The village of Mercersburg is located in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains in central Pennsylvania, just a few miles north of the Maryland border. The German Reformed Church (“German” was dropped from the denomination’s name shortly after the end of the Civil War) had established Marshall College in the town in 1836. Several years later the denomination brought its seminary to the Mercersburg campus, and for a time the two institutions operated in close proximity and harmony. Marshall College offered a classical education to the young men of the denomination; often this training prepared graduates to undertake further theological study at the Mercersburg Seminary on their way to becoming ministers in the denomination’s churches. Marshall College eventually moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania and united with Franklin College. Franklin and Marshall College, a well-respected liberal arts college to this day, is one of the institutional legacies of the Mercersburg tradition. Another is the Lancaster Theological Seminary of the United Church of Christ, which is the Mercersburg Seminary relocated to Lancaster in 1871 in an effort to restore the proximity and harmony of an earlier era between seminary and college.

The Mercersburg Tradition gets its name from the early days of the Seminary. It is associated with two famous professors in particular, John Nevin and Philip Schaff, and their students. Neither of these men was born or raised in the German Reformed Church;  they both migrated (or in Schaff’s case, immigrated) into it after noteworthy careers in other churches.

Nevin had been an outstanding student of the famous Princeton theologian, Charles Hodge. He taught for Hodge in the late 1820s while the professor was away on a study leave in Germany. After Hodge’s return to the States, Nevin moved to the Presbyterian Seminary in Pittsburgh, where he taught theology, studied German philosophy, and agitated for the antislavery movement. When the offer was extended to him to become a professor at Mercersburg, Nevin undertook his own investigation of the Heidelberg Catechism and concluded that he could become a member of the denomination as a prerequisite for persons teaching in the denomination’s Seminary at the time.

Four years after Nevin’s appearance on the scene, Philip Schaff arrived in Mercersburg from the great European capital city of Berlin. Representatives of the Reformed Church had gone to Berlin to invite the famous court preacher, Friedrich Krummacher, to become their professor of Biblical and Church History. Krummacher, in his late 50s at the time, considered himself too old for the adventure. But he did recommend the brilliant young Schaff, who had begun teaching recently at the University, for the post — or, as it must have seemed at the time, outpost. Schaff was an orphan; he had been baptized in the Swiss Reformed Church, confirmed in the Lutheran Church, and ordained as a minister of the Prussian Union. In his short life he had traveled extensively throughout Germany and had even had an audience with Pope Gregory XVI in Rome. Although his prospects at Berlin University and in the court of the Prussian King were great, Schaff decided to respond to the call from afar and venture into the unknown territory of America.

Although the Mercersburg Theology is rooted in the writings of Nevin and Schaff, it is the product of numerous religious debates that were taking place in mid-19th Century America. Many of the concerns to which Schaff and Nevin addressed themselves arose in the Seminary classroom in conversation with candidates for the ministry in the German Reformed Church. These students, in turn, reflected the interests and values of their local churches and the surrounding communities. It should be pointed out that much of the formative writing of the Mercersburg Movement was directed toward a lay audience and appeared in the Weekly Messenger, the denomination’s newspaper. Here matters such as revivalistic religion, orthodox Protestantism, and the importance of the Heidelberg Catechism were the subjects of general discussion. It was not until 1849 that the alumni association of the Seminary supplied the funds for a more specialized theological journal, The Mercersburg Review. In its pages many of Schaff’s and Nevin’s students wrote articles that contributed to the ongoing development of the Mercersburg Theology.

The Mercersburg Movement is often pointed to as an early manifestation of the ecumenical impulse in American Protestantism. Schaff came to America from the United Church of Prussia, a church in which Lutherans and Reformed Protestants had been joined together already. The Mercersburg theologians hammered out their ideas in consultation with (and occasionally in opposition to) Lutherans, the Evangelical Synod, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and (particularly unusual for the times) Roman Catholics. Their optimism about the future of the Church was informed by the Romantic/Enlightenment concept of inevitable progress, a concept that they carried over into their understanding of the Kingdom of God. They took it for granted that God was at work in all tributaries of the Church, casting error to the side while advancing the mainstream of the Kingdom onward toward its ultimate goal of oneness in Christ.

Characteristic of Mercersburg’s “ecumenism” was the insistence that sister churches put forward — and remain true to their confessional convictions. For example, Nevin challenged those Lutherans who advocated the use of “new measures” to explain their position in light of the Augsburg Confession. If (as he suspected) they could not do this, he wondered why they claimed to be Lutherans. Nevin also resorted to numerous Reformed confessional documents in order to advance his discussion with Presbyterians about the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. This investigation resulted in Nevin’s masterpiece, The Mystical Presence (1846).

(Excerpts from Tradition and Trajectory: The Mercersburg Movement in the 21st Century by Theodore Trost)

The Mystical Presence

The Mystical Presence, reprinted in 2000 by Wipf and Stock Publishers is the centerpiece of John Nevin’s comprehensive statement of his understanding of the Holy Communion. His work was published in 1846. In the introduction, Nevin writes,

As the Eucharist forms the very heart of the whole Christian worship, so it is clear that the entire question of the church, which all are compelled to acknowledge — the great life problem of the age — centers ultimately in the sacramental question as its inmost heart and core. (23)

Central to Nevin’s Eucharist understanding is the fact that humanity’s relationship with Christ comes only “by an inward, living union with Christ … as real as the bond by which he was joined in the first instance to Adam” (Anxious Bench 125ff. This is an earlier work by Nevin). Nevin’s theological understanding of the Eucharist flowed over into his ecclesiological understanding of the Church. Drs. Thomas and Bricker, in their introduction to the Nevin volume, write this about Nevin’s understanding of the nature of the Church,

If a [person] is to be saved at all, he or she is saved by the agency of an objective spiritual constitution – the church – appointed by God to bear the life of Christ to fallen humanity through its ministry and sacraments. (9)

Nevin believed the church “is truly the mother of all her children. They do not impart life to her, but she imparts life to them” (Anxious Bench 128ff).