Machen’s Childhood

Randy Oliver’s biography of J. Gresham Machen helps provide some context to Machen’s theological convictions:

“I have finished Mathu, and nearly finished Mark, and then I am going to begin at the very biginning of the whole bible…It seems to me that on Sunday I can never get a nuf of my catercisum.”
– J. Gresham Machen, age 7

John Gresham Machen, the second of three sons, was born in Baltimore, Maryland on July 28, 1881. His father Arthur W. Machen was fifty-five years of age when Gresham was born. Mr. Machen was a Virginia-born, Harvard-trained lawyer. The elder Machen’s tastes and interests were rooted in the classical tradition of the old South. He read the works of Horace, Thucydides, and Caesar, as well as the Septuagint and the Greek New Testament. He also “read extensively in French and English literature. He dabbled in writing, publishing several detective stories and short novels, some of them prize winners, in order to put himself through law school. His fiction was penned under a pseudonym, however, in order to avoid any suspicion of being a litterateur and so hinder his legal career. When eighty years old, he also taught himself Italian ‘for the fun of it,’ as his son wrote.”4

Gresham’s mother, the former Mary (Minnie) Jones, was born in Macon, Georgia. Nineteen years younger than her husband, she was educated at Wesleyan College and, in 1903, published a book entitled The Bible in Browning. Gresham loved both of his parents, but was especially close to his mother.

The Machen home “appears to have exhibited an uneasy alliance between Victorianism and Southern classicism.”5 His parents were cultured, prosperous, and devout Christians. They were members of the Franklin Street Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, a congregation of the Southern Presbyterian Church aligned with Old School Presbyterianism. Gresham’s early religious training was carried out by his mother, who utilized the Bible, the Westminster Catechism, and Pilgrim’s Progress. The Machen boys were required “to memorize the catechism and all the Kings of Israel.”6 As an adult, Machen acknowledged that his knowledge of Scripture as a child “surpassed that of the average theological student of his day.”7 His grounding in the Catechism was thorough, and developed in Gresham a love for the Reformed faith. In one of his earliest preserved letters, written when he was seven years old, he says of his reading and memorization of the Catechism, “I like it verry much and to it verry much.”8 However, one historian notes that Gresham’s comment “may indicate more tedium than pleasure.”9 Nonetheless, Gresham developed a love for the Lord and the Reformed faith. At age fourteen, he professed faith in Christ and joined the Franklin Street Church.

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