April 20: Machen’s Love of the Alps

To Stand Before the Majesty and Power of Our Omnipotent Lord

Several years ago we found some letters among the Papers of Allan A. MacRae that shed further light on J. Gresham Machen’s love of mountain climbing and especially his love of the Alps. Machen was able to visit and climb in the Alps several times, with his last visit being in the summer of 1935.  A letter from Machen to MacRae details that trip and shares something of their mutual love of mountain climbing. In 1933, Machen had prepared a talk on mountain climbing and this address has been reprinted several times. We even found a letter that MacRae wrote to his mother, recounting a social gathering where Machen gave a trial run of his newly prepared address.4164 Blick v. d. Wellenkuppe g. Matterhorn 4505 m. und Dent d'He

All of the above is detailed online at at the PCA Historical Center’s web site.

But with all that information, even in Machen’s own Mountains and Why We Love Them, I don’t think I’ve seen anything that comes closer to giving some glimpse of explanation—that provides in short compass what must surely strike to the heart of Machen’s love of the Alps—than this brief, eloquent paragraph by George Stillman Hillard, from his Six Months in Italy (Boston: Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, 4th edition, 1854):

The pen and pencil may attempt, and not unsuccessfully, to represent the soft gradations of the beautiful or the abrupt contrasts of the picturesque, but they are alike powerless and paralyzed before the awful grandeur of the Alpine Heights, where there is neither life nor motion; where a stern, unsmiling sublimity has moulded every form, and stamped upon the scene the frown of a perpetual winter. There is nothing in the ordinary aspect of nature that prepares us for what we see when we have entered the region of perpetual snow. Here is no hum of insects, no rustle of foliage, no pulse of vitality. There is no provision for animal life in the pitiless granite, ice, and snow, that make up the landscape. The solitary eagle, whose slow circling form is painted on the dark sky above, seems but a momentary presence, like ourselves, and not a part of the scene. Nature is no longer a bounteous and beneficent mother, but a stern and awful power, before which we bow and tremble; and the earth ceases to be man’s farm and garden, and becomes only a part of the solar system.” 

[excerpted from The Presbyterian Magazine 9.4 (April 1859): 190.]

Perhaps more than anything else I have ever seen, Hillard’s description provides some hint as to why Machen so loved the Alps–in short, all else was removed, so far as possible, and he stood simply before the majesty and power of an omnipotent God.


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