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.
“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.