Fundamentalist Leader John Gresham Machen

Dan Graves, MSL

Fundamentalist Leader John Gresham Machen

J Gresham Machen was born into southern aristocracy in Baltimore, Maryland on this day, July 28, 1881. Through inheritances, he became wealthy as a young man. At one time and another, his grandfather on his mother's side and his own father each left him $50,000 in a day when a family could live well on $3,000 a year. His financial circumstances freed him to study in Europe and later to support Christian publications and Christian work.

But his family left him more than money. They gave him an inheritance of Southern views, social connections and solid achievement. His cultured mother was from Macon, Georgia and published a book titled The Bible in Browning when J. Gresham was 22. His father was a successful lawyer from Baltimore. Woodrow Wilson was a friend of the family.

J. Gresham was reared Presbyterian. Schooled in the Westminster Confession and the Bible, he would later say that at twelve he had a better understanding of the Scripture than many older students entering seminary.

Although he is known as a conservative champion of traditional Calvinism against modernism, under the influence of German liberals he almost became a liberal himself. In the end, his conviction that the Bible was true and his assurance that Christ lives today, made him an ally of the fundamentalists, a group who held to certain "fundamental" truths. He was ordained in 1914, after discovering that Christ "keeps a firmer hold on us than we keep on him."

J. Gresham's battles against modernism were mostly waged at Princeton Seminary. He insisted that Modernist Christianity and Bible Christianity were two different religions. As the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. began to adopt Modernist ideas he fought the drift. Typical Modernists doubted the truth of the Resurrection of Christ, forsook the Virgin Birth, and were skeptical of miracles and of the Bible's accuracy. On the other side, J. Gresham defended all these things.

His most famous book was The Virgin Birth of Christ. In it he answered objection after objection. He began by showing that the doctrine was very old and that differences in Matthew and Luke could be reconciled. He argued that the virgin birth was a crucial element of the whole story of Jesus: "Remove the part and the whole becomes harder not easier to accept; the New Testament account of Jesus is most convincing when it is taken as a whole."

Eventually J. Gresham Machen felt that to be consistent, he had to leave Princeton. He founded Westminster Seminary to reclaim truths that he saw being thrown away. Next he formed the Independent Board for Presbyterian Missions because some Presbyterian missionaries (such as Pearl S. Buck) made statements that watered down faith in Christ. He was suspended from the ministry for creating this schism. So he founded the Presbyterian Church of America, known today as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

He died of overwork in 1936, preaching and traveling right up to the day before he died.

Bibliography:

  1. Machen, J. Gresham. The Virgin Birth of Christ. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1930.
  2. Piper, John. "J. Gresham Machen's Response to Modernism." http://www.desiringgod.org/library/ biographies/93machen.html
  3. Russell, C. Allyn. Voices of American Fundamentalism. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976.

Last updated July, 2007

  • Editors' Picks

    Why the Church Must Start Talking about Domestic Violence
    Why the Church Must Start Talking about Domestic Violence
  • Don't Think of Church as Your Own Spiritual Power Bar
    Don't Think of Church as Your Own Spiritual Power Bar
  • So You Think Theology Is Impractical?
    So You Think Theology Is Impractical?