Today’s story from Christian history

28 July 1881 • J. Gresham Machen Battles Liberalism

A defender of the faith was born in Baltimore, Maryland on this day, 28 July 1881. John Gresham Machen’s father was a well-to-do lawyer. His mother was well-connected. Later he would inherit money from both sides of his family, freeing him to pursue studies in the United States and in Germany.

J. Gresham Machen
J. Gresham Machen

Machen’s mother, Mary “Minnie” Jones Gresham, was highly literate. In 1903, she published The Bible in Browning. A Presbyterian, she taught her son the Westminster Shorter Catechism at an early age. He would later say that at twelve he had a better understanding of Scripture than many students entering seminary. Evidently Minnie’s religious views dominated the home, for although Machen’s father was Episcopalian, the family attended the Franklin Street Presbyterian Church. These influences remained with Machen all his life.

At seventeen, Machen entered John’s Hopkins University and took scholarships and was invited into honors societies. After some debate with himself, he decided to become a theologian, entering Princeton in 1902. He also studied in Germany for a year (1905). Germany was the world center of theological innovation. Under the influence of a charismatic teacher, he almost succumbed to liberalism, but once he had worked through the issues, he attached himself to conservative Reformed theology. He would later remark, “Christ keeps a firmer hold on us than we keep on him.”

In 1914, he was ordained. Convinced that the Bible is true and that Christ lives today, he became a champion of traditional Calvinism and an ally of fundamentalists—those who hold to “fundamental” Bible truths.

Modernists doubt that Christ literally rose from the dead, scoff at the Virgin Birth, and express skepticism at the miracles recorded in the Bible. They dispute the Bible’s divine inspiration. Some claim Paul invented a different religion than Jesus taught. J. Gresham defended the truths that the liberals attacked. He declared that liberal Christianity is a different religion from scriptural Christianity. With his training and insight, he was able to write highly respected works in defense of the faith.

Eventually Machen left Princeton and founded Westminster Seminary to reclaim truths that he saw being thrown away. Alarmed that some Presbyterians (such as nobel prize winner Pearl S. Buck) were watering down the Christian faith in foreign countries, he helped found the Independent Board for Presbyterian Missions. The Presbyterian church suspended him from the ministry, claiming he had created schism. Undeterred, he joined in founding the Presbyterian Church of America, later known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

These initiatives demanded an immense amount of time from him and overwork may have contributed to his early death. He was just fifty-five when he died in 1936, having traveled and preached up to the day before his death. Among those deeply influenced by Machen was Francis Schaeffer.

References:

  1. Kemeny, P.C. “Machen, John Gresham,” in Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, edited by Timothy Larsen, et al. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003.
  2. Machen, J. Gresham. Christianity and Liberalism. 1923.
  3. ———- “Liberalism or Christianity.” Princeton Theological Review, 20 (1922) 93.
  4. ———- The Virgin Birth of Christ. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1930.
  5. Piper, John. “J. Gresham Machen’s Response to Modernism.” http://www.desiringgod.org/library/ biographies/93machen.html
  6. Russell, C. Allyn. Voices of American Fundamentalism. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976.