During the first half of the twentieth century J. Gresham Machen was widely regarded as conservative Protestantism’s most articulate and forceful defender. When he died suddenly on January 1, 1937 at the age of 55, Presbyterians and Reformed mourned the loss of a man who had almost single-handedly kept Calvinism alive even if not entirely well. Casper Wistar Hodge, the grandson of Charles Hodge and one of Machen’s colleagues at Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote that with Machen’s passing, the church had lost “the greatest theologian in the English-speaking world.” W. J. Grier of the Irish Evangelical Presbyterian Church believed that no one else of his generation more resembled John Calvin than Machen. And The Banner of the Christian Reformed Church editorialized that “the cause of orthodoxy has lost its most prominent champion in our country, the Church of Christ a truly great reformer.”
A short list of Machen’s accomplishments over his relatively short life justifies these assessments. He had taught New Testament since 1906, first at Princeton Seminary until 1929, and then atthe newly formed Westminster Theological Seminary for the last seven years ofhis life. His care for and accessibility to students alone would have been sufficient to shape the lives of many Presbyterian pastors and scholars. But Machen was more than a gifted teacher. He was also the foremost conservative New Testament scholar in the United States and displayed his wisdom I and expertise in books such as The Origin of Paul’s Religion (1921) and The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930). In these works, which received the praise of conservatives and liberals alike, Machen defended the historical reliability ofthe New Testament narratives, demonstrated the connection between the historical Jesus and Reformed orthodoxy, and revealed the inadequacy of naturalistic accounts of Christ and the early church. Furthermore, he wrote and spoke constantly to popular audiences. The most significant ofhis popular writings were two books written at the height of the fundamentalist controversy. The first was Christianity and Liberalism (1923), a book that argued intelligently for the essential incompatibility of liberal Protestantism and historic Christianity. In the second, What is Faith? (1925), Machen defended the intellectual integrity of Christianity while exposing the anti-intellectualism and subjectivism of liberal theology.
But he was more than a popular teacher, accomplished academic and gifted writer. He was also a prominent figure in the ecclesiastical controversies that surfaced during the 1920s and 1930s as the Northern Presbyterian Church accommodated liberal theology. The fundamentalist controversy understood correctly was arguably the most significant battle of twentiethcentury church history. For the last sixteen years of his life Machen was consumed by that struggle in every aspect of his life, from personal relationships to professional advancement. In fact, what made Machen so remarkable was his courage and dedication to a cause that was so unpopular and cost him so dearly.
Machen’s courageous stand for the Reformed faith could not have been predicted by his early life and training. He was born (1881) and reared in a prominent Baltimore family with deep ties to the South. and ran in the elite circles of the Northeastern cultural establishment throughout his life. His father, Arthur W. Machen. from Centreville, Virginia, was a well-respected lawyer, member of various cultural institutions, and elder in the Franklin Street Presbyterian Church. His mother, Mary Gresham Machen, from Macon, Georgia, was an author and devout Presbyterian who taught all three sons the Westminster Shorter Catechism and all the kings of lsrael and Judah. She was hostess to numerous dignitaries in the Machen home. Machen’s parents surrounded him with all the finery of Victorian culture and encouraged him to pursue a first-rate education.
Machen’s academic training was also unusual for someone identified with a movement known for its ignorance and anti-intellectualism. He did not leave home to go off to a university but enrolled at the nearby Baltimore institution, The Johns Hopkins University—one of the pace-setting schools associated with the academic reforms of the late nineteenth century. Machen was a classics major and particularly enjoyed the Greek language and literature. After graduating first in his class in 1901, he stayed on at Hopkins for a year of graduate work in classical Greek. He left Baltimore the following year to reside in the small town of Princeton, New Jersey, where he enrolled in the regular course at Princeton Seminary as well as a Masters program in philosophy at Princeton University. Machen found his studies at the seminary to be a bit confining—he did not care for the practice of required attendance. But he distinguished himself to the faculty, winning several prizes in New Testament studies. He followed up his training at Princeton with a year-long stint in Germany, one semester at Marburg and one at Goettingen, for advanced work in Biblical and theological studies.
Even though Machen displayed a superior gift for biblical languages and an ability to contribute to the field of New Testament scholarship, he remained undecided about a vocation until he was thirty-three. No one in his family had ever been ordained as a minister or had become a seminary professor. Machen also was known to enjoy college football games, the theater, golf, tennis and mountain climbing. Because of the expectations of students and church folk, he wondered whether becoming a seminary professor might require living a less active and less pleasurable life.
Plus, Machen had doubts about how deeply he had appropriated the Christian faith. His studies at Johns Hopkins, Princeton and in Germany had exposed him to biblical scholarship that questioned the veracity of Scripture. But Machen’s doubts went deeper than intellectual concerns. Integrity demanded that whatever he decided to do with his life be something of ultimate consequence. This was even more the case if he went into biblical scholarship and the training of ministers. Until Machen felt entirely comfortable with work as a seminary professor he would not fully embrace the work and life of theological education. Even so, he returned from Germany in 1906 to become a lecturer in Greek and New Testament at Princeton Seminary and by 1914 had resolved his doubts sufficiently to pursue ordination, a step required to become an assistant professor, a position in which he remained for the next fifteen years.
Though Machen settled into the routines of seminary life, becoming a popular professor, identifying with the seminary’s theological tradition of Calvinism and a high regard for the Bible, and participating actively in a local church, he still desired a more vigorous outlet. The outbreak of war in 1914 among European powers and America’s eventual involvement presented such an opportunity. Machen knew that as a minister he could not bear arms and considered becoming a chaplain or ambulance driver. He eventually decided to serve as a YMCA secretary and was stationed in France from 1917 until the Armistice. Exposures to the horrors of war made a profound impact upon Machen. Already skeptical about the direction of Western culture, Machen became even more aware of the false optimism and high regard for human accomplishments after serving in the war. Most Presbyterians of Machen’s day, even the strict Calvinists would have been postmillennialists. But the war convinced Machen that the direction of human history was not improving.
Consequently, he returned to the United States in 1919 with a sober estimate of human nature and where Western society was headed.
THE PRESBYTERIAN CONFLICT
Machen’s experience during the first World War also turned out to be a form of training for the battle with theological liberalism of the 1920s and 1930s. After studying in Germany he knew first hand the destructive nature of recent biblical scholarship. But seeing how thoroughly the mainline denominations in the United States had identified liberty, democracy and social justice with the cause of Christ made Machen all the more resolute in opposing the witness of the American church. He believed most Protestants had become so concerned with the economic and political problems of this world that they had abandoned all interest in Christ’s conquering sin and death and giving hope for the world to come.
Evidence of liberalism in the Northern Presbyterian Church took a variety of forms. It could take shape in such obvious forms as Harry Emerson Fosdick’s sermon, “Shall The Fundamentalists Win?”, in which the noted modernist reduced such doctrines as the virgin birth and the inerrancy of Scripture to old fashioned ideas that were no longer appropriate for educated Christians. Or liberalism could manifest itself in the various denominational agencies which did not so much deny cardinal doctrines but did pursue a range of activities, from medicine to education, which undermined the church’s task of proclaiming the gospel and saving souls from sin and death. As Fosdick himself said in his notorious sermon, the world order was being torn to shreds politically and economically and all fundamentalists offered in response was the virgin birth of Christ and his literal second coming. “What incredible folly!”
But Machen was up to the challenge. He worked with other conservatives to organize a movement that opposed liberalism within the denomination. He also became a major reason for conservative students enrolling at Princeton Seminary, many of whom would also join conservative ranks. And one of the reasons for Machen’s increasing visibility was his important, even if short, book, Christianity and Liberalism.
In that work he made a clear case for the essential antagonism between historic Christianity, a religion of sin and grace, and theological liberalism, a religion of morality and uplift. Even though the book rankled many liberals, it remains what one historian has called “the chief theological ornament” of conservatives.
Still, despite the favorable reception Machen’s book received from journalists and observers ofthe ecclesiastical controversy, Christianity and Liberalism met with opposition from fellow Presbyterians. In fact, when the 1925 General Assembly appointed a committee to study the cause of the dispute within the denomination, the committee’s report blamed conservatives for name-calling and failure to use the formal procedures of church polity.
The irony of the church’s refusal to condemn liberalism was that it did so in the name of tolerance and diversity. Yet, such liberality did not extend to conservatives. In fact, the policies of toleration embraced by the Northern Presbyterian Church could be quite vindictive. This was especially the case for Machen who over the last ten years of his life experienced numerous indignities from church officials who prided themselves on Christian love, forbearance and preserving the unity of the church.
In 1926 the directors of Princeton Seminary nominated Machen to fill the open chair of apologetics, a decision that required the ratification of the General Assembly. But his opponents at the seminary, who were moderate evangelicals, as well as denominational officials used his political views against him (he opposed Prohibition in a church that voted Republican more often than today’s Christian Right) and circulated rumors that he was temperamentally deficient and not equipped to assume the new teaching responsibilities. To make matters worse, Machen’s opponents used this episode to launch an investigation ofPrinceton Seminary, the only denominational agency that consistently affirmed the church’s theological standards and also criticized liberalism aggressively. The committee given the task of investigation recommended a reorganization of the seminary’s administration, a change that moved conservatives from a majority position on the old board to a minority status on the new board. Machen believed that this administrative shake-up compromised Princeton’s theological identity and so he founded Westminster Seminary in 1929 to perpetuate the theological and polemical tradition of Old Princeton.
Perhaps the greatest indignity Machen faced because of his consistent and faithful opposition to liberalism in the Presbyterian Church came a few years before his death. In 1933 he led the formation of the Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions, an agency designed to send out conservative missionaries and protest the liberal policies and practices of the official denominational missions board. Of course, church officials objected to the new agency as a rival to their own. But rather than following due process, church officials drafted an official document, the Mandate of 1934, that declared the Independent Board unconstitutional and required presbyteries to bring Independent Board members to trial. In the winter of 1935 Machen was eventually brought to trial by his presbytery. When it came time for Machen to present his defense the judicial commission ruled that it would hear no evidence concerning liberalism in the official missions board or the legality of the Independent Board. As he said, “I am to be condemned on the ground that I have disobeyed a lawful order but am not allowed to be heard when I offer to prove that order is not lawful.” He added that the judicial commission had “dishonored Christ” before it had humiliated him. But the humiliation Machen experienced at the hands of the Northern Presbyterian Church’s denominational machine was truly astounding for its blatant unfairness. According to the religion editor for a Boston newspaper, the ruling against Machen was “deplorable” and “unpardonable,” especially since Machen affirmed “the very letter of the church’s belief.”
Yet, Machen was undeterred. After appealing his case to the General Assembly and losing the appeal, he and 5,000 other conservatives formed in 1936 the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. And only six months later he traveled to North Dakota to rally support for the new denomination and answer charges from local mainline Presbyterian ministers that he was a disreputable fellow. During that trip in late December Machen came down with pneumonia and died on New Years Day, 1937.
It was an ironic end to an impressive life. A man who had grown up in the lap of wealth and refinement and who gave himself unceasingly to the cause of the Reformed faith, died in the Roman Catholic hospital of a small provincial mid-Western town. Machen’s life could have turned out very differently. He could have completed a Ph.D. and contented himself with a teaching career. He could have won the approval of friends and peers by avoiding controversy in the church. But Machen had the courage of his convictions. He knew that it was not enough just to lecture in the classroom or write scholarly books. The cause of Christ demanded an ever vigilant stand for the truth and opposition to error. It also demanded the integrity of the church’s witness. It was one thing for individual ministers and church members to be orthodox. It was another entirely for such orthodoxy to be reflected in the agencies and policies of the denomination at large.
Machen also had the comfort of his convictions. He knew that his only true hope, both in life and death, was in his Savior, Jesus Christ. On his death bed he wrote in a telegram to a colleague at Westminster: “the active obedience of Christ, no hope without it.” That hope gave Machen the courage to stand for his Lord even when that stand was very unpopular. And that same hope provided comfort when he suffered the consequences of his faithfulness. It is no less the case today that the church of Jesus Christ needs the same kind of faithfulness and courage that Machen exhibited in his day.
Dr. Daryl G. Hart, is librarian at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, FA. He received his doctorate in History from Johns Hopkins University.