Those who know the story of J. Gresham Machen know that he died of pneumonia while on a speaking tour in North Dakota. But did you know he had been sick for most of the prior month of December? It must have been his strong sense of duty or the urgency of the times that drove him to honor that scheduled engagement on the wintry Dakota plains.
For several years Dr. Machen had been speaking on the radio in Philadelphia, as part of a short devotional program. On December 13, 1936, Dr. Allan A. MacRae, a young faculty member at Westminster Seminary, wrote to Dr. Machen:
. . . As I heard your splendid message on the radio this afternoon, and noted the very evident severe cold which is troubling you, I felt especially regretful about disturbing you at this time. Nevertheless I felt that it was necessary that I ask your advice about a certain matter…
Then, a few short weeks later, after Dr. Machen had died, Dr. MacRae wrote to Dr. Oswald T. Allis, another Westminster professor:
When I wrote you a few days ago I had no idea that Dr. Machen’s illness was at all serious. Friday night at midnight Paul Woolley phoned to tell me that he had died. It was a terrible shock to all of us. Paul said that he sent you a cable.
Dr. Machen had been troubled with a cold for the last three or four weeks. He was always quite susceptible to colds so we were not especially concerned about it. Over Christmas it was very warm here. When he left for North Dakota one hardly needed an overcoat in Philadelphia. Out there it was four above zero–a very severe change. He spoke at Bismark Tuesday evening. Sam Allen was with him. After the meeting he mentioned that he was suffering severe pain. His temperature was found to be 102 degrees. He went right to the hospital and it was diagnosed as pleurisy. The next day it turned out to be pneumonia. Sam Allen stayed with him all the time, except for the interval when he went to his own Church to conduct prayer meeting Wednesday evening. I have not yet talked with anyone who was there. All we know is from the newspapers, and from the conversations that Paul has had over long distance phone lines. I gather that he was conscious most of the time, and under an oxygen tent for almost three days. Friday evening at 7:30 he breathed his last.
Words to Live By :
Resolve to take better care of yourself this year. Our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made by the God of all creation, and illnesses don’t often spring up without some prior warning symptoms. No Christian will die a moment before the Lord intends, but proper treatment of physical maladies, administered early, will often spare greater problems in this life.
For further study:
To view the ruins of the OPC church in Leith, North Dakota, where Dr. Machen delivered his last messages, click here. [2nd and 3rd photos on this page]
The J. Gresham Machen Manuscript Collection is preserved at the Montgomery Library on the campus of Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. Separately, the staff of the PCA Historical Center have gathered a modest collection of Machen-related materials, a list of which may be viewed here.
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