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The Puritan Theory of Early Christianity

by John Williamson Nevin

copyright © 1999

The general Puritan theory of Early Christianity may be reduced to the following propositions:

FIRST. That it started in the beginning under the same form substantially, both in doctrine and practice, which is now known and honored as Evangelical Protestantism without prelacy. The doctrine was orthodox, as distinguished from all heresies that are at war with the doctrines of the Trinity, human depravity, and the atonement. The principle of the Bible and private judgment lay at the bottom of the whole system. The worship was much in the modern style of Scotland or New England. So was it also with the government or polity of the churches. All was vastly rational and spiritual. Even Presbyterianism, according to the Congregationalists, was not yet born. The Baptists carry the nudity farther still. But all agree, that the church notions of later times were unknown. There was no papacy, no episcopacy, no priesthood, no liturgy, not thought of supernatural virtue in baptism, no dream of anything like the mystery of the real presence in the awful sacrament of the altar. The primitive piety was quite of another order from all this. It was neither hierarchical nor mystical, but ran in the channel rather of popular freedom, democratic right, and common sense.

SECOND. That this happy state of things, established under the authority of the Apostles and in their time universally prevalent in the churches, was unfortunately of only very short duration. How long it lasted is by no means clear. After the destruction of Jerusalem, we have for a time almost no historical notices whatever that serve to reveal to us the actual condition of the church; and such testimony as we have, with the going out of the first century and the coming in of the second, have so questionable a look at certain points, that it is hard to know how far they are to be trusted anywhere. It became the policy of later times to corrupt and suppress documents. The theory thus is of necessity thrown here on presumption and hypothesis. Two broad facts, however, are settled and given; first, that the church started right in the beginning, and secondly, that on coming fully into view again in the third century it is found to be strangely wrong, fairly on the tide in truth of the prelatical system with its whole sea of corruptions and abominations. Between these dates then must be assumed an apostacy or fall, into the common world. When or how the doleful change took place, in the absence of all reliable historical evidence, can only be made out by conjecture; and here naturally the theory is subject in different hands to some variations. The Presbyterian [1], Congregational, and Baptist schemes or constructions, are not just the same. All however make the paradisiacal period of the church very short. It is hard to find even one whole century for it after the destruction of Jerusalem; though in a vague loose way it is common to speak of it, as reaching through the second century and some little distance perhaps into the third.

THIRD. That the change thus early commenced was in truth in full opposition to the original sense and design of Christianity, and involved in principle from the start the grand apostacy that afterwards became complete in the church of Rome, and which is graphically foretold in those passages of the New Testament that speak of antichrist, the mystical Babylon, and the man of sin. The Baptists include in this corruption more than the Congregationalists; and these again include in it more that the Presbyterians, taking Presbytery itself in fact, and that idea of the church which once went along with it, for the first stage of the downward progress; but as to what lies beyond this, the vast world of notions and practices namely that go to make up the prelatical system as we find it in full force in the days of Cyprian, the whole Puritan body of course is but of one mind. It is throughout an usurpation only and an abuse, against the Bible, against apostolical and primitive example, against the entire genius and spirit of evangelical religion. It belongs to an order of thought and habit of life, which however countenanced by many good men in the beginning, must be regarded as constitutionally at variance with the first principles of the Gospel, as antichristian and worldly; the natural and only proper end of which, in the course of two or three centuries, was the complete failure of the church in its original form. It became the synagogue of Satan. Christianity went out in dismal eclipse for a thousand years, with only a few tapers, dimly burning here and there in vallies [valleys?] and corners, to keep up some faint remembrance of that glorious day-spring from on high with which it had visited the nations in the beginning.

FOURTH. That the long night of fearful captivity came to an end finally, through the great mercy of God, by the event of the Reformation; which was brought to pass by the diligent study of the Bible, the original codex of Christianity, under the awakening and guiding influence of the Holy Ghost, and consisted simply in a resuscitation of the life and doctrine of the primitive church, which had been so long buried beneath the corruptions of the great Roman apostacy. The Reformation, in this view, was not properly the historical product and continuation of the life of the church itself, or what was called the church, as it stood before. It was a revolutionary rebellion rather against this as something totally false and wrong, by which it was violently set aside to make room for a new order of things altogether. If it be asked, by what authority Luther and the other reformers under took to bring in so vast a change, the answer is that they had the authority of the Bible. This and this only, is the religion of Protestants. Popery was antichrist; the Bible teaches plainly a different religion, which mush have prevailed in the beginning, and which Popery had contrived to suppress; and what better right than this fact then could the reformers have or need, to fight against it, to overturn it as far as they were able, and to set up the religion of the Bible, the primitive evangelical religion, in its room and place? Such was their warrant, and such as far as it wen their good and excellent work

It is not strange however, coming out of such thick darkness as they had in their rear, that they were not themselves able at once to see clearly all that needed to be done in this great restoration; to say nothing of such outward political limitations as they had to contend with for instance in England. Luther stuck miserably in the mud of Romanism to the last. Even Calvin had his sacramental crotchets, and talks strangely at times of the church. Anglicanism remained out and out semi-popery. Hence the need for a new reformation.[2]

This we have in Puritanism; which itself also has required some time to come to that perfection of Bible simplicity and truth, which it now happily presents in this country, especially in New England–and most of all, if we take their own word for it, in the wide communion of the Baptists. Here finally, after so long a sleep, the fair image of original Christianity, as it once gladdened the assemblies of the faithful in the days of Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, and the blessed martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, has come forth as it were from the catacombs, to put to shame that frightful mask which has for so many centuries cheated the world in its name and stead. And what is better still, there is some ground now also to hope, since we have got into the middle of the nineteenth century and Anglo-Saxon mind is in a fair way to rule the world, that this second edition and experiment of a pure faith and true church will be more successful that the first; and that Christ will find it proper now, in these last days, to be with his church always, and to make good thus his own promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it, as they might seem to have done before, till Shiloh come or to the end of the world.

Thus ends our selection from Nevin’s second article on "Early Christianity" (November, 1851). This article and much other good stuff by Nevin (along with some bad stuff; discernment is required) is found in Catholic & Reformed: Selected Theological Writings of John Williamson Nevin. This book is the only one we know of, in print, which contains Nevin’s writings. It is available from Amazon.com for a very reasonable price.


1. EDITORIAL NOTE: The popular presbyterianism of Nevin’s day was a far cry from that of John Calvin or even of the Westminster Divines. For example, see my essay on "Sacramental Efficacy and the Westminster Standards" and compare it with what we find in popular explanations of the sacraments in American Reformed circles. Samuel Miller’s revisionist works on church government are another way in which American Presbyterianism had begun to change in, to borrow Nevin’s terminology, a Puritan direction.–Mark Horne

2. Emphasis added along with paragraph breaks.–Mark Horne

copyright © 1999


  1. In my humble opinions, Reformed believers in general, instead of insisting on the reading of history with pretexts of classical views inherited from Romanism, SHOULD open their eyes to recent archaeological findings, and new translations of early church fathers. Then the Reformed believers will not be so misserable, as if they only dare to read from dusty books from a century ago.

    Tim Wai

    Comment by Tim W — February 7, 2008 @ 3:03 am

  2. Neither the church nor people need reformation but regeneration. Rome never has been nor ever will be Christianity. Evangelical Christianity is just another form of bondage to the doctrine of men of which Christ set us free. Real Christianity sets us free to love our God with all our heart, soul and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

    Christian liberty is much misunderstood and rarely taught in the churches which claim to be Christian today…2011.

    David Nielsen

    Comment by David — May 19, 2011 @ 3:53 am

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