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John Gresham Machen

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John Gresham Machen

John Gresham Machen
Born (1881-07-28)July 28, 1881
Baltimore, Maryland
Died January 1, 1937(1937-01-01) (aged 55)
Bismarck, North Dakota
Occupation Theologian and church leader
Religion Orthodox Presbyterian

John Gresham Machen (; July 28, 1881 – January 1, 1937) was an American Princeton theologians who had, since the formation of the college in the early 19th century, developed Princeton theology: a conservative and Calvinist form of Evangelical Christianity. Although Machen can be compared to the great Princeton theologians (Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, and B. B. Warfield), he was neither a lecturer in theology (he was a New Testament scholar) nor did he ever become the seminary's principal.

Machen's influence can still be felt today through the existence of the institutions that he founded—Westminster Theological Seminary, The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. In addition, his textbook on basic New Testament Greek is still used today in many seminaries, including PCUSA schools.

Asked how to say his name, he told The Literary Digest, "The first syllable is pronounced like May, the name of the month. In the second syllable the ch is as in chin, with e as in pen: may'chen. In Gresham, the h is silent: gres'am."[1]


  • Early life 1
  • Early Adulthood 2
    • American Student Life 2.1
    • Encountering German Liberalism 2.2
  • Pre War Period 3
    • Princeton 1906-1916 3.1
    • World War One 3.2
  • Post War Period 4
    • Controversies 4.1
    • Westminster Theological Seminary 4.2
    • The Orthodox Presbyterian Church 4.3
    • Religion and politics 4.4
  • Death 5
  • Works 6
  • Bibliography 7
  • Notes 8
  • External links 9

Early life

Machen was born in Baltimore to Arthur Webster Machen and Mary Jones Gresham. Arthur, a Baltimore lawyer, was 45 and Mary was 24 when they married. While Arthur was an Episcopalian, Mary was a Presbyterian, and taught her son The Westminster Shorter Catechism from an early age. The family attended Franklin Street Presbyterian Church.

Machen's upbringing was considered to be privileged. He attended a private college and received a classical education including Latin and Greek. He was also taught the piano.

Early Adulthood

American Student Life

In 1898, the 17-year-old Machen began studying at Johns Hopkins University for his undergraduate degree, and performed sufficiently well to gain a scholarship. He majored in classics and was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity. Machen was a brilliant scholar and in 1901 was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society after graduation.

Despite having some indecisiveness about his future, in 1902 Machen opted to study theology at Princeton Seminary, while simultaneously studying a Master of Arts in Philosophy at Princeton University.

Encountering German Liberalism

He also pursued theological studies in Germany for a year in 1905. In a letter to his father, he admitted being thrown into confusion about his faith because of the liberalism taught by Professor Wilhelm Herrmann. Although he had an enormous respect for Herrmann, his time in Germany and his engagement with Modernist theologians led him to reject the movement and embrace conservative Reformed theology more firmly than before.

Pre War Period

Princeton 1906-1916

In 1906, Machen joined Princeton Seminary as an instructor in New Testament after assurances he would not have to sign a statement of faith. Among his Princeton influences were Francis Landey Patton, who had been the prosecutor in a nineteenth-century heresy trial, and B. B. Warfield, whom he described as the greatest man he had ever met. Warfield maintained that correct doctrine was the primary means by which Christians influenced the surrounding culture and he emphasised a high view of scripture and the defence of supernaturalism. It appears that under their influence Machen resolved his crisis of faith. In 1914, he was ordained and the next year he became the Assistant Professor of New Testament.

World War One

Machen did not serve "conventionally" during World War I, but instead went to France with the YMCA to do volunteer work near and at the front - a task he continued with for some time after the war. Though not a combatant, he witnessed first-hand the devastations of modern warfare. Suspicious of his family friend Woodrow Wilson's project of spreading democracy and of imperialism, he was staunchly opposed to the war, and upon returning to the U.S., he saw that many of the provisions of, "the Treaty of Versailles constituted an attack upon international and interracial peace....[W]ar will follow upon war in a wearisome progression."[2]

Post War Period

Princeton 1918-1926

After returning from Europe, Machen continued his work as a New Testament scholar at Princeton. During this period he gained a reputation as one of the few true scholars who was able to debate the growing prevalence of Modernist theology whilst maintaining an evangelical stance. The Origin of Paul's Religion (1921) is perhaps Machen's best known scholarly work. This book was a successful attempt at critiquing the Modernist belief that Paul's religion was based mainly upon Greek philosophy and was entirely different from the religion of Jesus. Christianity and Liberalism (1923) is another of Machen's books that critiqued theological modernism. The book compared conservative and Protestant Christianity to the rising popularity of Modernist (or "Liberal") theology. He concluded that "the chief modern rival of Christianity is Liberalism". In What is Faith? (1925) he set before him the pastoral task of anchoring faith in the historical fact of Christ's atonement. He found liberal theology anti-intellectual, insofar as it spiritualized Christianity and treated it as merely an expression of individual experience, thus emptying the Bible and creeds of all definitive meaning. These books, along with a number of others, placed Machen firmly in one theological camp within the Presbyterian Church. His work throughout the 1920s was divided between his time at Princeton and his political work with evangelical Presbyterians. Despite his conservative theological beliefs, Machen was never able to fully embrace popularist fundamentalism either. His refusal to accept premillennialism and other aspects of Fundamentalist belief was based upon his belief that Reformed Theology was the most biblical form of Christian belief - a theology that was generally missing from Fundamentalism at the time. Moreover, Machen's scholarly work and ability to engage with modernist theology was at odds with Fundamentalism's anti-intellectual attitude.


Between 1924 and 1925, relations among the Princeton faculty deteriorated when The Presbyterian questioned if there were two different parties on the faculty. In response Machen remarked that his differences with Charles Erdman related to the importance they attributed to doctrine. He noted that Erdman was tolerant of those in doctrinal error. Erdman wrote privately ‘he (Dwight L. Moody) knew that controversialists do not usually win followers for Christ.’

Westminster Theological Seminary

The 1929 General Assembly voted to reorganise Princeton Seminary and appointed two of the Auburn Affirmation signatories as trustees. The Auburn Affirmation was a response by liberals[3] within the Northern Presbyterian Church that condemned the General Assembly's response to the controversy arising out of Harry Emerson Fosdick's May 1922 sermon "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?". Machen and some colleagues withdrew and set up Westminster Theological Seminary to continue reformed orthodox theology.

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church

In 1933, Machen, concerned about liberalism tolerated by Presbyterians on the mission field, formed The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. The next Presbyterian General Assembly reaffirmed that Independent Board was unconstitutional and gave the associated clergy an ultimatum to break their links. When Machen and seven other clergy refused, they were suspended from the Presbyterian ministry. The controversy divided Machen from many of his fundamentalist friends including Clarence Macartney who dropped away at the prospect of schism. Ultimately, Machen withdrew from the Northern Presbyterian Church and formed what later came to be known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

In his book The Great Evangelical Disaster, Francis Schaeffer details the theological shift in American Christianity from conservatism to liberalism. In that discussion, Schaeffer describes how Machen's "defrocking" rightly became front page news in the secular media of the country. Schaeffer concludes: "A good case could be made that the news about Machen was the most significant U.S. news in the first half of the twentieth century. It was the culmination of a long trend toward liberalism within the Presbyterian Church and represented the same trend in most other denominations" (p 35).

Religion and politics

Machen was suspicious of mixing religion and politics. He found attempts to establish a Christian culture by political means insensitive to minorities.[4] He was even more concerned about the corrupting influence of politics on Christianity and saw the social gospel as a terrible warning. He opposed school prayer and Bible reading in public school. This position, however, implied that Christians should run their own schools.[5]

Historian libertarian. He opposed almost any extension of state power and took stands on a variety of issues. Like most libertarians, his stances violated usual categories of liberal or conservative.”[6] He opposed the establishment of a federal Department of Education, suggesting before a joint Congressional committee that government control of the children was the ultimate sacrifice of freedom.[7] He was not against locally operated public schools per se, but feared the influence of materialist ideology and opposition to higher human aspirations.[8] He also opposed Prohibition - a costly stance in an age when abstinence was almost a creed among Protestants.[6]


Much to the sadness of those who had been involved in the movements that he had led, Machen died in 1937 at the age of 55. Some commentators (notably Ned Stonehouse) point out that Machen's "constitution" was not always strong, and that he was constantly "burdened" with his responsibilities at the time.

Machen had decided to honor some speaking engagements he had in North Dakota in December, 1936, but developed pleurisy in the exceptionally cold weather there. After Christmas, he was hospitalized for pneumonia and died on January 1, 1937. Just before his death, he dictated a telegram to long-time friend and colleague John Murray—the content of that telegram reflected deeply his lifelong faith: "I’m so thankful for active obedience of Christ. No hope without it."[9] He is buried in Greenmount Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland. The stone covering his grave bears, very simply, his name, degree, dates, and the phrase "Faithful Unto Death," in Greek.

The Baltimore-born journalist, H. L. Mencken, wrote an editorial on Machen in December 1931[10] and later contributed an obituary entitled "Dr. Fundamentalis" which was published in the Baltimore Evening Sun on January 18, 1937. While disagreeing with Machen's theology, Mencken nevertheless articulated a great respect and admiration for his intellectual ability. He noted that Machen "fell out with the reformers who have been trying, in late years, to convert the Presbyterian Church into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works," and that "though he lost in the end and was forced out of Princeton, it must be manifest that he marched off to Philadelphia with all the honors of war." Mencken also compared Machen to William Jennings Bryan, another well-known Presbyterian, with the statement, "Dr. Machen himself was to Bryan as the Matterhorn is to a wart."[11]


In addition to those mentioned in the main article, Machen's works include:

  • "The Origin of Paul's Religion" (1921) online
  • Christianity and Liberalism (1923) ISBN 0-8028-1121-3
  • What is faith? (1925)
  • New Testament Greek for Beginners (3rd printing was 1925)
  • The virgin birth of Christ (1930)
  • The Christian faith in the modern world (1936)
  • The Christian view of man (1937)
  • God transcendent (1949) edited by Ned B. Stonehouse from Machen's sermons, ISBN 0-85151-355-7.
  • What is Christianity? and other addresses (1951) edited by Ned B. Stonehouse
  • The New Testament : an introduction to its literature and history (1976) edited by W. John Cook from two sets of Machen's course materials, ISBN 0-85151-240-2.


  • Coray, Henry W. (1981). J. Gresham Machen: A Silhouette. Grand Rapids 1981, Kregel Publications. ISBN 0-8254-2327-9.
  • Gatiss, L (2008). Christianity and the Tolerance of Liberalism: J.Gresham Machen and the Presbyterian Controversy of 1922-1937. London, Latimer Trust ISBN 978-0-946307-63-0
  • Hart, D. G. (2003). Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America. P & R Publishing. ISBN 0-87552-563-6
  • Machen, J. Gresham (1923). Christianity and Liberalism. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. ISBN 0-8028-1121-3
  • Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism p. 182-201. Grand Rapids 1991, Eerdmans. ISBN 0-8028-0539-6.
  • Noll, M. A. (1988). "John Gresham Machen". In S. B. Ferguson, D. F. Wright, and J. I. Packer (Eds.), The New Dictionary of Theology. Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester. ISBN 0-8308-1400-0
  • Stonehouse, Ned B. (1987). J. Gresham Machen - A Biographical Memoir (3rd ed.). Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh. ISBN 0-85151-501-0. (Republished by the Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. ISBN 0-934688-97-4.)


  1. ^ Charles Earle Funk: What's the Name, Please?, Funk & Wagnalls, 1936.
  2. ^ Douglas M. Jones III: J. Gresham Machen Was Right About the Gulf Crisis ANTITHESIS January/February 1991 - Volume 2, Number 1.
  3. ^ The Auburn Heresy at
  4. ^ J. Gresham Machen: Christianity & Liberalism p. 149, 151. New York 1923, MacMillan.
  5. ^ J. Gresham Machen: "The Necessity of the Christian School," in What Is Christianity? And Other Essays by J. Gresham Machen, ed. by Ned B. Stonehouse. Grand Rapids, Mich. 1951
  6. ^ a b George M. Marsden: Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism p. 196. Grand Rapids 1991, Eerdmans.
  7. ^ Testimony before the House & Senate Committees on the Proposed Department of Education February 25, 1926.
  8. ^ J. Gresham Machen: Christianity & Liberalism pp. 13f. New York 1923, MacMillan.
  9. ^ J. Gresham Machen's Response to Modernism at
  10. ^ H.L. Mencken, “The Impregnable Rock,” American Mercury, v. 24, no. 96 (December 1931) 411-412.
  11. ^ H. L. Mencken, "Dr. Fundamentalis", an obituary of Rev. J. Gresham Machen, Baltimore Evening Sun (January 18, 1937), 2nd Section, p. 15.

External links

  • Works by John Gresham Machen at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about John Gresham Machen at Internet Archive
  • The Origin of Paul's Religion by Machen
  • Christianity and Liberalism by Machen
  • Christianity and Culture an essay by Machen. Princeton Theological Review. Vol. 11, 1913.
  • A Brief Bible History: A Survey of the Old and New Testaments by Machen and James Boyd
  • On the Deity of Christ by Machen
  • A Short History of the Life of J. G. Machen by Professor Craig S. Hawkins
  • Christianity, Liberalism, and the New Evangelicalism by Carl Trueman
  • J. Gresham Machen Sean Richardson's links to articles by Machen on various sites.
  • Machen's Warrior Children by John M. Frame
  • The Machen trial by an unidentified newspaper of the time.
  • John Gresham Machen's Gravesite
  • J. Gresham Machen: A Forgotten Libertarian| The Foundation for Economic Education: The Freeman, Ideas on Liberty at J. Gresham Machen: A Forgotten Libertarian]
  • Machen and the OPC at Machen and the OPC
  • History & Faith
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