Machen’s Warrior Mother

Another difference between New Calvinists and Reformed Protestants — sentimentality. Tim Challies does his best to present J. Gresham Machen as — we used to call them mama’s boys — the godly Christian son:

Because Gresham was a lifelong bachelor, his mother would remain the closest woman in his life until her death in 1931. This was the most grievous event he had experienced, for no one had held him in greater esteem than his mother. No one had been so unswervingly loyal to him. Perhaps no one had been so impacted by him. She once wrote to him: “I cannot half express to you my pride and profound joy in your work. You have handled in a very able manner the most important problem of the age, and you have given voice to my own sentiments far better than I could myself.” On the day the family laid her to rest, Gresham wrote, “My mother seems—to me at least—to have been the wisest and best human being I ever knew.”

God used Minnie’s powerful intellect and warm kindness to raise up a man who would benefit generations of Christians by his stalwart defense of the faith. And he continues to use such mothers to this day. Mothers, as you struggle to instruct your children in the Word and in sound doctrine, learn from Minnie that your labor is setting a strong foundation for years to come. As you strive to show steadfast love to your faltering children, learn from Minnie that God often uses such compassion to draw his children back to himself. Through your training and your tenderness, you are displaying the love of the Father.

Minnie had been her son’s first teacher and, with her husband, the one who led him to Christ. “Without what I got from you and Mother,” he would tell his father, “I should long since have given up all thoughts of religion or of a moral life. . . . The only thing that enables me to get any benefit out of my opportunities here is the continual presence with me in spirit of you and Mother and the Christian teaching which you have given me.” At his time of deepest need, she had comforted him with love and counseled him with the Word of God. She had remained loyal to him in that crisis and through every other controversy he endured. In his greatest and most enduring work, Christianity and Liberalism, it is fitting that its opening page bears this simple dedication: “To my mother.”

Tender. Warm. Kind. Compassion. Love. Loyalty. Those are all appealing words and they no doubt capture some of the relationship that Machen had with his mother, Mary Gresham.

But that portrait of the close relationship of mother and son (which those skeptical of Machen’s virtues have used to raise questions about his sexuality) doesn’t prepare New Calvinist admirers for the Warrior Children side of Machen. And to keep the spread sheets properly balanced, the New Calvinists (at least) need to remember how John Frame described the less than appealing side of Machen’s controversial proclivities:

The Machen movement was born in the controversy over liberal theology. I have no doubt that Machen and his colleagues were right to reject this theology and to fight it. But it is arguable that once the Machenites found themselves in a “true Presbyterian church” they were unable to moderate their martial impulses. Being in a church without liberals to fight, they turned on one another.

One slogan of the Machen movement was “truth before friendship.” We should laud their intention to act according to principle without compromise. But the biblical balance is “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). We must not speak the truth without thinking of the effect of our formulations on our fellow Christians, even our opponents. That balance was not characteristic of the Machen movement.

Fighting for the sake of contention is one thing. Fighting for a Reformed church according to the word is another. Many of Machen’s warrior children think they fight for the sake of God’s word. New Calvinists tend to be skeptical, as Frame is, about the extent of battle fronts. They even call Old Calvinists mean and ornery.

As long as New Calvinists also know that Machen had critics who called him mean and ornery, they might avoid sentimentalizing Machen. If they want to sanitize him, they need to explain how Minnie Machen ever let her son become such a controversialist.

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3 thoughts on “Machen’s Warrior Mother

  1. I wonder if Machen would have approved of adding the hymn “Mother Knows” to the trinity hymnal. It’s an oldie but a goodie I came across in an old baptist hymnal:

    1 Nobody knows of the work it makes
    To keep the home together,
    Nobody knows of the steps it takes,
    Nobody knows but mother;
    Nobody listens to the childish woes,
    Which kisses only smother,
    Nobody’s pain’d by the mighty blow,
    Nobody,—only mother.

    2 Nobody knows of the sleepless care
    Bestowed on baby brother,
    Nobody knows of the tender pray’r,
    Nobody knows but mother;
    Nobody knows of the lessons taught,
    Of loving one another;
    Nobody knows of the patience sought,
    Nobody,—only mother.

    3 Nobody knows of the anxious fears,
    Lest darlings may not weather,
    Storms of this life in the coming years,
    Nobody knows but mother;
    Nobody knows of the tears that start,
    The grief she gladly smother,
    Nobody knows of the breaking heart,
    Nobody,—only mother.

    4 Nobody clings to the wayward child,
    Tho’ scorn’d by ev’ry other,
    Leads it so gently from pathways wild,
    Nobody can but mother;
    Nobody knows of the hourly pray’r,
    For him, our erring brother,
    Pride of hear heart, once so pure and fair,
    Nobody,—only mother.

    If only there were a YouTube video of this…

    Like

  2. sdb, what about Pink Floyd ode to mother (“Mother, do you think they’ll try to break my balls?” Not very sentimentalist or Baptist but perhaps relevant in connection to Machen):

    Like

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