John Williamson Nevin (1803-1886) was a conservative opponent of the enthusiastic revivalism that characterized 19th-century American Protestantism.
Born in Franklin Country, Pa., on Feb. 20, 1803, John Williamson Nevin grew up on his parents' farm, imbibing their strict Presbyterianism. He graduated at the age of 19 from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and then attended Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, although uncertain of his call to the ministry. After completing studies at Princeton, he accepted appointment as professor of biblical literature at Western Theological Seminary in Allegheny, Pa. Finally, in 1835, he received ordination as a minister in the Presbyterian Church.
A scholar by temperament, Nevin learned the German language and studied the German theologians of the day. His newspaper articles on temperance and abolition spread his reputation; in 1840 the trustees of the German Reformed Church's seminary at Mercersburg, Pa., offered him a professorship in theology. It was a big step for an innately cautious man, but he decided to accept the call and converted to the German Reformed Church.
Dignified in appearance and somewhat preoccupied in manner, Nevin inclined to a conservative approach on all questions, including those then agitating American Protestantism. The revivalistic fervor sweeping many denominations found no friend in Nevin, although in his youth he had experienced a mild "awakening." He published a series of lectures, The Anxious Bench: A Tract for the Times (1843), which criticized the "new measures" and angered their proponents. The absence of emotionalism from the Lutheran and German Reformed Churches of that day was partly due to Nevin.
Nevin and his colleagues went on to develop a conservative doctrinal position eventually labeled the "Mercersburg Theology." His Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist (1846) drew much public criticism for its alleged sympathy with Roman Catholic belief.
In 1841, in addition to his seminary duties, Nevin became the temporary president of Marshall College, the seminary's undergraduate division. Bedeviled by the school's financial problems, he helped engineer a merger with Franklin College in Lancaster, Pa. In 1851 he gave up teaching for reasons of health and because his controversial opinions made him the target of public attack. In retirement, he worked on a new liturgy for his adopted church, but in 1866 he accepted the "provisional" presidency of Franklin and Marshall College. He served for 10 years, resigning again in 1876 in order to relieve the college of the financial burden of his salary. He died on June 6, 1886.
There is no modern biography of Nevin. Aside from his own incomplete autobiographical sketches in the German Reformed Church's Messenger, the only authority is Theodore Appel's filiopietistic The Life and Work of John Williamson Nevin (1889; repr. 1969). James Hastings Nichols, Romanticism in American Theology: Nevin and Schaff at Mercersburg (1961), contains an extended account of Nevin's theology.