Review of "Demon Possession" by John L. Nevius

Demon Possession, John L. Nevius, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1894, 8th edition Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1968. 367 pp.
John L. Nevius, a Christian missionary whose writing is of a cultured and educated style, begins his book on Demon Possession by noting:

“I brought with me to China [in 1854] a strong conviction that a belief in demons, and communications with spiritual beings, belongs exclusively to a barbarous and superstitious age.” p. 9.

The first three chapters then are stories of alleged demon possession told to Nevius by Chinese Christians; not stories that he was an eyewitness to.
Nevius then tells of his writing to other Protestant missionaries on the topic of demon possession, asking them about the particular symptoms they’ve encountered and what methods (both traditional Chinese and Christian) have been tried in exorcism. He records some of their many responses in chapters four, five, and six. Even these reports, however, are not first-hand eyewitness stories, but passed on with all the problems of a game of “telephone.”
I found it interesting that in many of the alleged cases of demon possession it is said the demons asked to be worshipped before they would depart. This request was often fulfilled as people were desperate to rid their family member of the evil spirit. Also of interest is that Christianity often benefitted as stories of its success in exorcizing demons spread. And, just like in the Bible stories, the demon-possesed in China were often said to have been chained up (chained to a tree in one case) to prevent them from hurting others.
Chapter seven, titled “other communications from various sources in China” includes a clipping from a Christian publication in China in 1880 on “A Chinese demon-possessed woman becoming a Bible-woman.” Chapters eight and nine then note cases of alleged demon-possessions in other countries.
That cases of alleged demon-possession predominated in rural areas, among the poor, and often with (hysterical) women and that these stories are usually third-hand does not bode well for the legitimacy of the events. But, of course, such things do not rule out the legitimacy of the events either. Also suspect is that such events rarely occur in Christian nations. But, Nevius notes of alleged cases of demon possession there, “though rare they are not wholly wanting” (p. 111) and he provides examples. Terrifying dialogue is noted of one case in Germany. This is worth quoting at length:

Another time when he invoked the name of Jesus the patient shivered, and a voice proceeded from her entirely different from her own, which was recognized by those in the room as that of the aforesaid widow [who had died], saying: ‘That name I cannot bear.’ Blumhardt questioned the spirit as follows: ‘Have you no rest in the grave?’ It answered: ‘No.’ ‘Why?’ ‘On account of my evil deeds.’ ‘Did you not confess all to me when you died.’ ‘No, I murdered two children, and buried them secretly.’ ‘Can you not pray to Jesus?’ ‘No; I cannot bear that name.’ ‘Are you alone?’ ‘No.’ ‘Who is with you?’ ‘The worst of all.’ (p. 114)

After giving some reason as to why these reports are genuine (in chapter ten), Nevius proceeds on to various theories (secular and Christian) of explaining the occurences in chapters eleven through fourteen. He believes that the Bible, taken in its “ordinary literal sense” represents actual occurrences of demon possession in Judea in the 1st century. (Earlier in the book he also notes some of the Ante-Nicene father’s comments on demon possession in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.) In showing many similarities between the stories of the Bible and those coming out of his time in China, Nevius makes the case that if the former are legitimate occurrences of demon possession, then the latter might be as well.
He writes,

“It was my hope when I began to investigate the subject of so-called ‘demon-possession’ that the Scriptures and modern science would furnish the means of showing to the Chinese, that these phenomena need not be referred to demons. The result has been quite the contrary.” (p. 262)

Ultimately I found this book to be quite dated, not particularly persuasive, and a bit boring in its later chapters. But it certainly would make for interesting conversation.

6 thoughts on “Review of "Demon Possession" by John L. Nevius”

  1. Hi Doug,
    Thx for this review.
    I’m sure you have heard John Robbins’ lecture on “The Devil” from the TrinityFoundation website (under Collection 7 of the mp3s).
    I thought his understanding of how the Roman-State Church had sown extra-Biblical lies about the work of the Devil was very convincing.
    Do you think Robbins’ analysis applies to this book by Nevius also?

    1. Nevius talks about some cases of alleged demon possession where little if anything is known about Christianity (or Catholicism). Demon possession was, in fact, common in China before Christian missionaries arrived. The Taoists and others had their own efforts at exorcism.
      Nevius argues that Satan in his cunning uses demon possession at certain times and places that benefit him, and that in modern Christian nations demon possession would only work against Satan by confirming the truth of the Bible. He also speculates that the demons cannot stand to be near Christians.
      Certainly many of the cases of alleged demon possession can be attributed to psychological disorders. And, as you’ve noted, perhaps the Catholic church has had an influence.
      The major questions I have relates to cessationism / continuationism. Do cessationists all believe that demon possession no longer occurs? And, if modern alleged cases are not genuine, were those noted by the Ante-nicene fathers genuine?

      1. Doug,
        I am a little confused by you on this one. I cannot speak for all cessationists but I do not believe they are currently genuine (that would include the Ante-Nicene period as well). I have been in law enforcement for many years and am on the front lines of criminals, drug addicts and mentally ill. Occasionally they will claim they love or worship Satan but never do they say they are “Legion” or Paul and Jesus they know but not a particular arresting officer. Admittedly they may just be keeping silent so as not to be revealed. If there are possessions, then they would be here in North Carolina just as there are in the Jungles of South America and Deserts of China.
        Are you continuationist? If so, I would like to see you review Strange Fire by MacArthur or To Be Continued by Waldron.

    2. Scott. Thanks for your comment. I indeed am a cessationist. I think that is necessary for a Presbyterian minister such as myself who subscribes to the Westminster Confession of Faith. I’ve also written this on the topic:
      I read MacArthur’s Strange Fire a few years ago but have not reviewed it. I have not read Waldron.
      I’m not greatly knowledgable on the cessationism/continuationism debate. The discussion, I believe, relates to a number of questions. For one, as I wrote in the above link, there is the question of the cessation of newly revealed knowledge. Second, there is the question of the cessation of miracles. Third, there is the question of the cessation of spiritual gifts. And, what I haven’t thought about until reading Nevius, there is also the question of demon possession.
      I’d be glad to know your thoughts on these questions.

      1. Doug,
        I see now where you were going with your post. You do bring up a good point that most cessationist books (the aforementioned included) do not discuss whether demon possession has ceased or not and what to do if it has not. Speaking for myself, miracles performed by men, supernatural spiritual gifts (healing, tongues etc.), demon possession and if by “newly revealed knowledge” you mean prophecy (supernatural knowledge) are all ceased with the apostles and prophets. I do try to learn new things everyday though. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Review of “The Unlisted Legion” by Jock Purves | A Place for Thoughts

Comments are closed.