One of the worst aspects of late-Modern life is the radically subjective turn in scholarship away from things like evidence and facts—things that can be verified through testing or experience. One example of the subjective turn in history writing and methods (historiography) is Austin Steelman’s March 30, 2023 essay in Religion and American Culture, “Not an ‘Ordinary Man’: J. Gresham Machen and the Un-Queering of Evangelical Theology.” Unfortunately, this essay is not available online. You may be able to obtain this essay via your university (whether you are a current student or an alumnus/a) or via inter-library loan.
Steelman does not indicate why he published this essay now, but it is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Machen’s landmark volume, Christianity and Liberalism (New York, MacMillan, 1923). We at the HRA have been remembering this work with a series of podcast episodes and a resource page devoted to Machen and to the book.
Given my background, it is difficult to be entirely objective regarding Machen. Christianity and Liberalism is one of the most important books I have read. Machen has had a great and salutary effect on the way I understand and communicate the Christian faith. His telegram, dictated as he lay dying in a Bismarck, ND hospital, “So thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it” is a watchword, a guardrail where I attended seminary and where I teach.
Nevertheless, intellectual honesty, of which Machen was a great champion, demands that I (and anyone who endeavors to tell the truth about the past) face evidence and facts, should they exist, that challenge my view of Machen. Thus, when I read Steelman’s essay, I tried to do so with an open mind. After all, until I saw Machen’s letter to his mother, I did not know concretely about his segregationist convictions. Honesty requires that we incorporate that fact (without exaggerating it or any single fact) into the story about Machen and into my understanding of who he was and what he did.
In short, Steelman alleges that Machen’s struggle over whether he should enter the Christian ministry, which occurred during his study year in Germany (1905–06), was caused by a struggle with his homosexuality. He suggests that Machen faced a crisis in Germany (which is true) and that he became the leader of the fundamentalist movement, rather than becoming an enlightened moderate, in order to combat his same-sex attraction.
There is no doubt that Machen was struck by some of what he heard in Germany and that it produced a genuine crisis for him. While there, Machen studied with and heard lectures by some of the outstanding turn-of-the-century liberal theologians, including Wilhelm Hermann (1846–1922) with whom Machen was quite taken intellectually. What is uncertain, however, is whether he was also struggling with a same-sex attraction and that it was that, rather than his period of doubt about historic Christianity, which caused him to question his qualification for pastoral ministry.
His first biographer, Ned B. Stonehouse, using Machen’s correspondence, detailed Machen’s struggle over whether to enter the ministry and his feeling that he was disqualified. One of the central pieces of evidence to which Steelman appeals is lost, which Stonehouse noted in 1954, in J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) without a hint of conspiracy.1 This letter was written to his brother Arthur in the winter of 1905 from Germany. Steelman, however, treats this lost letter like a source document known among New Testament scholars as Q, which is short for Quelle, which is German for source. Like Machen’s lost letter, Q has never been found and no one has it in their possession even though scholars write as though they do. It was theoretically composed of the material shared by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. So, Steelman tries to reconstruct the lost letter and his argument rests, to a significant degree, upon his reconstruction, in light of which he reads other comments by Machen found in other letters.
Stonehouse writes of Machen’s “deep sense of personal unworthiness to be a minister of Christ.” In response, Arthur did not tell him that he should be a minister, but that he should keep his sins in perspective.2 His mother wrote to him also saying essentially the same thing. Like Arthur’s, her letter is remarkably calm for a mother who has just been told by her Victorian son that he is same-sex attracted. She wrote,
My dear boy, Arthur, let me read your last letter to him in which you speak of the impossibility of your entering the ministry. It would have been bad not to let me read the letter, as I would have imagined something dreadful, but he did not show it to the others. I want to assure you that, whatever you decide upon, I shall acquiesce in and do my best to help you in. You think that we would lose faith in you if we knew you perfectly. But one thing I can assure you of—that nothing that you could do would keep me from loving you—nothing.3
His father wrote to him to encourage him not to be hasty in his vocational choice.
If the ministry be not felt to be your vocation, there is a whole realm of service of the most valuable sort, leaving that out of view. If you believe that to fit you for the higher walks in non-clerical learning, you would be better off for a year or more (beyond this year) in any special department—Greek in general—for instance, or some kindred study, you are quite young enough to pursue it, and prepared better by maturity of thought and a solid substructure than you would otherwise have been now to pursue it.4
Steelman appeals to Machen’s February 4, 1906 letter and to others in which Machen expresses what he saw in that period—which stretched beyond September 1906, when Machen took up what he thought would be a short-term teaching post at Princeton—as his disqualification for ministry.
As I have indicated more or less plainly in several of my letters, it has seemed to me almost impossible, even to think about going into the ministry; so that I am seriously considering what other possibilities may open themselves, as I now feel more and more keenly that the time has gone by when I can waste months and years in idleness or in aimless work. It is true that I cannot possibly look back upon the past year as wasted—as it has been a time perhaps of something more like progress than I have experienced at any other period in my life. Not that I underwrite in the slightest the value of my home-training; for without what I got from you and Mother, I should long since have given up all thoughts of religion, or of a moral life. And it is that training alone, and the principles which have been instilled into me that enable me even now to employ my opportunities here in such a way as to make them real opportunities instead of pitfalls.
Yet on the other hand, there is no doubt that, through my own fault, I had so poisoned my surroundings during the past few years, had gotten into such a rut that there seem to be no chance of escape. I had so long, kept up the form of piety, and even engaged in an active church work, when the whole thing was hypocrisy, that the things that are intended for moral and spiritual enlightenment had for me lost all their power. Perhaps not all, either, for I always at least had before me the ideal of a Christian life, and the wish (weak though I was) to lead one. It is this ideal which now seems to stand me in good stead—the ideal of a real Christian faith and resulting Christian life.
But you have no idea what a relief it was to me to be able, in a certain sense, to start out fresh, where my external relations had not been so connected with the habit of a false life. Don’t misunderstand me by thinking I mean to say that I have now overcome the difficulties or that I am now leading anything like what a Christian life ought to be—or even what an ordinary man regards as the ordinary morals of the world. But to say that this is not better than my life for example at the Hopkins is ungrateful. At least, it is not full of hypocrisy—at least I can begin, with something more like honesty, at the beginning. But for me to think about going into the ministry now would be simply to fall back into the old rut—and it is the partial escape from that that makes me so intensely grateful to you for making it possible for me to come to Europe. Yet the only thing that enables me to get any benefit out of my opportunities here is the continual presence with me in spirit of you and Mother and the Christian teaching which you have given me. . . .
My experience, when I write a letter about anything except commonplaces, is usually that I regret either in the whole or at least parts after I have put the letter in the box. All I can do, therefore, is to beg you not to take everything that I say too exactly. I am very much afraid of being misunderstood and of making a bad matter worse. Perhaps it would really be better to say nothing, as after all I only can understand the circumstances. But in view of my future plans, it has become simply a necessity to let you know something of what has been passing in my mind. Don’t think that this is anything particularly new—for in my own more honest moments I have felt for years that it is practically impossible for me to enter the ministry. My idea is to go on and finish my year of study without thinking too much about the future (thought that is mighty hard when I reflect that I am now 25 years old), unless (what would be the best thing of all) I can get directly into some line of work where I at least know that I am doing no harm.
The difficulty is more deep-seated than you can ever understand—and I can only beg of you not to think you can understand it by drawing on your own experience or that of the ordinary man. Such a procedure, little as you think it, could only have the effect of making me feel more keenly my isolation.5
The correspondence between Machen and his family continued like this for months. He would, however, finally accept a position at Princeton in 1906 where he taught until the reorganization of the seminary in 1929, when he formed Westminster Theological Seminary.
As much as Machen thought, at age 25, that no one else could understand his doubts about his qualification for ministry, or perhaps his potential disqualification for ministry, he was hardly the first young man to harbor such doubts. I have been teaching future pastors for more than 25 years and was myself once a future pastor, in seminary, wondering whether I should enter pastoral ministry or try to get a PhD and teach classics. My own doubts began to resolve during my pastoral internship between my middler and senior years and, in the providence of God, I ended up being both a pastor and a professor, but anyone who has faced Paul’s list of qualifications squarely is intimidated. Anyone who knows himself and his own sins feels disqualified for ministry. Indeed, conscientious students regularly worry about their qualifications for pastoral ministry.
At no point in his argument does Steelman produce any actual evidence for his claim. He does not actually make an argument as much as he insinuates, speculates, and draws unjustified inferences. This is what passes for scholarship in too many places in 2023.
A historian, however, has to try to be simultaneously sympathetic with his subject and maintain his objectivity. As much as possible, we must try to place ourselves in our subject’s shoes, as it were, in the turn-of-the-century American South. Our sexually libertine culture did not really begin to exist until after World War I (1914–18). The 1920s were roaring but, in most of the USA, homosexuality was regarded as scandalous until the late twentieth century. It would certainly have been regarded as scandalous and disqualifying for ministry.
Indeed, homosexuality was disqualifying for many jobs and responsible positions until the late twentieth century. The sexual culture in which we live now may not be read back into the Victorian era. Had Machen’s parents even the slightest inclination from either Machen or his brother Arthur had same-sex inclinations, we would expect the correspondence to have both a different tone and content. There is simply nothing here to indicate that whatever cause Machen to doubt his qualification for ministry that it was because he was queer, gay, or same-sex attracted.
Steelman suggests that Machen’s missing letter was deliberately destroyed, but that is sheer supposition since, as Stonehouse indicated in 1954, we have enough discussion of the letter itself to reconstruct the substance. Letters get lost. It happens. Appealing to and interpreting a letter that we cannot read is called an argument from silence and, whatever value such arguments may have, in this case it tells us nothing.
The truth is that we do not know why Machen felt disqualified for ministry. Reading through Machen’s correspondence with his family in this period, there is more evidence that it was his doubt about the historicity of Christianity than it was sexual temptation. Stonehouse refers to a letter from Machen’s mother (now lost) in which she expressed her concern that he had lost his Christian faith. Machen replied at length, allowing us to mirror (reconstruct) what his mother must have said.6
One of the more distasteful and lazy interpretative moves that scholars have made, in our sexually libertine age, is to anachronistically sexualize earlier expressions of masculine affection as sexual. Among Reformed figures it has been done to Theodore Beza, and now Machen’s expressions of affection for male friends has been sexualized. As difficult as it may be to believe now, in our hyper-sexualized age, there was a time not very long ago when men expressed affection for other men without the thought or hint of sexual attraction. I am uncertain how to prove that assertion since any text to which I might point is subject to being de-contextualized, re-contextualized, and sexualized. This is one of the many problems in the literary vandalism that passes for postmodern literary criticism. I am sixty-one years old. I lived in that world when not everything was sexualized, when Milton Berle’s appearance in drag was not received as anything but low-brow comedy. The humor in Jamie Farr’s character “bucking for a section 8” (a way to get out of the Army) in M*A*S*H was of an utterly non-sexual nature. He was clearly sane and would never get out of the Army that way. The sexual characters in that television series were the heterosexual male leads (e.g., Alan Alda’s character, Hawkeye).
Between 1905 and his ordination in 1913, Machen worked through his crisis. His critique of theological liberalism as a religion alien to Christianity, in The Origin of Paul’s Religion (1921), Christianity and Liberalism (1923), and The Virgin Birth (1930) reflect his resolution of at least some of the issues that troubled him. In Letters From the Front (of World War I), we see no indication of a crisis over sexuality. Machen was a literate, sensitive, thoughtful, athletic bachelor. In his world, that was not all that unusual. Not all literate, sensitive bachelors then (or now) are gay. It may be that Machen suffered from a same-sex attraction, but if he did we have no actual evidence of it, and Steelman has shed no actual light on the matter.
1. Storehouse, J. Gresham Machen, 113.
2. Ibid., 113.
3. Ibid., 113. Italics original.
4. Ibid., 114.
5. Ibid., 116–19.
6. Ibid., 139–42.
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