On matters of faith and Christianity, one of the writers I most admire is the Baltimore-born Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937).
Machen’s convictions were deep and thoroughly reasoned. He saw liberty as God’s intention for humanity and would not abide the presumptuous claims of earthly governments to diminish it for our own good. Theologically, he viewed the Bible as the Word of God and refused to twist it to justify human desires. This was a man confidently, persuasively and fearlessly principled.
After distinguishing himself at Johns Hopkins University, he went on to Princeton, where he focused on theology at the seminary and philosophy at the university. He became the leading opponent of the theological wing of the “progressive” movement, which watered down traditional Christian beliefs and elevated such dubious notions as moral relativism and activist government.
Princeton Seminary was Machen’s home base for 23 years, from the day in 1906 when he began as a New Testament instructor until his conscience led him to resign in 1929. He had butted heads with Princeton’s increasingly “progressive” – left-wing – faculty until he’d had enough.
He started his own school, Westminster Theological Seminary near Philadelphia, and put it on a path to international fame as one of the most rigorous and respected theological institutions in the world.
In 1933, Machen’s simmering concern about religious progressivism in the Presbyterian mission field prompted him to form the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. The move led the mainline Presbyterian Church to excommunicate him, so in 1936 he created what later became known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He was, in many ways, a Presbyterian Martin Luther – a man who boldly challenged the very church that had become a central part of his own life.
At a time when most Presbyterians supported alcohol prohibition, Machen fought it. Scripture cautions against inebriation, he argued, but nowhere does it suggest government coercion as the solution.
He objected to Bible reading and prayer in public schools because they mixed politics with faith. Christians, he said, should form their own schools. He believed it was foolish to think that government would be anything but a costly, soul-crushing mediocrity in the classroom.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter created the U.S. Department of Education. Hundreds of billions of dollars and mounds of regulations later, student outcomes are little changed. If Carter had read Machen’s warnings more than a half-century earlier, he might have avoided that colossal blunder.
In 1926, Machen testified in Congress against a proposal to create such a federal department. His remarks were positively prophetic. He told Congress,
“Uniformity in education under central control it seems to me the worst fate into which any country can fall.
“I do not believe that the personal, free, individual character of education can be preserved when you have a Federal department laying down standards of education which become more or less mandatory to the whole country.…If you give the bureaucrats the children, you might as well give them everything else as well.”
Machen died on New Year’s Day, 1937, at the young age of 55. He is remembered as one of the 20th century’s towering figures of Christian thought and action.
Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education. Each week, he writes about exceptional people, including many from his book, “Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org