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.