Machen’s Private Racism And Contemporary Public Segregationism

Andrew Bertodatti and Rasool Berry, two pastors in New York City, have written a lengthy critique of a new book by Owen Strachan. My interest in this essay is not to engage with Strachan’s book, which I have not read, nor to dispute their review except in one instance.

According to the review Strachan invokes Machen to justify his critique of “wokeness.” The author’s challenge Strahan’s use of Machen and criticize him for not being as careful as Machen was in their critique of his opponents. They note that Machen criticized the hermeneutic behind premillennialism, which he regarded as an error with unfortunate consequences (he was correct, by the way) but he was nevertheless prepared to make common cause with premillennialism. They also observe that Machen was highly critical of Romanism but distinguished between Romanism, which he rightly regarded as a perversion of Christianity, and theological liberalism, which he regarded as another religion altogether.

In contrast, Strachan, they argue, has failed to show that his opponents with whom he disagrees over social issues have departed theologically from the faith.

Being Precise

Along the way, however, the authors invoke Machen’s segregationist views, which, to the best of my knowledge, he articulated in two private letters to his mother, in private conversations with colleagues, and in a private argument with B. B. Warfield.

It is worthwhile to hash out Strachan’s self-comparison to Machen. We should note that we do not hold Machen as an exemplar of theologically faithful social engagement. As far as his writings and letters present, Machen promoted racist and segregationist views. For example, he was heavily critical of his colleague B.B. Warfield for his advocacy of integration, referring to his views as “Black Republicanism.” Yet Strachan holds Machen up as a model for theological engagement and, as such, there is much to learn by comparing their approaches to the issues they engaged with.

Since the authors do not explain exactly what they mean by “socially faithful social engagement,” in light of the context, we may assume that they are not referring to his testimony before Congress regarding the department of education, his opposition to prohibition, his opposition to jay-walking laws, or to his civil libertarianism generally. We may assume that the authors have reduced his social engagement to a single, significant, question: racism.

Further, since they have critiqued Strachan for imprecision the authors will doubtless appreciate some encouragement to precision on their part. They write, “ As far as his writings and letters present, Machen promoted racist and segregationist views.” I am reasonably well read in Machen’s published work, including his published letters. To the best of my knowledge, Machen never published his segregationist views anywhere. He advocated for segregationism privately to Warfield and other of his colleagues at Princeton.

The two letters he wrote to his mother about the attempt to integrate Princeton were never published and have not, to my knowledge, been published, in their entirety. in what scholars call “fair copies.” The only text publicly available are excerpts published as part of an attempt to disqualify Machen, to indict the confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches, and to promote a particular theory among the confessional P&R churches. The text available online does not constitute fair copies of the primary sources. This is not to vindicate Machen’s segregationist views but it is to set the historical record straight. I have previously indicted Machen for his racism and addressed the question of how we, who are the beneficiaries of the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 60s, should think about him. I have urged us 1) not to repeat Machen’s sins; 2) not to be anachronistic.

Machen’s Views In Perspective

Because we live in the most amnesiac period in Western history, because I find that so many Americans seem to know so little even of their own recent history, let us put Machen in perspective.

If we are to believe Machen’s report he was not alone. Anyone who knows the state of race relations in the early 20th century in the USA knows that he was not alone. Segregationism was law in the South and  custom in the North. I grew up on the Great Plains in the 1960s and 70s and segregationist sentiment was widespread. Omaha was segregated by custom. About Chicago, Dr King famously said, “ I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’m seeing in Chicago.” Los Angeles was segregated. Boston was segregated.

Some have argued that the fact that Warfield was opposed to segregationism shows that Machen should have been able to overcome racism. This argument, in my view, ignores the differences between Kentucky and Baltimore and between the way Warfield was raised and the way Machen was raised. Kentucky initially attempted to remain neutral in the American Civil War but early on sided with the Union. As Fred Zaspel explains, “Both of Warfield’s parents had come from families of outspoken abolitionists and with important connections to the cause of emancipation.” Warfield was, as Zaspel writes, “ahead of his time.” He was the exception, not the rule. To look back at Machen, who was not raised by abolitionists, who grew up in a state that sided with the South, and to expect him to think like Warfield is anachronistic. It is unhistorical and unrealistic. Machen was not from the de facto segregated North. He was from the de iure segregated South, Baltimore. He was from an aristocratic family whose contact with Black Americans was limited to doormen, porters, maids, and butlers. The list of racially progressive white people in his class and culture was very short indeed. Racism and segregationism are sin. Machen was wrong but it is bad history to expect Machen to have been anything other than what he was.

Princeton Agrees With Machen

Remarkably, however, just as Princeton (probably) agreed with Machen in 1913 so apparently, more than a century after Machen’s two private, ugly letters to his mother, Princeton has come to agree with his segregationism again. As I noted in August, 2021 Stuart Taylor published an exposé of Princeton focusing on the plight of a Princeton Seminary student who refuses to participate in segregationist policies and practices. Where is the outrage directed at segregationism when it is practiced more than a century after Machen wrote two private letters to his mother? Is segregationism is only sinful when the wrong people advocate or practice it? Of course that is absurd. 

for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise  (Gal 3:26–29; ESV).

Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all (Col 3:11; ESV)

Machen was a Pauline scholar. He knew these passages and could probably quote them in Greek but he was blinded by his upbringing and his culture. He did not see how segregationism was flatly contrary to Paul’s teaching in these two passages. Anyone, however, who is supporting segregationism,  even when it is disguised as a “safe space,”—was not Machen arguing precisely for safe spaces where white people would not have to come into contact with black people? Were not segregated housing, busses, and trains “safe spaces” for white people?—is guilty of the very sin for which Machen is being castigated now. The ostensible good intentions of latter-day segregationists do not make segregationism any less racist or segregationist now than it was then.

Machen went to be the Lord on January 1, 1937. This is what he saw when he entered the presence of the Lord. Believers of “every tribe and language and people and nation”:

…saying with a loud voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Rev 5:9–13; ESV)

J. Gresham Machen is no longer a racist or segregationist. He is cheek-by-jowl with the redeemed of all nations praising the Savior. Can we say the same for the contemporary advocates of segregation? If not, then perhaps we ought to exercise just a modicum of charity toward a man who was died thirty years before the civil rights movement reached its apex in America?

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Hi Scott—

    I think you’re exactly right, but I can well imagine an intelligent person coming at the case of Machen (and the Southern Presbyterianism which pre-dates him) in this way: isn’t it true that, with no appeal to anachronism, Christians in any age are to have the mind of Christ, to think His thoughts after Him, and to use the written Word/ordinary means to accomplish the project of Rom. 12:2? In other words, the advocacy for a true justice/knowledge in any age is accomplished by objective means—in the abstract—and should not be tied to time and circumstances, upbringing, etc. It’s fine to say that Machen was a sinner and had blind spots. We all do. But, should he have needed the secularist Civil Rights Movement (which was and is full of very dubious characters who have brought much other ideological wickedness into the Christian West) to show him the True Way? I think this is a thornier problem.
    Second, we still have the case of Dabney—a very prominent theologian of his time (associated with Stonewall Jackson) who actually argued for—on exegetical and historical grounds—what today we believe a grave moral stain. Whatever Machen’s convictions, Dabney—and other Southern churchmen—aligned this with the sovereign will and intentions of God—making it an ethical imperative and thereby binding consciences. If we say again that here was someone bound to his time and circumstances, then how do we make a case for the objective understanding of theology, ethics, and history? Dabney had the same resources at his disposal (minus Google!) that we do. How is it possible that ANY of us can make objective truth claims that won’t somehow be at risk for revision in decades (or, centuries) hence??
    And, aren’t the categories of “racism” and “segregationism” themselves an artifact of post 50’s/60’s America?
    For what it’s worth, I bristle at exegetical defenses of manstealing and any kind of formal/informal caste system. A feudal society does not comport with Christian ethics, in my view. But I also despise the wicked heritage that the 60’s Project has brought us (beyond rectifying lunch counters, drinking fountains, and bus seats), and I equally bristle that we Christians should find ethical instruction there. Just my two cents—

    • Greg,

      We all need help and the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) gave enormous help to this country.

      Your sweeping generalization about the CRM as “secularist” is simply not true. There were a lot of faithful believers involved in the movement both on the ground and in leadership. Were there people with whom I would disagree rather sharply? Yes but even Dr King, who’s academic career and theology are, shall we say, complicated, performed a valuable service to the nation by holding us to account to our national documents.

      We’re all the products of our time. I disagree strongly with your notion that we should be able to divorce ourselves from our time. It’s just not possible. We are mere humans. At best we have ectypal (analogical) knowledge. History is the story of sinful humans, blinded by prejudices of various sorts, muddling through. None of us has the sort of God’s-eye view you suppose.

      There is objective truth but it is always appropriated subjectively by sinners. That is the world in which we live. Pure, absolute objectivity belongs to God alone. Radical subjectivism is nihilism. We live between these two poles.

      Dabney and Machen are distinct cases. Dabney defended slavery. Machen defended segregation. Machen was not an apologist for slavery.

      We are all of us, especially those of us who write publicly, subject to future criticism. We can only hope that they will love their neighbors (us) as themselves. That’s what I’m asking of Machen’s contemporary critics: that they treat Machen the way they would want to be treated. Do they want to be judged by their worst moment, some thoughtful, ill-advised, ignorant comment they made in a text/DM or even for a scurrilous, letter they might have circulated (yes, I’m thinking of a particular case here)? I guess not.

      Since the category of “race” has come under serious, justifiable criticism, the category “racism” is necessarily imperiled in some way and yet we need some way to describe the application of prejudice to ethnic groups. It is a problem.

      You should re-think and re-read the history of the CRM. It was not entirely heroic or spotless but it wasn’t “secularist” enterprise as you seem to think. There were lots of godly people walking in those protests, who were beaten and arrested for asking for nothing less than to be accorded the natural rights protected by the Constitution of the United States. Those folk were not “secularists.”

      • Scott,

        I am of course aware of the differences between Machen and Dabney. And whatever the former made of the latter, I certainly know that he did not try to make an exegetical case for chattel slavery. I only suggested a comparison with respect to not only the ethical issues at hand, but the fact that both were prominent thinkers and churchmen with divine revelation on their side.
        It is apparently true that I take a more malignant view of the CRM than you do. While I am not a black man, any number of respected scholars have made the case that both business and family life was better for African-Americans pre-“The Great Society”. I do not doubt that there were sincere believers at the time who rightfully sought a more faithful subscription to founding documents, writ large across this nation. But they joined hands with multitudinous foul actors and agitators in order to accomplish this—many of whom today still rule in the halls of power and have no problem trampling once again on the idea of equality under the law. When I say “secularists”, I am aware that this is some kind of generalization. It doesn’t pertain to every man, woman and child (or organization) involved. Still, it is difficult to argue that when cultural references are made to the CRM and the 60’s era, these do not in large part come from the mouths of incorrigible bad actors who are yes, both “secularists” and enemies of Christ—who have used (and, caused?) a turgid time of societal upheaval to set new ideological foundations in order to destroy a nation. While acknowledging that I generalized, it is not a difficult case to make that in the 50-60 years out, there came to be destructive realities that cannot be called “godly”. It’s a fair question to ask about the organic relationship of the CRM to the present insanities. It might not have been a “secularist” enterprise, but it doggone sure was emblematic of their glory days, and they doggone sure don’t mind fondly reminiscing about it. And you rightly concede that Dr. King was “complex” or had a complicated belief system. Which theological giants did he hold forth? Yes, let’s just say that I’ll take Machen’s orthodoxy over his brand, any day of the week.
        About analogical knowledge, yes I understand. You are right that we cannot have “God’s eye-view”. I think I was just trying to say that we are judged by the objective moral law—in any age—and it’s a subject worth talking about…how our time and circumstances can allow this to play out. Anachronism is wrong, but we also, in this case, aren’t just talking about a “regular Joe”, if you will. Or, Joe(s)—if we include Dabney and others. These are incredibly formidable people to “whom was given much, and much will be required”. Not to deify them, but it seems appropriate and scriptural to put them in a marked class. Not that I should be let off the hook because I’m just a “regular” person/layman.
        I do absolutely think it’s wrong to capitalize on someone’s worst moments and make those definitive. Obviously. I also must agree that “objective truth must be appropriated by sinners”, but there is an undeniable distinction to be made between sinners who are redeemed and those who are unredeemed. Ligonier Ministries takes Romans 12:2 as a mantra for a reason. And while you may feel differently, despite whatever positive things might have come from that era (CRM), I resist taking a sort of ethical, catechetical instruction from it about how to rightly consider race relations or most anything else. Like FDR’s “New Deal” era, it has created profound levels of destruction. You yourself blog consistently about all sorts of malignancies which can be traced to the eras in question.
        Perhaps my view of the CRM needs modification, even severe modification. I will try to do better and get a more sophisticated perspective in this—

        • Gregory,

          We weren’t talking about the Great Society programs. We were talking about the right to vote, the right to live where one will, the right to use public transit etc.

          • It would be a difficult project to separate the CRM from the other incalculable atrocities which very soon followed. The 3 rights you enumerate seem valid on the surface, although we STILL can’t seem to get the issue of voting figured out, most everyone can live where one wants—provided sufficient subsidies by taxpayers are in play, and the ability to take one’s seat on public transit is there—provided you aren’t too scared to ride it…which depends on time and place, or you have the requisite health certifications. My view of the CRM is malignant due in no small part to the Trojan horse(s) involved. Find me one Statist that will speak negatively of that era. If they exist, I’ve never come across one—

  2. Thank you for honesty and clarity on this issue. I pray that it be that God exposes any hidden sin of cultural expediency that lurks within my flesh.

  3. Thank you Greg Ballard. What you said was very helpful. Thank you Jason. What you said was good, too.

  4. Dr Clark, I think one point needs to be made about Galatians 3:26=29, and I can’t remember that I have ever seen it made: Paul wrote “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God … There is neither Jew nor Greek …”. He did not write “Out of Christ … There is neither Jew nor Greek … “.
    I can identify no New Testament teaching about segregation vs integration for society at large….

    • John,

      To be clear, I was writing about life in the visible church.

      I agree that there’s very little evidence that the NT authors spoke to the social conditions outside the church. The poor relief they collected was within and for the visible church. The concern about the treatment of slaves was directed at Christians in the visible church. They said nothing about the widespread use of chemical abortions or about any of the myriad social ills and crimes committed by the pagans.

    • But later, when it became within their power, Christians HAVE sacrificially endeavoured to benefit society at large. And the Lord blesses.

      • John,

        Indeed. This is what some seem not to understand about distinguishing the two spheres of the twofold kingdom: the church is one sphere or represents one sphere and there is a distinct sphere in which Christians may vigorously act and organize for the benefit of society at large. We need not turn the visible church into a social service organization to accomplish our goals for society.

    • Along these same lines, I have always understood Matt 25:34-45 to mean those in the church who have been persecuted and thrown into prison, not the entire Greco-Roman society at large. IOW, when Jesus says fed ME, clothed ME, gave ME drink, he’s referring to his church as the “ME.” I have heard this twisted around by various mainline groups over the years who mis-interpret it (IMO) to mean feed, clothe, etc. the entire world. Not that doing so is not a worthy undertaking, I just see Jesus referring to his church to come in these verses.

      • George, in his sermon, “The Almost Christian”, your partial namesake (surname of Whitefield) did not seem to make an awful lot of distinction between your brother and your mere neighbour in applying these verses. Contrast C I Schofield, who restricted the applicability of these verses to the seven years of “The Great Tribulation” (i.e., not the “Church Age”)!

    • John – And yet this relates to this entire business of “final judgements” among the evangelical types and it is not exactly clear to me, but it sounds a lot like “show me your works,” doesn’t it? Given those passages that refer to the first being last and the last being first, it does seem that the works of the first are less important than the faith of those who come to believe later, does it not. I get a little uncomfortable with people who like to harp on those “final judgements” all the time. Seems like works to me, not a humble admission that we’re all sinners in need of repentance versus some of us who have a “more geniue faith” are better than all of you.

Comments are closed.