This past summer, it was reported that a delegate to the General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) used an “egregiously offensive” racial slur during the assembly. The OPC later stated that the culprit was a mystery man who was not a delegate at the assembly and was not seen again after the incident. There were also some clumsy attempts at humor and a quarrel involving self-service cafeteria pizza. The reports are confusing, and no formal investigation ever was carried out, so the precise events likely will never be known. In any case, the General Assembly responded by passing a “Statement of Regret and Sorrow” that condemned “all sins of racism, hatred, and prejudice” without delving into specifics.
This news from the Assembly re-irritated a dispute in Reformed circles about the OPC’s founder, fundamentalist theologian J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937). Machen was an enthralling writer, a brilliant churchman, a courageous leader, and a generous friend who won respect even from many of his opponents. He was also a segregationist, at least early in his life. Scholars have known this for decades. For instance, Machen’s primary biography—D. G. Hart’s Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (1994)—discusses Machen’s segregationism in its very first chapter.
The wider Christian public, however, only began debating Machen’s racial positions in 2018, two years after Donald Trump was elected President, as Black Lives Matter protests sprouted up across America. That year, Timothy Isaiah Cho, a graduate of Westminster Seminary in Escondido, published a series of three articles in Faithfully Magazine. In these articles, Cho describes himself as a revisionist historian, whose research has falsified the “dominant narrative” by discovering “hidden facts that inconveniently undermine our positions of credibility and authority.” According to Cho, “irrefutable evidence” demonstrates not only that Machen supported segregation, but also that he allowed “white privilege [to] color his theology” accommodating white supremacy through a “re-crafting of the Christian faith and the gospel itself.”. For Cho, moreover, these discoveries do more than expose Machen personally. They reveal how “White and European theologians in Reformed and conservative Evangelical circles are often portrayed” in the contemporary church as “the default and deﬁnitive voices of all good, objective, and unbiased theology,” creating “an atmosphere of spiritual and theological hubris” that silences “Non-White Christian voices.” For Cho, Machen’s abhorrent opinions are not just about Machen himself. They exemplify “the complex relationship” between “theological conservatism and racism in the U.S. church,” both past and present.
Given this sweeping language, a reader might presume that Cho found something shocking and momentous. Perhaps, for instance, an unpublished exegetical treatise where Machen argued for the curse of Ham, or an unknown sermon series pressing the OPC to add Jim Crow laws to the Westminster Confession. In truth, all three of Cho’s articles rest almost entirely on a single private letter that Machen wrote to his mother in 1913, when he was an obscure young Greek instructor. In this letter, Machen complains that a Black student at Princeton Theological Seminary will soon move into his dormitory and describes how he unsuccessfully sought to convince faculty members to prevent the dormitory’s integration. Many on the faculty, however, proved to be “sticklers” for Black civil rights, and one professor—Calvinist theologian B. B. Warfield (1851-1921)—spent two hours trying to persuade Machen to change his position. Scholars of Machen had cited this letter for over two decades before Cho wrote. “Irrefutable evidence” turns out to be the rough equivalent of skimming through old tweets.
Historical narratives are weighed by reading them against events and judging which interpretation more fully accounts for the variety, tensions, and lacunae in the historical record. If Cho and others who have drawn on him in recent years are to justify their polemics, they must establish three points. First, that Machen was a white supremacist during the 1920s and 1930s—that is, the Machen who wrote Christianity and Liberalism, founded the OPC, and built Westminster Seminar in Philadelphia, not just the Machen of 1913.
Second, critics like Cho must show that Machen’s racism infected his theology—that Machen recrafted his gospel message in such a way that his followers in the 1920s and 30s were led astray into false doctrine. Lastly, critics must demonstrate that Machen’s white theology was representative of evangelicalism, or at least, more representative than the views of those like Warfield who disagreed with him. So far, nothing in Machen’s works justifies any of these three theses.
For one thing, Machen’s convictions transformed over the course of his twenties and early thirties. In 1913, Machen was no saint. He was an overgrown frat brother. A lifelong bachelor, Machen often griped about his rooming situations. When working for the YMCA at the front in World War I, he fought so much with his (white French) roommate, that Machen started sleeping instead in the mess hall kitchen. In his early letters—dozens of which survive—Machen often devotes more thought to college football or the theater than to Christianity. While studying in Marburg in 1906, for instance, Machen affiliated with a Verbindung (a German student association) and boasted to his brother about the club’s reputation for fencing, dinner parties, and binge drinking. And, in one letter to his father, Machen confessed a life of “hypocrisy” as a student in America and rejoiced that—on moving to Europe for school—he could stop “leading anything like… a Christian life” and openly reject “what an ordinary man regards as the ordinary morals of the world.” Machen never named these sins, but surely, he implied sexual experimentation.
In the early 1900s, moreover, Machen was not an evangelical. He fell under the sway of his teacher, the great German Modernist Wilhelm Herrmann (1846-1922), and moved towards theological liberalism for several years. His parents feared that Machen had renounced Christianity entirely. Indeed, Machen only accepted his first job as Greek instructor at Princeton as long as he did not need to get ordained as a minister or sign any statement of faith. His letters do not allow us to trace when and how Machen returned to traditional Calvinism. But by 1914—when Machen was ordained in the Presbyterian Church—his reconversion was complete.
Machen was a segregationist long before he was an orthodox Christian, and evidence suggests that his segregationism weakened as his Christianity grew more orthodox. In 1905, at the height of his theological doubts, Machen sent a letter of condolence to his father—a leader in Maryland’s Democratic Party—expressing regrets that the state had failed to pass a law that his father had promoted aimed at Black voter suppression. In 1913, when Machen wrote the infamous letter to his mother, his return to evangelicalism was still recent, and he had yet to witness the horrors of World War I, which shaped him profoundly. During the war, for instance, Machen twice preached to Black troops: an experience he greatly enjoyed, for he had never attended a Black Protestant service before. Strikingly, it was only during the war—partly due to conflicts with various white Modernist chaplains—that Machen seems to have concluded that Modernism was the principal threat to the church and dedicated himself to its defeat. In short, then, the 1913 letter reveals little about Machen’s mature thought
Additionally, nothing in the letter suggests Machen’s theology was infected with racism, even in 1913. In this letter, Machen rests his argument for segregation upon “the facts of human nature,” “prudential ground,” and the social conditions of the South. He never mentions scripture, doctrine, or the revelation of God in nature. In fact, the 1913 letter is devoid of any theological content whatsoever.
After 1918, in contrast, Machen’s writings occasionally touched upon race from a theological perspective. Consider, for instance, another letter he sent to his mother, this one from 1920. There, Machen complained that the United States was increasingly becoming a “centralized, and probably militarized country” characterized by “the subservience of the church to the state, [and] contempt for the rights of minorities.” According to Machen, only the “gospel of Christ” could supply “blessed relief from that sinful state of affairs commonly known as ‘hundred-per-cent Americanism’.” One Hundred Percent Americanism was a common slogan in the 1920s used by the Ku Klux Klan and other nativist groups against Blacks, Jews, and immigrants. Machen had come to believe the gospel was the only protection against such racism.
Christianity and Liberalism (1923), Machen’s most famous work, repeatedly expressed this understanding of the gospel’s social impact. For instance, Machen decried the “oppressive legislation” of “Christian Americanization,” which is “inclined to proceed against the immigrants now with a Bible in one hand and a club in the other.” He singled out specific statutes—such as New York’s Lusk Laws and Oregon’s public education referendum (both passed with strong Klan support)—as imposing a “tyranny” over “human souls” “far more dangerous than the crude tyrannies of the past.” Machen was active in political organizations that worked to repeal these laws. And, on the last paragraph of the book, he praised the church as the only “refuge from strife” where humans can “forget for a moment all those things that divide nation from nation and race from race,” “united in overflowing gratitude at the foot of the Cross.”
Machen did not always uphold these ideals in his private life, and he never expressly criticized anti-Black (as opposed to anti-immigrant) laws. But it is hard to maintain that his theology was somehow a tool of white privilege. His theology envisioned the gospel as shattering all state discriminations and reconciling all things on heaven and earth in Christ.
Finally, Machen’s 1913 letter offers little ground for linking racism with theological conservatism. Undeniably, many fundamentalists were racists. But some, like B. B. Warfield and the other “sticklers” at Princeton (then the most conservative of the Presbyterian seminaries), defended Black civil rights and worked to change the opinions of men like Machen. Many Modernists were also notorious racists—notably Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), president of Princeton University and the best-known Presbyterian layman in America.
More importantly, fundamentalism was not solely white. For much of the last century, historians ignored this truth, and present-day pollsters still regularly exclude all non-white respondents from the category “evangelical,” no matter the respondent’s theology or denominational loyalties. But as scholars like Daniel Bare and Mary Beth Swetnam have proven, many Black Protestants in interwar America combatted Modernist theology, viewed Modernism as a white phenomenon, read and adapted from white fundamentalist authors, and even labeled themselves “fundamentalists” and were so labeled by foes. Blacks participated fully in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. To portray conservative theology as a white movement is to cut Black evangelicals off from their heritage and deny them the acclaim they deserve for preserving the gospel against racism and Modernism alike.
Among Presbyterians, theologians from a small sliver of northwestern Europe have indeed served as “the default and deﬁnitive voices” for too long. Partly, this was unavoidable, given the ethnicity of almost all Calvinists until the twentieth century (as an Italian American, I wish Peter Martyr Vermigli received more attention). Today, in contrast, there are far more conservative Presbyterians in Mexico, South Korea, Nigeria, or Kenya than in all the American Presbyterian denominations, evangelical and mainline alike, combined. New voices are needed. But such voices will be heard by rediscovering the diversity of historic Christianity, not by denouncing conservative doctrines as a theology of white privilege.
If, then, Machen’s 1913 letter does not amount to much on close scrutiny, why did it become so controversial in Reformed circles over the last few years? An aside made by Timothy Cho’s in his first article hints at the reason: there is a hall at Westminster Seminary named for Machen. Statues to heroes—whether built in stone or built in tales—have fallen all over America. And sometimes, statues must fall.
Memorializing a person is saying that we, as a community, wish to emulate the virtues that we see embodied in this person. For the past eighty years, Machen inspired his warrior children by embodying the virtues of courage, intellectual rigor, and openness towards the common grace found in unbelieving culture. But he also exalted honesty over friendship, truth over kindness. Machen was and is a hard man to live with. We may need new heroes. But if so, let us replace Machen for the faults that he had—not the faults that we invent for him.
Nathan Ristuccia is the author of Christianization and Commonwealth in Early Medieval Europe (Oxford University Press, 2018), winner of the 2019 Brewer Prize from the American Society of Church History.
Cho’s articles are paywalled, but can be accessed at these links: “A Tale of Two Machens” (September 8 2018), “J. Gresham Machen, Woodrow Wilson, and Attempts to Erase the Black Presence at Princeton” (November 3 2018), and “Interview: Historian Peter Slade Weighs in On Machen, Christianity, and Race” (November 30 2018). ↑
Quoted in Ned Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Banner of Truth 2019), 304. ↑
Quoted in Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen, 304. ↑
J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923), 149. ↑
Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 12-14. ↑
Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 180. ↑