During World War I, J. Gresham Machen worked with the YMCA behind the lines in France. From the conclusion of Letters from the Front: J. Gresham Machen’s Correspondence from World War I, ed. Barry Waugh (2012), we have the following paragraph on the influence World War I had on Machen.
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
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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.
Two Reasons for the Christian School
J. Gresham Machen
The Christian school is to be favored for two reasons. In the first place, it is important for American liberty; in the second place, it is important for the propagation of the Christian religion. These two reasons are not equally important; indeed, the latter includes the former as it includes every other legitimate human interest. But I want to speak of these two reasons in turn.
In the first place, then, the Christian school is important for the maintenance of American liberty.
We are witnessing in our day a world-wide attack upon the fundamental principles of civil and religious freedom. In some countries, such as Italy, the attack has been blatant and unashamed; Mussolini despises democracy and does not mind saying so. A similar despotism now prevails in Germany; and in Russia freedom is being crushed out by what is perhaps the most complete and systematic tyranny that the world has ever seen.
But exactly the same tendency that is manifested in extreme form in those countries, is also being manifested, more slowly but none the less surely, in America. It has been given an enormous impetus first by the war and now by the economic depression; but aside from these external stimuli it had its roots in a fundamental deterioration of the American people. Gradually the people has come to value principle less and creature comfort more; increasingly it has come to prefer prosperity to freedom; and even in the field of prosperity it cannot be said that the effect is satisfactory.
The result of this decadence in the American people is seen in the rapid growth of a centralized bureaucracy which is the thing against which the Constitution of the United States was most clearly intended to guard.
This is an excerpt from “The Necessity of the Christian School” by Machen (1933).
I ran across a post at the Southern Bread blog from October 2010 referencing an audio recording of an old (1996) talk by Shawn Ritenour at the Ludwig von Mises Institute “brown bag” seminars they ran when I was in graduate school with Shawn. The blogger writes,
“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.”
Ritenour – J. G. Machen: Calvinist, Revolutionary, Hero (mp3)
Shawn Ritenour is author of Foundations of Economics: A Christian View. Two other posts by Dr. Ritenour on this blog:
“Machen: A Forgotten Libertarian”
“Christianity versus the Soul-Killing Collectivism of the Modern State”
As we approach the day formerly known as “Armistice Day,” a little note about Machen’s views of World War I seems appropriate. As World War I began, Machen had deep misgivings about American intervention on the side of the British. It appears he was far from a “hawk” on foreign policy.
In contrast to the optimistic progressives, professor J. Gresham Machen at Princeton Theological Seminary expressed a more measured view of events in Europe. Like so many of his theological opponents, he had studied abroad in Germany. Yet for some reason Machen’s fondness and sympathy for Germany seemed more durable than that of his liberal colleagues, an attitude all the more striking given his contempt for modernist German theology. In a letter to his mother dated six weeks after the opening of the war, he called Britain’s alliance with Russia and Japan “an unholy thing” that had been fashioned for the sole purpose of subduing Germany, Britain’s “progressive commercial rival.” The idea that this was to be a war for democracy he found manifestly absurd. … Responsibility for the war rested with Britain’s drive for imperial supremacy, he argued, an ambition that deprived Germany of “a place in ocean trade” and actually prevented international peace. This was not a war of ideals, but rather a war of economic competition.
While Hillis [Dwight Hillis was a minister promoting war with Germany] was beating the drum for intervention, other clergy lamented the prospect of war. J. Gresham Machen had never claimed to be an idealist or a pacifist, and over the past two years had spoken against American subservience to British policy. In 1915 he advocated genuine international pluralism over the British ambition to impose the “English mind” around the world. In 1916, he mourned America’s submission to British foreign policy, lamenting that “the spirit of ‘76 seems to be dead at last.” And now on the eve of intervention, he warned privately that the United States was heading toward bondage and statism, that is, toward “a permanent alliance with Great Britain, which will inevitably mean a continuance of the present vassalage, and a permanent policy of compulsory military service with all the brutal interference of the state in individual and family life which that entails, and which has caused the misery of Germany and France. Princeton is a hot-bed of patriotic enthusiasm and military ardor, — which makes me feel like a man without a country.”
Quotations from The War for Righteousness by Richard M. Gamble, pp. 96-97, 147, ISI Books