Mercersburg Theology

The creation of Philip Schaff and J.W. Nevin,* professors at tiny Mercersburg Theological Seminary in south central Pennsylvania, the Mercersburg Theology was a mediation between head and heart, or objective and subjective, in an age of extremes typified by reckless westward expansion and revivalism. Born in an obscure German Reformed Church seminary, it reflected Nevin's desire to embrace “not the notion of supernatural things simply, but the very power and presence of the things themselves.” Both men were converts-Nevin from Princeton Presbyterianism and Schaff from the United Church of Prussia-who praised the sacramentalism of the tradition. Nevin the theologian and Schaff the historian found satisfaction in the centrality of the Eucharist, for only it-not the Bible or individual experience-gave the believer true spiritual knowledge. Celebration of the Lord's Supper, in which the believer received the “spiritual real presence,” united the believer with a historical and organic church, and kept the church from being a mere aggregate of individuals. That also symbolized divine governance of all society.

The Mercersburg Theology, which had little influence in its day, was strongest from 1840 until the departure of Nevin and Schaff-the former retired because of ill-health in 1853, and the latter went to Union Theological Seminary after the Civil War had virtually destroyed the seminary. The theology survived at the church's new seminary in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and was revived in twentieth-century American Christianity because of its Christocentrism, organicism, and ecumenism. The first attempt to reconcile German Idealism and American Protestantism, it was also the first substantial critique of American Calvinism.

T. Appel, The Life of John Williamson Nevin (1889); D.S. Schaff, The Life of Philip Schaff (1897); J.H. Nichols, Romanticism in American Theology: Nevin and Schaff at Mercersburg (1961).