Who Gets To Criticize Machen?

I was thinking about Machen as I was listening Mike and Steve on NoCo Radio discussing the new collection of Machen’s radio addresses, Things Unseen. As I am listening to them learn from Machen, it is hard not to think of the controversy over Machen’s letter to his mother. That letter revealed an attitude to be deplored and rejected as contrary to the spirit and intent of Galatians3:28 and Colossians 3:11. Such thinking has no place in the Christian mind. One hopes that, had Machen lived long enough to see the civil rights movement, he, like a lot of Americans, might have re-thought his attitudes.

Nevertheless, as I listened to my friends learning from Machen it occurred to me that at least some of those seeking to tarnish Machen are themselves segregationists. Anyone who advocates ethnically-based segregation (e.g., ethnic safe spaces or ethnically homogenous congregations) is, by definition, a segregationist. No segregationist gets to criticize Machen for his private letter to his mother advocating for segregation and if we must ignore Machen now because of his private letter to his mother, how much more should we ignore those who are advocating segregation publicly?

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Where does everyone’s amour propre end, and a nasty racism begin?

    Ages ago, when I was living in Taiwan, I watched “Roots” with some local friends. The reactions were interesting.

    “How can you Americans live with what you did to the blacks?” “Well, how do you guys live with what you’ve been doing to the Mountain People?” “well, that was for the sake of Chinese civilization.”

    “The white people had a culture to protect.”

    “Maybe the black people are like the [somewhere in the Nanyang] natives” (from someone who’d done some visiting to Taiwan’s southern neighbors).

    “So what? My parents would never let me marry a Japanese” (from someone of post-WW2 Mainlander parentage).

    Those are things I actually heard. In other places I’ve been, I’ve run into other ethnic dichotomies.

    There are unhealthy things said and done about “race” in these Unites States all across the political and theological spectra. Maybe that we conservative Presbyterians can be bothered by some of Machen’s views of black people (or Dabney’s; or Thornwell’s; or a lot of run-of-the-mill co-religionists from north of the Ohio) is actually healthy. We are trying to deal constructively with an unpleasant and wrong-headed heritage.

  2. I grew up in the South in the days of segregation. There was what I call an element of learned cultural racism in both the white and black populations, but even by the time of school busing it was waning. In my own home, for example, any form of racism was taboo. I can only remember one of my schoolmates that used the “n word”, and only in private. There certainly remained a fear amongst the oldest people, largely based on the ignorance that segregation results in. I can recall being invited to the black side of town to attend and all-black church. I was not made to feel unwelcome, but my presence was obviously a bit disruptive. I was certainly out of place, and knew it. People are more comfortable around the people they most relate to. We didn’t understand much about “outsiders,” not even being sure of what to make of the one Chinese family in town. I would not deem that racism.

    BTW, the one school friend who was a user of the “n word” has made a career as an attorney representing mostly black clients. He changed with the times. Machen was a man of his times. Judging him by our times is foolish.

    • Mike,

      I agree with those that say that Machen could have thought differently. Warfield did but I think (I could be wrong) that Warfield was rather enlightened for his time. It is the case that most white folk were segregationist and racist in both the North and the South at the turn of the 20th century, when Machen was growing up.

      We Christians do need to learn to love one another and to enjoy our cultural differences. Our ethnicity and culture doesn’t define us, however. What defines us is our union and identity with Christ. We’re not the first to have to deal with this. The NT spends a lot of time on Jews and Gentiles. There were mixed NT congregations. There is a reason Paul says what he does in Gal 3 and Col 3. Being “comfortable” with folk like us is the product of nature. Loving one another and embracing each other and our cultures, that’s grace.

  3. I must admit that as a black Kenyan this is a matter of interest for me. Machen’s “What is Faith?” was one of the most significant helps to me in a time of crisis. Yet his views are the reason why I have gravitated more to Warfield. As a country, we have a complicated history and this is not helped by the dearth of historical writing concerning our denominations.
    Although a predominantly black nation, we have South Asian and Caucasian populations and without key Asian and Caucasian people acknowledged in our history we would not have the Kenya that exists today. Yet I recall the story of a Indian-Kenyan man at a Presbyterian conference in Nairobi rising up to say that we as Black Kenyans have denied the Indian-Kenyan community the gospel because we have refused to take it to them. He was not lying. There’s a Presbyterian denomination here that is largely composed of one tribe and in the times I have visited its different churches I have been made to feel unwelcome because I am “the wrong tribe” yet I confess without exception The Westminster Confession; something that I know without a doubt would be controversial.
    Whether race or tribe, the Galatian error always rears its ugly head. It is up to each generation in every place to apply the truth of scripture and nothing else to our situations.

    • TLSE,

      I agree this sin is something that has to be combatted in every generation and I have great respect for Warfield but I’ve learned so much from Machen and without him there might not be much a confessional Reformed witness in North America, I can hardly see how we can dispense with him.

      It seems clear to me that the intent in publicizing Machen’s private sin is to “dirty up” his reputation. The intent is not to help the church die to sin and live to Christ but to remove from the field a powerful and influential critic theological liberalism and the social gospel in the interests of advocating the social gospel among Machen’s heirs, sometimes derisively called “Machen’s Warrior Children.”

      If we allow the secret sins of our forbears to determine what we will learn from them, we will learn nothing from anyone.

      The renewed social gospel (CRT etc) in our midst is graceless (i.e., it refuses to forgive) and self-righteous. In that way it too is guilty of the Galatian heresy. It is a legal-eschatological religion and not a religion of the cross.

      Despite his private sin, Machen was a herald of the gospel of free salvation in Christ,. The same cannot be said of his critics.

    • Thank you for your insight, sir. But, even from a white American heritage which comes mostly from the post-Civil War Atlantic migration rather than from “old stock”, I’m aware of a certain “tribalism”. German Jews (my father’s “tribe”) sneered at East European Jews; Scnadinavian-Americans (my mother’s “tribe”) engaged in a lot of ribbing of Norwegians against Swedes, etc. Maybe that helped me notice others’ “tribalism” when I lived abroad.

    • The very first time I saw “CRT” something told me what was in view was not the Cathode Ray Tube in my high school physics notebook.
      Since the ESS controversy, as well as a controversy in my former seeker-sensitive, “American Evangelical-style” church that coincided in timing with it, I have largely removed myself from the conversations going on within evangelical spaces to be quite honest. The “Critical Race Theory” thing is something I will have to read on before I can comment further.
      My focus lately has been on the The Ecumenical Creeds and the The Westminster Standards. Nevertheless, that ESS controversy as well as church politics in my old church have taught me to hold lightly to the churchmen I credit much of my theological understanding to. I do believe we should look to saints of the past as Hebrews teaches us to. But to look beyond them.

  4. 1913 was in the earlier half of Machen’s professional life. Is there any evidence on whether racism governed him in his later life?

    • That Machen wrote a segregationist letter to his mother was unknown to me until the last few years. I’ve not seen any evidence that if affected his policies at WTS or in the OPC.

  5. Maryland was a slave-owning border state and Baltimore–the town of Machen’s birth and upbringing–a hotbed of racism. But then anti-black racism was common throughout 19th-century America on both sides of the Civil War. Also, Machen’s mother was from Georgia and the family was good friends with Woodrow Wilson, himself a staunch segregationist and holder of odious views on race.

    The practice of sitting in moral judgment on past generations is smug and unsanctified and suggests a huge lack of self-awareness.

    • Regarding Woodrow Wilson, here’s something I wrote nearly two years ago. His bigotry was broader than just Black people. He was fundamentally hostile to anyone who was not of Anglo-Saxon or at least German or Scandinavian ancestry.

      Racism’s targets were once Italians and Asians, both vilified by President Woodrow Wilson

    • Dr. Clark, I am far from an expert on Warfield, and as a professor in the seminary that continues the heritage of Old Princeton, I suspect your library at Westminster-West will have out-of-print resources and perhaps even copies of archived letters that are not publicly available. You’re in a much better position than me to research Warfield’s views on the subject.

      However, some cursory research turned up that Warfield’s ancestors included abolitionists prior to the Civil War, some of whom risked their lives for their beliefs, and that after the Civil War, he was personally involved in dealing with official “freedmen” agencies, i.e., entities that focused in helping the newly-freed slaves. I do not know Warfield’s biographical history, but I sense that such views, while rare, were not unheard of among Old School Presbyterians.

      The South, particularly places like Kentucky and Missouri and the multistate Appalachian corridor, was far from being of one mind about either slavery or the Union.

      Like Warfield’s family, some of my own ancestors on my mother’s side had lived in the upper South, but were involved in anti-slavery societies. Some of my ancestors moved North into free states prior to the Civil War and quickly volunteered to serve in the Union Army despite, or perhaps because of, their very recent Southern heritage. One of my ancestors was captured, placed by the Confederates into the notorious Andersonville POW camp, moved to far northern Michigan after the Civil War, and instilled a bitter hatred of the Confederacy into his daughter and his grandson, who then instilled it into his daughter, who was my mother. Even at the end of her life, my mother would sometimes describe how horrible the Confederates had been to her great-grandfather, and show me an old picture of him late in life so I would not forget my ancestors and what they had done to preserve the Union.

      My mother was not in any way a liberal. Her views on racial issues long predated the civil rights movement, and in her mind were directly tied with being a patriotic American on the side that won the Civil War. I’m very much aware of the way in which the “Great Migration” of Black people from the rural South to Northern cities, where they competed with poor whites and recent immigrants, set off a whole new wave of racism. But that happened long after Warfield, and I sense that the older attitude of conservative leaders like Warfield, while certainly not the norm by the early 1900s, may be a vestige of an older attitude that definitely persisted into the late 1800s and perhaps longer among the heirs of the abolitionists.

      Whether my mother’s family views would have changed if her family had lived in an area with large scale Black migration is something I’ll never know. What I do know is that when she enrolled in Michigan State University and met Black students who had enrolled in a Northern school to avoid the segregation of Southern higher education in that era, it was her first significant contact with actual Black people as opposed to reading and hearing Civil War history. Her attitude was that there was no good reason why the Black students she met, many of whom were extremely hard workers who had overcome a great deal to get to college at all, shouldn’t be treated the same as anyone else who has passed the exams to get into college.

      By the 1950s that was certainly a rare view for a conservative white woman with no background in the civil rights movement, but it seems quite consistent with Warfield’s view on racial matters, though my mother certainly would not have agreed with much of what Warfield taught on doctrinal matters.

      History is perhaps more complex than the history books present, for the simple reason that people are individuals and sometimes — as in the case of Warfield’s family — individuals take stances that are quite unpopular among their friends and neighbors, and transmit those stances to their descendants.

  6. Anyone who advocates ethnically-based segregation (e.g., ethnic safe spaces or ethnically homogenous congregations) is, by definition, a segregationist.

    What about congregations that are de facto ethnic, like Black, Korean, Chinese, or Dutch churches? Seems like this is just storge.

    • Bryce,

      These are different cases.

      1. Historically black churches are so because they were excluded from white churches. Look at the history of the AME. Lester Cahill discusses this in one of his “Black History Fashion Show” podcasts. The founders of the AME couldn’t be ordained in the Methodist Church. They were driven to it.

      2. In the case of an immigrant church (like my congregation, which was formed by 1st generation Dutch immigrants after WWII), there is a linguistic barrier. They were Dutch Reformed and they spoke Dutch. The CRC was just learning to speak English. It was in transition. That said, they have always been very welcoming to us Gentiles who have been grafted on to the Israel of God.

      3. Storge (στοργή) is nature. That’s my point. The church is not a natural assembly. It is a gracious assembly. What binds us together is not our shared ethnicity or language (culture) but our shared Christ. We don’t deny each other’s cultures but in the Kingdom of God our citizenship is in heaven, not in Rome, DC, or Constantinople.

    • 3. Storge (στοργή) is nature. That’s my point. The church is not a natural assembly. It is a gracious assembly. What binds us together is not our shared ethnicity or language (culture) but our shared Christ. We don’t deny each other’s cultures but in the Kingdom of God our citizenship is in heaven, not in Rome, DC, or Constantinople.

      Family bonds don’t bind us together if we attend the same church? I get what you’re saying on one hand (the verses you cited), but on the other hand, I think there are some natural realities that lead to the ethnic makeup of churches: kids worship with their parents and grandparents a well as the language or historical issues you mentioned earlier. I suppose you’re saying that these ethnic compositions are more accidental than essential since faith is essential to the kingdom of God, but I don’t see how you can have a historically-black denomination like the AME without black people, so black people are essential to it.

      In the US, we’re diverse but the melting pot is more myth than reality. It seems like these ethnic, historical and family bonds DO bind these churches together for all practical purposes. I’ll bet the natural bonds overlap the supernatural bonds in many cases, for example “I will be a God for you and your children (natural offspring).”

  7. It’s easy to blame other people generations ago for ethnic problems. It is harder to deal with more recent issues, particularly when some of the people are still living.

    I grew up in Grand Rapids without being Dutch. I am a Calvin graduate. I know, up close and personal, what it means to be told both explicitly and implicitly that “my kind” is not welcome. That was said to me as an unbeliever in secular circles and also said after my conversion in church circles. There are places where “If you aren’t Dutch, you aren’t much” is not a joke. “Onze kerk, onze school” was still a very real thing and I learned the hard way, as one of my Calvin professors said, that you can explain the CRC by sociology, not by theology.

    Ethnic bigotry doesn’t always mean skin color; lots of white Europeans, and their American descendants, hated each other based on differing ethnicity even if they shared the same skin color. That hatred showed up in the church, not just the secular society.

    Interesting that you use the phrase “dirty up,” as in “It seems clear to me that the intent in publicizing Machen’s private sin is to ‘dirty up’ his reputation.” I’m not disagreeing and you may well be right. I remember reading about Machen’s views on barring Black students from campus housing decades ago and I don’t think this has ever been hidden, though perhaps it’s now coming to broader attention.

    That’s not why I noticed your phrase, however.

    When discussing with a number of conservative Dutch Reformed ministers whether they would have a problem with me marrying a Korean woman, the general consensus was that an interracial marriage would be tolerated. However, it was made very clear to me that part of why it would be okay for me to have an interracial marriage was because “dirtying up a Dutch girl” would be viewed even more negatively. As one well-known conservative Dutch Reformed minister put it, “You marrying a Korean would probably be okay. After all, we all know you can’t marry one of our girls.”

    These conversations didn’t happen a hundred years ago. They happened in the 1980s and 1990s.

    I am fully aware of the cross-cultural barriers involved in a non-Dutch person dating and marrying into a Dutch Reformed family, particularly years ago. They sometimes still exist today and they were a much bigger problem a generation or two ago, when there was a widespread assumption in conservative Dutch Reformed circles that if a Dutch person married a non-Dutch person, the Dutch spouse was probably going to leave the church for her husband’s church, and quite likely that would mean abandoning the Reformed faith. I think there is a much greater recognition today that not all Americans are unbelievers or broad evangelicals than there was in the era when high percentages of the membership of many Dutch Reformed churches were first-generation immigrants for whom English was not their first language, and who viewed the existing churches in both the United States and Canada, sadly with good reason in many cases, as being largely hostile to Reformed Christianity.

    As you said, Dr. Clark, there are legitimate reasons for ethnic minority churches to exist, and they are sometimes not only helpful but necessary. It is not realistic to ask first-generation Korean or Hispanic or Dutch immigrants to give up their language and culture immediately after immigrating to join an English-speaking American church. Even at the Synod of Dordt, when the original church order was written, it was understood that the French-speaking Walloon churches had, and needed to have, their own separate churches and assemblies.

    But when the church becomes an ethnic social club, there’s a major problem.

  8. Thank you for your view Dr. Clark. Of course Machen’s position is flat out wrong. Does that mean God did not use him? Did it mean his sinful position on segregationalism tarnished all of this theology and contributions to the church? This myopic cancel culture needs to stop. The thought of it permeating the church is sickening. We can still appreciate the truth and good God worked in him while also calling out his errors. I’ve heard some say should we then admire Hitler for the nice things he did? At that point the chance for a reasonable conversation goes out the door. Look at David for an example. Let’s cancel him too.

  9. Re Warfield’s attitude towards blacks, I wonder if there wasn’t something about the Kentucky culture of his era. It also produced Justice Harlan (another Presbyterian, btw) of the Plessy v. Ferguson dissent. Frankly, I’m intrigued.

    • I’ve commented above to Dr. Clark on this issue. From some cursory research, Warfield’s background included abolitionist family members who had risked their lives prior to the Civil War for their beliefs.

      There’s clearly material for a great article, and perhaps a book, on how the conservative abolitionist tradition persisted in politics and society after the Civil War long after slavery had been extinguished. I hope some seminary student or minister or professor with access to a solid theological library and original source archives writes that article or book.

      It is a liberal myth that slavery was defeated by people of liberal religious views. While there were certainly liberal abolitionists, even some of the people who were considered “liberals” by their contemporaries in the 1800s would be considered hard-right conservative Christians today. There is no way to erase the fact that the anti-slavery movement was led in large though not exclusive measure by people of conservative biblical convictions.

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