J Gresham Machen


J(ohn) Gresham Machen (1881-1937), was a scholar, theologian, and fundamentalist Presbyterian leader. Machen was born into a wealthy Baltimore lawyer’s family with deep roots in the Old South. Schooled in a private academy, Machen attended the new Johns Hopkins University where he finished as class valedictorian. Machen enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1902 to see whether theological education suited him. Simultaneously earning a master’s in philosophy at the University and a B.D. from the Seminary in 1905, Machen headed to Germany in the fall of 1905 to spend a year at Marburg and Göttingen universities. Upon his return to the United States he accepted a position teaching New Testament at Princeton Seminary.

Although specializing as an instructor in Greek, Machen increasingly found his calling in battling the inroads of theological liberalism within Presbyterianism and the wider Protestant realm–despite his lack of endorsement of many popular fundamentalist beliefs such as dispensationalism and his opposition to Prohibition. Machen’s major contribution to the modernist-fundamentalist controversy came with the 1923 publication of his book, Christianity and Liberalism, wherein he argued that liberalism was, in effect, a wholly new religion distinct from historic Christianity. Continuing to play a prominent role in inter-Presbyterian conflicts, Machen eventually led a troupe of younger faculty members and conservative Princeton trustees in seceding and establishing Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929. While heading up Westminster, Machen continued his scholarly work and in 1930 published a major defense of the biblical birth narratives in The Virgin Birth.

Developments in the Presbyterian Church in the mid-1930s convinced him that liberal elements were gaining the upper hand and he threw his support behind an Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, leading to a 1935 trial in an ecclesiastical court and suspension from the ministry. In reaction, Machen played a major role in organizing a secessionist church named the Presbyterian Church in America (later renamed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) in 1936. Machen’s example as both a stubborn and relentless opponent to modernism, as well as his use of sound scholarship to argue his case, would prove to be an important influence upon the rise of a new, engaged evangelical movement in the 1940s.

For further reading see Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates (Oxford, 1991), and D.G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism and Modern America (Johns Hopkins, 1994). 

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