Too Brief Bio: J. Gresham Machen

Sunday school lesson on J. Gresham Machen given at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Spartanburg, SC, Jan. 9, 2022. One of a series of “Too Brief Bios” of influential Christians (and some others).

Fleeing a German Attack: Machen at the Third Battle of the Aisne

J. Gresham Machen was a volunteer with the YMCA during World War I. When the United States joined the war in 1917, he wanted to serve in some noncombatant capacity. Thirty-five years old at the time of the declaration of war, he was somewhat old for military service in any case. He thought of serving as a chaplain, but eventually decided on the YMCA. During World War I, the YMCA provided material comforts to the troops, such as hot chocolate, tobacco, magazines, and paper for writing letters home. (In World War II, this function would be carried out by the USO.) Machen sought opportunities to preach and do Bible teaching with soldiers as well, but this was limited both officially and by the constraints of his schedule. Much of his time was spent working close to the front lines, and he was subjected to some of the same dangers and discomforts as the soldiers.

Western Front following the Third Battle of the Aisne, May 27–June 6, 1918
Image from

On May 27, 1918, when Machen was located at Missy-sur-Aisne [about three or four miles east of Soissons on Aisne river—see the map above], the Germans launched a spring offensive which became known as the Third Battle of the Aisne. Machen found himself in personal danger from a gas attack and shelling, and fled with the troops to avoid capture. In the process he had to leave behind his YMCA “foyer” and many of his personal belongings. On the 29th he wrote his mother the following letter, recorded in Barry Waugh’s collection of Machen’s WW I letters, Letters from the Front (P&R, 2012).

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