In 1926, J. Gresham Machen received nomination to the chair of apologetics and ethics from the Board of Directors at the Princeton Theological Seminary. In the normal course of things, this nomination would have been routinely approved by the General Assembly as it met later that same year. Machen, however, had previously opposed in 1920 the Philadelphia Plan for merging nineteen Presbyterian denominations into a single federated body. He had published two books, The Origin of Paul’s Religion (1920) and Christianity and Liberalism (1923), both of which presented strong arguments against modernism and unbelief. In short, Machen had become a very public voice raised against modernism, and so he had enemies. A campaign of opposition was raised against his nomination and the matter remained unresolved up until the reorganization of Princeton Seminary and the departure of Dr. Machen and other faithful professors.
Today’s post is especially interesting for two reasons. First, it is, I think, the earliest example in print of someone describing J. Gresham Machen in terms of Bunyan’s famous character from Pilgrim’s Progress, Mr. Valiant-for-Truth. Ned Stonehouse, in his Biographical Memoir of J. Gresham Machen, popularized this description, but apparently Rev. Lipscomb was perhaps the first to draw the association. Second, the manner in which Machen is described by comparison with other outstanding men of his era provides some unique insights into his character, though our modern ignorance of the men referenced saps the full force of the comparisons.
An Appreciation of Dr. J. Gresham Machen
By Rev. T.H. Lipscomb, of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South
[excerpted from THE PRESBYTERIAN 96.36 (9 September 1926): 9, 18.]
After five days of listening to sermons and addresses by Dr. J. Gresham Machen, we heartily endorse the statement in THE PRESBYTERIAN of June 10, that he is unsurpassed in his ability to impart knowledge to others, and that he is or should be one of the chief glories not only of Princeton Theological Seminary, but of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.
Dr. Machen has been lecturing before a Methodist “Seashore Divinity School” at Biloxi, Mississippi, on “What is Christianity?” and preaching twice on Sabbath also. We had expected to find him a thorough scholar and a thorough Christian, with what super-additions of genius and grace we know not. To our delight and unceasing joy we find him endowed with an intellectual clarity and felicity of expression which causes to flow forth into the minds of even unlearned hearers a sparkling stream of pure truth, quickening and convincing out of a mass of detailed knowledge from which most scholars bring forth only negations or inconclusive theories. His mental idiosyncrasy in this regard is quite marked—hitting the nail on the head, causing the sparks to fly ; and in the light of vindicated truth driving error from the field. We recall, as we think of him, Bunyan’s Mr. Valiant for Truth, and we would that the ten thousand silver trumpets might sound to do him honor—they will some day if not now, as he, too, crosses over into the Celestial City. Then woe to those who have said, “Let not such light of truth which also refutes and condemns error shine among us. We must be tolerant and considerate of error nowadays.” A graduate of a Northern theological seminary myself (Drew ’03), and having heard many of the ablest scholars of Europe and America, we affirm frankly and sincerely that we now of no man in any church so eminently qualified to fill a chair of “Apologetics and Christian Ethics,” provided you want that chair filled, the Christian faith really defended and Christian ethics elucidated and lived. For, let me add that Dr. Machen is an humble saint, as well as a rare scholar, not a “saint of the world,” who stands for nothing and against nothing, but a saint of God who loves truth, seeks truth, finds truth, and upholds truth against all adversaries, however mightily ; in this respect like Paul, Peter and John, and following our Lord Jesus Christ, who “to this end was born” “to bear witness to the truth.” You rightly say in an editorial, “The toleration of error within the churches means the persecution of truth.”
But we have seen Dr. Machen in social life, sharing with him the hospitality of a Southern home ; we have been with him on a pleasure trip to Ship Island, and we must confess that we have silently looked for those terrible “tempermental idiosyncrasies” which the General Assembly branded him with as questioning his fitness for a chair in the seminary which he has served for twenty years, and which his name to-day and the name of R.D. Wilson now make illustrious among believers the world around. We say frankly the “tempermental idiosyncrasies” do not exist in any other sense or degree than they exist in every man. We have had two other prominent believers at Biloxi : one a Southern Methodist Bishop of renown, the other the dean of one of our theological seminaries. They each have “idiosyncrasies” in speech, in gesture, in manner, in personality fully as pronounced as any that Dr. Machen may possess. Dr. Machen has something of the crisp, almost snappy vocalization of S. Parkes Cadman ; he has something of the serious dignity of Marcus Dods ; he has at times, when a truth is shining radiantly in his mind and he is sending it home, something of the fire of Olin A. Curtis. He has something of the spiritual elevation of W.L. Watkinson. We scarcely think it defensible, however, to say that unique qualities of personality disqualify a man for a position. There have been German theologians of highest renown, so eccentric as to go to a class room in a night gown, or stand on a corner reading while car after car passed, until the students came, found their professor, and took him to his desk. The story is told of a prominent American Church historian that in arranging passage for Europe he forgot to include one of his own children and hurried back to the city to correct his mistake. Yet for over twenty years he has continued in a professorship for which he is eminently qualified. We have not heard that Dr. Machen has been accused of such eccentricities.
Dr. Machen we have found to be indeed, meeting him for the first time, a genial, cultured, Christian gentleman ; modest and almost diffident by nature, and quite considerate of his opponent in all the obligations of Christian courtesy and fairness. In social conversation he is quite free and at perfect ease. I saw him sit for an hour on shipboard, surrounded by young ministers, answering kindly and well a running fire of questions to the satisfaction of all.
We cannot understand the action of your General Assembly. If it ultimately “repudiates” J. Gresham Machen, we can only interpret the shout in the camp of the Modernists already heard as the shout of the Philistines, in anticipation of the defeat of the armies of the living God. What are orthodox words when deed belie them?
West Point, Mississippi.