Created for Union: John Williamson Nevin And The Supper


On June 9, 1886, a funeral was held in a church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The deceased, John Williamson Nevin (1803–86), was a pastor, professor, and theologian in the German Reformed Church. Friends and family were in attendance as well as several theologians and professors of differing fame and reputation. None of this was unusual for a theologian’s funeral in nineteenth-century America. There was, however, at least one irregularity: A. A. Hodge (1823–86) gave one of the eulogies.1 Hodge’s late father, Charles Hodge (1797–1878), and Nevin were involved in one of the most prominent sacramental controversies in nineteenth-century America, yet the younger Hodge eulogized the very man who contested with his father decades before. Even now, the controversy and the theologies that gave rise to it live on long after the death of the major figures.

Nevin’s eucharistic doctrine and his arguments in the controversy with Hodge were driven by eschatological concerns. The former held that the Lord’s Supper is a special gift from God involving special grace, namely the life of the incarnate Christ given through the mystical union of the Savior’s person with the recipient through the instrumentality of the Church. The Supper objectively presents Christ, his death, and his life to the believing recipient and strengthens this mystical union in the interest of eschatology.

Nevin’s Life

John Williamson Nevin was born to John and Martha Nevin on February 20, 1803 in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. The family attended the Presbyterian Church of Middle Spring, where he experienced regular catechesis and the ordinary ministry of the church, which he championed years later in The Anxious Bench (1843). In 1817 fourteen-year-old Nevin enrolled at Union College in New York and graduated with honors at age eighteen.2 While there he was “converted” in a revival meeting led by the evangelist Asahel Nettleton (1783–1844), though he would look back on this experience with increasing discomfort and suspicion.3 He battled both dyspepsia and depression, which kept him home for two years, after which he enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary.4 When Charles Hodge took a two-year study leave in Germany, it was the recently graduated Nevin who filled his spot as professor of Hebrew at Princeton. In 1830 Nevin began a ten-year professorship at Western Theological Seminary. It was during this time that he read the work of August Neander (1789–1850) and became enamored with the German Idealist view of historical development.5

In 1840 he accepted a call to teach theology at Mercersburg Theological Seminary and joined the German Reformed Church.6 She was a small immigrant denomination at the beginning of the nineteenth-century, far less influential than her larger Presbyterian sisters.7 She had also been struggling internally with “issues of revivalism and other forces of Americanization.”8 Wanting to establish an educational structure that would provide her with much-needed ministers, in 1825 she founded what would eventually become Mercersburg.9 The German Reformed Church also established a preparatory school in 1829, which would become Marshall College. The seminary moved to Mercersburg under Marshall’s charter. Marshall’s president, Frederick Augustus Rauch (1806–41), was known as “the American Hegelian” because he was the first person to successfully bring the German Idealist’s views to the States.10 Nevin in particular was indebted to Rauch for his views of psychology, and in 1841 Nevin replaced the recently deceased Rauch as president of the college.

The next year William Ramsey brought the New Measures to Mercersburg, which was the first time Nevin had seen them with his own eyes.11 Nevin responded with the The Anxious Bench (1843), which kicked off a turbulent ten-year period for the young seminary. The next year Philip Schaff (1819–93) came to Mercersburg and began teaching alongside Nevin. More controversy followed the publication of Schaff’s inaugural address in 1845.12 That year the Classis of Philadelphia passed six resolutions expressing alarm over the teachings of Mercersburg, but Synod York exonerated the seminary of all charges by a vote of forty to three.13 In 1848 Charles Hodge published his review and critique of Nevin’s The Mystical Presence. Nevin responded the same year with “Dr. Hodge on the Mystical Presence” in The Messenger of the German Reformed Church. Unable to publish any more on the controversy in the official German Reformed publication, Nevin had a part in the beginning of The Mercersburg Review. In the September, 1850 issue he published his second response: “The Doctrine of the Reformed Church on the Lord’s Supper.”

Nevin was now coming, however, to the end of the productive part of his career. He retired from all seminary duties in 1851, and in 1853 he resigned as president of the college.14 His convictions almost led him into the Roman Catholic Church, but he remained Protestant for the rest of his life.15 In 1861 he returned as professor and president at the now combined Franklin and Marshall College.16 Nevin retired again in 1876 at the age of seventy-three and exited the public eye almost entirely. On June 6, 1886, he died at his home after a ten-day illness.17

The Theological Context of Nevin’s Eucharistic Thought

Eschatology played a central role in Nevin’s conception of Christianity, his Christology, his soteriology, and his ecclesiology. Christianity is the entrance into the world of a higher, eschatological existence which did not exist previously—the life of Christ. This was the context of his Christology, which was at the center of his entire theology. Christ came as the Second Adam and succeeded where the First Adam failed, reaching eschatological life for himself and those united to him. The Incarnation, as the beginning of the New Creation, played the key role in this. Christ came to those who were estranged from God and who did not possess the eschatological life for which they were created. In uniting their general human nature to his divine nature he led them to the goal of religion: union with God. This mediation was in Christ’s person, and only through his person did his work take on its mediatorial aspect.18 All of this was eschatological—it advanced humanity to its creational goal.

This had implications for soteriology. Each sinner is organically connected to each other and also to their respective Head, whether Adam or Christ. For those in Christ, the good news was that the God-Man was victorious for their sake while he was in organic union with them.19 The result of Christ’s victory was that he was raised in power to a higher existence, bringing human nature to its creational goal in his glorification.20 Christ’s people receive his higher life in their union with him by the power of the Spirit, especially through Word and sacrament.21

This led directly to Nevin’s ecclesiology, because this salvation and grace could only be found in the Church as a mother who imparts life to her children. She does so as the organ of Christ, who has given her supernatural power as the manifestation of his body on Earth. Therefore the acts of the Church themselves, most powerfully in Word and sacrament, are supernatural and higher than anything found in nature.22

Eschatology and The Mystical Presence

Nevin saw his eucharistic doctrine as substantially a continuation of the old Reformed view, which had been lost for the most part in his day.23 In The Mystical Presence, Nevin outlined the differences between the early Reformed and what he called the “New Puritan” views of the Supper, which he believed were memorialist. There were three reasons for this historical change. First, the early Reformed and the New Puritans started with different understandings of the importance of Church history. The New Puritans charged the ancient Church with superstition and corruption from a very early date, which made it easier for them to accept a relatively new doctrine of the Supper.24 Second, the newer understanding of “the right of private judgement” led Nevin’s contemporaries to take less account of the tradition of the Church.25 Third, there was a pervasive rationalistic tendency that was related to a spirit of sect and schism, both of which were dangerous to the very concept of Church. This put the emphasis on the subjective in Christianity to the detriment of the objective, thereby undervaluing the sacraments by focusing on man’s actions in the sacramental process.26

Nevin then turned to his positive eucharistic doctrine, which was in many ways the pinnacle of his theological system. The incarnation opened a fountain of life in our nature, thus dealing with sin and the enmity between God and man.27 Christ thereby reversed the fall of Adam and rose far above his state in the garden. In Christ, humanity was raised to its permanent eschatological life—the goal for which it had been created; humanity was now completed in this union with God. Salvation is in the form of life, a life which passes over organically from Christ to his people via the mystical union.28 This is what gives the Supper its special character, because there the mystical union is uniquely strengthened and advanced. The sacrament is the dispensary of objective grace found nowhere else in the Christian life because here the people of God communicate with the life and death of their Savior by way of his person, including his human nature, through the power of the Holy Spirit.29 All of this was possible because of the objective nature of sacraments generally and the Lord’s Supper specifically: a union of the inward reality and the outward sign due to the sacrament’s divine origin and the working of the Spirit.30 In other words, the grace is objectively present in the sacrament, whether or not it is subjectively received by the individual.

Eschatology and Controversy

Hodge challenged Nevin’s argument both historically and theologically. Historically, he wrote that this doctrine was difficult to nail down. Hodge posited three schools of thought: the Zwinglian, the Calvinistic, and a middle way in which the two sides agreed, most notably in the Consensus Tigurinus(1549).31 Hodge believed this middle way was the most authoritative position, and the early Reformed church did not teach participation in Christ’s humanity beyond participation in the Holy Spirit.32 Hodge’s issue with Nevin’s doctrine could be summarized in two points. First, Nevin believed that the sacraments contained specific and unique grace, which Hodge believed was explicitly denied by the Reformed confessional symbols.33 Second, Nevin had a different view of the efficacy of the sacraments, and his position was somewhere between Rome and Lutheranism.34

Nevin’s response to Hodge’s critique highlights his eschatological emphasis because the things that were the most important to the Mercersburg theologian came to the fore. He responded to Hodge’s review and critique in two different publications, and his main points in response can be summarized as follows. Christ’s presence is eschatological because the substance of his body is brought into communion with his people by the Spirit as the medium of a higher mode of existence.35 This is not a mental process or mere memorial presence but rather a communication of dynamic life between persons—Christ and the individual believer—and the communication of this eschatological life is the basis for the communication of the benefits of his sacrifice.36 Although received only through subjective faith, this grace is objectively present in the sacramental transaction by the working of the Spirit. This “transaction” is key for Nevin’s view, because Christ is present here, in the actions of the sacrament as a whole, rather than in the elements themselves.37 In other words, when the Supper is given and received Christ is truly present, not locally, but eschatologically by the Spirit, and his eschatological life flows from his divine nature through his glorified human nature to the souls and bodies of his people.38 This grace is unique to the Supper as the greatest strengthening of the mystical union between Redeemer and redeemed, thus feeding on Christ in this sacrament is different than merely believing in him.39 Because the Supper is the most concentrated strengthening of this union, the sacrament is eschatological to a greater degree than anything else in the Christian life, bringing believers communion not only with their Savior’s death but also with his eschatological life.


1 D.G. Hart, John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist (Phillipsburg, P&R, 2005), 226.

2 Hart, High-Church Calvinist, 40.

3 Hart, High-Church Calvinist, 43–45.

4 Hart, High-Church Calvinist, 48–50.

5 William Frederic Faber, “John Williamson Nevin, 1803-1886,” Andover Review 16 no 91 (July 1891), 14.

6 Hart, High Church Calvinist, 61.

7 For more on the history of the German Reformed Church, see James I. Good, History of the Reformed Church in the U.S. in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Board of Publication of the Reformed Church in America, 1911).

8 Richard E. Wentz, John Williamson Nevin: American Theologian (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 7; cf. Hart, High-Church Calvinist, 62.

9 Hart, High-Church Calvinist, 69; As of 1827 The German Reformed Church had thirty-thousand communicants in four-hundred congregations, but only ninety pastors. See Bard Thompson, Hendrikus Berkhof, Eduard Schweizer, and Howard G. Hageman Essays on the Heidelberg Catechism(Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1963), 53.

10 Hart, High-Church Calvinist, 76.

11 Hart, High-Church Calvinist, 68–9; cf. John B. Frantz, Revivalism in the German Reformed Church in America to 1850: With Emphasis on the Eastern Synod (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1961).

12Philip Schaff, “The Principle of Protestantism,” in David R. Bains, Theodore Louis Trost, W. Bradford Littlejohn, Lee C. Barrett, and David W. Layman, eds. The Development of the Church:“The Principle of Protestantism and other Historical Writings of Philip Schaff (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2017).

13 Hart, High-Church Calvinist, 113.

14 Hart, High-Church Calvinist, 139–40.

15 Hart, High-Church Calvinist, 140–41. His views regarding the Church and church history were two of the factors leading him in this direction.

16 Wentz, Nevin, 6.

17 Wentz, Nevin, 6.

18 John Williamson Nevin, “Sermon on Catholic Unity,” in Augustine Thompson, ed. The Anxious Bench, Antichrist, and the Sermon on Catholic Unity (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2000), 1; John Williamson Nevin, “Antichrist,” in Augustine Thompson, ed. The Anxious Bench, Antichrist, and the Sermon on Catholic Unity (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2000), 20; John Williamson Nevin, “Letter to Dr. Henry Harbaugh,” in Charles Yrigoyen and George H. Bricker, eds. Catholic and Reformed: Selected Theological Writings of John Williamson Nevin (Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1978), 408.

19 John Williamson Nevin, “Jesus and the Resurrection,” in William B. Evans and W. Bradford Littlejohn, ed. The Incarnate Word: Selected Writings on Christology (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2014), 140–41.

20 Ibid, 145, 146–47, 154.

21 John Williamson Nevin, “The Bread of Life: A Communion Sermon (1879),” in David W. Layman and W. Bradford Littlejohn, eds. Born of Water and the Spirit: Essays on the Sacraments and Christian Formation (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2016), 282.

22 John Williamson Nevin, “The Anxious Bench,” in Charles Yrigoyen and George H. Bricker, ed. Catholic and Reformed: Selected Theological Writings of John Williamson Nevin (Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1978), 111; John Williamson Nevin, “The Church,” in Sam Hamstra, Jr and David Layman, eds. One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, Tome One: John Nevin’s Writings on Ecclesiology (1844–1849) (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2017), 140; 148; cf. John Williamson Nevin, “Wilberforce on the Incarnation,” in William B. Evans and W. Bradford Littlejohn, ed. The Incarnate Word: Selected Writings on Christology (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2014), 75.

23 At least, Nevin saw his view in the best of historical Reformed theology. See John Williamson Nevin, “The Mystical Presence,” in Linden J. DeBie, ed. The Mystical Presence: And the Doctrine of the Reformed Church on the Lord’s Supper (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2012), 85, 103, 110, 126.

24 Ibid, 122.

25 Ibid, 122.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid, 174; cf. 179, 181.

28 Ibid, 148–49, 151, 173.

29 Ibid, 40, 46.

30 Ibid, 104, 108, 158.

31 Charles Hodge, “Doctrine of the Reformed Church on the Lord’s Supper,” Biblical Repository and Princeton Review 20 (1848), 227, 230–31, 237.

32 Ibid, 249.

33 Ibid, 251, 273–74.

34 Ibid, 275.

35 John Williamson Nevin, “Dr. Hodge on the Mystical Presence,” in Linden J. DeBie and W. Bradford Littlejohn, ed. Coena Mystica: Debating Reformed Eucharistic Theology (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2013), 92.

36 John Williamson Nevin, “The Doctrine of the Reformed Church on the Lord’s Supper,” in Linden J. DeBie, ed. The Mystical Presence: And the Doctrine of the Reformed Church on the Lord’s Supper (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2012), 296–97.

37 Nevin, “Doctrine,” 240–42, 259.

38 Ibid, 259, 297; Nevin, “Dr. Hodge,” 104–05.

39 Nevin, “Dr. Hodge,” 93.

©Christopher Smith. All Rights Reserved.


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One comment

  1. Hey Dr. Clark,

    This post on John W. Nevin and his view on the Lord’s Supper, is an interesting post. Hard for me to read, because I don’t read this kind of material very much these days, but nonetheless interesting because of the subject.

    I was introduced to the idea that the Lord’s Supper was important in my first year of college. The Church which introduced me to the Lord’s Supper (as an important element of my life in Christ) was an off shoot of the Plymouth Brethren. I was a wandering nomad, so I didn’t stick around any Church for too long. But the idea that Lord’s Supper and the Bible were important elements of my fledgling faith stuck with me, despite the fact that I barely read my Bible, and most Churches hardly offered the Lord’s Supper to its congregation. On that last point, I remember asking a pastor of a rather large church, “Why do we hardly observe the Lord’s Supper?” His answer was something like — “If observed to regularly its value would decrease.”

    I have a tendency to ramble, so let me end here by saying how powerful and stimulating your last paragraph reads. I am grateful for the post.

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