Friday, May 16, 2014

John Nevius: The Holy Spirit Gives a Lesson in Chinese on Cessationism

The Holy Spirit Gives a Lesson in Chinese[1]

            When Protestant missionaries arrived in China early in the Nineteenth Century they had all been educated into cessationism.  Part of this awful theology was the belief that exorcism and belief in the present reality of the demonic was archaic, as demons were supposed to have left the earth after the crucifixion. The practice of exorcism was also linked to the "corrupt" and priest centered theology of Roman Catholicism.

            The missionaries noticed that the Chinese universally believed in the spirit realm, and that even their Christian coverts retained a belief in demonic spirits.  For many missionaries this seemed only a passing stage of the newly converted Christians, as they moved to a more "mature” Christian theology.  Several missionaries saw beyond this superficial analysis and understood that the Chinese converts were indeed touching on real spiritual matters.

            Among those who came to understand that it was the Chinese who had a more accurate and biblical view of  the demonic was the Rev. John L. Nevius, one the most distinguished Christian missionaries of all time. Born in 1829 in Ovid, New York, he received his ministerial education at Princeton Theological Seminary.  He arrived in China with his wife Helen in 1854, and from that date until his death in 1893 he spent his life preaching the Gospel and organizing Presbyterian missionary effort in China, and then briefly, Korea. 

            Nevius developed what was later dubbed the "Nevius method."  This was a missionary church organized with the intension of making it self-reliant in the shortest possible time.  This included severance from continued outside funding, and a structure of home churches led by volunteers. The method sought to remove undue cultural influences on the native church, and give local converts authority as quickly as possible.  This attitude was a reflection of Nevius’ appreciation for the good points of Chinese culture, which he learned after his arrival in China and had time to study the culture. Nevius especially esteemed Confucius philosophy and ethical norms as pointing to, and anticipating the Gospel.  He often incorporated  Confucius’ saying in his sermons – as Paul incorporated Greek poets into his address at the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:22ff).[2] The Nevius method was controversial among Presbyterian missionaries in China, and never fully implemented there,  but had a major impact on the formation of the vigorous Korean Protestant churches.[3]

            John Nevius arrived in China as fully convinced of cessionism as any other Presbyterian minister of the 1850s.  As was the custom, a local scholar was employed as his language teacher. For Nevius it was a Mr. Tu.  During the moments of informal conversation between teacher and pupil  Mr. Tu. would relate to the folklore of Chinese demons and spirit world.  Nevius' reaction at this point was to consider these stories as a sign of the "mental weakness" of Chinese culture and to be little more than superstitions.  However, being a gentleman, he allowed Mr. Tu to go on with his tales.  Even at this early stage he felt a bothersome similarity between what he was hearing and the stories of possession and exorcism in the Gospels.

            After his language training the Rev. Nevius was assigned to Shantung province which became his life-long post.  There the small missionary community became aware of a case of a haunted house which was cleansed by the mere presence of a newly arrived native Christian family.  This was reported to the missionaries, and Nevius recorded that: "It was accounted for as due, like other cases of "haunted houses," to fear and hallucination, and the subject was dismissed from our thoughts..."[4] 

            But Nevius became determined to investigate the demonic, and he began to collect information on possessions, hauntings and exorcisms from local sources and from the classical Christian literature available to him.

It was my hope when I began to investigate the subject of so-called "demon possession" the Scriptures and modern science would furnish the means of showing to the Chinese, that these phenomenon need not be referred to as demons.  The result has been quite the contrary.[5]

            About 1871 Nevius encountered a landmark case. It referred to a twelve year old boy who had repeated bouts of severe possession.  On many occasions the local medium had been employed and she would alleviate the symptoms for a while, only to have the possession state recur not long after.  However, on one occasion a recently baptized convert was called into the case instead of the medium.  The new Christian prayed over the possessed boy as he lay in an unconscious state:

Then turning to the prostrate boy he said in almost Scriptural words: "I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of him!"  The boy uttering a piercing cry, was at once restored to consciousness.  I [Nevius] can say from personal knowledge that he never had another of those attacks from that day to this...

         It may be well to state that no Protestant missionary, so far as I known, has ever given native converts instructions as to casting out spirits; and few, if any have dreamed that their converts would have the disposition, the ability, or the opportunity to do so.  When converts have undertaken to do it, it has always been from an unsuggested spontaneous impulse, the natural result of reading the Scriptures and applying its teachings to their actual circumstances.[6] 

            This case converted his interest in the demonic into a permanent pursuit.  He studied each incident he heard of first hand, with a through interview of all the persons involved, Christian and non-Christian.  This was not easy, for he found that most Chinese were reluctant to talk to foreigners about these matters (his old language teacher was an exception).  The Chinese converts had perceived that the missionaries did not like to hear of the demonic, nor would they believe them if told.  Chinese rules of decorum dictated that such an issue not be pressed.  Further, many Chinese felt that in relating the stories of exorcism one placed one's family in jeopardy of demonic retaliation.[7]  In spite of these obstacles, Nevius was able to amass interview data on a substantial number of possession cases, only a few of which appear in Demon Possession.

The Rev Nevius and his "Famine Boys" whom he saved from starvation:

            In 1879 Nevius sent a circular letter to fellow missionaries requesting further information and opinions on possession.  In today's parlance, the letter would be called an open-ended questionnaire.  He received  a substantial response from all over China, including some from native Christians.  These responses make up the heart of Demon Possession. From the answers a clear pattern emerged that repeated Nevius' experiences.  The missionaries came to China believing that demon possession was a thing of the past, belonging to a former dispensation, but were forced to conclude that this was not true.  Further, in every case reported it was a native Christian, not missionary, who first practiced exorcism, in much the same way and for the same reasons as related above.  Consistently, the missionaries were taught by the converts to disregard cessationism and accept as continuously valid the Bible's descriptions of the demonic and exorcism.[8]

The Rev. Nevius in his wheelbarrow
(The transportation of choice for mandarins and missionaries) 

            Helen Nevius related that the publication of Demon Possession "was strangely delayed" by one problem or another, and did not come out until after the author's death.[9] The final draft was produced during Nevius' last furlough in the United States (1891).  By that time he was considered the dean of American missionaries and much sought after as a lecturer.  During that furlough he spent his time researching possession outside of China, as well as researching the literature of spiritualism and mediumship which he considered a form of demonic possession. 

            Almost one hundred years after its publication, Demon Possession remains as one of the best works on the topic. (It has thankfully been reprinted, but it can also be completely downloaded from the web.)[10]  Among the other virtues of the book are its excellent presentation of the Biblical and Patristic views of demons and possession.  Interestingly, Nevius freely used data of the then new discipline of parapsychology and included many references to the writings of William James  - a thing later Evangelical writers would be reluctant to do.  Nevius' identification of spiritualism as a form of demonic possession was sound, and would well serve those seeking to understand the "New Age Movement."

Nevius at the Presbyterian missionary compound:

            Because of his great fame as missionary and churchman, Demon Possession was surprisingly well accepted and reviewed in both the popular press and theological journals.  The second edition of Demon Possession contained a collection of reviews that had appeared after the book was released. Many reviewers were convinced by Nevius' work that possession was possible in China, but not in "Christian" countries like the United States, where the Church was strong.  In this way the whole issue of possession and the demonic was set aside as an interesting curiosity, and certainly not serious enough a matter to disturb the "sound doctrine" of  Protestant cessationism.

            A careful reading of Demon Possession does not reveal if Nevius ever personally ministered exorcisms, or was always an observer of converts who did so.  What is known is that within a decade on the publication  of Demon Possession the common opinion in missionary circles was that exorcisms should be left to native converts.  For example, in 1907, in a book intended as an introduction to the Chinese missions for Americans, the missionary-author, W. E. Soothill, suggested that Western missionaries do not have enough faith for exorcisms, but the new converts do such ministry regularly.[11]  Soothill elaborates with great honesty that the main reason the Chinese are delegated the unpleasant task of exorcism was the missionary's fear of failure, especially the possibility of failure at a ministry where the far less educated converts succeed.[12]

            Sadly, a little over a decade after Nevius' death a biography of him was written of him for the devotional market without single word of his work on exorcism and the demonic. After all the excellent reception Demon Possession received, its major discoveries and potential to re-awaken Protestantism to present day biblical realities was swallowed up by the momentum of cessationism and its hold on “churchadoxy.” Similarly, recent articles which extol his role in missionary history and the soundness of the “Nevius method” have avoided his pioneer and splendid work on exorcism.[13]  

This is especially sad as his pioneer work is not one of those things that only has historical value. Its methodology of collecting and analyzing reports, its understanding that present spiritual realities are the same as biblical models, and its overall understanding of the demonic is first rate. And to use the much abused advertising phrase in its correct sense, “it is unsurpassed.” A seminary instructor presenting a class on the demonic and exorcism would do well to use  Demon Possession as one of his primary texts.[14]


The noted Pentecostal scholar Dr. Jon Ruthven wrote a very positive review of my latest book, Agnes Sanford and Her Companions: The Assault on Cessationism and the Coming of the Charismatic Renewal. You can access it HERE.

The book may be purchased on Amazon, either print or inexpensive Kindle HERE You can purchase the print version at a discount from the publisher HERE

My wife has written a funny and inspiring story of how she transited from a cessionist and Baptist to a Spirit-filled Believer. The book has many stories of our three decades of ministry together.  It may be purchased HERE.

Watching God Work: The Stuff of Miracles by [DeArteaga, Carolyn Koontz]

[1]The biography of John Nevius was written by his wife shortly after his death: Helen S. Coan Nevius, The Life of John Livingston Nevius (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1885). This is available as a free e-book via Google Books. A sketch of his life and ministry is provided by Harlan P. Beach in his; Princely Men in the Heavenly Kingdom (New York: The Young People's Missionary Movement, 1907), chapter IV, "John Livingston Nevius, The Christian Organizer." For an introduction to the modern reality of the demonic and exorcism in missions see: John Warwick Montgomery (ed.), Demon Possession: A medical, historical, anthropological and theological symposium (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1976), Part Five: Demonology in the Mission Fields.
[2] Norman H. Cliff, “Building the Protestant Church in Shandong, China,” International Bulletin of Missions Research (April 22, 1998).
[3] Charles Allen Clark, The Nevius Plan for Mission Work: Illustrated in Korea,
(Soul: Christian literature Society, 1937). See also: G. Thompson Brown, “Why Has Christianity Grown Faster in Korea than in China,” Missiology: An International Review, 22 #1 (Jan. 1994), 77-88.
[4]John L. Nevius, Demon possession and Allied Themes, 2nd ed., (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1895), 455.
[5]Ibid., 262.
[6]Ibid., 12.
[7]Ibid., 136-137
[8]Ibid., chapters 4 through 6.
[9]Helen Nevius, Life of John Nevius, 455.  
[11] W. E. Soothill, A Typical Mission in China (New York: Young People's Missionary Movement, 1907), chapter 10, "Medical Work." 
[12] Ibid., 150.
[13] For instance; Everett N. Hunt, Jr., “The Legacy of John Livingston Nevius,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 15 #3 (July 1991) 120-124. and Brown, “Why Has Christianity Grown Faster.”
[14] I would add two other works: Francis MacNutt’s, Deliverance From Evil Spirits (Grand Rapids: Chosen: 1995) and Frank and Ida Mae Hammond’s, Pigs in the Parlor (Kirkwood: Impact Books: 1973.)