Machen Wasn’t Nice: Darryl Hart on the Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of Machen’s Warrior Children

Darryl Hart’s latest interview on Christ the Center is available now. He’s discussing his chapter in Always Reformed, “Make War No More? The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of J. Gresham Machen’s Warrior Children.” Don’t miss it. If you like this interview you’ll love his Office Hours session from this fall.

John Muether reminds us that on January 7, 1937, there was a significant disruption at old Westminster Seminary (HT: WD). John writes:

At a special meeting of the Board of Trustees of Westminster Theological Seminary on January 7, 1936, thirteen of its 28 members submitted their resignations.

Included among the departing Board members were Samuel Craig, editor of Christianity Today, and Clarence Macartney, the prominent pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. At the same time O.T. Allis also resigned from the faculty of the Seminary. At the heart of the dispute that led to the resignations were the formation of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions in 1933 and the subsequent creation of the Presbyterian Constitutional Covenant Union. Craig and Macartney regarded these responses to the crisis of modernism in the Presbyterian Church as excessively provocative and even schismatic, prompting them to challenge J. Gresham’s leadership of the anti-modernist opposition. Craig wrote, “Dr. Machen is a very gifted man but as a tactician we venture the opinion that he is about the world’s worst.”

The disruption of the Westminster Board revealed significant differences among conservative Presbyterians between those who advocated separation from unbelief and those whose strategy was to “reform from within.” Throughout the controversy, Macartney remained in the PCUSA. While he claimed to further the cause of Reformed militancy through the Presbyterian League of Faith, he steadily distanced himself from denominational matters while pastoring his Pittsburgh church until his retirement in 1937

A good lot of people agreed with Craig and Macartney about Machen but today, all these years later, in whom are we more interested? Craig, Macartney, or Machen? Well, WSC is holding on conference to meditate upon the contributions of one of those three chaps and it’s neither Macartney nor Craig. Yes, good men can and do disagree about strategy and even principle but what is striking about Muether’s recollection is how nothing changes. Seventy-four years later we’re still having the same discussion between those who want to be “influential” and who fear being labelled “narrow” or “sectarian.” Well, from the outside it seems that even the the dominant pietist party among the various evangelical movements, who gets to define who is and isn’t “nice,” are just sectarians who exclude people like Machen from their sect because they aren’t sufficiently inclusive or latitudinarian. Somewhere (in the NTJ?) Darryl Hart wrote an essay titled “Sectarians All.” Indeed.

Machen is a hero now (as he was then) but because of his heroic, mythic status, we might forget that even then many good men, conservative stalwarts, thought that Machen was too extreme. Decades later evangelical progressives, who hoped to gain influence in the Presbyterian mainline, regarded Machen with regret. One of the more interesting aspects of Rudolph Nelson’ s biography of Edward Carnell, The Making and Unmaking of An Evangelical Mind: The Case of Edward Carnell (Cambridge: CUP, 2002) is the account of Carnell’s repudiation of Machen as Carnell dealt with the crisis brought on by his fundamentalist upbringing. However therapeutic, Carnell’s repudiation of Machen served to push Fuller away from its roots in old Westminster and helped to produce the morass that is the post-everything evangelical movement. At bottom, as I recall, his criticism was that Machen wasn’t nice enough. Yes, the fundamentalist movement in the early 20th century was a little narrow (although, have you read The Fundamentals? The breadth of contributors is interesting) and unhistorical and it was those qualities that made Machen uncomfortable with the label “fundamentalist.” Nevertheless, at least the “fundamentalists” (as it was used to describe Machen and his contemporaries) stood for something more than influence and popularity.

I haven’t seen this bumper sticker yet but “Disruptions Happen.” Machen went to glory and the confessionalists (as distinct from the fundamentalists who quit) were left to carry on without him. Surely those were dark days at old Westminster, which had to carry on without “Dassie.” The first incoming class at old Westminster was impressive but in the post-Machen years enrollment was less robust. There were many years when old Westminster’s influence was quite disproportionate to its enrollment or constituency among evangelicals.

Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re. “Winsomely in manner, strongly in substance” was one of Machen’s mottos. It wasn’t “Suaviter in modo, infirme in re.” We remember Machen, we’re still drawn to him, because he embodied, sinner though he was, an admirable combination of firmness on the things that mattered to him —the Christian faith as confessed and practiced by the Reformed churches— and winsomeness. A few confessionalists since (to mention them would be invidious) have possessed those qualities but we need more. We need pastors and elders to decide to stand firmly and winsomely for what counts, even if it brings scorn from fellow presbyters, even if it isn’t fashionable. When the disruption happened in 1937 it wasn’t fashionable to be a confessionalist. It wasn’t the pathway to greater influence and prestige. It was the way of the cross. Counterintuitively, all these years later, however, it turns out that self-denial and not the pride of life was the right path.

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