R. Scott Clark has an insightful recent post at Heidelblog on J. Gresham Machen’s segregationist views. We posted at The Machen Seminar in 2011 on this issue, and Clark’s post can serve as a useful follow-up. In 1913, Machen wrote his mother about a black student moving into the student dormitory at Princeton Seminary. Machen strongly objected to the racial integration that his mentor B.B. Warfield (apparently alone among the faculty) supported. He did more than complain to his mother—he had a two hour argument with Warfield on the matter.
Clark writes, “I have previously indicted Machen for his racism and addressed the question of how we, who are the beneficiaries of the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 60s, should think about him. I have urged us 1) not to repeat Machen’s sins; 2) not to be anachronistic.”
In a 1925 essay on reforming government schools, J. Gresham Machen pointed out the immorality of rooting morality in patriotism. Whether based on nationalism or on broader human experience, however, a humanistic morality is “flimsy,” according to Machen. Machen was willing to accept “secularized public education” as “a necessary evil,” but wanted to reduce “the danger of that institution” by limiting its functions, by discouraging the “garbled” reading of the Bible in government schools, and providing for unhampered competition from private and explicitly religious schools.
J. Gresham Machen might be (erroneously) thought of as merely an upper-crust ivory-tower academic who spent his life developing intellectual arguments, lecturing to students, and contending with his opponents in highbrow ecclesiastical circles. While his scholarly pursuits and his family money did permit a comfortable life removed from the hardships of many urban Americans, Machen worked to alleviate poverty in his own personal way. Machen and another Princetonian, Sylvester Beach, befriended and cared for a local man named Richard Hodges. As Stephen Nichols relates the story,
In the early 1920s, when J. Gresham Machen was in the thick of the battle for the orthodox Christian doctrines in the Presbyterian Church and Princeton Seminary, he faced frustrating and damaging opposition from moderates, which Machen referred to as “indifferentists.”
Machen wrote Christianity and Liberalism in response to liberals like Harry Emerson Fosdick. Fosdick objected to the conservative “Five Point Deliverance” of 1910, a PCUSA statement requiring new ministers to adhere to the Westminster Confession of Faith and specific points of orthodox doctrine, which included the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, substitutionary atonement, the miraculous works of Christ, and Christ’s bodily resurrection. Allowing attacks like Fosdick’s to go unchallenged threatened to replace the truth of Scripture with a false gospel, and yet the indifferentists preferred to preserve a superficial peace. In Stephen Nichols’ J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought, he writes:
In “Taking up Machen’s Torch: An Archetype for Christian Libertarians,”Kerry Baldwin explains how Machen stood against both the political right and political left. He “staunchly opposed ideas that jeopardized the proper roles of Christian faith and civil governance and so opposed these two movements in both realms of church and state.” From this enlightening article:
Theologically, Machen distanced himself from fundamentalism’s political, eschatological, and revivalist tendencies. Against the right, he opposed prohibition, protestant character education and Bible reading and prayer in public schools. Machen recognized that Bible reading in schools would strip Christianity of its doctrine and therefore should not be done in schools at all. Stripping doctrine would result in diluting doctrinal issues. This would inevitably arise through the standardization of education. Machen knew state control of education was bad enough, but to “put God in the schools” was to sterilize the Gospel.
In Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church, Gary North discusses the problem of Princeton Seminary’s shift toward academic credentialing as opposed to the covenantal authority of the Church over seminary faculties. North points out that the “most important screening device for entrance into ministry” became academic examination, undermining ecclesiastical governance. Machen’s appointment to the seminary is an example. From chapter 10:
The extent of Princeton Seminary’s later commitment to technical scholarship above the authority of the Church is best seen in Machen’s appointment to a teaching position: instructor. He received the appointment in the fall of 1906. He was not ordained to the teaching eldership until June 23, 1914. He was elevated to assistant professor in May, 1914, to begin in the fall of that year. The faculty was self-conscious about this, as Stonehouse’s language indicates: “Acting on the background of Machen’s licensure, the Faculty of the Seminary was not slow to recommend his election as Assistant Professor of New Testament in its report to the Board of Directors at its meeting during the first week of May, 1914.”
War provides an opportunity for people to do things that they would never choose to do on their own. Though J. Gresham Machen’s service was that of a non-combatant, he was still faced with conditions that required a considerable ability to adapt to dangerous and culturally different situations. In France, Machen worshipped God as he had the opportunity in churches and special services. Surely, he would rather have been home in a Presbyterian
…[T]here must be a renewal of Christian education. The rejection of Christianity is due to various causes. But a very potent cause is simple ignorance. In countless cases, Christianity is rejected simply because men have not the slightest notion of what Christianity is. An outstanding fact of recent Church history is the appalling growth of ignorance in the Church. Various causes, no doubt, can be assigned for this lamentable development. The development is due partly to the general decline of education–at least so far as literature and history are concerned. The schools of the present day are being ruined by the absurd notion that education should follow the line of least resistance, and that something can be “drawn out” of the mind before anything is put in. They are also being ruined by an exaggerated emphasis on methodology at the expense of content and on what is materially useful at the expense of the high spiritual heritage of mankind. These lamentable tendencies, moreover, are in danger of being made permanent through the sinister extension of state control. But something more than the general decline in education is needed to account for the special growth of ignorance in the Church. The growth of ignorance in the Church is the logical and inevitable result of the false notion that Christianity is a life and not also a doctrine; if Christianity is not a doctrine then of course teaching is not necessary to Christianity. But whatever may be the causes for the growth of ignorance in the Church, the evil must be remedied. It must be remedied primarily by the renewal of Christian education in the family, but also by the use of whatever other educational agencies the Church can find. Christian education is the chief business of the hour for every earnest Christian man. Christianity cannot subsist unless men know what Christianity is; and the fair and logical thing is to learn what Christianity is, not from its opponents, but from those who themselves are Christians.That method of procedure would be the only fair method in the case of any movement. But it is still more in place in the case of a movement such as Christianity which has laid the foundation of all that we hold most dear. Men have abundant opportunity to-day to learn what can be said against Christianity, and it is only fair that they should also learn something about the thing that is being attacked.
From J. G. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, Eerdmans, 1923, pp. 176, 177.
[The family] is being pushed more and more into the background. It is being pushed into the background by undue encroachments of the community and of the state. Modern life is tending more and more toward the contraction of the sphere of parental control and parental influence. The choice of schools is being placed under the power of the state; the “community” is seizing hold of recreation and of social activities. It may be a question how far these community activities are responsible for the modern breakdown of the home; very possibly they are only trying to fill a void which even apart from them had already appeared. But the result at any rate is plain–the lives of children are no longer surrounded by the loving atmosphere of the Christian home, but by the utilitarianism of the state. A revival of the Christian religion would unquestionably bring a reversal of the process; the family, as over against all other social institutions, would come to its rights again.
–J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, Eerdmans, 1923, p. 154.
The October 2012 issue of New Horizons, the denominational magazine of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church devotes its issue to various articles related to the history of Presbyterianism. In addition to articles about Charles Hodge and Geerhardus Vos, there is an article entitled “Faith and Learning: the Heritage of J. Gresham Machen” by Katherine VanDrunen. VanDrunen wrote her PhD dissertation at Loyola at Chicago about Machen’s familial ancestors and draws upon that to provide a fascinating look at the education and biblical instruction Machen received from his formative years through his graduating first in his class at John Hopkins.