March 29 : The Trial of J. Gresham Machen

This Day in Presbyterian History:  The Strange Church Trial of a Spiritual Giant.

It all happened around seventy-seven years ago.  Back in March of 1935, Dr. J. Gresham Machen was before a church court of his peers seeking to defend himself against the serious charges of denying his ordination vows, disapproval of the government and discipline of the church, advocating a rebellious defiance against the lawful authority of the church, and we could go on and on in the charges leveled against this spiritual giant.  You would think that he was guilty of the most aggravated doctrinal error or moral shortcomings.  But in reality, it came down to a single issue—that of refusing to obey the 1934 mandate of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to cease and desist from supporting an independent board of missionaries, of which board he was the president.

The trial itself was a farce in every sense of the word.  Machen’s defense first tried to challenge certain members of the judicial commission itself as biased, seeking to have them recuse themselves, since at least two of these men had signed the theologically liberal Auburn affirmation.  That was denied.  Then the question of jurisdiction was argued, but that also was not sustained.

At the third session, upon hearing Dr. Machen declare himself “not guilty,” the Commission ruled that certain matters were out-of-bounds in the arguments of the defense case.  Those included questions which surrounded the existence of the Auburn Affirmation, signed in 1924.  They next ruled out any question concerning the nature and conduct of the official Board of Foreign Missions, which had prompted much of the problem when it gave its endorsement to the book entitled Rethinking Missions.  Further, arguments stemming from the reorganization of Princeton Seminary and the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary were also outlawed by the commission.  All of these were part and parcel of Dr. Machen’s defense, since they provided the background of the origin of the Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions.

All these rulings paled into insignificance, so to speak, however, when we consider the last ruling of the judicial commission.  It stated that the legality of the Thirty-Fourth General Assembly’s Mandate for the ministers, members, and churches to cease supporting the Independent Board and only support the official Board of Foreign Missions could not be questioned.

It was obvious that with all of these rulings, that there was only one verdict which could come forth from this judicial commission, and that was guilty.  And so on this date, March 29, 1935, the judgment of “Guilty” was rendered by this seven member Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.   Appeals to the higher courts were in vain, and J. Gresham Machen was suspended by the church.

Words to Live By:  In whatever issue which confronts us inside or outside the church, we must remember that God is Lord alone of our conscience, with the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments the  only infallible guide of faith and life.   Let us hold to those, not fearing what man can do to us.

Through the Scriptures: 1 Samuel 11 – 13

Through the Standards: Christ’s Exaltation in the Second Coming

WLC 56 — “How is Christ to be exalted in his coming again to judge the world?
A. Christ is to be exalted in his coming to judge the world, in that he, who was unjustly judged and condemned by wicked men, shall come again at the last day in great power, and in the full manifestation of  his own glory, and of his Father’s, with all his holy angels, with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God, to judge the world in righteousness.”

Image source : News clipping from one of seven scrapbooks gathered by the Rev. Henry G. Welbon. Image scan prepared by the staff of the PCA Historical Center.

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  1. Vaughn Edward Hathaway Jr’s avatar

    There are several lessons that Christians may derive from the PCUSA trials of Dr. J. Gresham Machen, the Reverend Mr. Carl McIntire and other members of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. One, however, that must be underscored is that faithful church members, especially those who are elders of the church must not fail to exercise the full biblical authority jurisdictional church discipline. As Dr. Gary North has ably demonstrated in his opus, Crossed Fingers, that the faithful of Dr. Machen’s day failed to do so. Their failure almost contradicts calling them faithful. Not a single signer of the heterodox Auburn Affirmation was even charged with heresy let alone tried for the same.
    One of the marks of a true church is the proper administration of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, which implicates the practice of biblical church discipline.
    Dr. Machen and company would regrettably learn by their own experience of the effects of the miscarriage of justice in the censures they received not for any theological or moral aberration on their part but for their proper refusal to submit to an unbiblical administrative directive of the General Assembly of the PCUSA.

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