The Best Decision I ever Made

Maybe not ever. Marrying the missus has to be at the top since deciding to trust Jesus was not really my decision. But my conversation yesterday with Tom Woods about Machen was one of those rare moments when you see directly the consequences of a choice made longer ago than you care to admit. The closest I could come most easily to that decision was to resurrect the preface to my dissertation (“‘DOCTOR FUNDAMENTALIS’: AN INTELLECTUAL BIOGRAPHY OF J. GRESHAM MACHEN, 1881-1937,” Johns Hopkins University, 1988):

The central argument of this study is that Machen’s involvement in the fundamentalist controversy, his eventual expulsion from the Presbyterian Church, and his founding of Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church were logical outcomes of his biblical scholarship and critique of religious liberalism. In fact, when understood in the light of his theological convictions, Machen’s behavior appears thoroughly reasonable.

This reading of Machen stems in part from my concerns as an intellectual historian. One of my presuppositions is that ideas, both religious and secular, operate with some autonomy from social and cultural settings. More importantly, I assume that religious thought cannot be reduced to or interpreted narrowly by social experience. These suppositions imply that Machen’s studies and beliefs were causal factors in his career and explain his behavior as well as, if not better than, his personality. I have not pursued psychological interpretations, then, because Machen’s ideas seem to offer an adequate explanation. Having said this, however, I must still admit that this approach stacks the deck in Machen’s favor since he also insisted throughout the fundamentalist controversy that differences stemmed from intellectual, not personal or administrative factors.

Because many recent studies have stressed the intellectual dimension of fundamentalism, I should also explain why I think mine is different. By emphasizing Machen’s Calvinistic outlook, this dissertation breaks with previous interpretations which explain fundamentalism largely by reference to such epistemological considerations as the persistence of Scottish Common Sense Realism among conservative Protestants. As helpful as these studies have been, I believe they overdramatize the philosophical differences between Protestants and overlook the significance of doctrine to the fundamentalist controversy. Yet, rather than stressing the theological convictions that united conservative Protestants, I have focused on one fairly specific rationale for opposition to modernism, namely, Machen’s Old School Presbyterian heritage, not Princeton Seminary’s defense of biblical inerrancy. Without considering Machen’s confessional concerns, students of twentieth-century evangelicalism cannot understand properly Princeton Seminary’s relationship to fundamentalism.

Still, my personal beliefs have informed this study, perhaps even more than I imagine. To be sure, my upbringing in a fundamentalist home as well as my education at Westminster Seminary account for many of my sympathies. Nonetheless, my interest in Machen is still relatively fresh because ironically I learned little about him at Westminster. A survey course in American religious history at Harvard Divinity School, which required the reading of Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, generated my initial interest and led to a greater appreciation of Old Princeton Theology and Machen’s efforts to preserve it.

Nevertheless, I have tried to account for my own biases and present as correct an understanding of Machen as possible. To do so I have relied on my dissertation advisor, Professor Timothy L. Smith, whose knowledge and perspective on American religion challenged me to keep in mind the diversity of evangelicalism. Furthermore, his careful editing often cleaned up wooden prose and improved this dissertation considerably. Professors John Higham and Ronald A. Walters also deserve credit for their helpful criticisms throughout my studies. I must also thank Professors Mark A. Noll, George M. Marsden, and Richard B. Gaffin, who read earlier drafts and made helpful suggestions, and Professor William R. Hutchison, who first introduced me to Machen and offered advice at a preliminary stage. I am especially indebted to the librarians and staff members of the Montgomery Library at Westminster Seminary, particularly John R. Muether, Grace Mullen, and Jane Patete, who guided me through the Machen Archives, allowed me liberal use of the library’s holdings, and answered many questions. Jeff Charles and David Harrington-Watt have been good friends throughout my time in graduate school, offering as much aid through informal chats and rounds of golf as through their comments on various chapters.

Above all I must acknowledge my wife’s contribution. Her patience and support would have been more than sufficient. But her genuine interest in American history as well as her willingness to edit, proofread, and criticize my research and writing have been a tremendous encouragement. My debt to her is emphasized by the dissertation’s dedication.

13 thoughts on “The Best Decision I ever Made

  1. What was William Hutchison like? How do you think he would respond to current trends in mainline Protestantism and the culture at large?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dr. Allan MacRae wrote to his mother on January 18th of that year : At Dr. Machen’s funeral the Faculty were asked to act as honorary pallbearers. The service was held in a Church in West Philadelphia. It was a very simple service. The Church was packed beyond its capacity. After the service we all went down to Baltimore for the actual interment. It was a lovely day. this was very fortunate since a January day in Baltimore can be extremely disagreeable for an outdoor service. I find it hard to realize that Dr. Machen has gone. The first day after the funeral, it was my turn to lead Chapel. Every time I looked at the front row I could see his empty seat, and every time there was a sound at the door it was hard not to believe that he was coming in. Frequently he used to come in during the Chapel Service and stand in the hallway until its conclusion. To go through that service was one of the hardest tasks I ever did in my life. He towered so high above all my other associates that his departure leaves an immeasurable gap.

    Simplicity marked the funeral service of the Rev. Dr. J. Gresham Machen in the Spruce Street Baptist Church, Philadelphia, Tuesday morning, January 5, 1937. More than an hour before the service, people began to arrive, and by the time the service was to be begin every available space was taken. People were standing all about the church, and individuals were turned away. A reserved section in the center of the church was held for the student pallbearers, the immediate relatives, and the directors of Westminster Seminary

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  3. Great episode of The Tom Woods Show. I remember reading Christianity and Liberalism shortly after my conversion. It helped me see not all who use Christian language are part of the same fold.

    Since you have written a lot about Machen, are there any areas for further research that might be worthwhile for a graduate student to consider? Thanks!


  4. zack w., the question on Machen studies is how much religion you can get away with — will advisers be interested in Presby. church matter or theology? There are secular parts of Machen’s bio that could be of interest — social history of Baltimore’s churches 1880-1900, Johns Hopkins University and its classics dept. (think Menand’s Metaphysical Club), or the politics of Princeton Seminary’s admin. and its ties to NYC elites. These aren’t about Machen directly, but would fill in the canvas.


  5. DGH,
    It was good to be introduced to the Tom Woods Show (though I didn’t see it) and to hear (orally) your thoughts. I also just read your 2006 article, “Holding the Line” originally published in Tabletalk Magazine.
    I seems to me that perhaps the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, with all moving parts in place in the 1860-1870’s era, then starting in the 1920s, may now have reached “the beginning of the end.” The lonely work, begun by J. G. Machen, and continued by leaders such as G. M. Marsden and you may be reaching an inflection point in the current decade. Could we, in the Star Wars vernacular be coming to “a balance in the force” ?
    At any rate, I do want to express my appreciation of your efforts in clearly communicating American protestant history, and specifically Orthodox (and orthodox) Presbyterian history.
    Thank you.
    KJ Turnbull

    ps Upon reading History is Accidental on your Hillsdale site, specifically the bit about your idea that the work of a historian was to write books, I was curious if you were familiar with any of the work of James Kurth, who to the best of my knowledge has written no books. He wrote a paper presented at the Philadelphia Society, sometime in the last decade or two, entitled “The Protestant Deformation and American Foreign Policy.” It seemed as insightful in his area of specialty (Western military history of the last half millennium) as you are in your areas of interest. If you have read Protestant Deformation it would make MEEEEeeeee very pleased to hear any comments you might have!


  6. KJ T., thanks for the comment.

    I do know Kurth’s work. My wife worked for him when he edited Orbis. It’s been a while since I read Protestant Deformation, but as I recall, I didn’t disagree much.


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