Yesterday, I featured a Lutheran pastor’s gratitude to a great American Presbyterian of the 20th century, John Gresham Machen, for pointing out the errors of Modernism.

Today, we’ll look at the life of John Gresham Machen.  In subsequent days, I’ll be featuring quotes from his 1923 book, Christianity and Liberalism.

First, you’ll want to know how to pronounce this theologian’s name properly: ‘Gresham’ is ‘gres’um’ and ‘Machen’ is ‘may-chen’ (rhymes with ‘maiden’).

Early life

John Gresham Machen was born in Baltimore on July 28, 1881, to Arthur Webster Machen (an Episcopalian) and Mary Jones Gresham (a Presbyterian).  Mrs Machen undertook the religious development of her son by teaching him the Westminster Shorter Catechism in his childhood.  The family attended Franklin Street Presbyterian Church.

Mr Machen was a lawyer and, incidentally, 20 years older than his wife.  He provided well for his family, and young John was able to receive a private, classical education.  He learned Latin and Greek and received piano lessons.  He became a polymath, as his comments on art, government, philosophy and education in Christianity and Liberalism demonstrate.

In fact, Machen earned a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from Johns Hopkins University.  In 1902, he simultaneously studied for a Master’s in Philosophy there and for a degree in Theology at Princeton.  In 1905, his Theology studies took him to Germany, where the Modernism taught drove him towards a more orthodox Protestant position.

Home and away

The following year, he became an instructor of the New Testament at Princeton but did not sign a statement of faith. Machen would become the last of the great Princeton Theologians, among whom was B B Warfield, still widely cited and referred to among today’s orthodox Presbyterians.  Machen described Warfield, already well established at Princeton, as the greatest man he had ever met. Warfield emphasised doctrine and Scripture as being paramount for Christians.  It is no wonder, then, that this perspective would — rightly — appeal to Machen.

During the Great War (1914-1918), Machen was stationed in France with the YMCA.  Although he did not see active military duty, he worked as a volunteer near and at the front.  The First World War saw a number of advanced developments in warfare and weapons, among them mustard gas.  Machen was shocked to see the devastation these had wrought not only on towns and villages but on the infantry as well.  He was opposed to war as a means of settling international differences and disapproved of the Versailles Treaty as supported by family friend, President Woodrow Wilson.  Machen correctly predicted the future when he said of the treaty: ‘[W]ar will follow upon war in a wearisome progression.’

Career at Princeton

After the war, Machen resumed his post at Princeton.  Modernism, having started in the late 19th century, was now rampant throughout seminaries in Europe and North America.  Charles Porterfield Krauth had already denounced it in 1872 in American Lutheranism. Pope Pius X declared it a Catholic heresy in 1907.  Orthodox Protestants were equally concerned.  Machen was one of them.  He would become known — later, controversially, within his own denomination — as a scholar who could competently debate Modernism yet retain a sense of evangelism for the true faith.  His three books of the 1920s sealed his fate as a traditionalist: The Origin of Paul’s Religion (1921), Christianity and Liberalism (1923) and What is Faith? (1925).

It should be noted that whilst Machen held fast to orthodoxy and traditional Presbyterianism, he was not a biblical fundamentalist as we would consider it today. He was not an anti-intellectual literalist.  Nonetheless, the Modernist faction at Princeton had him in their sights.  Machen criticised minister and Princeton theologian Charles Erdman for accepting those in doctrinal error.  Erdman replied by saying that Dwight Moody, famous evangelist and founder of the Moody Bible Institute, would never have entered into such a controversy for fear of hampering winning souls for Christ.  The debate between Modernists and their orthodox opponents, whom they called ‘fundamentalists’, even though these men took highly intellectual and well considered positions on theology, escalated.

In 1929, this disagreement, which had culminated in the Modernist-inspired Auburn Affirmation, realigned the teaching of theology at Princeton. The Modernists, even whilst affirming the Westminster Confession of Faith, were actually not fostering them in their own teaching and theological outlook. Machen and other orthodox colleagues resigned to establish Westminster Theological Seminary, a noted institution today with locations in Philadelphia and London.

Socio-political positions

Those who would label Machen a fundamentalist (as we would define the term today) would no doubt infer that he was also a theocrat.  He was neither.  In fact, we might say that he was a libertarian, confounding conservatives and liberals alike.

Machen was wary of government interference in personal liberties.  We’ll see more of this in subsequent posts in an exploration of Christianity and Liberalism. However, here are two examples:

Blue Laws (these prohibit Sunday trade), about which Old Life Theological Society tells us (emphases mine):

J. Gresham Machen, then a resident of Philadelphia, wrote a letter to Gifford Pinchot, the governor of Pennsylvania and requested the retention of the Blue Laws as they were then written …

Machen argues not for the magistrate to enforce divine law, but for the advantages that come to everyone when the law protects the practices of some citizens.

Prohibition (the Volstead Act), from Chapter 9 of Crossed Fingers — How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church:

Very late in the meeting, when all but eight of the members had gone home, someone introduced a motion defending the Volstead Act (Prohibition). Machen voted against it. The moderator then did something highly irregular: he asked if Machen wanted his vote recorded. Machen told him he did not … Machen said he did not believe that “the Church in a corporate capacity, as distinguished from the activity of its members,” should go “on record to such political questions.”

The Presbyterian Church at the General Assembly had repeatedly come out against the consumption of alcohol. The Progressives and the fundamentalists had been joined together in the Great Crusade against liquor for over a decade by 1926. General Assemblies had repeatedly taken a public stand on this issue. To take a public stand against Prohibition would have separated Machen from many of the fundamentalists who made up the bulk of his lay followers … This is probably why the Moderator had singled out Machen, forcing him into a corner: to undermine Machen’s moral leadership.

His vote was easily exploited as a sign of his personal intemperance, even though he was a non-drinker, since not everyone was aware of his personal habits. Such whispered slander was made even more plausible by the fact that his brother Arthur led an anti-Prohibition society. This position was consistent with Machen’s philosophy of nonintervention of the State into a citizen’s personal affairs, something he had made quite explicit in the introduction to Christianity and Liberalism. This philosophy was not made clear by opponents who wished to discredit his actions.

D. G. Hart [of Old Life Theological Society] believes that this vote cost him the chair of apologetics at Princeton …

Final days and last words

Machen died on New Year’s Day 1937 at the age of 55.  He was never in robust physical health, yet he managed to maintain a busy work schedule and outside commitments.

His final speaking engagement was in North Dakota.  Winters in the northernmost central United States, as I can attest to, take other Northerners by surprise.  You can become very ill quite quickly with one ailment after another.  So it was with Machen.  He contracted pleurisy there in December 1936.  After Christmas, this developed into pneumonia, for which he was hospitalised.  Unfortunately, he never recovered.

His nearly-last words were in a telegram to friend and colleague John Murray:

I’m so thankful for active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.

Legacy — Orthodox Presbyterian Church

Even Machen’s opponents in the secular sphere realised what a great mind he had.  HL Mencken was one of these.  Of Machen, he wrote:

Dr. Machen himself was to [fellow Presbyterian and famous lawyer and politician, William Jennings] Bryan as the Matterhorn is to a wart.

Three years before his death, Machen became concerned about Modernists in Presbyterian missions.  He established The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions.  The Presbyterian General Assembly declared this board unconstitutional and invited Machen and his sympathisers to separate from the PCUSA.  Whilst some ministers did so, Machen and seven others refused.  The General Assembly suspended them from the ministry. This news made sensational headlines around the nation.

Consequently, Machen and a few other ordained supporters formed the Presbyterian Church of America.  The PCUSA filed a lawsuit against the new church over its name. As a result, in 1939, the fledgling church changed its name to Orthodox Presbyterian Church, described as being Reformed Evangelical.

Machen also founded a magazine called The Presbyterian Guardian, listed in my Resources.  You can read more about it here.

In the meantime, you might wish to watch this video from Reformation Audio, which explains more about Christianity and Liberalism.  It’s under five minutes long:

Tomorrow: Introducing Christianity and Liberalism