Machen and the Fundamentalist – Traditionalist Presbyterian Split

The following is from Darryl G. Hart’s Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (pp. 162–165).

Even though his religious identity as a champion of strict confessionals and Presbyterian procedures had become clearer during the missions controversy of the 1930s, Machen still held considerable appeal for a broad range of fundamentalists who otherwise would have been repelled by his Presbyterian particularism. Despite the fact that Machen himself was not drawn into the fray over evolution, the high view of the Bible’s truthfulness that was implicit in his defense of Christian supernaturalism appealed powerfully to anti-evolutionists who believed that modern science denied divine intervention into the natural order. His insistence that Christianity was first and foremost a message to the individual soul won support from many who suspected that the older denominations had abandoned evangelicalism for social reform. And, in a movement that thrived on controversy, Machen’s willingness to challenge church officials pleased fundamentalists who rarely let denominational loyalty hamper the cause of evangelicalism.

As a result, some who followed Machen into the Orthodox Presbyterian Church did not fully share his Presbyterian views. The problem of diversity within the ranks of Machen’s supporters became apparent even before Machen’s fatal trip to North Dakota. At Westminster Seminary, where Machen was popular with the students, complaints could be heard that the Presbyterianism of the faculty was almost unbearable. Methodists, who comprised roughly 20 percent of the student body, thought Westminster professors presented Calvinism too belligerently. Meanwhile, premillennialists, who outnumbered [p. 163] other views four to one by one estimate, complained that faculty too readily denounced dispensationalism. Fundamentalist students also protested that the faculty condoned the use of cigarettes and alcohol. Some even grumbled that the curriculum was irrelevant to soul-winning. According to one administrator, “The image of the Seminary is Allis [professor of Old Testament] belaboring the critics, Van Til [professor of apologetics] soaring in the skies of philosophic thought, and Murray [professor of systematic theology] drilling them on the decrees of God and privately denouncing California excursionists for driving cars on the Sabbath.”

Disagreements between fundamentalist and traditionalist Presbyterians had also surfaced within the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The issue generating the most debate was the use and popularity of the Scofield Reference Bible, an edition of the King James Version first published in 1909 that included extensive notes and comments from a dispensationalist perspective. Presbyterian traditionalists like Machen and the majority of faculty at Westminster opposed the Scofield Bible because they thought its teachings undermined Calvinistic conceptions of sin and grace. Some fundamentalist Presbyterians, for example, James Oliver Buswell, president of Wheaton College, tolerated dispensationalism in the interest of solidarity while others, such as Carl McIntire, an obstreperous minister in southern New Jersey, defended the use of the Scofield Bible. Machen tried to close the widening breach by backing Buswell as moderator at the new church’s second General Assembly.

His conciliatory efforts, however, could not satisfy disgruntled fundamentalists, like McIntire, who eventually took control of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. For Machen, even though the board was established to be independent of the mainline church, its Presbyterian identity was critical. He was committed to Presbyterian theology and polity and believed that the board should only support missionaries of like mind. Fundamentalists on the board in early November 1936, contrary to Machen’s impassioned requests, succeeded in ousting Machen as president and elected a minister of a nondenominational church. Close associates and family members believed that Machen was so hurt by this action that his physical strength was seriously depleted, making him an easy prey for his fatal illness. His sister-in-law Helen Woods Machen later reported in a sworn affidavit what Machen had told her over the telephone on the night of the independent board’s elections. “They kicked me out as President, it’s the hardest blow I’ve had yet, I’m done for now…. Now everything [p. 164] is in the hands of men who haven’t the slightest notion of the issues at stake… everything I’ve worked for, loved and suffered for has been kicked out too. I feel it’s the end for me, this time they’ve finished me.” Nevertheless, in his last letter to Buswell, written only two weeks after the independent board’s elections, Machen avoided personal animus while declaring that the independent board was “at the parting of the ways between a mere fundamentalism, on the one hand, and Presbyterianism on the other.”

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The final issue that split fundamentalist and traditionalist Presbyterians concerned personal morality. In Buswell’s estimation this was the proverbial straw that would break the camel’s back. Those in the church who sided with him, Buswell wrote (in what turned out to be his last letter to Machen), were concerned about reports that Westminster students used liquor in their rooms “with the approval of some members of the faculty.” The use of alcohol, even in celebration of the sacrament, he added, was “far more likely” to divide the church than “any question of eschatology.” Buswell and other fundamentalists in the church were also “shocked” by leaders of the new denomination who defended “the products of Hollywood,” a “useless… waste of energy.” Machen never responded to Buswell but his opposition to Prohibition provides a clue to his views on alcohol. In addition to opposing the expanded powers of the federal government that the Eighteenth Amendment granted, Machen also thought the Bible allowed moderate use of alcohol. This was also the position of the majority of faculty at Westminster who came from ethnic churches where the idea of total abstinence within American evangelicalism was foreign. As for Buswell’s reference to Hollywood, Machen did enjoy going to the movies and commented favorably on Charlie Chaplin but did not make any remarks about film in his published writings.

Although Machen died before these debates were settled, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church emerged firmly in the hands of Presbyterian traditionalists. As an index of its Calvinistic identity, when it adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith as its theological standard, the denomination eliminated chapters on the love of God and missions that in 1903 had been amended by the old-line denomination. The new church considered these revisions antithetical to Calvinism. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church also decided to cancel its support for the independent board and to set up its own agency for missions. Last, the church chose not to establish any policy about consumption of alcohol or movies. Rebuffed by the traditionalists, a small group of fundamentalists in May 1937 withdrew from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church to form the Bible Presbyterian Synod.

[p. 165] This split paralleled almost exactly the division a century earlier between Old and New School Presbyterians. The Presbyterian split of 1837 had also concerned the meaning of Calvinism, cooperation with non-Presbyterians in evangelism and missions, and personal behavior. Presbyterian fundamentalists such as Buswell and McIntire were closer to the outlook of nineteenth-century New England evangelicals who minimized denominational differences in order to convert individuals and reform society. Presbyterian traditionalists, most of whom taught at Westminster and were now in control of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, paralleled the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who resisted the tide of revivalism and reform in order to preserve old-world patterns of faith and practice.

In the give-and-take of these debates the Orthodox Presbyterian Church became the institutional manifestation of the faith Machen had labored to defend. Unlike fundamentalists who stressed biblical inerrancy and dispensationalism, the new denomination adhered carefully to Presbyterian polity and the Westminster Confession. The church also shunned respectability in the broader culture, not by adhering to the mores of the fundamentalist subculture, but by insisting that the institutional church’s mission was narrowly religious, not social or moral. In further pursuit of a strict Presbyterianism, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church valued a well-educated ministry and leaned heavily upon the conservative and well-informed scholars who taught at Westminster Seminary and served on a variety of denominational committees. The preservation of Old School Presbyterianism through a Calvinist seminary and a confessional church free from the constraints of establishmentarianism Protestantism—this was Machen’s legacy and Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church clearly embodied those ideals. Although the size and influence of his church and seminary was small, Machen had managed to sustain a religious tradition that otherwise may have become extinct.

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