About J. Gresham Machen

J. Gresham Machen
J. Gresham Machen

This blogging venture is inspired by the life and thought of J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937), a Presbyterian theologian, one of the founders of Westminster Theological Seminary, and founder of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He was a powerful force for theological conservatism in the face of unfaithfulness in seminaries and churches, and an opponent of an expansive State.

Born on July 28, 1881, Machen grew up in a well-connected and moderately wealthy home in Baltimore. His father Arthur was a prominent lawyer, and his mother Minnie was the daughter of a prominent Macon, Georgia manufacturer and state senator. Raised Presbyterian, his family promoted learning. Upon his graduation from Johns Hopkins, Machen spent some time unsure of his direction in life. After another year at Johns Hopkins studying the classics, and a summer at the University of Chicago studying international law and banking, he enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary, while also taking graduate philosophy classes at nearby Princeton University. Despite his disdain for some of his seminary classes, he did well, and won a prestigious prize for his academic work. The prize came with a year of study in Europe (though he chose to use his own funds for travel rather than the seminary’s), and Machen studied in Germany for a time under Wilhelm Herrmann, who also taught Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth.

Sitting under the teaching of German liberals, Machen had a crisis of faith, but he survived the challenge to his orthodoxy and returned from Germany determined to help raise the intellectual standard of American theological training. He received an offer to teach at Princeton Seminary, which he accepted, and in 1914 he was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church (the PCUSA, the Presbyterian denomination in the northern US).

When the United States entered World War I, Machen worked just behind the front lines as a volunteer with the YMCA—the equivalent of World War II’s USO.

Alexander Hall, Princeton Seminary

After the war ended, Machen returned to Princeton, where battles of a different sort were under way. Conservative, orthodox Presbyterianism was under attack from theological liberals like Harry Emerson Fosdick. Machen began writing, publishing The Origin of Paul’s Religion in 1921 and Christianity and Liberalism in 1923. These were devastating responses to the liberals, but the liberal movement proceeded undeterred. In 1925, Machen’s What is Faith, a sequel to Christianity and Liberalism, was published. Machen was by that time clearly a leader of the conservative side in the debates over orthodoxy in Presbyterianism, and even more broadly. His work gained the attention of Christian fundamentalists, who were pleased to have someone of Machen’s intellectual caliber making powerful arguments defending the truth of the Bible. Machen himself had differences with the fundamentalists, particularly over issues like alcohol (Machen was opposed to Prohibition) and dispensationalism, but for a time they found an ally in each other against liberalism.

Liberals continued to gain ground in the Presbyterian Church and at Princeton Seminary. They managed to block Machen’s promotion to full professor in 1926, and in 1929 restructured the seminary to give liberals control over the academic program. Machen and a few other conservative faculty resigned and started Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. In a testament to Machen’s work ethic, his magnum opus came out about the same time: The Virgin Birth of Christ.

Controversy did not end with Machen’s departure from Princeton. Dismayed by the support of liberal missionaries by the PCUSA’s Board of Foreign Missions, Machen started the Independent Board of Foreign Missions in 1933 as an alternative. The Presbyterian Church declared the Independent Board unconstitutional in 1934, and in 1935 defrocked Machen. Immediately after his appeal to the General Assembly failed in 1936, Machen and other conservatives founded the “Presbyterian Church of America.” (This was renamed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1939, after a lawsuit was filed by the PCUSA.)

In late December 1936, Machen traveled to North Dakota to deal with a controversy in a local church there. He contracted pneumonia, worsened rapidly, and died on New Year’s Day, 1937.

Machen was eulogized by many, including non-Christians who disagreed with Machen on many things but respected his integrity and intellectual ability. He is buried in Baltimore, where his grave contains the phrase “Faithful unto Death,” in Greek.

Machen’s work extended beyond his ecclesiastical battles on behalf of Christian orthodoxy. He was interested in political issues, and on numerous occasions objected to the intrusion of the civil government into matters which he thought were the province of the church, the family, or the individual. As Stephen Nichols pointed out, there were “two principles governing Machen’s thought: radical individual libertarianism and a particular view of the role of both the church and the individual Christian in the public arena.” Thus, Machen opposed Prohibition, the New Deal, Social Security, the formation of the federal Department of Education, the military draft (even during World War I), teacher licensure, tariffs, and other expansions of government.

J. Gresham Machen’s place within the history of our times, and especially of the twenties and thirties, has been so conspicuous that his life will continue to be of interest so long as men reflect upon the religious and ecclesiastical developments of the first half of the twentieth century. Even writers whose viewpoints were antithetical to his own—including the caustic sceptic H. L. Mencken, the idealistic but agnostic Pearl Buck and the penetrating Unitarian Albert C. Dieffenbach—acknowledged that he towered above his contemporaries in strength of character and fidelity to principle. There were also those who could mark the deeper channel of his life such as Caspar Wistar Hodge, his colleague and friend at Princeton, who characterized him at the time of his death as “the greatest theologian in the English-speaking world” and “the greatest leader of the whole cause of evangelical Christianity.” Machen will continue to attract attention, however, not only because of his place in the history of recent decades. For by his deeds and words he set in motion spiritual forces which have not spent their strength. And if, as one observer who is to speak forth in these pages said, he was “a saint of God who loves truth, seeks truth, finds truth, and upholds truth against all adversaries, however mighty,” his witness cannot perish. As a testimony to the truth it may still serve to arouse the consciences of men of this day and may break forth with fresh intensity and power in the future.

Ned B Stonehouse, from J. Gresham Machen, A Biographical Memoir

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