Machen and Van Til as Segregationists?

When I saw Anthony Bradley’s July 2010 review of Peter Slade’s book Open Friendship in a Closed Society: Mission Mississippi and a Theology of Friendship, I was disturbed by the mention of J. Gresham Machen and Cornelius Van Til as possibly culpable in promoting segregationist churches in the South. Dr. Bradley mentioned “[t]he role of Westminster Seminary’s J. Gresham Machen and Cornelius Van Til in the segregationist churches.” In a comment following another post, Bradley noted, “…as far as I know Machen was a segregationist. He’s not blameworthy on those issues because there have been racist whites in Christians [sic] churches since the trans-Atlantic slave trade.”

I did a little looking at Slade’s book, after seeing this at the Hierodule blog from the commenter on Bradley’s post. Here is what Slade actually says about Machen:

Mississippi’s conservative equilibrium shaped by white supremacy and “devotion to the church” faced internal as well as external challenges. In the 1920s, conservative Presbyterians grew increasingly concerned at the rise of the liberal German school of biblical criticism in their denomination’s seminaries. This modern trend in biblical scholarship wished to demythologize the text of the Bible and throw into question the historicity of the miracles, virgin birth, and physical resurrection of Christ. These conservative Presbyterians became part of the fundamentalist movement that, according to historian George Marsden, “opposed both modernism in theology and the cultural changes that modernism endorsed.” In 1923, J. Gresham Machen, a professor at Princeton and vigorous proponent of Old School theology, published an attack on modern theological trends. In his book Christianity and Liberalism, Machen rejected modernism in favor of the fundamentals of the Christian faith enshrined in the traditional Calvinist doctrines of the faith and supported by the inerrant words of scripture. Resigning from Princeton Seminary in 1929, Machen founded Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and in 1936 left the PCUSA to form a new denomination called the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC).

Although Machen’s conflicts took place in the Northern Church, Southern Presbyterians watched developments with a keen interest. Machen’s denunciation of the PCUSA for departing from traditional doctrines lent ammunition to those opposed to union with the Northern Presbyterians. Machen and Westminster Seminary found strong support in Mississippi. During the 1930s, both Machen and Cornelius Van Til, Westminster Seminary’s professor of apologetics, spoke at Synod of Mississippi youth conferences. J. B. Hutton, the minister at First Presbyterian Church, Jackson and editor of Mississippi Visitor, publicly backed the Northern Conservatives. …The fundamentalism of Westminster Seminary gave energy and resources to conservative Southern Presbyterians at a time when progressives within their denomination were attacking their traditional defense against social change: the spirituality of the church.

That was it, other than the mention of John Reed Miller “of the Machen school.” It seems that the link between Machen and segregation requires a bit of a stretch. He shared a theological conservatism with, and spoke at conferences attended by, people who were segregationists. (One wonders how anyone addressing an audience of white Southerners in the 1920s or 30s could avoid speaking to segregationists.) Unfortunately, this stretch has been taken as sufficient among some to accuse Machen of “includ[ing] and promot[ing] this error even among the very churches.” Maybe there is more evidence out there of which I’m not aware, but I’m not seeing it here.

Hierodule points out, “I suppose it is my privilege not to be deeply concerned how Van Til’s actions may have given succor to something I consider a social evil that doesn’t oppress me personally. And in that sense I should be aware of the blind spot. There are so many other issues on the list Bradley raises that I’m not sure associating Van Til’s name with the issue is helpful, especially when the evidence is so thin.”

I agree, with regard to Machen’s alleged association as well.

B.B. Warfield, one of the old orthodox Princeton professors whom Machen described as “the greatest man I have known,” was clearly not in that segregationist line. In B.B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought, Bradley Gundlach “discusses Warfield’s remarkable opposition to racism and segregation, especially in the church” in an essay entitled “‘Wicked Caste’: Warfield, Biblical Authority, and Jim Crow.” It would be a little surprising to see Machen ardently opposed to his mentor in this.

William J. Weston, in Presbyterian Pluralism: Competition in a Protestant House, says, “As a result of his upbringing, Machen’s conservatism always had a southern cast, so he opposed… racial integration.” (p. 59) Given the common confusion between a) opposing a social practice and b) opposing government action to stop that practice, I’m willing to cut Machen a little slack on the segregation issue until I see more evidence.


15 thoughts on “Machen and Van Til as Segregationists?

  1. I just listened to a talk by Stephen Nichols on iTunes. It is titled “What would J. Gresham Machen Do? Part 2”. You can look it up. Nichols claims around minute 50 that Machen was in favor of segregation. He also states that Warfield opposed him on this issue. I was surprised so I googled this and found your site. Thanks, Raj

    1. racial segregation for a Pauline theologian is inconsistent. If Machen were inconsistent in this way, he would have eventually gotten around to fixing it. Conservative Presbyterians take the OT seriously, where they find negative cultural practices such as racism. But Jesus blew that away, as Paul attests, and Presbyterians fall on their own swords if they deny Paul’s view of the gospel and kingdom of God, which blows away racism.

  2. I want to add one more thing. Some folks might use this issue to bash conservatives. The fact of the matter is that liberals back then also held to such views.

  3. Machen was ardently opposed to his mentor on this. Machen wasn’t just against government action on the issue. He was against social integration more broadly, and so he protested vigorously when Warfield supported the inclusion of a black student to live at Alexander Hall at Princeton.

  4. Some recent comments below have been helpful in providing evidence I didn’t see before. The argument with Warfield over the inclusion of a black student in a Princeton dorm is helpful in discerning Machen’s views on this. I’d like to see further evidence that Machen extended this to churches as well, if it’s available.

    1. If churches in the North fenced their entrance against what the Bible terms “people of all nations”, this would be a stunning revelation. Why am I 54 years old and have never seen such a thing at any church? My father worked with Machen, and I never heard such a story.

  5. Read James H. Moorhead, Princeton Seminary in American Culture, page 255. Machen disagreed with Warfield about a black student residing in campus.

  6. In 1913, while Warfield was acting president of the seminary, the faculty had maintained that whites and blacks should remain socially separate, and Machen, Warfield’s junior colleague at the time, complains in a letter to his mother that Warfield unilaterally overruled the protest and allowed a black student to live in the student dormitory at Alexander Hall. Also, Dr. Sam Logan, a former president Westminster Seminary shared with a group of pastors in 2020 that “There is also a letter from Dr. Machen to Professor Paul Woolley, then doing admissions work at WTS, indicating that an African-American applicant should not be admitted because he could not be allowed to share a room with a caucasian student.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s