January 1: Death of J. Gresham Machen (1937)

machen02Many have wondered if J. Gresham Machen couldn’t have taken better care of himself and remained on the scene to further help the struggling conservative Presbyterian movement along in its early days.

Those who know the story of J. Gresham Machen know that he died of pneumonia while on a speaking tour in North Dakota. But did you know he had been sick for most of the prior month of December? It must have been his strong sense of duty or the urgency of the times that drove him to honor that scheduled engagement on the wintry Dakota plains.

For several years Dr. Machen had been speaking on the radio in Philadelphia, as part of a short devotional program. On December 13, 1936, Dr. Allan A. MacRae, a young faculty member at Westminster Seminary, wrote to Dr. Machen:

. . . As I heard your splendid message on the radio this afternoon, and noted the very evident severe cold which is troubling you, I felt especially regretful about disturbing you at this time. Nevertheless I felt that it was necessary that I ask your advice about a certain matter…

Then, a few short weeks later, after Dr. Machen had died, Dr. MacRae wrote to Dr. Oswald T. Allis, another Westminster professor:

When I wrote you a few days ago I had no idea that Dr. Machen’s illness was at all serious. Friday night at midnight Paul Woolley phoned to tell me that he had died. It was a terrible shock to all of us. Paul said that he sent you a cable.
Dr. Machen had been troubled with a cold for the last three or four weeks. He was always quite susceptible to colds so we were not especially concerned about it. Over Christmas it was very warm here. When he left for North Dakota one hardly needed an overcoat in Philadelphia. Out there it was four above zero–a very severe change. He spoke at Bismark Tuesday evening. Sam Allen was with him. After the meeting he mentioned that he was suffering severe pain. His temperature was found to be 102 degrees. He went right to the hospital and it was diagnosed as pleurisy. The next day it turned out to be pneumonia. Sam Allen stayed with him all the time, except for the interval when he went to his own Church to conduct prayer meeting Wednesday evening. I have not yet talked with anyone who was there. All we know is from the newspapers, and from the conversations that Paul has had over long distance phone lines. I gather that he was conscious most of the time, and under an oxygen tent for almost three days. Friday evening at 7:30 he breathed his last.

Words to Live By :
Resolve to take better care of yourself this year. Our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made by the God of all creation, and illnesses don’t often spring up without some prior warning symptoms. No Christian will die a moment before the Lord intends, but proper treatment of physical maladies, administered early, will often spare greater problems in this life.

For further study:
To view the ruins of the OPC church in Leith, North Dakota, where Dr. Machen delivered his last messages, click here. [2nd and 3rd photos on this page]

The J. Gresham Machen Manuscript Collection is preserved at the Montgomery Library on the campus of Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. Separately, the staff of the PCA Historical Center have gathered a modest collection of Machen-related materials, a list of which may be viewed here.

Note: Our Through the Scriptures and Through the Standards section will now be replaced by the RSS feed which appears in the column on the right hand side of the page.

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  1. Darrell Todd Maurina’s avatar

    This town has shown up again in the news, this time in a horrible way. A group of white supremacists is buying up property trying to turn Leith, N.D., into “an enclave where residents fly ‘racialist’ banners, where they are able to import enough ‘responsible hard core’ white nationalists to take control of the town government, where ‘leftist journalists or antis’ who ‘come and try to make trouble’ will face arrest.”

    New Neighbor’s Agenda: White Power Takeover

    If a tiny group of white supremacists can attract not just regional but national media attention for their plan to buy property and start a white-power enclave, surely somebody in the OPC or PCA has enough money to buy the last church where OPC founder J. Gresham Machen preached, disassemble it, and move it someplace where the building will be valued and used, perhaps as a college or seminary chapel, or as a museum, or maybe as a building for a congregation which needs a building and would otherwise have to construct or buy one.

    Older buildings were typically built to last, and when made out of wood they can typically be disassembled and rebuilt, and the cost for disassembling and rebuilding may be much less than new construction. It would be really nice to see this building put to use again for conservative Reformed church purposes rather than to have it in a haven of “white power” views which Machen never would have supported.

  2. Web Developer’s avatar

    I live close by Leith and develop and maintain several websites in North Dakota and on the west coast. Leith, North Dakota now has a website that you should visit for their support. The National Socialist Movement organization will be in Leith this Sunday September 22. Also as a photographer I will be posting many photos on the Leith website. Thank you for you comments.


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