Above: Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1921
J247993–U.S. Copyright Office
Image Source = Library of Congress
PHILIP SCHAFF (JANUARY 1, 1819-OCTOBER 20, 1893)
JOHN WILLIAMSON NEVIN (FEBRUARY 20, 1803-JUNE 6, 1886)
U.S. German Reformed Historians, Theologians, and Liturgists
Cardinal John Henry Newman, a famous convert from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, said that to understand church history is to cease to be a Protestant. I understand why Cardinal Newman thought that, given his spiritual biography and the widespread neglect of Christian history among many Protestants during his lifetime, but that statement did not reflect the reality of Philip Schaff and John Williamson Nevin, who called the German Reformed Church in the U.S.A. (the Reformed Church in the United States from 1863 to 1934) away from its historical amnesia and indifference, Puritanism, Pietism, Revivalism, and Zwinglianism. These men worked to take their denomination back to its roots in the Protestant Reformation, recovering its Reformed Eucharistic and liturgical heritage while renouncing anti-Roman Catholicism.
Philip Schaff, born on January 1, 1819, at Chur, Switzerland, attended the Universities of Tubingen, Halle, and Berlin. He immigrated to the United States in 1843 to teach at the German Reformed Seminary at Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. He, a church historian, championed the subject at a time when many U.S. Evangelicals had little use for it. Nevertheless, Schaff argued that Protestantism stood in continuity with Medieval Roman Catholicism, not Pauline Christianity. He advocated taking the German Reformed Church in the U.S.A. back to the liturgical and Eucharistic theology of John Calvin. In contrast, the dominant influences in the denomination at the time were Puritanism, Pietism, Revivalism, and Zwinglianism, the latter with its memorial meal theology of the Lord’s Supper. For his trouble Schaff faced a heresy trial in 1845. The tribunal dismissed all charges unanimously.
Schaff’s theological partner in the Mercersburg Theology was John Williamson Nevin, born on February 20, 1803, in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Nevin, of Scotch-Irish ancestry, was originally a Presbyterian. He, graduated from Union College in 1821 and Princeton Theological Seminary in 1828, received his license to preach in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. that year. From 1830 to 1840 he taught Biblical literature at the former Western Theological Seminary, Allegheny, Pennsylvania. Then Nevin, dissatisfied with the Puritanical influences in the Presbyterian Church, left for the German Reformed Church and became a Professor of Theology at the Mercersburg seminary (1840-1851) and President of the former Marshall College (1841-1853).
A mighty dragon Schaff and Nevin had to combat as part of their effort to recover historical awareness and renew liturgical life in the German Reformed Church in the U.S.A. was anti-Roman Catholicism. As Frank C. Senn wrote:
In America, Protestant liturgical recovery in the nineteenth century not only went up against Puritanism, Pietism, and Revivalism, but also against that cultural-political expression of anti-Catholic bigotry known as “Know-Nothingism.”
—Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1997), page 581
There was, in the middle of the 1800s, a political party known variously as the Native American Party, American Republican Party, or simply the American Party, but informally as the “Know-Nothing Party,” devoted to xenophobia and opposition to Roman Catholicism, notably Roman Catholic immigrants. The list of people they liked consisted of other bigoted Anglo-Saxon Protestants.
Our saints sought to revive not only the Continental European Reformed liturgical tradition (that of service books) in the German Reformed Church in the U.S.A., but the Calvinistic Eucharistic theology of the non-localized mystical presence of Christ in the sacrament. Toward that end Nevin wrote The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Calvinistic Doctrine of the Eucharist (1846). Nevin, who considered the Lord’s Supper to be “the very heart of the whole Christian worship,” was, like Schaff, more traditional than those who considered them heretics and innovators. Nevin and Schaff were closer to the Reformed traditions than were Pietists, Revivalists, and Puritans.
Ironically, as late as 1861, Schaff, who was busy resisting anti-Roman Catholic bigotry, had yet to slay racism inside himself. That year he wrote Slavery and the Bible, the contents of which were–and remain–indefensible. He was ahead of his time in some ways yet sadly of it in others. I include this detail for the sake of thoroughness and honesty.
Schaff and Nevin belonged to the committee which produced A Liturgy: or, Order of Christian Worship (1857), for provisional use in the German Reformed Church in the U.S.A. In 1866 it became official as An Order of Worship for the Reformed Church. Nevin wrote the Vindication of of the Revised Liturgy, Historical and Theological (1867) to defend against charges of “Romanizing tendencies” Such allegations prompted the (Dutch) Reformed Church in America to terminate (for a time) relations with the German Reformed Church/Reformed Church in the United States in the late 180os.
Schaff’s career from 1863 to 1893 was as follows:
- Chairman of the Sabbath Committee, New York City, 1863-1870;
- Chair of Christian Encyclopedia and Symbolism, Union Theological Seminary, New York City, 1870-1873;
- Professor of Sacred Literature, Union Theological Seminary, 1874-1887; and
- Professor of Church History, Union Theological Seminary, 1887-1893.
During his career Schaff added many other impressive accomplishments to this already mostly auspicious list. A partial enumeration follows:
- He edited the twenty-five volumes of the English-language translation of Johann Peter Lange’s Commentary on the Holy Scriptures (1865-1880), available at archive.org.
- Schaff published a hymnal, Christ in Song: Songs of Immanuel (1869) and co-edited a second hymnal, Hymns and Songs of Praise for Public and Social Worship (1874).
- He edited German and Latin hymns into English. Among these was “O Bread of Life from Heaven.”
- Schaff edited Volumes I, II, and III of The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (1882-1884).
- He wrote the eight-volume History of the Christian Church (1882-1892). His son, Presbyterian minister and scholar David Schley Schaff (1852-1941), revised those volumes and added two more.
- Schaff published Volumes I, II, and III of The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes (1877).
- He published the fourteen volumes of A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (1886-1890), available at archive.org.
- Schaff founded the American Society of Church History in 1884.
- He served as President of the American Revision Committee, thereby contributing to the American Standard Version of the Bible (1901), from which other translations have sprung directly and indirectly. These include the Revised Standard Version (1946/1952), its 1971 revision, its two Catholic editions (1965 and 2002), the New Revised Standard Version (1989), its Roman Catholic edition (1993), the New American Standard Bible (1971/1977) and its updated edition (1995), the Living Bible (1969/1971), its Roman Catholic edition (1972), the New Living Translation (1996/2004), and the English Standard Version (2001).
Schaff, who died at New York City on October 20, 1893, worked for church unity. His Reformed theology of ecumenism led him to oppose both Papal Infallibility and the Anglican/Episcopalian Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. The inclusion of Apostolic Succession in the latter troubled him. He was correct, however, that Papal Infallibility functions as an obstacle to Christian unity.
Schaff left an impressive literary and scholarly legacy. Among its other components were:
- The Principle of Protestantism as Related to the Present State of the Church (1845);
- The Life and Labors of St. Augustine: A Historical Sketch (1854);
- The Oldest Manual Called the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles: The Didache and Kindred Documents in the Original (1855);
- The Moral Character of Christ; or the Perfection of Christ’s Humanity, a Proof of His Divinity (1861);
- A Catechism for Sunday Schools and Families in Fifty-Two Lessons, with Proof-Texts and Notes (1862; revised in 1880);
- The Harmony of the Reformed Confessions as Related to the Present State of Evangelical Theology (1877);
- Through Bible Lands: Notes on Travel in Egypt, the Desert, and Palestine (1878);
- A Dictionary of the Bible (First Edition, 1880; Second Edition, 1881; Third Edition, 1885, Fourth Edition, 1887);
- A Library of Religious Poetry (1881);
- A Companion to the Greek New Testament and the English Version (1883);
- Church and State in the United States, or the American Idea of Religious Liberty and Its Practical Effects, with Official Documents (1888);
- The Progress of Religion as Shown in the History of Toleration Acts (1889); and
- The Renaissance: The Revival of Learning and Art in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (1891).
Nevin taught history at the merged Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, from 1861 to 1866 then served as the President for a decade. He died at Lancaster on June 6, 1886. He also left a written legacy, which included, apart from The Mystical Presence (1846), the 1857/1866 German Reformed Liturgy, and the Vindication (1867) thereof, the following:
- A Summary of Biblical Antiquities: Compiled for the Use of Sunday-School Teachers, and for the Benefit of Families, Volumes I and II (1829);
- The Scourge of God (1832);
- The Anxious Bench (First Edition, 1843; Second Edition, 1844); in German here;
- History and Genius of the Heidelberg Catechism (1847);
- A Summary of Biblical Antiquities; for the Use of Schools, Bible-Classes, and Families (1849);
- Man’s True Destiny (1853); and
- Christian Hymnology (1856);
- Life and Character of Frederick Augustus Rauch, First President of Marshall College (1859).
Philip Schaff and John Williamson Nevin were giants in the Church. Those of us who pursue interests in ecclesiastical history and/or liturgy stand on their shoulders. Certainly those from the Reformed tradition who encourage proper Eucharistic practice and better liturgy stand on their broad shoulders.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
JULY 23, 2014 COMMON ERA
THE FEASTS OF PHILIP EVANS AND JOHN LLOYD, ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIESTS AND MARTYRS
THE FEAST OF ADELAIDE TEAGUE CASE, PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS EDUCATION
THE FEAST OF SAINT OLAF II OF SWEDEN, KING AND MARTYR
THE FEAST OF SUSANNA WESLEY, MOTHER OF METHODISM
O God, you have endowed us with memory, reason, and skill.
We thank you for the faithful legacy of [Philip Schaff, John Williamson Nevin, and all others]
who have dedicated their lives to you and to the intellectual pursuits.
May we, like them, respect your gift of intelligence fully and to your glory.
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
MARCH 6, 2013 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF SAINT CHRODEGANG OF METZ, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP
THE FEAST OF EDMUND KING, ANGLICAN BISHOP OF LINCOLN