J. Gresham Machen and the Controversy over Presbyterian Foreign Missions

The Presbyterian controversy over theological liberalism was not simply a debate about the ideas of pampered scholars published in obscure theological journals. Rather it concerned the very witness and practice of the church. Was Christ a Savior or was Jesus the greatest ethical teacher ever to live? How Presbyterians answered that question had enormous significance for the weekly ministry of local congregations, the deliberations of the courts of the church, and the programs of denominational agencies. The differences between liberalism and historic Christianity were especially discernible on the mission field. In Christianity and Liberalism, the book that defined the deadly peril of Protestant modernism, J. Gresham Machen wrote that the “missionary of liberalism” sought to spread “the blessings of Christian civilization (whatever that may be), and is not particularly interested in leading individuals to relinquish their pagan beliefs.” On the other hand, the Christian missionary regarded “satisfaction with a mere influence of Christian civilization as a hindrance rather than a help.” The Christian missionary’s chief interest was “the saving of souls, and souls are not saved by the mere ethical principles of Jesus but by His redemptive work.”

Machen wrote these words in 1923. Two years later, from the perspective of most observers, the fundamentalist controversy came to an end. In 1925 conservative Protestants went down to bitter defeat at the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee.

Even though William Jennings Bryan successfully prosecuted John T. Scopes for violating states laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution, Clarence Darrow’s ridicule of Bryan’s beliefs, combined with I national press coverage of the trial, made conservative Protestantism look so foolish that fundamentalism became marginal within North American culture. Still, the controversy over liberalism did not stop with the conclusion of the Scopes trial or the death of Bryan which occurred only several years after the jury’s verdict. In fact, the stormiest episodes in the Presbyterian conflict took place in the 1930s. And the object of these struggles concerned, the work of the Presbyterian Church in foreign missions.


After the defeats of the 1920s, conservative Presbyterians appeared to have no place to turn. They had been rebuffed by the General Assembly every year after I 1924. They had also lost their most important institution, Princeton Theological Seminary, with the school’s reorganization in 1929. The clear message coming out of these events was that conservatives either had to leave the church, something they had hoped liberals would be forced to do, or remain in the church and keep their criticisms of the denomination and its agencies to themselves. The consensus within the church was that theological controversy was impeding the positive work of missions and evangelism. Consequently, if conservatives continued to object to liberal theology they risked giving the impression that they were more concerned about vindicating their own agenda than advancing the cause of the Northern Presbyterian Church.

Still, liberalism would not go away nor would liberals be as circumspect as denominational leaders expected conservatives to be. In 1932 the controversial survey of American Protestant missions, Re-Thinking Missions, appeared under the auspices of seven denominational missions boards, including the Northern Presbyterian Church, and funded by the Baptist oil magnate and I philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. This report stated that the purpose of missions was to seek with people of other faiths “a true knowledge and love of God” and express in life and word “what we have learned through Jesus Christ.” Christianity was not hostile to other world religions but instead fulfilled them. For this reason the report persuaded missionaries to enlarge their understanding of salvation. Evangelization was no longer the primary motive for conducting missions because humanitarian services such as education and medicine had religious value in themselves.

If these expressions of liberalism were not enough for Presbyterians to wonder about the soundness of their missions agency, the statements of Pearl Buck, a Presbyterian missionary to China who eventually won the Nobel Prize for literature, confirmed conservative suspicions. In widely cited articles for Christian Century and Harper’s, Buck called Re-Thinking Missions “a masterly statement of religion in its place in life, and of Christianity in its place in religion.” She added that traditional Christian notions about redemption and salvation were “superstitious” and concluded that “the old reasons” for missions were “gone.”

Aside from the erroneous views expressed both in the missions report and Buck’s articles, what alarmed conservatives particularly about the whole episode was the anemic response of Presbyterian missions officials to these developments. Both Re-Thinking Missions and Buck had raised in a clear way whether the denomination’s Board of Foreign Missions would tolerate views within its ranks that were completely at odds with the confessional standards of the church. Machen believed that members of the board should have stated plainly that their agency was “irrevocably committed” to the message attacked by Buck and by the report on foreign missions, that it would not “solicit a single penny” for any message other than that taught in the Bible and the Westminster Standards, and that it would not “tolerate among its missionaries any…anti-Christian propaganda.” But instead of condemning Buck or repudiating Re-Thinking Missions, the board remained silent. “Did ever a trumpet in time of battle, in a time when the very citadel of the Faith had been attacked,” Machen asked, “give forth a feebler sound?” If anyone needed evidence of liberalism within the Presbyterian Church or the denomination’s toleration of it, the missions controversy could not have given better evidence.

In 1933 Machen and other conservatives wrote overtures for the General Assembly calling the Board of Foreign Missions to repudiate liberalism and establish policies that would insure the sound proclamation of the gospel. Machen also debated Robert E. Speer, the senior secretary of the board, a man known to be an evangelical. But the popUlarity of Speer, whose stature was evident well beyond Presbyterian circles because of his leadership in foreign missions, along with the general confidence church members placed in evangelicals such as Speer, prevented conservatives from winning support for their overtures. Instead, the 1933 General Assembly gave its stamp of approval to the Board of Foreign Missions, again preferring the positive work of the church to any controversy that would sidetrack from that work. “Doctrine divides, ministry unites” was the common refrain heard at all levels of the church. Few were the Presbyterians who saw that the ministry of the church could not go forward without doctrine, and, therefore, that rejecting erroneous and unorthodox theology was very much a part of the positive work of the church.

Only one month after the 1933 General Assembly, Machen and twenty-four other conservatives formed the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. Machen believed that because the Presbyterian Church had forfeited its “true…spiritual heritage,” conservatives had no choice but to establish their own agency. As the word, “independent” suggested, the new missions board was designed to be autonomous from the Presbyterian Church and from “any other ecclesiastical body.” But Machen, who hated the “sickly interdenominationalism” of fundamentalists, thought the board’s Presbyterian character was just as important to the new missions agency’s identity. The Independent Board’s charter pledged to conduct and establish missions committed to the Westminster Standards and Presbyterian church government. In effect, the new board allowed conservatives to unite word and deed. It was one thing for them to object to liberalism while either not giving to the denomination’s agencies or contributing to non-Presbyterian missions. It was another for them to take the step of creating and soliciting support for the cause of Presbyterian missions.




Still, the Independent Board was not simply an expression of courageous devotion to the cause of promoting the Reformed faith around the world. It was also part of conservative strategy within Presbyterian Church politics. Machen wanted as many people in the church to see the corruption of the boards and agencies of the denominational hierarchy. By establishing a rival missions board (a completely legal activity since the constitution of the church allowed congregations to support non-denominational missions) he not only created the opportunity to explain the need for the new agency and expose further the official board’s infidelity. He also implicitly defied Presbyterian leaders and provoked them to take action against the Independent Board. Machen believed that if the denomination took measures against the new agency it would demonstrate once again the church’s true character and prompt conservatives either to reform the church or leave. In this regard Machen’s strategy was successful. The Presbyterian Church passed a controversial (conservatives called it unconstitutional) ruling in 1934 requiring presbyteries to try Independent Board members for violating their ordination and/or membership vows.

Conservatives interested in promoting outreach to the lost were particularly saddened that the cause of missions had descended to the level of politics. These were the same people who hesitated to oppose liberalism for fear that controversy would harm the reputation of the church and make its work of evangelism and missions less effective. But Machen had always seen the connection between theology and church polity, and this recognition is what made his criticisms of liberalism so forceful. The last chapter of Christianity and Liberalism, written ten years before the missions controversy, demonstrated that opposition to erroneous and heretical views in the church always involved matters of funding, correct procedure, and denominational law. The ministry of the church did not occur in the abstract world of doctrines and genuine piety. It also depended on money, the solicitation of contributions, and the proper allocation of church funds.

This was especially the case in the work of missions. He wrote in Christianity and Liberalism that church members had a duty to support the agencies of the Presbyterian Church. But what were people to do when the missions board sent out liberal missionaries? If churches decided not to give any money they risked cutting support for the sound missionaries on the field. But if they continued to support the missions board which used their contributions to support liberal missionaries, then their giving would be “neutralized.” In sum, the apparent abstract ideas of theology had tremendous practical implications. Churches not only needed good theology. They needed agencies and boards to implement that theology in all of their activities.

For Machen, the conflict between historic Christianity and liberalism involved not simply the preaching and writing of individual Presbyterian ministers but also the corporate witness of the church. The Presbyterian Church’s witness was not individual but collective. When a man occupied a pulpit of the Presbyterian Church or went to another land under the auspices of the missions board he spoke not only for himself but for the whole church. This meant that if a man were to preach in a Presbyterian pulpit or work in a Presbyterian mission, “and obtain the endorsement which is involved in that position,” he must be in agreement with “the message for the propagation of which the church, in accordance with its constitution, plainly exists.” The corporate witness of the church also involved individual church members. Presbyterians could not be content merely with the soundness of their own minister or their own congregation. In fact, Machen thought that ministers, elders and church , members who failed to follow denominational affairs and discipline those officers who violated the church’s confessional standards were a greater danger than liberal ministers themselves. By tolerating liberals in the denomination while continuing to be faithful at the local level, conservatives made it appear that the church was basically sound. Whether they liked it or not, erroneous and heretical views expressed anywhere in the church could not be viewed in isolation. The controversy over Presbyterian foreign missions was essentially a struggle over the corporate witness of the church. Was the Presbyterian Church committed to the theology of the Westminster Standards or not? If it was, then could it tolerate a rival version of Christianity within its pulpits and agencies? Furthermore, if the church were to maintain its corporate witness to the truths of the Reformed faith how was that witness to be maintained?

Machen believed that the church could not tolerate liberalism because it was an entirely different religion. But he also recognized that the corporate witness of the Presbyterian Church could not be maintained simply by proclaiming the truths of the gospel. The corporate witness of the church required opposing erroneous teaching at all levels, from the pUlpit to denominational agencies. It also demanded involvement in the messy arena of church politics.

Because of that messiness many conservatives shied away from the conflicts over missions. But Machen knew that on this side of glory the church would always be the church militant. This meant that an important part of the way God preserved His church was through combating error. In times of crisis, he wrote, “God has always saved the Church.” But He “always saved it not by theological pacifists, but by sturdy contenders for the truth.”

Defenders of the Reformed faith in Machen’s day and ours may not agree with the ways he prosecuted his case against liberalism. But despite disagreement over specifics, the larger point remains. The witness of the church cannot be separated from the way churches oversee and conduct their ministry. This is a lesson Reformed communions still need to learn if they would be faithful to their high and holy calling.

Dr. Daryl G. Hart is librarian at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. He received his doctorate in history from Johns Hopkins University.