Liberal democracy relies on debate. Candidates running for office need to attract voters through messages that persuade. Of course, political speeches include denunciations of a political rival, but in a society with free elections and a free press, candidates smeared by their political foes have outlets for response. The back and forth between competing political candidates continues in political administration. Legislators debate proposed policy in search of a majority that will secure a measure’s approval. An executive may veto such legislation and so upend the debates and negotiations that informed a piece of legislation. Even then, a legislature may engage in more debate to garner a super-majority that will override an executive’s veto. This political process is neither elegant nor efficient. But it does provide means for arriving at a political consensus within a free and diverse society.
For all the worries about democracy’s death after 2016, some of the most ardent worriers also seem to think restricting debate will advance democratic ideals. Concerns about misinformation and disinformation (and even malinformation) are not merely the fears of a few journalists or professors. Government agencies and big tech companies have cooperated to prevent the spread of claims that depart from certain institutional views. Another set of worries follow from those troubled by the free flow of ideas. These liberal worriers argue that restricting access to information violates freedom of speech, which in turn threatens the very character of a democratic society.
As novel as the recent debates about freedom of speech in journalism and politics may sound, one hundred years ago the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA) established a precedent for suppressing speech, ideas, and assembly. This is ironic if only because churches are not typically supposed to have a diversity of ideas like a democratic society. On paper, church officers and members are united in faith, worship, and piety. But when a disagreement surfaces, Presbyterians, at least, have a variety of ecclesiastical processes for fostering debate and preventing the abuse of power. As good as the Presbyterian system may be, it failed J. Gresham Machen when he spoke out against liberal theology and its influence within the PCUSA.
His book, Christianity and Liberalism, published one hundred years ago in 1923, was a warning to American Protestants about the dangers of theological modernism. Within the PCUSA, that book met a chilly reception. For twelve years after publication, Presbyterians leaders used various methods to muzzle Machen, as I will show. Worse, rather than responding to his arguments in the give and take of ecclesiastical debate, many influential Presbyterians labeled his criticisms incautious and even extreme. By the end of his career, his Presbyterian peers brought Machen to trial for violating his ordination vows and spreading “misinformation” within the church. In hindsight, the Presbyterian controversy was a poignant instance of elites deeming certain views unacceptable and then using institutional levers to suppress those ideas.
An Elite Protestant before Breaking Ranks
As the lifelong skeptic of Christianity H. L. Mencken put it, J. Gresham Machen was no “mere soap-boxer of God, alarming bucolic sinners for a percentage of the [offering] plate.” Mencken added, from a piece in 1931, that Machen is “a man of great learning and dignity–a former student at European universities, the author of various valuable books.” Indeed, Machen was an unusual person to become embroiled in the so-called fundamentalist controversy. If Machen had resentments against his socio-economic superiors, he would have looked for outlets other than the church. Machen grew up in urban Victorian privilege; he was the son of a prominent Baltimore attorney and he was a church member at a well-to-do Southern Presbyterian congregation that attracted the Presbyterians from the faculty at Johns Hopkins University and students like Woodrow Wilson. Family wealth likely came more from his mother’s side (the Greshams) than the Machens. Machen went to Johns Hopkins for an undergraduate degree and a Master’s in classics. He next attended Princeton Seminary, graduating in 1905. Then he did a year of New Testament study at German universities in Marburg and Göttingen. Less than a decade later, he became a voting member of the faculty at Princeton Seminary in 1914 and could have settled into a quiet life of teaching, writing, preaching, and visiting nearby New York City or Philadelphia where he enjoyed the theater, book shops, hotels, and restaurants.
1. H.L. Mencken, “Impregnable Rock,” American Mercury, Dec. 1931.
But in 1920, Machen’s life changed fairly dramatically. After working as a YMCA Secretary in France during World War I, he was a delegate at the PCUSA’s 1920 General Assembly where he noticed liberalism’s influence on both the Presbyterian Church and Princeton Seminary. He heard a report, presented by the president of Princeton Seminary, J. Ross Stevenson, from an ecumenical committee on a plan to unite the largest Protestant denominations in the United States into one national church. The Plan for Organic Union culminated fifty years of interdenominational and ecumenical efforts among progressive Protestants who wanted to harness the resources of the churches for the cause of the progressive “social gospel.”
That plan of “salvation” had two primary aspects. One was to maintain Protestant norms within American society over against the non-Protestant and ethnic groups resettling in the United States. The second aspect was humanitarian: Protestants wanted to uplift the immigrant masses into the manners and morals of Victorian society. To bring Protestants together behind these objectives, each denomination would have to downplay the doctrines, pieces of church government, and practices of corporate worship that made each communion distinct. Machen regarded the move to deemphasize Presbyterian doctrine and church polity as the leading indicator of liberal Protestantism. Soon after the General Assembly he gave talks among groups of concerned Presbyterians that he later turned into magazine or journal articles. These short pieces became the basis for Christianity and Liberalism.
On the surface, the book for which Machen is best remembered, did not attempt anything fancy. After a lengthy chapter on doctrine in which he argued that Christianity was impossible to understand apart from certain doctrines, especially about Christ and the meaning (i.e. doctrine) of his birth, life of obedience, death, and resurrection, Machen went through the major headings of systematic theology. Almost like an introduction to Christian theology, Machen covered the doctrines of God, anthropology (man), Scripture, Christ, salvation, and the church. If readers were expecting to see explanations of the doctrines for which fundamentalism was famous—creation and the millennium—Machen was a disappointment. Even in the chapter on Scripture, Machen defended inerrancy so briefly as to indicate that it was not the main issue. The longest chapters, and the crux of the matter for any Christian church, was Christ and what he accomplished.
For that reason, one of the two longest chapters in the book defended Christ’s deity—he really was the son of God, and not merely a good person. The other long chapter defended Christ’s vicarious atonement: As sinners, humans have no hope to measure up to God’s standard of righteousness apart from Christ’s life of obedience and his bearing the penalty for sin on the cross. Christ’s death on behalf of believers and his righteousness imputed to Christians by faith were at the core of apostles’ witness and at the heart of any believer’s hope to escape God’s wrath and curse for sin.
Machen’s positive presentation of basic Christian doctrine came with a provocative twist, of course, since it was an intervention into the fundamentalist controversy. On the basis of historic Christian teaching, he argued from the outset, liberal Protestantism was not merely in error but an altogether different religion. Machen was actually gracious in drawing such a clear, bright, and long line. He conceded that advances in natural and social sciences had raised questions about Christian beliefs about the natural world and human agency. He also acknowledged that liberalism in its political and economic forms was a valuable contribution to the way people lived in their daily lives. But Machen stopped his praise when it came to Christian teaching about salvation. Liberals were well intentioned in trying to fashion a version of Christianity that would appeal to modern men and women. But their admirable motives could not save them from compromising Christianity’s core conviction about Christ’s sinless life, gruesome death, and unbelievable resurrection as the only remedy for sin. The idea of using Christianity to solve social problems for Machen was precisely a sign of liberalism’s decisive error. “Christianity refuses,” he wrote, “to be regarded as a mere means to a higher end” (151). Social, political, and even familial relationships, he added “exist for the sake of Christianity and not Christianity for the sake of them” (152). For that reason, improving society, no matter how admirable, abandoned the much more consequential spiritual problems that haunted rich and poor, strong and weak, educated and illiterate, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant
The Book’s Reception
Christianity and Liberalism made no splash in the pages of newspapers until six months after its initial publication in February 1923. Attention to the book came by ricochet when a prominent member left First Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey where Machen was filling the pulpit. Henry Van Dyke, a professor of English at the university, former ambassador to the Netherlands during the Woodrow Wilson administration, took exception to Machen’s sermons’ references to controversies in the Presbyterian Church. He became so angry that he left this church (resigned his pew).
The context for Machen’s provocative preaching and Van Dyke’s reaction was how Presbyterians were going to respond to another controversial sermon preached the previous year by the popular Baptist pastor, Harry Emerson Fosdick. In May of 1922, Fosdick preached “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” at First Presbyterian Church in New York City where he was the pulpit supply. This sermon became the starter’s pistol to the fundamentalist controversy. The question in the sermon’s title was rhetorical. Fosdick feared that conservatives were going to drive liberals out of the United States’ largest denominations over doctrines like the virgin birth, Christ’s second coming, and biblical inerrancy. Because the sermon came from a Presbyterian pulpit, the courts of the PCUSA were on the hook to respond. Machen’s controversial sermon, delivered after eighteen months of Presbyterian deliberations, was no more provocative than Fosdick’s. But Van Dyke, a Machen family friend whom his sons referred to as “Uncle Henry,” did not see it that way. He held a press conference to explain his decision. That publicity in turn sent reporters to Machen for comment. The book’s author could have said, “read my book.” Whatever his replies, many observers and Protestants curious about the church controversy did in fact pick up Christianity and Liberalism for perspective. Sales tripled in 1924 compared to 1923. But the Van Dyke incident set a precedent. Progressive Presbyterians were more inclined to make room for liberal provocations than they were to protect the rights of conservative critiques.
The significance of that precedent became clear roughly eighteen months later as the Presbyterian Church faced a fork in the road over the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ. New York City was again creating controversy for Presbyterians when two candidates for ordination refused to affirm the virgin birth (they did not deny the doctrine either). This was significant not simply because the Westminster Confession affirms the doctrine. Even more immediately urgent were the PCUSA’s recent (1910, 1916, and 1923) formal affirmations of the virgin birth as a necessary and essential doctrine of the church (along with Christ’s deity, biblical infallibility, the resurrection, and Christ’s miracles). A candidate for ministry who could not affirm the virgin birth was consequently unqualified for ministry in the PCUSA. This challenge came to a head in 1925 at the PCUSA’s General Assembly when a majority of commissioners still affirmed the virgin birth as necessary for ordination and a majority of ministers in the Synod of New York (including the Presbytery of New York City) were willing to leave the communion if forced to exclude the ministers who took exception to the virgin birth. The moderator of the Assembly, Charles Erdman, professor of practical theology at Princeton Seminary, appointed a special committee to study how Presbyterians had come to this precipice. By forming this committee, Erdman forestalled a liberal exodus from the denomination.
The subsequent report from the Special Committee of 1925 recommended peace and stability in the PCUSA—but at the expense of conservatives like Machen. A key finding of the report was that conservatives had made unfair and unproven accusations against liberal ministers. In fact, one of the initial criticisms of Christianity and Liberalism was that Machen had not named names or cited works of liberal theology. He had tried to make a general case against liberal theological trends among Protestants in the West since the late nineteenth century. But that line of reasoning was too close for comfort for elites in the PCUSA who were committed to the policy, as the popular phrase at the time had it, “doctrine divides, ministry unites.” The Special Committee’s report called for an end to unspecified accusations. If someone wanted to bring charges against another officer, that path was always available. But pointing out errors in popular and public forums was wrong, according to them.
This report, received in two installments at the 1926 and 1927 General Assemblies, became the basis for another investigative committee—this time to inquire into divisions among the faculty at Princeton Seminary. Here the moderate evangelicals, president J. Ross Stevenson and professor Charles Erdman, were at odds, sometimes explicitly, and sometimes subtly, with the rest of the faculty. Machen, for instance, was not the only seminary professor to criticize the 1920 Plan for Organic Union. Several other faculty, including B. B. Warfield, had written articles for Presbyterian magazines against this plan to unite the Protestant denominations into one. But Machen was the most visible of the conservatives and his disagreements with Erdman became one line of investigation by the committee to inspect Princeton.
Transcripts from the Special Committee shows that Princeton had no liberal theologians. Replies to questions also reveal that the moderate evangelicals did not understand the strict confessionalism of their conservative colleagues. Irrespective of that revelation, the committee proposed an administrative restructuring of the seminary. In not-so-subtle realignments, the board of directors became larger and left its conservative members in the minority. The changes also gave new powers to the president. Instead of addressing theological differences either between the seminary and the denomination or among Princeton’s professors, the report silenced debate. It also placed conservative voices under the oversight of administrators who wanted to move the seminary back to the moderate middle of the denomination. Machen believed the changes compromised his freedom to teach, write, and speak. As a result, he and other conservatives in the vicinity of Philadelphia in 1929 founded another seminary, Westminster.
Social Gospel for the World
If those structural responses to Machen’s book were not enough, in the 1930s he faced even higher obstacles to gaining a hearing in the PCUSA. In 1932, the Layman’s Appraisal Committee, an interdenominational organization created to study Protestant foreign missions (especially in China), released its report, Re-Thinking Missions. The PCUSA was a co-sponsor even though the endeavor was fluid; its chairman was William Ernest Hocking, professor of philosophy at Harvard, and its initial planners were Northern Baptists. The committee’s patron was the Baptist philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller (who also funded a New York City congregation where Fosdick was pastor).
Whatever the institutional origins, this report, Re-Thinking Missions, a selection for the Religious Book of the Month, was a bombshell. It rejected the old rationale for missions—evangelism and church planting—and affirmed a new purpose of social, educational, scientific, economic, and political progress. As missionaries cooperated with indigenous religious leaders, they could also equip non-Western societies with the tools of modern society. For Machen, the report was proof of liberalism in the Protestant churches to such a degree that now even the proclamation of the gospel was expendable. Re-Thinking Missions also demonstrated the teleology of the social gospel and Protestant ecumenism. Improving society had replaced saving souls even as the work of social endeavor provided the basis for cooperation across denominations and even among the world’s religions.
Machen had learned from alleged mistakes ten years earlier. Instead of writing a book, he used the levers of Presbyterian polity to solicit a response from the Board of Foreign Missions. Instead of a straightforward rejection of the report, which would have looked like Presbyterian executives were siding with fundamentalism, church leaders again used administrative categories to explain how Re-Thinking Missions was neither erroneous nor representative. Machen then organized a group of conservatives to found the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, an agency that mustered support for a paltry six foreign missionaries. (The PCUSA at the time had roughly 1,700 missionaries in the field.)
Still, this was a provocative move even if Presbyterian congregations sent contributions for foreign missions to agencies outside the PCUSA. According to a ruling by the 1934 General Assembly, establishing an alternative missions agency was a violation of church law. In fact, the basis for this determination likened financial support for official foreign missions to participation in the Lord’s Supper.1 The ruling also instructed presbyteries to take action against officers who refused to comply. This led to one of the most ironic episodes of the fundamentalist controversy: the 1935 trial of J. Gresham Machen. For all of the perceptions that fundamentalists were intolerant and divisive, the reality was that the mainline Presbyterian Church excluded conservatives.
3. The Mandate read as follows: “A church member or an individual church that will not give to promote the official authorized missionary program of the Presbyterian Church is in exactly the same position with reference to the Constitution of the Church as a church member or an individual church that would refuse to take part in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper or any of the prescribed ordinances of the denomination. . . “
The charges (six in all) against Machen were variations on the theme of violating ordination vows. In its obituary of Machen, the New York Times made the odd editorial decision to publish the whole set of charges, the most intriguing of which may have been: “With contempt and rebellion against his superiors in the church in their lawful counsel, commands and corrections.” In effect, Machen’s criticisms of liberalism were instances not of reasoned debate but examples of spreading misinformation about the PCUSA. Then he added insult to injury by forming a renegade missions agency that had disrupted the peace and unity of the church.
Missing from this logic was the uncomfortable detail of Presbyterian church law. The technical basis for concluding Machen’s Independent Board was illegal was a ruling written after the creation of the new missions agency. At his trial, when Machen challenged the constitutionality of the 1934 Mandate, the judicial commission of the Presbytery of New Brunswick (of which he was a member) ruled that such questions about the legality of the new rule were out of order. At that point, the trial was over. The commission found Machen guilty on all six counts. That judicial sequence also explains why Machen told reporters sent to cover the trial that the proceedings were “a farce.” He also told the press, “I am condemned for failing to obey a lawful order, but when my counsel . . . offered to prove that the order that I had disobeyed was not lawful but unlawful the court refused to him a word of argument.” It was another case of administrative control silencing debate about doctrine and Presbyterian polity.
4. Christianity Today 5 (May 1935), 294.
With that guilty verdict, upheld on appeal to the 1936 General Assembly, the Presbyterian Church had finally silenced Machen and turned him into a pariah. Of course, he could still speak, write, and organize. He did much of that in the spring of 1936 when he brought together the 5,000 or so members of a new denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. At the same time, his days were numbered. He died on January 1, 1937 roughly six months after the start of the new church. Thanks to those circumstances, a historian could well conclude that no one in the Presbyterian Church ever addressed the merits of Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism.
A Different Reception
Observers of the fundamentalist controversy, however, viewed Machen’s efforts differently. Several thought Machen’s arguments were not only reasonable but also charitable. Walter Lippmann, who rivaled H. L. Mencken as one of the most widely respected commentators on American affairs, praised Machen’s book for its “acumen,” “saliency,” and even its “wit.” It was, Lippmann added, “the best popular argument” produced by either side in the modernist-fundamentalist controversy. Mencken was equally impressed by Machen’s erudition. He noted that the Princeton professor was “a member of several societies of savants.” The gist of Machen’s critique of liberalism was just as noteworthy. If Machen “is wrong,” Mencken deduced, “then the science of logic is a hollow vanity, signifying nothing.” Religious historians who looked back on the controversy with the advantage of hindsight, also wrote about Machen favorably. In 1972, Yale historian, Sydney Ahlstrom, deemed Christianity and Liberalism the “chief theological ornament” among conservative Protestants during the 1920s. For years later, Harvard historian, William R. Hutchison, explained that Machen’s “great contribution” was his “willingness and ability to argue out–rather than just assume or proof-text–the premise that modernistic liberalism was not Christianity.”
5. Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, 2nd ed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 912.
6. The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992), 262.
That was almost the exact opposite of the way that Machen’s fellow Presbyterians heard and reacted to him. He was a major nuisance to PCUSA leaders who wanted to maintain the denomination’s position within the so-called Protestant establishment. They wanted the denomination to be part of progressive reforms in the United States and allies of humanitarian political initiatives overseas. His insistence on the details of the Westminster Confession and proper Presbyterian procedure was an impediment to Protestant visions for a progressive America and harmonious international relations. To borrow from the analysis of Michael Doran who wrote perceptively about the foreign policy implications of the fundamentalist controversy, Machen was challenging first a social gospel in which the “primary goal of Christian life was eliminating human suffering.” To do this, progressive Protestants wanted to remove the denominational divisions that were obstacles to “breaking down the barriers that separate man from his fellow man” That move by denominational leaders was the motivation for Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism.
Subsequent involvement in the missions controversy of the 1930s followed directly from arguments in Christianity and Liberalism. Again, to use the observations of Doran about foreign policy, Re-Thinking Missions was the international version of the organic union of American Protestant churches. According to Doran:
The Hocking report [also known as “Re-Thinking Missions”]seeks the creation of a global ecumenical religious culture that will pave the way to universal brotherhood. It is, in essence, a foreign policy manifesto for the Protestant modernist movement—but it is also much more. Rockefeller was laying the groundwork for the moral justification of American global hegemony.
Instead of answering Machen with reasons for the need to modify or abandon parts of Presbyterian teaching and practice, Presbyterian leaders branded Machen an alarmist and reactionary. Almost 100 years later, American officials and elites responded in a similar fashion to physicians and scientists who challenged the protocols developed and enforced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of debate, the official response was to accuse dissenters with misinformation and disinformation.
Inside the mainline Protestant world, belittling Machen was successful if only because he led a large exodus of conservative Presbyterians into the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. But some people outside the churches saw the situation with greater objectivity and so rendered a verdict that testified both to Machen’s courage and intellectual achievement. In his obituary for Machen, H. L. Mencken wrote arguably the best assessment of the American Presbyterian church history during the fundamentalist controversy. In the conclusion of his long essay, Dr. Fundamentelis, Mencken ended where Machen had begun in Christianity and Liberalism, concluding that the intellectual changes in western thought had made the Christian religion no longer tenable. “There was a time, two or three centuries ago, when the overwhelming majority of educated men were believers, but that is apparently true no longer,” Mencken wrote. His impression in 1937 was that “at least two-thirds of them are now frank skeptics.” Still, rejecting religion “altogether” was one thing. Saving Christianity by “pumping out of it all its essential substance” was another. Such an endeavor left faith “in the equivocal position of a sort of pseudo-science, comparable to graphology, ‘education,’ or osteopathy.” Mencken then declared that such equivocation was exactly what liberal Protestants had done, “no doubt with the best intentions in the world.” Liberals had “tried to get rid of all the logical difficulties of religion, and yet preserve a generally pious cast of mind.” What was left was “a row of hollow platitudes, as empty of psychological force and effect as so many nursery rhymes.” “Religion”—Mencken could have written “Christianity”—“is something else again–in Henrik Ibsen’s phrase, something far more deep-down-diving and mud-upbringing,” Mencken praised Machen for trying “to impress that obvious fact upon his fellow adherents of the Geneva Mohammed.” Although Machen failed, “he was undoubtedly right.”