processes of evangelical labor. Much is required to be a faithful minister of the New Testament; while small resources in comparison are needed for that resemblance of power, to which a man may attain by the successful use of the system now in view.”
Although this was written in 1843, Nevin’s critiques of the “new measures” in his time almost mirror the same phenomena we see happening in our churches today. Perhaps we have a resurgence of “new measures” happening in American Evangelicalism that even supersede what Nevin saw in his own day.
This desire Christians have to set knowledge against experience – substance against zeal – is the cause for all of our evangelical shallowness today. Our shallow preaching which all to often relies on lights, sounds and theatrics instead of convicting exposition of the Scriptures; exalting “ministers” who are all zeal but no knowledge – as if you can have true love without deep truth; “Christian” books that cater to some sort of weird pseudo-Christian mystical felt-needs rather than teaching that resembles anything like what Christians have believed for the last 2,000 years.
When will we learn that little substance and little knowledge is not the answer to an emphasis on mere knowledge and mere substance? When will we learn that to have a sustainable witness in this world we must have churches that engage both mind and heart? When will we learn that our own experience does not dictate how the Bible is supposed to be read? When will we learn that we need to grow in discernment over what we read, how we worship and what we participate in?
Friends, let us grow in worshipping and following Christ in both Spirit and in truth.