What The Northern Presbyterian Church Did To Dr. J. Gresham Machen
(“Exploring Avenues Of Acquaintance And Co-operation”)
By Chalmers W. Alexander
This is the seventh in the series of articles by Chalmers W. Alexander under the heading, “Exploring Avenues of Acquaintance And Co-operation.” This is an informative new series of articles written by one of the most able laymen in the Southern Presbyterian Church.
III. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF DR. MACHEN’S DISMISSAL
The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions was incorporated in December of 1933, with Dr. Machen as its President. “And for its general secretary and most active worker,” Time reported, in its April 23, 1934, issue, “they chose no grizzled Presbyterian die-hard, but a keen, quick-smiling young missionary named Charles J. Woodbridge.
The Board’s General Secretary
“Princeton students, and especially soccer players, of a decade ago remember Charley Woodbridge well. They remember him carrying trays in Commons as he worked his way through. They remember his antic agility on the soccer field where he more than held his own in the forward line against much heavier men. He had learned the game from the English at school in China, where he was born in 1901 in a family which counts 14 generations of ministers, back to 1493. They remember that, without being a ‘greasy grind,’ Charley Woodbridge was always near the head of his class in studies and that without being a meddlesome ‘Christer’ he was quietly, sincerely, and it seemed merrily, pious.
“Charley Woodbridge emerged from Princeton Seminary untouched by its liberalism, studied at Berlin and Marburg, took a pastorate in Flushing, L.I., where he married a missionary’s daughter. When he went as a missionary to the French Cameroun in 1932 it was to replace a man who had been fatally stung by an insect. Studying the local dialect, Missionary Woodbridge evangelized for six months in the malaria-ridden jungle, then took charge of 110 evangelists covering 5,000 sq. mi. A firm bible-believer, he learned to deplore the ways of the official Presbyterian Board, such as when a member on an inspection tour addressed 3,500 naked Cameroun heathens who had never heard of the Gospel, on the subject: ‘The Power of the Personality.’ When informed of his election as secretary of the upstart Board, Missionary Woodbridge resigned his post, returned in January with his pretty wife and two daughters.”
The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions got off to a flying start. Many Bible-believing Presbyterians volunteered to go immediately as foreign missionaries through the agency of the new Independent Board. And very shortly some of these volunteers began to be placed in the foreign mission fields. The prospects for the future of the Independent Board were bright and promising.
The Northern Presbyterian “Machine” Gets Under Way
So much interest was shown by Bible-believing Presbyterians in this new Independent Board that it aroused to action some of the ecclesiastical dignitaries of the Northern Presbyterian Church who held positions of great power and influence, and they began to use that power and influence.
As a result of their efforts, the General Assembly of 1934 directed “that all ministers and laymen affiliated! with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. who are officers, trustees or members of the ‘Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions’ . . . sever their connection with this Board,” that in case of their refusal so to act, the presbyteries to which they were subject should institute disciplinary proceedings against them.
When the Presbytery of New Brunswick called upon Dr. Machen to resign his membership in the Independent Board, his reply was a positive and determined refusal. Then the Presbytery preferred charges against Dr. Machen. for disobeying the order.
The Trial Of Dr. Machen
Dr. Machen was tried as charged, and the Presbytery of New Brunswick found him guilty and brought in a verdict that he should be suspended from the ministry of the Northern Presbyterian Church. This took place in 1935.
Immediately following the announcement of the Presbytery’s judgment, Dr. Machen issued a statement, part of which is quoted here (the emphasis is added) : “The Special Judicial Commission of the Presbytery of New Brunswick has simply condemned me without giving me a hearing. I am condemned for failing to obey a lawful order; but when my counsel, the Rev. H. McAllister Griffiths, offered to prove that the order that I had disobeyed was not lawful but unlawful the court refused to hear a word of argument. I am condemned for making false assertions about the Modernism of the official Board of Foreign Missions but when my counsel offered to prove that those assertions were not false but true, the court would1 not hear a ‘word of the evidence that we were perfectly ready to produce. It is not too much to say that a trial conducted in that fashion is nothing but a farce.”
Nor was Dr. Machen the only person who felt that the trial did not offer him an opportunity to get to the heart of the problem and present the evidence in his defense. In an interview published in The New York Times shortly after the judgment in Dr. Machen’s case was announced, Dr. Daniel Russell, Moderator of the Presbytery of New York—the outstanding liberal Presbytery of the entire Northern Presbyterian Church—remarked: “. . . there must be a widespread feeling of sorrow together with something of sympathy for the accused in that, after thirty years of distinguished service to religion, this famed scholar, whether through his own fault or otherwise, has been condemned by his Presbytery, and that his denomination, if the condemnation is sustained, can find no place in which his brilliant gifts may be utilized.
“This is the more regrettable because Dr. Machen has steadily upheld those doctrines which, historically, have stood central in reformed theology. In an age of loose thinking, of vague conjecture in the areas of Christian faith, his position has been clear-cut, definite; the fruit of intellectual insight and passionate conviction . . .
“Was Dr. Machen’s trial a fair one? Ecclesiastical lawyers may maintain that no question of doctrine is involved. In the more adequate view there are doctrinal differences which run into the heart of the entire problem. These the accused was not permitted to discuss in his defense.” (The emphasis is added.)
The Judgment Is Affirmed
Immediately after the judgment of the Presbytery of New Brunswick was announced, Dr. Machen appealed to the Synod of New Jersey; and the Synod affirmed the judgment of the Presbytery. Then Dr. Machen appealed to the General Assembly of the Northern Presbyterian Church; and the General Assembly affirmed the judgment of the Synod of New Jersey.
Thus, in 1936, Dr. Machen was kicked out of the ministry of the Northern Presbyterian Church because he had helped) establish and run a foreign missions board which would not tolerate Modernism or give it support in the foreign missions work! And Dr. Charles Woodbridge, the General Secretary of the independent Board (who is now the distinguished Pastor of the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah, Georgia), and other associates of Dr. Machen in the Independent Board enterprise were likewise tried and kicked out of the ministry of the Northern Presbyterian Church.
Cause For Very Serious Thought
Right at this very point every Southern Presbyterian, who hitherto may have had very little concern about the proposed union of our denomination with the much larger Northern Presbyterian Church, should pause for some very serious thinking.
That which should give him occasion for serious thought is the striking contrast between how the Northern Presbyterian Church treated Dr. Henry P. Van Dusen and Dr. Henry Sloane Coffin, on the one hand, and how it treated Dr. Charles Woodbridge and Dr. Machen, on the other.
Dr. Van Dusen And Dr. Woodbridge
Dr. Van Dusen is a graduate of Princeton University and of Union Theological Seminary of New York City. He is a Modernist and at present he is the President of Union Theological Seminary of New York. He is also a member of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Northern Presbyterian Church.
Dr. Woodbridge is a graduate of Princeton University and a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. He is widely known as a Bible-believing Christian.
Now when Dr. Van Dusen was licensed as a minister, he did not affirm belief in the Virgin Birth. But the Presbytery of New York licensed him anyhow. The General Assembly of 1925 directed the Presbytery of New York to correct this improper licensure, and it issued a formal judicial decision to that effect. But this judicial decision was ignored, and Dr. Van Dusen was ordained.
Dr. Van Dusen flatly refused to accept the formal ruling of several General Assemblies that the Virgin Birth was a doctrine essential to proper ministerial licensure. Now what treatment has Dr. Van Dusen received since that event? Why, he has been accorded the high honor of representing the Northern Presbyterian Church at the Madras Conference in 1938 and at the World Council of Churches meeting in Amsterdam in 1948!
Dr. Woodbridge, on the other hand, was ordered to sever his connection with the Independent Board for Foreign Missions (which came into being because of the Modernism existing in the missions activities of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Northern Presbyterian Church). Dr. Woodbridge flatly refused to obey this order.
Dr. Woodbridge thus ignored an “in thesi” deliverance (which does not have the force of a formal judicial decision) of the General Assembly of 1934. Now what treatment did Dr. Woodbridge receive after that? Why, he was booted out of the ministry of the Northern Presbyterian Church!
Dr. Coffin And Dr. Machen
Let us consider, briefly, another contrast.
In the General Assembly of 1925, Dr. Coffin, one of America’s leading Modernists and a signer of the heretical Auburn Affirmation, deliberately defied the General Assembly. He openly declared his nullification of the action of that General Assembly in condemning the Presbytery of New York for licensing Dr. Van Dusen—and this nullification carried in such a. way that it in effect set aside the judicial decision of the 1925 Genera) Assembly, which decision is actually recorded in the official Minutes of the Assembly for that year.
What happened to Dr. Coffin after this? He was elected to the high office of Moderator of the General Assembly of 1943!
Dr. Machen, on the other hand, like Dr. Woodbridge, disregarded an “in thesi” deliverance of the General Assembly of 1934.
What happened to Dr. Machen as a result? He was kicked out of the ministry of the Northern Presbyterian Church!
In the interest of closer acquaintance with the Northern Presbyterian Church, we Southern Presbyterians have a right to demand an answer to this question: Why did the Northern Presbyterian Church sacrifice the two ministers who valiantly defended the historic’ Christian Faith and at the same time reward and honor the two ministers who have consistently rejected it?
Mrs. Buck’s Opinion Of Dr. Machen And His Opponents
Among the thousands of persons who followed with close attention the trial and suspension from the ministry of Dr. Machen in 1936 was Mrs. Pearl S. Buck. When Dr. Machen died on January 1,1937, Mrs. Buck wrote the following comments in The New Republic. As Dr. Machen had been instrumental in bringing about Mrs. Buck’s resignation under pressure as a missionary of the Northern Presbyterian Church, naturally she could be expected to say some sharp things, and even some very unfair things, about him. But what is really unexpected in the following quotation is the opinion that Mrs. Buck, herself a Modernist, expressed about the Modernists and some of the so-called “middle-of-the-road” group who hold high places in the Northern Presbyterian Church. She remarked (the emphasis is added) :
“I admired Dr. Machen very much while I disagreed with him on every point. And we had much the same fate. I was kicked out of the back door of the ‘Church and he was kicked out of the front one. He retaliated by establishing a Church of his own. The Mother Church was called the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, but he gave his Church a bigger name—the Presbyterian Church of America. Of course what he did not realize was that he could never have lived in a Church. As soon as it had become an entity he would have had to compromise with this opinion or that, or more impossible still to him, with a majority opinion, and he would have had to break again with them all. One might say death was merciful to him, except I have an idea he enjoyed his wars.
“The man was admirable. He never gave in one inch to anyone. He never bowed his head. It was not in him to trim or compromise, to accept any peace that was less than triumph. He was a glorious enemy because he was completely open and direct in his angers and hatreds. He stood for something and everyone knew what it was. There was no shilly-shally in him. His attacks were intelligently conceived and logically executed, with a ruthlessness that was extraordinary in its consistency. In another age he would have burned people at the stake in serene confidence that he was serving God truly. And so he would have been, for his God was a jealous God, and he served with a whole-heartedness of which only a few great spirits are capable. In a present world of dubious woven grays, his life was a flaming thread of scarlet, regardless and undismayed. He was afraid of nothing and of no one. Fortunately he was called to the limited field of Protestant religion. In the Catholic Church he might have become a dangerously powerful figure, and had he found his expression in politics, our country might have chosen him as the first candidate for dictatorship. It was therefore a comparatively mild matter that he merely hounded from the Church those who held a creed different from his own.
“The Church has lost a colorful figure and a mind which stimulated by its constant contrary activities. He added life to the Church, and it needs life. And we have all lost something in him. We have lost a man whom our times can ill spare, a man who had convictions which were real to him and who fought for those convictions and held to them through every change in time and human thought. There was a power in him which was positive in its very negations. He was worth a hundred of his fellows who, as princes of the Church, occupy easy places and play their church politics and trim their sails to every wind, who in their smug observance of the conventions of life and religion offend all honest and searching spirits. No forthright mind can live among them, neither the honest skeptic nor the honest dogmatist. I wish Dr. Machen had lived to go on fighting them.”
A Fairer View Of Dr. Machen’s Endeavor
At the same time that Mrs. Pearl S. Buck was writing her comments, an opinion free of any and all prejudice, either for or against Dr. Machen, was being written by a completely disinterested commentator, Albert C. Diffenbach, himself a Unitarian, who is the brilliant Religious Editor of The Evening Transcript of Boston, Mass. Writing in that paper he stated (the emphasis is added)
“Now all that Machen ever did was to hold fast to the faith and insist that those of his denomination who had taken their vows should do likewise. He was unwilling to yield an inch to the trend of modern thought. That in his sight did not touch the eternal Word of God, unchanging and unchangeable. He had the scholarship to make himself read and heard . . .
“Whatever the developments may be, one must salute the great spirit of Machen who knew the height and depth and breadth of religion. Differ from him as one will, he was a Christian of apostolic ardor. He believed in the infallible Bible, the virgin birth of Jesus, the atoning sacrifice of Christ, the final and complete redemptive authority of God. Machen was not intolerant in the harsh sense. He was a lover of his fellows, a companion of the greatest charm, and he fought for ‘what he believed was the truth always/ in the Christian spirit. Of course he did not tolerate what he felt was wrong, and no real person does. Tolerance after this manner is immoral and mean. Machen was a fundamentalist in the sense that he would make his doctrines prevail if he could, but though he was a formidable protagonist^ and stood defiant and sometimes vehement against actions that to him were ethically evil and intellectually subversive to Christianity, it is hazarding little to say that in all of his embattled career he did not forget his cause or himself.”
What All This Means To Us
There are thousands upon thousands of Southern Presbyterians, including myself, who do not have even the remotest idea of uniting: with, the Modernist-honoring Northern Presbyterian Church. We are perfectly willing to consider merging with any church which fully and truthfully accepts all of the Holy Bible as its final authority. ‘But, unfortunately, the Northern Presbyterian Church is definitely not in that classification.
We feel that when Dr. Machen was put on trial in the Northern Presbyterian Church, in principle we were put on trial also, for what he believed, we believe, and what he opposed, we oppose.
If there was no room for Dr. Machen in the Northern Presbyterian Church, then there is certainly no room in it for us.
When Dr. Machen was put on trial, actually, in our eyes, it was the Northern Presbyterian Church Which was being put on trial. And after examining its actions, and that for which it now stands, all of the evidence in the case clearly indicates that the only verdict possible is contained in these words: “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin!”
Who The Real Trouble-Makers Are
Yes, we have heard it charged that Dr. Machen was “just a trouble-maker.” That has been said many times .before, and it will probably be said many times again. But that charge was fully and completely answered, once and for all, by the Editor of Christianity Todaywhen he wrote: “Dr. Machen has frequently been spoken of as a troublemaker in the Church but it should be clear to all genuine Christians that the real troublemakers were and are the advocates of this other gospel which is not another.”
We, too, the Bible-believing Christians in the Southern Presbyterian Church who adhere to the Christian Faith as it is summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith and in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, have been called trouble-makers in our own denomination.
But it should be perfectly clear to all genuine Christians that the real trouble-makers in the Southern Presbyterian Church are “the advocates of this other gospel ‘which is not another!”
What shall every Southern Presbyterian, as a Bible-believing Christian who vehemently opposes merging with a denomination which kicks out of its ministry such great Conservatives as Dr. J. Gresham Machen while at the same time it honors and exalts such extreme Modernists as Dr. Henry Sloane Coffin, the former President of Union Theological Seminary of New York City—what shall every Southern Presbyterian say with reference to the proposed union with the heresy-tainted Northern Presbyterian Church?
Thou Shalt Say, No!