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.
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.
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).
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.
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.”
J. Gresham Machen might be (erroneously) thought of as merely an upper-crust ivory-tower academic who spent his life developing intellectual arguments, lecturing to students, and contending with his opponents in highbrow ecclesiastical circles. While his scholarly pursuits and his family money did permit a comfortable life removed from the hardships of many urban Americans, Machen worked to alleviate poverty in his own personal way. Machen and another Princetonian, Sylvester Beach, befriended and cared for a local man named Richard Hodges. As Stephen Nichols relates the story,
In Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church, Gary North discusses the problem of Princeton Seminary’s shift toward academic credentialing as opposed to the covenantal authority of the Church over seminary faculties. North points out that the “most important screening device for entrance into ministry” became academic examination, undermining ecclesiastical governance. Machen’s appointment to the seminary is an example. From chapter 10:
The extent of Princeton Seminary’s later commitment to technical scholarship above the authority of the Church is best seen in Machen’s appointment to a teaching position: instructor. He received the appointment in the fall of 1906. He was not ordained to the teaching eldership until June 23, 1914. He was elevated to assistant professor in May, 1914, to begin in the fall of that year. The faculty was self-conscious about this, as Stonehouse’s language indicates: “Acting on the background of Machen’s licensure, the Faculty of the Seminary was not slow to recommend his election as Assistant Professor of New Testament in its report to the Board of Directors at its meeting during the first week of May, 1914.”
War provides an opportunity for people to do things that they would never choose to do on their own. Though J. Gresham Machen’s service was that of a non-combatant, he was still faced with conditions that required a considerable ability to adapt to dangerous and culturally different situations. In France, Machen worshipped God as he had the opportunity in churches and special services. Surely, he would rather have been home in a Presbyterian
The October 2012 issue of New Horizons, the denominational magazine of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church devotes its issue to various articles related to the history of Presbyterianism. In addition to articles about Charles Hodge and Geerhardus Vos, there is an article entitled “Faith and Learning: the Heritage of J. Gresham Machen” by Katherine VanDrunen. VanDrunen wrote her PhD dissertation at Loyola at Chicago about Machen’s familial ancestors and draws upon that to provide a fascinating look at the education and biblical instruction Machen received from his formative years through his graduating first in his class at John Hopkins.
Barry Waugh has edited a new book of letters written by J. Gresham Machen during World War I. The book is entitled Letters from the Front: J. Gresham Machen’s Correspondence from World War I. Waugh sat down recently with Camden Bucey and Jeff Waddington at Reformed Forum’s Christ the Center for an interview devoted to his book. Together they discuss Machen’s service as a YMCA secretary in France during WWI, the content of the letters, why Machen served, and how he sought to relate to French culture. You can listen by clicking here.
“It’s an overview of J. Gresham Machen’s views on the state. He was staunchly anti-state and anti-war. Yet, as a solid Christian theologian he didn’t see how those things conflicted with his faith at all. To the contrary, he saw them as a compliment. This is a very good lecture and worth your time to listen to. If you don’t know Dr. Ritenour’s work, he’s very good. He’s a professor of economics at Grove City College, a Christian liberal arts college in Pennsylvania.”