Machen’s Militancy Revisited

Bill Evans head shot

It has now been over 81 years since J. Gresham Machen was laid to rest in Baltimore, Maryland on January 5, 1937 after succumbing to pneumonia while on a speaking tour in the Dakotas.

Machen’s legacy is complicated.  He was a distinguished scholar whose writings, such as The Origin of Paul’s Religion, The Virgin Birth of Christ, and Christianity and Liberalism, are still in print and profitably read, and a long-time professor at Princeton Theological Seminary who left that institution in 1929 to found Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  He was a key player in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy as it played out in the Presbyterian Church, USA, but he was clearly cut from different cloth than many who embraced the term “fundamentalist.”  The skeptic H. L. Mencken, in his January 18, 1937 obituary of Machen entitled “Dr. Fundamentalis,” took considerable pains to distinguish Machen from the less learned: “The generality of readers, I suppose, gathered thereby the notion that he was simply another Fundamentalist on the order of William Jennings Bryan and the simian faithful of Appalachia. But he was actually a man of great learning, and, what is more, of sharp intelligence.”


Perhaps most significant for our time is the connection often drawn between Machen and conservative Christian militancy, a come-outer, sectarian mentality that draws lines both sharply and narrowly and takes no prisoners in ecclesiastical conflict.  For example, we think immediately of John Frame’s widely circulated article “Machen’s Warrior Children,” which examines the history of theological conflict in conservative American Presbyterianism.  As Frame puts it, “Machen’s children were theological battlers, and, when the battle against liberalism in the PCUSA appeared to be over, they found other theological battles to fight. Up to the present time, these and other battles have continued within the movement, and, in my judgment, that is the story of conservative evangelical Reformed theology in twentieth-century America.”

Frame goes on to examine 21 areas of conflict that have helped to divide conservative Reformed people in the decades since Machen’s death.  If I’m reading it correctly, the essence of Frame’s argument is one of theological inertia.  Once the snowball of conflict started rolling down the hill, it was difficult to stop.  Or, to use a slightly different analogy, once the genie of theological conflict was unleashed, it was difficult to put it back in the bottle: “The Machen movement was born in the controversy over liberal theology. I have no doubt that Machen and his colleagues were right to reject this theology and to fight it. But it is arguable that once the Machenites found themselves in a ‘true Presbyterian church’ they were unable to moderate their martial impulses. Being in a church without liberals to fight, they turned on one another.”  Perhaps even more damningly, Frame adds that a balance of truth and love “was not characteristic of the Machen movement.”

There can be little doubt that conflict—often needless and ultimately pretty pointless conflict—has been a legacy of 20th century conservative Presbyterianism, but I’m wondering whether Machen is getting a bum rap here.

For one thing, most of the 21 areas of conflict cited by Frame have nothing to do with Machen.  And more to the point, as Frame himself admits, Machen sometimes evinced a breadth of vision and tolerance, and one that I would suggest doesn’t fit without remainder into the “warrior children” thesis.  For example, the seminary he founded included faculty members representing the range of conservative Reformed thinking at that time—American Presbyterians such as Machen, R. D. Wilson, Paul Wooley and O. T. Allis, the mild dispensationalist Allen MacRae, Dutch Reformed such as Cornelius Van Til and R. B. Kuiper, and the Scot John Murray.  The fact that that that broad faculty coalition could not be sustained for a variety of reasons after Machen’s death does not detract from the breadth of Machen’s inclusive vision for the school.

Furthermore, the church Machen helped to found—the Presbyterian Church of America (not to be confused with the current Presbyterian Church in America)—was, even by our standards today, a sort of big-tent conservatism embracing American, Dutch, and Scottish strains, and including people ranging from Murray and Van Til to the premillennial fundamentalist stalwart Carl McIntire.  Once again, the fact that this rather broad coalition did not long survive Machen’s death does not detract from the broader impulse he evinced.

As it happens, I have a personal connection to Machen.  My paternal grandfather was a classmate of Machen at Princeton Theological Seminary.  They were members of the class of 1905, a class that also included Clarence Macartney and O. T. Allis.  While my grandfather remained a “Westminster Confession man” to his dying day and as pastor of the Harlem-New York Presbyterian Church was involved in the 1922-23 controversy over Harry Emerson Fosdick, he stayed in the Presbyterian Church, USA (and moderated the General Assembly of 1946). My grandfather’s stories about Machen were passed down to my father (also a PTS graduate) and so I grew up hearing tales of “Das” Machen from time to time.  Some of those stories focused on Machen’s personal eccentricities (he was a life-long bachelor and somewhat odd personally), but some were more substantial.

Perhaps the most interesting is an anecdote recorded in my grandfather’s privately published memoirs.  In a chapter on the 1920s, he wrote:

Still, the conflict set off by Dr. Fosdick’s sermon continued.  On the liberal side, Dr. Henry Sloane Coffin preached his widely-quoted sermon on a text that really had nothing to do with doctrine but, in contrast, with a storm and shipwreck—Acts 27:31: “Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved.”  Using this text out of context, Dr. Coffin urged that all liberals and conservatives abide in the ‘Good Ship Presbyterian Church,’ that there be no split, no division.  His thesis was that the Presbyterian Church should be inclusive, making room for both conservatives and liberals.  On the conservative side, there were others who were for separation on doctrinal grounds, citing such a text as 2 Corinthians 6:17: “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing.”  Among these was Dr. J. Gresham Machen, my Seminary classmate, who said to me one day in the Princeton Inn, “Evans, we conservatives from all denominations ought to withdraw and unite in a Biblically true or Gospel Church.”  I do not know whether this distinguished theologian changed his mind before his early death.  My other classmate and strong defender and contender for the faith, Dr. Clarence Macartney, never declared himself on Separation but remained a Presbyterian Christian until “journey’s end.”  Gradually the theological conflict or fire of the 1920’s died down, only to break out again in the 1960’s.  (Frederick Walter Evans, Reminiscences of a Long Life [privately published, 1981], 22)

Here we see stark evidence that principled conservatives could come to different conclusions in the context of the struggles of the 1920s.  We also see that Machen’s separationist impulse was in service to a broader vision of Christian unity in the truth of the gospel.

In fact, the historical record seems to indicate that Machen was the, dare I say it, ecumenical glue that held the disparate conservative Presbyterian coalition of the 1920s and 1930s together, and it is more than a bit ironic that he sometimes gets blamed for the sectarianism that seems to afflict conservative Presbyterians today.