Mention the name of Pearl Buck and countless Americans will immediately think of the award-winning book “The Good Earth.” And indeed Pearl Buck did write that famous work and many other novels which earned her both a Pulitzer prize as well as a Nobel prize for literature. But how many Americans, and even church folks, know that she was instrumental in bringing about the original Presbyterian Church of America in 1936? And yet she was.
Born in Hillsboro, West Virginia (and not, as is often reported, in the Orient), Mrs. Buck is the daughter of the late Dr. and Mrs. Sydenstricker, who were for many years two of the outstanding foreign missionaries of the Southern Presbyterian Church. A graduate of Randolph-Macon College, she had spent her childhood in China, and in 1917 she had married a missionary, Dr. J. Lossing Buck. Later, in 1935, she was to marry Richard J. Walsh, after she and Dr. Buck were divorced.
In 1932, the book “Rethinking Missions” was published. It stated that its aim was to do exactly what the title suggested, namely, to change the purpose of sending foreign missionaries to the world. Its aim was to seek the truth from the religions to which it went, rather than to present the truth of historic Christianity. There should be a common search for truth as a result of missionary ministry, was the consensus of this book. Pearl Buck agreed one hundred per cent with the results of this book. She believed that every American Christian should read it.
To her, Jesus ceased to be the divine son of God, virgin born, and conceived by the Holy Spirit. There was no original sin in her belief structure. All these truths of historic Christianity made the gospel to be a superstition, a magical religion, and should be done away with by the church, and subsequent mission boards.
Obviously, with beliefs like this, Pearl Buck became the focus of men like J. Gresham Machen, who published a 110 page book on the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. That treatment was freely presented to the congregations of the Northern Presbyterian Church. The result was that Pearl Buck was forced to resign from the China mission, though the Presbyterian Board accepted that resignation with regret.
Eventually, the situation of the China Mission was a powerful basis for forming the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions in 1933. True Bible-believing Presbyterians needed to have one board which would only send missionaries to foreign lands who believed that Jesus was the only way, truth, and life to God. Pearl Buck did not believe this biblical truth.
Pearl Buck passed into eternity on March 6, 1973.
Words to Live By: The New Testament author, Jude, writes about those who “creep in unnoticed” into the church, who “deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” As long as the church is on earth, there will be a need for Christians to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered unto the saints.” (ESV – James 3, 4)
A Closer Look—J. Gresham Machen on the Views of Pearl Buck:
Her Views On Missions
In presenting his case on the larger issue of missions in the Presbyterian Church, J. Gresham Machen drew up an Argument, in which he gave, as part of his presentation, an analysis of Mrs. Buck’s views. He wrote:
“. . . Mrs. Buck expresses the most enthusiastic agreement with the book Re-Thinking Missions, and singles out for special commendation those features of that book which are most obviously and diametrically opposed to the Bible. She says, for example:
‘I have not read merely a report. I have read a unique book, a great book. The book presents a masterly statement of religion in its place in life, and of Christianity in its place in religion. The first three chapters are the finest exposition of religion I have ever read . . .
‘I think this is the only book I have ever read which seems to me to be literally true in its every conclusion … I want every American Christian to read this book. I hope it will be translated into every language.’
Her Views On Christianity
“In the article in Harper’s Magazine,” Dr. Machen continued, “Mrs. Buck deals more generally with missions and with the nature of the Christian religion, and what she says in both articles on this subject is in thoroughgoing conflict with the historic Christian Faith. She represents the deity of Christ as a thing accepted by some and rejected by others, but certainly not essential:
‘Some of us (Christians) believe in Christ as our fathers did. To some of us he is still the divine son of God, born of the virgin Mary, conceived by the Holy Spirit. But to many of us He has ceased to be that . . . Let us face the fact that the old reasons for foreign missions are gone from the minds and hearts of many of us, certainly from those of us who are young.’
She rejoices in the stripping of ‘the magic of superstition’ from Christ, and it seems clear that in the ‘magic of superstition’ she includes the miracles of Christ and the Biblical notion of the salvation which He wrought. . . She rejects directly the Bible doctrine of sin:
‘I am not inclined to blame human beings very much. I do not believe in original sin. I believe that most of us start out wanting to do right and to do good. I believe that most of us keep that desire as long as we live and whatever we do.’
She rejects the old gospel of salvation from sin and even seems to advocate the denial of religious liberty to those who preach that gospel:
‘In the old days it was plain enough. Our forefathers ‘believed sincerely in a magic religion. They believed simply and plainly that all who did not hear the gospel, as they called it, were damned, and every soul to whom they preached received in that moment the chance for salvation from that hell. Though heard but for a single moment, the preacher gave that soul the opportunity of a choice for eternity. If the soul paid no heed or did not believe, the preacher could not take the responsibility. He was absolved. There are those who still believe this, and if they sincerely believe, I honor that sincerity, though I cannot share the belief. I agree with the Chinese who feel their people should be protected from such superstition.’
Needless to say, Mrs. Buck agrees fully with Re-Thinking Missions in belittling preaching over against what she regards—quite falsely—as living the Christian life:
‘Above all, then, let the spirit of Christ be manifested by mode of life rather than by preaching. I am wearied unto death with this preaching. It deadens all thought, confuses all issues, it is producing in China at least, a horde of hypocrites, and in the theological seminaries a body of Chinese ministers which makes one despair for the future, because they are learning to preach about Christianity rather than how to live the Christian life.’
It is needless to say, further, that this estimate of preaching is entirely contrary to that which is taught in the Word of God.
“One thing is certainly to be said for Mrs. Buck. She is admirably clear. Her utterances are as plain as the utterances of our Board of Foreign Missions are muddled. There is nothing vague or undecided about them. She has let it be known exactly where she stands. She is opposed to the old gospel and is not afraid to say so in the presence of all the world . . .
Her Views about Missions
“Mrs. Buck’s views about missions have obviously not been formed overnight. She herself intimates very plainly that the book Re-Thinking Missions only expresses views which she has already held. Yet she has been allowed to continue in the foreign field by a Board which is charged with the sacred duty of seeing that its mission work is in accordance with the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church and with the Word of God. Could she have done so if the Board had not been grossly neglectful of its duty?
“Moreover, there is not the slightest likelihood that Mrs. Buck stands alone in her destructive views. Her distinguished talents have merely allowed those views to become widely audible in her case. It is altogether probably that there are many like her among the missionaries under our Board. Rev. John Clover Monsma (in his booklet, The Foreign Missionary Situation in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., February, 1933 . . . ) is quite justified in saying:
Today the Board is not in a position to guarantee our church members that there are not scores upon scores of other ‘Mrs. Bucks’ in the field, at different stages of apostacy and doctrinal revolution’.”
As a result of the pressure which Dr. Machen and other Bible-believing Christians had built up, Mrs. Buck handed in her resignation as a missionary to the Board of Foreign Missions. And she insisted that the Board accept it when the Board seemed reluctant to do so. It is highly provable that, except for the great publicity given to her unsound views by Dr. Machen, Mrs. Buck could have continued to serve indefinitely as a foreign missionary of the Northern Presbyterian Church had she so desired.
When the Board of Foreign Missions finally accepted her resignation, it announced that it did so “with regrets!”