The Anxious Bench

“An Anxious Bench may be crowded where no divine influence whatever is felt. A whole congregation may be moved with excitement, and yet be losing at the very time more than is gained in a religious point of view. Hundreds may be carried through the process of anxious bench conversion, and yet their last state may be worse than the first. It will not do to point us to immediate visible efforts, to appearances on the spot, or to glowing reports struck off from some heated imagination immediately after. Piles of copper, fresh from the mint, are after all something very difference from piles of gold.” ~ John Williamson Nevin, The Anxious Bench

“Vows and pledges that spring from excitement rather than reflection are considered fanatical, and as such neither rational nor free; and thought in certain cases men may seem to be strengthened and supported by them in the prosecution of good ends belong to a lower sphere, they are ever to be deprecated in the sphere of religion tending only to delusion and sin.” ~ John Williamson Nevin, The Anxious Bench

The Mercersburg Theology movement began as a reaction against the rise of the anxious bench in the 1840’s. At the time, John Williamson Nevin was the professor at the seminary of the German Reformed Church in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.  In 1943, Nevin published the first edition of “The Anxious Bench”. In it he attacked the growing use of the anxious bench within the American church. The anxious bench, was part of a new style of revivalism ministry. The anxious bench is an emotionally manipulative method of evangelism. The anxious bench seeks to overwhelm one with a sense of guilt and hopelessness as a sinner in the hands of an angry God. The goal is to get the person worked up in the desired emotional state before presenting them with the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The anxious bench emotionally attacks and tears down upon the person as being a worthless sinner before God. The anxious bench pretty much tells the person that they are no good and will never amount to anything apart from Jesus Christ. So figuratively the anxious bench confronts one with the choice of accepting the Gospel or suicide. At the time the anxious bench proved to be effective when it came to getting people saved at revivals. Which is why the anxious bench style ministry continues to live on to this day. The anxious bench lives on today especially in altar calls and street preachers. Nevin opposed the anxious bench because it lacked any deeper substance. The problem with the anxious bench is that it relies too heavily upon a sense of urgency under the pressure of emotional manipulation and fear. Thus anxious bench conversions tend to be too shallow to be sustainable long-term. Which makes sense as a conversion build upon the foundation of emotion hype will start to crumble upon the person calming down. Much like the typical New Years Resolution which rarely lasts long enough for the person to be able to give it up for Lent. The most tragic part of the anxious bench is that it often leaves the person in a worse spiritual state than they were before they “got saved”. The frequent failure of the anxious bench is not surprising as it goes against Jesus’ model of ministry. We need to keep in mind that while Jesus calls us to follow Him, that God never asks us to follow in blind faith. This is because Christianity is an invitation to follow God based upon what God has already done for us, is doing for us now and will do for us in the future. In the Gospels Jesus does not rush us but encourages us to pause and consider the cost: both the pros and cons of choosing to follow Him. Decisions that are carefully thought out when being rightly informed lead to much stronger long term commitments. With that in mind I invite you to reflect upon the nature of your relationship with God. If you find yourself relating to God primarily in terms of fear and obligations, I encourage you to reflect upon the nature of God’s love in your life. Ask yourself what is it about the love of God that is causing fear and if that is a rational approach or merely an aftertaste of the anxious bench in your life.


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