On February 25, 1926, J. Gresham Machen appeared before the Senate Committee on Education and Labor, and the House Committee on Education, to express his opposition to the bill establishing a federal Department of Education. An excerpt of comments from his opening statements follows.
“The department of education… is to promote uniformity in education. That uniformity in education under central control it seems to me is the worst fate into which any country can fall. That purpose I think is implicit also in the other form of the bill, and it is because that is the very purpose of the bill that I am opposed to it.
“This bill, I think, cannot be understood unless it is taken in connection with certain other measures of similar kind which have been proposed in the last few years; in the first place, of course, the so-called child-labor amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which I think was one of the most cruel and heartless measures that have ever been proposed in the name of philanthropy, which is saying a good deal. Another similar measure, of course, is the bill which has now been introduced, I believe, and which has appeared a number of times during the last few years, establishing in a very radical way a system of Federal aid to the States, with conditions on which this aid is to be received. It is perfectly clear of course, that if any such principle of Federal aid in education is established, the individual liberty of the States is gone, because I think we can lay it down as a general rule, with which everyone who has examined the course of education recently will agree, that money given for education, no matter what people say, always has a string tied to it. That appears in gifts of money by private foundations, and it appears far more, of course, when the gift comes from the Federal Government, which has already been encroaching to such an extent upon the powers of the States. But this bill establishing a Federal department of education, which has in it the principle of Federal aid, is a step and a very decisive step in exactly the same direction, and it is for that reason that we think it is to be opposed.”
The complete transcript of his testimony can be found here, at ReformationINK.
Here at ReformationINK is J. Gresham Machen’s 1924 sermon “The Resurrection of Christ,” in defense of the historic, miraculous resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Welsh pastor Martin Downes compares the Presbyterian controversy of the ’20s and ’30s to an old Western: theological liberals and orthodox churchmen like Machen were headed for a showdown–the denomination wasn’t big enough for both of them. Hindering Machen’s cause were the indifferent moderates, who might not have believed the liberal doctrines, but were willing to accommodate them. Preserving unity and good doctrine at the same time became impossible, but those like Machen who recognized this and fought for doctrine were excoriated in the church. But the liberals, too, were no more committed to peace and unity–they were willing to suffer division in the church if they could thereby accomplish their goal of destroying orthodoxy.
Downes comments, “Men will always applaud an irenic spirit over against a polemical approach. But the sound of such approval can quite easily mask the noise of the destruction of confessional orthodoxy. Choices must be made and it will do no good to cry ‘peace! peace!’ when there is no peace.”
More here: “The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent”
Here’s a paper from the Water Is Thicker than Blood blog, which I’ve discovered to have some high-quality Machen entries. An excerpt from this paper:
Machen’s seemingly peculiar viewpoint can be seen in the cultural controversy of the day, as well as in the ecclesiastical confessionalism he was singularly dedicated to throughout his life at Princeton and in the formation of Westminster Theological Seminary. As a southerner, Machen “shared his family’s aristocratic sympathies throughout his life.” His loyalties lay with Southern culture in a distinct fashion, putting him on the side of constitutional states’ rights and belief in the legitimacy of secession. This view point led him to a libertarianism where he “opposed almost any extension of state powers and took stands on a variety of issues.” George Marsden further comments on his views stating that as a libertarian he did not easily fall into the categories of ‘liberal and conservative.’ Machen’s outlook concerning liberty in society was built upon philosophical and theological convictions. “Only be preserving free speech, he said, was there hope for the one instrument that could stop radicalism. ‘That instrument is reasonable persuasion.’” These convictions were in stark contrast to the Northern sentimentalities of the church he was to become associated with through teaching at Princeton.
Read more: Secessionism and Presbyterianism.
“I think the man who above all others should be pitied is the man who has never learned how to amuse himself without mechanical assistance when he is alone. Even babies are sometimes taught to amuse themselves. I remember when I was at Princeton I used to watch the baby of one of the professors on the Seminary campus. That self-reliant little mite of humanity would spend the entire morning in the middle of that great green expanse, all by himself, and yet in the most complete contentment and in the most perfect safety. He was early learning the great lesson how to use his leisure time. He did not need to have anybody else rattle his rattle for him. Thank you, if he needed a rattle at all he could rattle his own rattle for himself. He was getting a good preparation for life. A person who can rattle his own rattle when he is a baby is very apt to be able to paddle his own canoe when he becomes a man.
“The average American, however, remains a baby all his life. He is unable even to rattle his own rattle. He has to have somebody else amuse him all the time. Leave him alone for five minutes, and he has to turn on his radio. It seems to make very little difference to him what the radio gives forth. All he wants is that some kind of physical impact shall be made on his eardrums—and incidentally on everybody else’s eardrums—just to keep him from having one moment to himself. Turn off his radio even for a moment and the appalling emptiness of his life is at once revealed.
“What is the explanation of this emptiness of American life? The explanation is that the average American is not educated. An uneducated man shrinks from quiet. An educated man longs for it. Leave an educated man alone, and he has, for one thing, the never-failing resource of reading. He has that resource in his home; he may even carry it around in his pocket. Mr. Loeb has done more for the cause of true education with his pocket editions of the classics than have the founders of many universities. Even more truly educated is the man who does not need even the prop of pocket editions, but can draw at any moment, in meditation, upon the resources of a well-stocked mind.”
— J. Gresham Machen, from Education, Christianity, and the State, excerpt reprinted in “Men versus Machines,” The Freeman, Sept. 1992.
Machen derived a profound appreciation for personal liberty from Scripture. An example of his thinking along these lines appears in an essay he was asked to contribute to the July 1, 1924 issue of Survey Graphic. He was asked to defend conservative Christianity from the charge that it is reactionary and obstructs social progress. In the article he builds his case by explaining that the individual human being has dignity because he is created in the very image of God. He then applies this truth, showing its importance in social theory:
It is true that Christianity as over against certain social tendencies of the present day insists upon rights of the individual souls. We do not deny the fact; on the contrary we glory in it. Christianity, if it be true Christianity, must place itself squarely in opposition to the soul-killing collectivism which is threatening to dominate our social life; it must provide the individual soul with a secret place of refuge from the tyranny of psychological experts; it must fight the great battle for the liberty of the children of God. The rapidly regressing liberty is one of the most striking phenomena of recent years…If liberty is to be preserved against the materialistic paternalism of the modern state, there must be something more than courts and legal guarantees; freedom must be written not merely in the constitution but in the people’s heart. And it can be written in the heart, we believe, only as a result of the redeeming work of Christ.
A short essay over at Water Is Thicker than Blood.
“When Machen was writing in the 1920s about the lack of understanding in the churches, he did not merely point fingers at the Fundamentalists and pietists who refused to take the Liberals on in the academy. No, he blamed Liberalism as well for being anti-intellectual and unscientific. Apart of what the Modern world has done with its advancing collectivism, utilitarianism, and universal education is to demean the Human Spirit.”
Read the rest of the post: Impoverishment of Individual Liberty.
[Machen] was also a nineteenth-century Whig liberal in his political and economic views, something not understood by some of those Calvinist Presbyterians who have claimed him as their spiritual father. Like Robert Dabney, the Southern Presbyterian theologian and social philosopher, Machen was a believer in limited civil government, non-intervention in foreign policy (one view he shared with Bryan), and private charities rather than tax-financed institutions of coercive wealth redistribution. He opposed Prohibition as an unwarranted incursion into people’s freedom of action by the civil government. He testified before a joint Congressional committee in 1926 against the proposed U.S. Department of Education. He opposed the proposed amendment to the Constitution, the child labor amendment of 1935. He opposed military conscription. He opposed the New Deal’s Social Security legislation and its anti-gold standard monetary policy, which, he said, undermined contracts. He opposed Bible reading or the teaching of morality in public schools, since he recognized that the teachers were predominantly atheistic, deistic, or liberal in their theological opinions. Presumably, he would have opposed prayer in public school classrooms. This was a departure from the opinion held by A.A. Hodge in the 1880s. Hodge could still claim that the United States was a Christian nation, and that its public schools should reflect this fact. By Machen’s day, such a claim was less believable. But he did not publicly reject tax-financed public education. His Scottish common sense rationalism did allow for some degree of common ground in education, which alone might legitimize tax-funded schools.
Compare his views with [William Jennings] Bryan’s. Bryan was a Populist, a believer in Big Government to help the Little People. At the 1923 General Assembly, he had challenged a modernist critic who had dismissed him as being wrong… again. Bryan knew this was an attack on his political career. He responded by an appeal to his political record: “Did you do more than I did to put across women’s suffrage? Did you do more than I did to put across the election of Senators by direct vote of the people? Did you do more than I did to levy an income tax so that those who had the wealth would have to pay for it? There has not been a reform for twenty-five years that I did not support and I am now engaged in the biggest reform of my life. I am trying to save the Christian Church from those who are trying to destroy her faith.” He had lobbied successfully to get Wilson’s Federal Reserve Act passed by Congress. He went so far as to call it “the most remarkable currency measure we ever made.” He later concluded that this noble institution “has been captured by Wall Street,” but he called only for its restructuring into an agency for the public interest, not for its abolition. Predictably, he was a strong supporter of Prohibition; many pages of Koenig’s biography of Bryan are devoted to this subject.
From Gary North’s Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church, ch. 8.
“The reason I am opposed to the Federal Department of Education is that it represents a very ancient principle in the field of education, which, it seems to me, has been one of the chief enemies of human liberty for several thousand years—the principle, namely, that education is an affair essentially of the State, that education must be standardized for the welfare of the whole people and put under the control of government, that personal idiosyncrasies should be avoided. This principle of course, was enunciated in classic form in ancient Greece. It is the theory, for example, that underlies the Republic of Plato. But the principle was not only enunciated in theory, it was also, in some of the Greek states, put into practice. It is a very ancient thing—this notion that the children belong to the State, that their education must be provided for by the State in a way that makes for the State’s welfare. But that principle, I think you will find if you examine human history, is inimical at every step to liberty.”
—J. Gresham Machen, Education, Christianity and the State, excerpt reprinted in The Freeman, Dec. 1993
Shawn Ritenour also has this article on “No Child Left Behind” referencing Machen.