Machen and Segregationism

R. Scott Clark has an insightful recent post at Heidelblog on J. Gresham Machen’s segregationist views. We posted at The Machen Seminar in 2011 on this issue, and Clark’s post can serve as a useful follow-up. In 1913, Machen wrote his mother about a black student moving into the student dormitory at Princeton Seminary. Machen strongly objected to the racial integration that his mentor B.B. Warfield (apparently alone among the faculty) supported. He did more than complain to his mother—he had a two hour argument with Warfield on the matter.

Alexander Hall at Princeton Theological Seminary. From Djkeddie, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Clark writes, “I have previously indicted Machen for his racism and addressed the question of how we, who are the beneficiaries of the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 60s, should think about him. I have urged us 1) not to repeat Machen’s sins; 2) not to be anachronistic.”

Should Machen have thought differently about race, and stood against the prevailing racism of his time? Certainly—and he is especially culpable when his mentor was there to set a good example to Machen on the matter (in this I disagree with Anthony Bradley’s statement [posted in July 2010 at but no longer online] that Machen is “not blameworthy on those issues because there have been racist whites in Christians [sic] churches since the trans-Atlantic slave trade”).

And yet it would be a mistake for us to think that Machen’s reprehensible, sinful thoughts on this issue somehow cancel out his substantial contributions to the defense of the Christian faith. In the same way that we can appreciate and learn from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s valuable social commentary (such as his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that skillfully uses the Bible to support civil disobedience and respect for just laws) despite his own moral failings, we can continue to learn from Machen. There is no need to resort to racial categories in theology. Except for Jesus Christ, our heroes are sinners, and we learn from the good and leave the bad. As Scott Clark wrote,

How should Reformed confessionalists respond to the fact that Machen wrote an ugly, racist letter to his mother? Does that fact disqualify or taint his work? Does it taint or disqualify his Grammar of New Testament Greek? Does it taint or disqualify his argument that Christianity is one thing and Modernism (including Walter Rauschenbusch’s so-called “Social Gospel”) is another? Does it taint or disqualify his defense of the Virgin Birth of Christ or his defense of the supernatural origins of Paul’s religion? Does it call into question the institutions he founded, e.g., the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Westminster Seminary? Does it mean that when Machen defended the gospell in his writings (e.g., his Notes on Galatians) he defended a false gospel?

Let us consider the matter this way: Imagine that Machen’s critics, those who have just discovered his clay feet, themselves have their own sins. Imagine, for example, that they had written a letter that, thought not racist, violated the moral law of God in some other way. Does the existence of such a letter invalidate their criticism of Machen’s racism? One thinks not. To suggest that Calvin’s sins disqualify his theology is fallacious. It is an ad hominem argument, which says that the nature of the person falsifies everything he says. This does not follow. …We must also, however, be clear-eyed about the sins of our forefathers. We should not repeat them. Machen’s racist letter was inconsistent with his theology. His confession said that all humans are created in the image of God. He did not apply that truth consistently to brothers and sisters and other image bearers who had an ethnic history different from his own. That is a shame and a sin. It was contrary to the Word of God as he confessed it. It is contrary to the Word of God as we confess it now.

One thought on “Machen and Segregationism

  1. This and Dr. Cllark’s posts are balanced and much needed in today’s “cancel” culture. I remember when I first discovered one of my ancestors was a slave holder – I was devastated, but he was also a POW in the War for Independence and much to be admired for his moral courage. May God help us learn from our “heroes” including their sins and not “cancel” the good they also did. Amen.

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