John Livingstone Nevius

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John Livingston Nevius

John Livingston Nevius (4 March 1829 – 19 October 1893) was, for forty years, a pioneering American Protestant missionary in China, appointed by the American Presbyterian Mission; his missionary ideas were also very important in the spread of the church in Korea. He wrote several books on the themes of Chinese religions, customs and social life, and missionary work.


Nevius was born on a farm halfway between the villages of Lodi and Ovid in the "Lake country" of western New York state. It was an idyllic country location surrounded by fields and meadows with a nearby spring of pure water, and Lake Seneca, "gleaming through the trees", only 2 miles distant; he was the son of Benjamin Nevius, of Dutch descent, and his wife Mary Denton. He was educated at the college in Ovid, then at Union College in Schenectady, then, from 1850, at Princeton as a prospective minister in the Presbyterian Church.[1]

In 1853, Nevius married Helen Coan and, on June 15 of that year, the couple set off, as missionaries, on an arduous 6-month sea voyage to Ningpo, in the Che-Kiang province of China, arriving in the spring of 1854. He and his wife immediately set about learning the language, and Nevius's subsequent interest in the phenomenon of spirit possession was sparked off by conversations about the supernatural with his language tutor, Mr. Tu; the Chinese had a strong belief in the reality and power of the spirit world that was part of an animistic tradition going back thousands of years (see Chinese folk religion).[1][2]

The Revd. and Mrs. Nevius were soon travelling and preaching, as well as setting up missions and schools, studying and writing. In 1861 the couple moved to Shantung province, where most of their Chinese missionary work would be undertaken. They spent some time in Tung Chow and dispensed medicine to the locals during the 1862 cholera epidemic there. John also trained missionaries and helped to establish the country's first Synod which took place in Shanghai in 1870, while Mrs. Nevius set up a boarding school for girls.[1]

In 1871, they moved to Cheefoo and built a house there called "Nan Lou". In 1873, John embarked on a taxing 600-mile missionary tour by foot, finding rest and sustenance at whatever establishments he could find along the way. In 1877, there was a famine in the province of Shantung (the "Great North China Famine"), and he played a pivotal role in raising funds, setting up a food distribution centre and organising a relief corps from quarters at Kao-Yai. Famine struck again in 1889, and Nevius's abilities were, once more, called upon.[1]

Nevius continued with his missionary work to country areas until 1887, travelling thousands of miles, often under arduous conditions of terrain, weather etc. In 1890, he travelled to Korea and, although he stayed for only 2 weeks, his "Nevius Plan" (see below) was subsequently adopted and led to rapid growth of the church there.[3] He died suddenly, at home, in October 1893, and was buried in the cemetery at Chefoo.[1]

Nevius was the author of several books covering the subjects of Chinese religions, spiritual practices and social and political life, spirit possession and missionary work; his wife also wrote an exhaustive biography (see bibliography).

Indigenous Church Mission[edit]

After questioning the methods of western missionaries of his time, Nevius took up the Venn-Anderson principles of "self-propagation, self-government, and self-supporting" in a series of articles in the Chinese Recorder journal in 1885, which was later published as a book in 1886, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches.[4] Nevius called for discarding old-style missions and the adoption of his new plan to foster an independent, self-supporting local church. He criticized the missionaries' practice of paying national workers out of mission funds, believing the healthy local church should be able to support its own local workers.[5]

The Nevius Plan[edit]

The missionary principles formulated by Nevius later became known as the "Nevius Plan", and were a development of the existing ideas of Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson.[6] When American Presbyterians began their work in Korea, the new missionaries invited Nevius to advise them. Embracing his method, the Korean mission enjoyed great success, although it did not gain similar popularity in China. The Nevius Plan outlined the following:[7]

  1. Christians should continue to live in their neighborhoods and pursue their occupations, being self-supporting and witnessing to their co-workers and neighbors.
  2. Missions should only develop programs and institutions that the national church desired and could support.
  3. The national churches should call out and support their own pastors.
  4. Churches should be built in the native style with money and materials given by the church members.
  5. Intensive biblical and doctrinal instruction should be provided for church leaders every year.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Creegan, 1903, pp. 200-212.
  2. ^ Nevius, Demon Possession, 1894, p. IV & 9.
  3. ^ David L. Larsen. The Company of the Preachers (Kregel Publications, 1998) p. 523.
  4. ^ Weber, Hans-Ruedi (2000), The Layman in Christian History: A Project of the Department on the Laity of the World Council of Churches, London: SCM Press, p. 350
  5. ^ Broomhall, Alfred James (1982), Hudson Taylor & China’s Open Century Volume Three: If I Had a Thousand Lives, Littleton, CO: Overseas Missionary Fellowship
  6. ^ Ung Kyu Pak. Millennialism in the Korean Protestant Church (Peter Lang, 2005) p. 96.
  7. ^ Terry, John Mark (2000), "Indigenous Churches", in Moreau, A. Scott (ed.), Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, pp. 483–485


External links[edit]

  • Biography (Biographical dictionary of Chinese Christianity)