Machen’s Meals

100 years have passed since the publication of J. Gresham Machen’s classic polemic-apologetic book Christianity and Liberalism. The world has changed a lot in the intervening century. The Protestant churches certainly look different, with the mainline (in and for which Machen fought) hurtling headlong into numerical and doctrinal oblivion. Evangelicals (avoided liberalism and the Barthianism that followed) don’t look much better off in 2023 than do the Seven Rainbow Sisters of the mainline. Machen appears to have been right about a lot of things, thus interest in him has been high in this centennial year of his great book.
There is still some mystery (and mystique) surrounding Machen. The mists of time cloud our view of him. We do have a number of images of him (mostly dour portraits) so we have a good idea of his appearance throughout his 55 years of spiritual struggle and ecclesial combat. Though Machen was an early adopter of radio as a Christian teaching medium, no recordings of him have been found. We do not know what he sounded like. Questions remain: Did he retain the segregationist views he privately espoused 20 or more years before his death? Why did he never marry? Did he have a girlfriend at one time? As questions of sex and race have intensified in the culture, activists and ax-grinders have not always been charitable (or fair) when assessing these aspects of Machen’s life.

Machen did live in a different time. He also lived in a different class than most of us. He was sophisticated and well off, yet he lived simply—in a dorm at Princeton and then from 1929 in an apartment in Philadelphia. But his suits were custom-made; his coats had special oversized pockets to keep books close at hand. Those of us interested in Machen welcome any help understanding his time and place, thus an old menu from 1921 has set us thinking—what would/did Machen eat?

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Brad Isbell | “What Did Machen Eat?” | November 30, 2023


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  1. Dr. Clark had asked me last year to consider posting publicly for the record what I had emailed him privately regarding Machen’s interest in at least one and probably two women after some liberals claimed he was a closeted homosexual. I failed to do so, mostly because I do not have access to a theological library and am extremely uncomfortable posting matters publicly from memory of what I remember reading in books or articles which I know exist somewhere in print, but to which I don’t have access.

    However, these comments require a response and perhaps this is the right time: “Why did he never marry? Did he have a girlfriend at one time? As questions of sex and race have intensified in the culture, activists and ax-grinders have not always been charitable (or fair) when assessing these aspects of Machen’s life.”

    One of Machen’s biographers wrote that Machen was in fact romantically involved with a woman who (in light of the upper-class standards of the day) was considered to be a very good match for him, presumably with regard to her personal refinement, culture, and family background. There was a problem, however: She was a Unitarian. From memory, Machen’s mother was involved in correspondence or personal discussion with her regarding religious matters, and Machen personally arranged to have one of his books (it may have been Christianity and Liberalism) bound for her with a special cover. Upon reading the book, whatever it was, she realized that if she was a Christian at all, she was a very bad one. In other words, she was honest with herself, unlike the liberals in Machen’s own denomination.

    But the reason Dr. Clark wanted me to post is that Rev. Edwin Elliott, the longtime publisher of Christian Observer, told me repeatedly that either he or his father, or perhaps both, personally knew the family of a member of a Presbyterian church, I believe in Virginia, who Machen had quietly courted. Given Machen’s family background in the Southern Presbyterian Church, not the Northern, and the close proximity of Machen’s family home in Baltimore to Virginia, that would not have been surprising. The woman was definitely interested in Machen, and the feeling was mutual, but she was unhappy with Machen failing to be more rapid in his courtship, told him that she had other suitors, and he either needed to move forward or back off. He did the latter, and she married a man who was not only from the South but lived in the South. Rev. Elliott said more to me about how that relationship with her affected his decision to remain in the Northern church and not transfer to the Southern church when things began to get difficult for him in the PC(USA) and at Princeton, but my memory is hazy enough that I am not comfortable repeating what may be family lore without a clear foundation in provable fact.

    It appears it is well established in print — though I cannot cite the reference — that Machen had at least one woman in whom he was very interested but understood that he could not be unequally yoked with an unbeliever, and very likely had a second woman as well who he was quietly courting at a different time.

    Considering the very public life that Machen lived, and the very small number of eligible women from an upper-class conservative Presbyterian background who would want the life of a seminary professor’s wife, it seems we have a situation of a man who was following the standards of the era in having a match based on social class, but distance got in the way with the Southern Presbyterian belle, and doctrine caused his courtship of the other woman to founder.

    As you point out, Brad, Machen lived in a different time and a different social class from ours. “Love matches” based on passion and romance were the exception, not the norm, particularly for the monied and educated elite from an “old money” background. Courtships were done very quietly, often with extensive involvement of family members, and not publicly discussed to avoid causing public embarrassment to the woman in the event the relationship did not lead to marriage.

    Machen was far from the only professor of his era who remained single well into his professional life, not for lack of interest in marriage, but because 1) men routinely did not marry until they were accomplished in their profession and had a stable income, and 2) the number of socially acceptable potential wives was very small who were willing to marry a professor.

    Furthermore, because it was considered unseemly and inappropriate for a man of power and status to publicly acknowledge courting a woman until an engagement to marriage was all but certain, we often don’t know how many women such men courted because neither the man, nor the woman, nor their respective families, would consider that appropriate for the public to know since it would lead only to gossip.

    This isn’t just ancient history. We have only recently learned from family documents that when they were in law school together, many decades before they were on the Supreme Court, the future Chief Justice William Rehnquist had asked the future Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to marry him. She turned him down. But despite their very public profiles, apparently nobody knew, or almost nobody, outside the immediate family.

    Put bluntly, the people coming up with garbage about why Machen was single should spend more time studying the marriage practices of upper-class Americans in an era before our culture became saturated with sexuality. WLC 139 cites “undue delay of marriage” as an example of a sin against the Seventh Commandment, and the common standard advice of conservative Christians today to marry shortly after high school or college is better than the older practice, but we forget how radically different the older practice was. The arguments for the older practice were based on the assumption that a married couple would quickly have a growing family that required a substantial income by the husband to support, so it’s not as if the older practice didn’t have biblical grounds for it.

  2. By the way, on something unrelated: in your full article you mention Machen’s interest in mountain climbing. Your link sent me to this article by Machen, which I remember reading long, long ago:

    “On my second visit I had some glorious days in the Grossglockner group and on a few summits in the Zillerthal Alps and also made my first visit to that beautiful liberty-loving land of South Tirol, where, as a result of a war fought to ‘make the world safe for democracy,’ Mussolini is now engaged in the systematic destruction of a language and civilization that has set its mark upon the very face of the landscape for many centuries.”

    South Tyrol (the modern spelling) is the part of Italy from which my ancestors come, and some of my relatives were among the Italian war heroes who fought on the side of Italy against Austria to bring the Tyrol under Italian control. They were later quite upset, as Machen points out, with what the Italians did with their new territory they had worked so hard to sever from Austria and bring under the rule of the Italian House of Savoy.

    My ancestral village is four miles off the main road between Venice and Innsbruck in the high mountain passes of the Italian Alps. It’s all but certain that Machen would have traveled past the church which the Maurinas attended, and where there are baptismal records dating back over a thousand years to the settlement of the high mountain valleys by vassals of the Counts of Tyrol.

    I’ve often wondered what Machen’s relationship was with Italian Protestants given the time he spent in Italy. I don’t know the answer; perhaps some OPC historians do. However, given the large Italian population of Philadelphia and of New Jersey, it seems likely that he would have had at least some concern for the spiritual welfare of the Italians who, in that era, were considered the “lowest of the low” among immigrants, and were hired to “do jobs Americans refuse to do.”


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