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Machen on World War I

November 10, 2011 Leave a comment

As we approach the day formerly known as “Armistice Day,” a little note about Machen’s views of World War I seems appropriate. As World War I began, Machen had deep misgivings about American intervention on the side of the British. It appears he was far from a “hawk” on foreign policy.

In contrast to the optimistic progressives, professor J. Gresham Machen at Princeton Theological Seminary expressed a more measured view of events in Europe. Like so many of his theological opponents, he had studied abroad in Germany. Yet for some reason Machen’s fondness and sympathy for Germany seemed more durable than that of his liberal colleagues, an attitude all the more striking given his contempt for modernist German theology. In a letter to his mother dated six weeks after the opening of the war, he called Britain’s alliance with Russia and Japan “an unholy thing” that had been fashioned for the sole purpose of subduing Germany, Britain’s “progressive commercial rival.” The idea that this was to be a war for democracy he found manifestly absurd. … Responsibility for the war rested with Britain’s drive for imperial supremacy, he argued, an ambition that deprived Germany of “a place in ocean trade” and actually prevented international peace. This was not a war of ideals, but rather a war of economic competition.

While Hillis [Dwight Hillis was a minister promoting war with Germany] was beating the drum for intervention, other clergy lamented the prospect of war. J. Gresham Machen had never claimed to be an idealist or a pacifist, and over the past two years had spoken against American subservience to British policy. In 1915 he advocated genuine international pluralism over the British ambition to impose the “English mind” around the world. In 1916, he mourned America’s submission to British foreign policy, lamenting that “the spirit of ‘76 seems to be dead at last.” And now on the eve of intervention, he warned privately that the United States was heading toward bondage and statism, that is, toward “a permanent alliance with Great Britain, which will inevitably mean a continuance of the present vassalage, and a permanent policy of compulsory military service with all the brutal interference of the state in individual and family life which that entails, and which has caused the misery of Germany and France. Princeton is a hot-bed of patriotic enthusiasm and military ardor, — which makes me feel like a man without a country.”

Quotations from The War for Righteousness by Richard M. Gamble, pp. 96-97, 147, ISI Books

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