Machen Worked & Played Harder Than You Do

It is always enjoyable to explore the archives of the original Christianity Today (a newspaper associated with J. Gresham Machen until 1935) and the Presbyterian Guardian (a newspaper founded by Machen in 1935).1 Both publications, active amid the Presbyterian controversy, are entertaining and lively. They did not shrink from controversy, and any twenty-first-century reader cannot help but notice some stunning parallels with our current situation, even for all the vast differences between the Protestant religious situation of 1933 and 2023.

One thing these publications did was record the events of J. Gresham Machen’s life until his untimely death on January 1, 1937. Even if you have read all of Machen’s many biographies, you are sure to learn a few new things about his life and thoughts in the archived pages of these periodicals. Today, we will see that he worked and played harder than most—he was a man of great substance.

Christianity Today records Machen’s impressive activities in the summer of 1932. In late May, he attended the PCUSA General Assembly in Denver, simultaneously preaching at a prominent local church, as was the custom of notorious preachers at that time. The Presbyterian Guardian reported on the local press coverage of said sermon:

He was quoted in Monday morning’s Rocky Mountain News under the following headlines: “Presbyterian Heads Flayed by Churchman . . . Dr. J. Gresham Machen Fiercely Assails Attitude of Modernists . . . Directs Suspicion . . . Asserts Unfaithfulness Is Being Concealed in Reign of Secrecy . . . Bitter Attack on the Presbyterian Church . . .”

The Guardian alleged that the paper misrepresented Machen’s tone and message and to prove it they reproduced “the exact text of news-summary” of the sermon, which was rather more polemical than exegetical as was the style of the day. Whether Machen (like Harry S. Truman) gave ‘em hell or just gave ‘em the truth and they thought it was hell, who can say? At any rate, in late May of 1932, Machen was contending for the faith against the liberal-modernist Auburn Affirmationists in the rapidly declining Northern church. He was hard at work whether he was flaying heads or not.

Shortly thereafter, he set out on a trans-Atlantic, mostly-work trip to the British Isles and the Continent. The work came first, beginning on Friday, June 17, 1932 when he spoke three times in one day at the annual meeting of the Bible League in London. Saturday and Sunday he spoke to a young people’s group in Surrey, and preached at a Baptist church that Sunday evening. For the remainder of that week, he spoke two days in Paris (in French) to a group of evangelicals, then went to Belfast, Northern Ireland for meetings that—like many of his American engagements—were not without controversy.

The run-up to his two addresses at the Presbyterian Bible Standards League (a sort of loyal opposition group in the Irish Presbyterian Church) had been the subject of newspaper coverage and public discussion.2 This was because Machen had been shut out of the Irish Presbyterian Church’s denominational assembly hall by a committee of the General Assembly. Clearly he was too hot to handle on both sides of the Atlantic, or maybe the Ulstermen just had an aversion to the flaying of heads. The second of the two Friday addresses in Belfast was delivered in a large YMCA hall. Machen (the future separatist) also spoke to the breakaway group now known as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church four times over the next two days, Saturday and Sunday—thrice at churches, and once at the YMCA hall. So much for his first nine days of vacation.

He then traveled to Liverpool for two addresses to a Church of England congregation, and two for the Liverpool and Merseyside Fundamental Fellowship. Despite being a pugilist, Machen was quite the ecumenist, as evidenced by an engagement at another Church of England church on the way back to London to proclaim at the Metropolitan Tabernacle (Charles Spurgeon’s old church). Thus ended his second full week.

Next, Machen moved north to the home of Presbyterianism on July 1st, addressing three prominent Free Church congregations in Inverness and Edinburgh, Scotland. He then traveled south to the wilds of Wales where he spoke four times. He rounded off his three-and-a-half-week expedition on July 10th at the former church of F.B. Meyer in Leicester.

You would be forgiven for thinking that (at this point) Machen was a machine. Even his times of rest and relaxation were intense. Christianity Today reported:

Following this strenuous program, Dr. Machen journeyed to Zermatt, Switzerland, where he had a much-needed vacation. During his month there he engaged in mountain climbing, ascending, among others, the peaks of the Matterhorn, and Dent Blanche.

You heard right—Machen rested not on the French Riviera nor in Provence, but on the slopes and peaks of the Swiss Alps. His account of this memorable trip has been preserved in the wonderful essay “Mountains and Why We Love Them.” I will quote at length from the most moving and prophetic section of the essay where Machen reflects on the power and love of God and man’s depravity as the twentieth century began its slide into madness:

Then there is something else about that view from the Matterhorn. I felt it partly at least as I stood there, and I wonder whether you can feel it with me. It is this. You are standing there not in any ordinary country, but in the very midst of Europe, looking out from its very centre. Germany just beyond where you can see to the northeast, Italy to the south, France beyond those snows of Mont Blanc. There, in that glorious round spread out before you, that land of Europe, humanity has put forth its best. There it has struggled; there it has fallen; there it has looked upward to God. The history of the race seems to pass before you in an instant of time, concentrated in that fairest of all the lands of the earth. You think of the great men whose memories you love, the men who have struggled there in those countries below you, who have struggled for light and freedom, struggled for beauty, struggled above all for God’s Word. And then you think of the present and its decadence and its slavery, and you desire to weep. It is a pathetic thing to contemplate the history of mankind.

I know that there are people who tell us contemptuously that always there are croakers who look always to the past, croakers who think that the good old times are the best. But I for my part refuse to acquiesce in this relativism which refuses to take stock of the times in which we are living. It does seem to me that there can never be any true advance, and above all there can never be any true prayer, unless a man does pause occasionally, as on some mountain vantage ground, to try, at least, to evaluate the age in which he is living. And when I do that, I cannot for the life of me see how any man with even the slightest knowledge of history can help recognizing the fact that we are living in a time of sad decadence—a decadence only thinly disguised by the material achievements of our age, which already are beginning to pall on us like a new toy.When Mussolini makes war deliberately and openly upon democracy and freedom, and is much admired for doing so even in countries like ours; when an ignorant ruffian is dictator of Germany, until recently the most highly educated country in the world—when we contemplate these things I do not see how we can possibly help seeing that something is radically wrong. Just read the latest utterances of our own General Johnson, his cheap and vulgar abuse of a recent appointee of our President, the cheap tirades in which he develops his view that economics are bunk—and then compare that kind of thing with the state papers of a Jefferson or a Washington—and you will inevitably come to the conclusion that we are living in a time when decadence has set in on a gigantic scale.

What will be the end of that European civilization, of which I had a survey from my mountain vantage ground—of that European civilization and its daughter in America? What does the future hold in store? Will Luther prove to have lived in vain? Will all the dreams of liberty issue into some vast industrial machine? Will even nature be reduced to standard, as in our country the sweetness of the woods and hills is being destroyed, as I have seen them destroyed in Maine, by the uniformities and artificialities and officialdom of our national parks? Will the so-called “Child Labor Amendment” and other similar measures be adopted, to the destruction of all the decencies and privacies of the home? Will some dreadful second law of thermodynamics apply in the spiritual as in the material realm? Will all things in church and state be reduced to one dead level, coming at last to an equilibrium in which all liberty and all high aspirations will be gone? Will that be the end of all humanity’s hopes? I can see no escape from that conclusion in the signs of the times; too inexorable seems to me to be the march of events. No, I can see only one alternative. The alternative is that there is a God—a God who in His own good time will bring forward great men again to do His will, great men to resist the tyranny of experts and lead humanity out again into the realms of light and freedom, great men, above all, who will be messengers of His grace. There is, far above any earthly mountain peak of vision, a God high and lifted up who, though He is infinitely exalted, yet cares for His children among men.

The essay displays Machen’s love of freedom, his insightful vision, and his Christian concern for his fellow man. The trip itself shows his largeness of spirit, true ecumenicity, and his remarkable concern for the wider church. The dissolute 1920s and 1930s were not worthy of Machen. Neither are we. He was a man born too late, or (from our perspective) perhaps far too early. We could use a Machen today.


  1. “H. McAllister Griffiths resigned his position as Managing Editor in August of 1935, leaving over presumed differences with the views of Samuel G. Craig concerning the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, with which Griffiths was heavily involved. By November of that same year, Griffiths had a new post as editor of the newly formed Presbyterian Guardian, as issued by the Presbyterian Constitutional Covenant Union in Philadelphia. The publication later became the denominational magazine for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Griffiths served as editor of The Presbyterian Guardian, from November 1935 through September 1936, when he was appointed “ecclesiastical counsel” for the trial involving the name of the newly formed Presbyterian Church of America.”
  2. The Irish Presbyterian Church is now the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

©Brad Isbell. All Rights Reserved.


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