Machen Had His Chance and Blew It

Or so the neo-Calvinists and theonomists would have us believe. You see, in 1926 Machen testified before Congress as the representatives were deliberating on the formation of the Federal Department of Education. Machen’s testimony is here. What should be noted is that Machen appeared before Congress as a representative of the Sentinels of the Republic, a libertarian organization formed by Massachusetts small government types (this was no Christian Democratic Party). Even though identified as a minister in the Presbyterian Church and a professor of New Testament at Princeton, Machen avoided any attempt to make Christianity the norm for public education, especially when it came to teaching morality in schools. Here is an intriguing exchange:

SENATOR FERRIS: For my own information I wish to ask what you regard as the basic element or elements in moral conduct. Perhaps that is a foolish question.

DR. MACHEN: The basic elements in moral conduct?

SENATOR FERRIS: Yes, sir. What is the basis. I judge from your remarks that experience received minor consideration.

DR. MACHEN: Yes, sir — Well, I am an adherent of a certain religious group. We have our definite notion as to the basis of morality, and it is in my belief altogether a religious one. I intend to proclaim that basis of morality is the will of God as revealed by God, and I am interested in the right of all others to maintain that as the only basis of morality. I belong to what is often called a very strict sect, the Presbyterian Church, but it is a sect which has always been devoted to the principles of liberty; and I am unlike a great many of my fellow citizens — tolerance to me means not only tolerance for that with whichI am agreed, but it means also tolerance for that to which I am most violently opposed.

I was thoroughly opposed, for example, to the Lusk laws in the State of New York which were intended to bring about the closing of the Rand School in the city of New York. I cannot imagine anything more harmful than the Rand School; there is nothing to which I am more opposed, which I think more subversive of morality; and yet I was absolutely opposed to any such law as that. I believe in liberty, and, therefore, when I believe I have a right to proclaim the basis of morality which I think is only in the will of God, I also claim the right for other persons to proclaim whatever else they may hold with regard to it. But to proclaim in our public schools that morality is only the result of human experimentation — “this is the conduct which Uncle Sam has found in the course of American history to be right” — that, I think, is subversive of morality; and I do not believe that anyone can encourage moral conduct in others unless he has first in his own mind the notion of an absolute distinction and not a merely relative distinction between right and wrong.

I do not know whether that at all answers your question.

SENATOR FERRIS: I am just wondering whether there is any such thing as moral conduct in the United States Congress or among the citizens of the United States apart from a distinctively religious basis. I am just wondering whether the public schools have any function in the way of teaching morality which is not distinctively religious in its basic idea.

DR. MACHEN: I think that the solution lies not in a theoretic teaching in the public schools as to the basis of morality, because I do not think you can keep that free from religious questions; but I do hold that a teacher who himself or herself is imbued with the absolute distinction between right and wrong can maintain the moral standing, the moral temper of a public school.

SENATOR FERRIS: Is the ethical culturist ruled out from the consideration of morality in his views and conduct?

DR. MACHEN: I am not ruling out anybody at all, sir — the ethical culturist or anyone else.

SENATOR FERRIS: No; but if religion is the basic element in all morality, then can we have a morality that is not founded on a religious idea?

DR. MACHEN: I myself do not believe that you can have such a morality permanently, and that is exactly what I am interested in trying to get other people to believe; but I am not at all interested in trying to proclaim that view of mine by any measures that involve compulsion, and I am not interested in making the public school an agency for the proclamation of such a view; but I am interested in diminishing rather than increasing the function of the public school, in order to leave room for the opportunity of a propagation of the view that I hold in free conflict with all other views which may be held, in order that in that way the truth finally may prevail.

If Machen had wanted to take every thought captive, if he believed that the United States was founded on biblical teaching, why did he whiff on a softball that is right in a neo-Calvinist’s wheelhouse. Why nothing on no neutrality? Why nothing on the antithesis between the followers of Christ and the followers of Satan? Maybe he was a coward. Or maybe he distinguished between his duties as a churchman and those of a citizen in a republic that gave no preference to any religion.

I wonder if the transformationalists get goosebumps reading this Machen.

This entry was posted in J. Gresham Machen, Novus Ordo Seclorum, spirituality of the church and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Zrim
    Posted September 21, 2013 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Doug, who’s this we? Believers and unbelievers? That’s what civil society is made up of, in which case do you really expect unbelievers to look to God’s Word to settle civil disputes?

  2. Posted September 24, 2013 at 4:16 am | Permalink


    Help me out, guys. What does it mean?

    I’ve been trying to get a life and have been semi-successful so I haven’t been around much.

  3. Posted September 24, 2013 at 4:52 am | Permalink


    Too bad you weren’t in town today. Had a cross country meet on a golf course and the weather was absolutely perfect.

  4. Posted February 12, 2014 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Is their evidence that Machen thought America was formed on Christian principles? A lot of the founding fathers were deists. Also more broadly Machen defines Christianity and liberalism as two different religions. I don’t think liberalism was such a new thing in Machen’s time. For example it seems around the time of Jonathan Edwards a number of pastors converted to Christianity while leading churches. I think liberalism is not such a new thing but comes and goes in a culture where Christianity is common. Machen frequently spoke about his great respect for those with doubts and seems to have deep respect for the liberal theologians (probably because he strongly considered the position) although placing them outside of Christianity.

  5. Posted February 12, 2014 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Danny, Machen didn’t talk about the founding much, but my sense is that he thought the American founding came out of the British tradition of rights and freedoms going back to Magna Carta.

  6. Posted February 12, 2014 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    Danny – For example it seems around the time of Jonathan Edwards a number of pastors converted to Christianity while leading churches.

    Erik – Those who fell under the spell of the New Schoolers, anyway.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>