Even though his religious identity as a champion of strict confessionals and Presbyterian procedures had become clearer during the missions controversy of the 1930s, Machen still held considerable appeal for a broad range of fundamentalists who otherwise would have been repelled by his Presbyterian particularism. Despite the fact that Machen himself was not drawn into the fray over evolution, the high view of the Bible’s truthfulness that was implicit in his defense of Christian supernaturalism appealed powerfully to anti-evolutionists who believed that modern science denied divine intervention into the natural order. His insistence that Christianity was first and foremost a message to the individual soul won support from many who suspected that the older denominations had abandoned evangelicalism for social reform. And, in a movement that thrived on controversy, Machen’s willingness to challenge church officials pleased fundamentalists who rarely let denominational loyalty hamper the cause of evangelicalism.
J. Gresham Machen was a volunteer with the YMCA during World War I. When the United States joined the war in 1917, he wanted to serve in some noncombatant capacity. Thirty-five years old at the time of the declaration of war, he was somewhat old for military service in any case. He thought of serving as a chaplain, but eventually decided on the YMCA. During World War I, the YMCA provided material comforts to the troops, such as hot chocolate, tobacco, magazines, and paper for writing letters home. (In World War II, this function would be carried out by the USO.) Machen sought opportunities to preach and do Bible teaching with soldiers as well, but this was limited both officially and by the constraints of his schedule. Much of his time was spent working close to the front lines, and he was subjected to some of the same dangers and discomforts as the soldiers.
On May 27, 1918, when Machen was located at Missy-sur-Aisne [about three or four miles east of Soissons on Aisne river—see the map above], the Germans launched a spring offensive which became known as the Third Battle of the Aisne. Machen found himself in personal danger from a gas attack and shelling, and fled with the troops to avoid capture. In the process he had to leave behind his YMCA “foyer” and many of his personal belongings. On the 29th he wrote his mother the following letter, recorded in Barry Waugh’s collection of Machen’s WW I letters, Letters from the Front (P&R, 2012).
J. Gresham Machen wanted Christians to be educated and able to argue intelligently in defense of their faith. He worried about the low state of scholarship among Christians, especially among the clergy. In a letter to a former student who had become a pastor, he said, “It is very encouraging to find a minister who does not believe that the cultivation of the intellect is at all hostile to pastoral service.”
Machen’s willingness to apply Christian thinking to both ecclesiastical and social issues was valuable to theologically conservative Christians of his time, and his death in 1937 left something of a vacuum in conservative Christianity in the US. Arguably, this would remain—at least with regard to scholarship on social issues—until the 1960s and 1970s, with the emergence of thinkers like Francis Schaeffer and Rousas J. Rushdoony.
Let us… pray that God will raise up for us today true defenders of the Christian faith. We are living in the midst of a mighty conflict against the Christian religion. The conflict is carried on with intellectual weapons.
J. Gresham Machen, Education, Christianity, and the State
In his biography of Machen, Stephen J. Nichols discusses the elevated stature of Machen’s contributions:
Very little of the fundamentalists’ literature was taken seriously by critics. Machen’s work, however, got reviewed by Harnack and by Rudolf Bultmann and in the leading theological journals of all persuasions, reflecting that his contributions were a cut above. While his reviewers did not always offer ringing endorsements of his views, to a person they lauded his scholarship and acknowledged the force of his arguments. He refused merely to “preach to the choir,” offering arguments that would, even if rejected, at least gain a hearing from the other side. He also strenuously avoided arguing for Christianity by his personal experience or on pietistic grounds. Machen is often likened to Bunyan’s character Valiant-for-Truth from The Pilgrim’s Progress. Having been well versed in that classic from the time he was young, Machen would likely both appreciate and humbly reject the association. Yet something can be gained by making the connection. Machen knew that the truth was not on the side of the liberals; he knew that the liberal view would not bear scrutiny. So, rather than offering hollow pronouncements condemning it, he showed it for what it was, truly lacking a place to stand either on the grounds of science and reason or on the grounds of Scripture. And in the process, he allowed the truth of Scripture to prevail.
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.”