April 1 : More on the Machen Trial

This Day in Presbyterian History:  

 A Question of Jurisdiction

It seemed to be a mere administrative matter between presbyteries.  Anyone who has been a member of these this lower court in Presbyterian churches has gone through such changes dozens, if not hundreds of times.   A teaching elder has changed ministries.  In so doing, he had come under the spiritual oversight of a different presbytery.  So he requests a change in his presbytery membership.  That usually is a normal administrative move which has little, if any, controversy to it.  But this case in the year 1935 was not a normal time, nor was the individual who sought to change his connection a normal teaching elder.

John Gresham Machen was the leader of the conservative wing of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.  For decades as a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, he had been a member of the New Brunswick Presbytery, of New Jersey.  Princeton Seminary, as everyone knows, is located in Princeton, New Jersey.  The new independent seminary with which Dr. Machen was associated with after 1930, namely, Westminster Theological Seminary, was located then in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  And so it was logical that Dr. Machen wished to change his membership from a presbytery in New Jersey to one in Pennsylvania.  And indeed such a change was made, with a vote of 78 in favor and 48 in opposition to such a move.

The question can be asked, why was there such a large number of negative votes for what was seemingly an administrative move?  Usually these votes get passed by a unanimous vote.  Remember the times.  Dr. Machen was not just a seminary professor, but also the president of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, after 1933. The increasing liberal denomination could abide, at least on the surface, with an independent seminary.  There were already those within the confines of Presbyterianism.  Union Theological Seminary was an independent seminary, still sending its graduates into the Presbyterian Church.  But the creation of a conservative mission board reached right into the local Presbyterian churches themselves, with money going away from the denominational missions board into this independent board.  So thus the Mandate of 1934 from the General Assembly sought to put a stop to the Independent Board, Dr. Machen, and all those who supported it.  The Presbytery of New Brunswick was a more favorable presbytery to do that, to try Dr. Machen for disobedience to the Mandate.  His transfer to the Philadelphia Presbytery is the fly in the ointment.

In the midst of all this, in the midst of the trial of Dr. Machen, the Presbytery of Philadelphia on April 1, 1935, votes 66 – 32, to adopt a memorial to the Synod of New Jersey that John Gresham Machen is under the jurisdiction of the Presbytery of Philadelphia.  However, the Presbytery of New Brunswick has already  appointed a Judicial Commission of seven members who ruled that the jurisdiction issue of Dr. Machen and his attorney, will not be handled by the commission.  As in other dates on this historical devotional, which relate the facts of this trial, the presbytery of New Brunswick finds Dr. Machen guilty, with his appeals to the higher courts  denied for redress.  He is suspended from the Presbyterian ministry.

Words to Live By: The apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Thessalonians 2:4 that those entrusted with the gospel should speak “not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.” (ESV)  God, not man, is the One whom we must endeavor to please in all things.

Through the Scriptures: 1 Samuel 21 – 24

Through the Standards: Natural liberty

WCF 9:1
“God has endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined to good, or evil.”

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  1. Vaughn Edward Hathaway Jr’s avatar

    While transfers of presbyterial membership may have been handled somewhat routinely even in the PCUSA of the 1930s, it remains a fact that if the party involved is discovered to have committed a sin during the time of the transfer, jurisdiction of the party remains with the dismissing presbytery. Now, we may differ with the determination that defiance of a General Assembly directive binding the conscience was a sin. None-the-less, according to standard practice of presbyterianism, the Presbytery of New Brunswick was correct in what it did.

  2. Seth Stark’s avatar

    A very interesting bit of history that I was not familiar with. Thank you!

    I did want to add one note: although the vast majority of transfers between Presbyteries are simple administrative matters, the receiving Presbytery has the right to vote down the transfer. This is an important “check and balance” in the Presbyterian system, in my opinion, and one that, perhaps, ought to be utilized more often.

    Keep up the great work. I look forward to reading this blog each day!

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