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The Princeton Seminary Class of 1927/8 (Wheaton symposium)

“Theological Renewal and the Princeton Seminary Class of 1927/8”

A Paper read at a Presbyterian Scholars Conference, Wheaton College, 24 April 2015

With thanks to WTS Librarian Sandy Finlayson and his assistant Karla Grafton, Robert Anger, Associate Archivist, PCC

Judging from recent literature, the elusive and complex figure of J. Gresham Machen continues to fascinate. The issues surrounding his resignation from the faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary in 1929 appear, in hindsight, to have been a kind of bellwether for where mainline Protestantism in the United States was heading.  Love him, as many of his students did, or despise him, as his many detractors did and do, he still seems a dominant force in anticipating the culture wars that have been such a feature of recent American Protestantism.

Of all the studies that have appeared recently[1], there has been little research on how his students were affected by the controversies that swirled around him. What impact did J. Gresham Machen have on those who attended his lectures, lived with him in Alexander Hall, ate with him in the same dining club, and were challenged in his classes by his stringent academic discipline? Some would reply that his impact was negative and divisive. In his classic Fundamentalism and American Culture George Marsden speaks of Machen “encouraging a movemental spirit especially among his student followers.”[2] To what extent is that a correct assessment? Did Machen deliberately use his huge popularity – an object of some jealousy by other members of the faculty – to sow discord and division? Was he a dangerous influence among susceptible young men, a person who needed to be restrained and neutralized?

My father, who came to Princeton in the autumn of 1924 as a member of the class of 1927, took umbrage at Marsden’s use of the word “movemental.” On reading the book he fired off a comment to Marsden[3] stating emphatically “I never heard or saw anything in the years I was there [1924 – 1928] that could be so characterized. I never heard Dr Machen discuss or refer to his differences with Erdman & Stevenson in talking to us students.” I set out to prove or disprove this statement and, in spite of my deep appreciation for Dr Machen’s lasting influence, particularly on my immediate family, as well as loyalty to my Father, examination of primary sources leads me to a more nuanced conclusion. It was a passionate time and those of us who have the comfortable perspective of looking back on the controversy can ill afford to be judgmental.

The Princeton Seminary class of 1927 was arguably one of the most remarkable so far in the 112 year history of the school. Its members would go on to have a profound influence on the development of twentieth century evangelicalism and the growth of global Christianity. They came from Scotland, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, China, Korea as well as Canada and the United States. They were attracted by the great reputation of the Seminary for theological depth and consistency as an historic bastion of Reformed theology. High on the list of reasons they gave for attending the school was their appreciation for Dr. Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism which had appeared the year before. Based on a November1921 lecture he gave ruling elders in Chester Presbytery, it communicated to the non-academic layperson in an intelligible manner free of slogans and name calling, getting down to basics, his view of the crisis presented by so-called “liberalism”.

On arrival at the Seminary the incoming class was thrust into immediate controversy. In October PTS students attending at Drew University in nearby Madison a Theological Students Conference of the Middle Atlantic Union walked out to form a League of Evangelical Students[4](LES). They were protesting the Union’s admission of a Unitarian seminary. The PTS Class of 1927 played an active role in the formation, organization, and dissemination of the League.  Articles appeared in its magazine from class members: in its first issue (April 1926) Allan MacRae[5] wrote a ringing defence of the League and in the second (October 1926) Johannes Vos, son of PTS Professor Geerhardus, challenged readers with “The Spirit of Error.” Paul Woolley[6], son of the Associate Minister of Chicago’s Moody Church who entered PTS in 1923, was the first full-time director of the League for a year following graduation in 1928. William Jones (PTS 1928) succeeded him a year later, serving from 1929 to 1931. Originally headquartered in Princeton, after the 1929 PTS reorganization the office moved to Wheaton, evidence of the influence that the College had at the time in those circles.

On 8 March 1925, in Miller Chapel PTS, Dr Machen preached a sermon titled “The Separateness of the Church.” Taking as his text Matthew 5:13 where Jesus calls his followers “the salt of the earth” and warns against salt losing its savour, Machen stated: “The really serious attack upon Christianity has not been the more subtle attack that has been masked by friendly words; it has been not the attack from without but the attack from within. The enemy has done his deadliest work when he has come with words of love and compromise and peace.”[7] And the message concluded with a passionate appeal, noting that ”none can say whether our own American Presbyterian Church which we love so dearly, will be preserved” and asking: “What are you going to do my brothers, in this great time of crisis? What a time it is to be sure! What a time of glorious opportunity! Will you stand with the world, will you shrink from controversy, will you witness for Christ only where witnessing costs nothing, will you pass through these stirring days without coming to any real decision?”[8] It was an emotional moment that shaped the rest of my father’s life and ministry, as it did others in the congregation that morning. Machen had definitely ratcheted up the rhetoric.

On 6 April 1925 the New York Times featured a banner headline “Dr. Erdman Deposed by Fundamentalists.” Professor Charles Erdman, Machen’s great protagonist, was about to be elected Moderator of the General Assembly the following month and had replaced Machen as stated supply at Princeton’s First Presbyterian Church after a boycott by Henry van Dyke but, after eighteen years as adviser to students, he was about to be replaced by Dr Machen. The article quoted him as saying

“The alleged grounds [of my removal], as I understand them, were that I have not been sufficiently polemic in my attitude toward rationalism. I have no brief for rationalism or        Modernism, as it has been popularly known … However, Dr. Macartney and Dr. Machen represent a party which is attempting to fight against rationalism in unconstitutional  methods.”[9]

The students, with the concurrence of a faculty majority, had made their preference known: Erdman was out, Machen was in. It was a significant victory but one with an ultimately tragic outcome.


Machen was buoyed by the way the students had rallied. Looking over the academic year the following summer he reflected that “Last winter there was something like a genuine evangelical movement among our students. It was very much needed since the morale of our student body, from the evangelical point of view, had been becoming extremely disquieting. But there was great opposition, and the whole matter is in abeyance.”[10] The same day he wrote using identical words to someone else but adding apocalyptically “The entire character of our institution, it seem to me, is at stake, and unless the matter is settled rightly we shall in the future be able to help neither you nor anyone else.”[11]

The help to which Machen refers was the PTS’ assistance in supporting the continuing Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC). Church Union on 10 June 1925[12] had decimated their ranks when most clergy had gone into the union, leaving many congregations who had voted to stay out without pastoral care. Machen had had an expanding reputation in Canada[13] among Presbyterians and he was approached by Andrew Grant, Secretary, General Board of Missions of the PCC, to help fill pulpits, at least for the summer months[14]. By late April no less than fourteen students had volunteered[15]. In acknowledging a tribute to him for his efforts from Cape Breton Presbytery Machen responded: “what little I have been able to do comes at least from the heart. The cause which your Church represents is, I am convinced, the cause of true evangelical Christianity throughout the world. In the United States just as clearly as in Canada, the attack upon the Christian faith is coming through an ostensibly evangelical but compromising and inwardly sceptical interdenominationalism; and in our battle we rejoice in the encouragement which your ringing testimony gives to the cause of truth.”[16] It was a somewhat naïve understanding of the Union controversy but Machen clearly lensed the crisis in the PCC through his own struggles at the time both at PTS and in the PC(USA). In spite of his acute insights, Machen could at times be an innocent.

It seems that there were no limits to what Machen would do for “his boys” in Canada. Because he was comfortable financially (and had no family commitments, living very economically) he subsidised each one, providing $15 out of his own pocket and guaranteeing their fare if the PCC, strapped for money, could not come through. And the Machen papers are filled with his letters of encouragement, typed (by himself?) from his summer eyrie at Seal Harbor, Maine, and inquiries from his students. So successful were these students that there were urgent calls for them to stay on, taking a year away from PTS, so that churches would have leadership during the winter and not fall into the clutches of the Unionists, but Machen squelched all offers because he needed them to help fight his battles. “We in Princeton who represent the principle that your Church represents have a reputation to maintain, and if we do not maintain it the fact will be used vigorously not only against us but against the cause.”[17] At the end of the summer he wrote Jim Grier, a student from Donegal, Ireland, who later made a name for himself, “It is very refreshing to see the way you and the other Princeton men whom or about whom I have heard, have thrown yourselves into the support of the great cause which is represented by the Presbyterian Church in Canada.”[18]

The 1926 General Assembly considered the committee report on the “causes of unrest” at PTS. Lefferts Loetscher[19], PTS 1927, in his Broadening Church (1955), says that “Dr Machen seems to have been one of the few to perceive immediately the diametric opposition between it and the program for which he stood.” The recommendation from the PTS Board of Directors that Machen be appointed Professor of Apologetics and Christian Ethics was tabled by Assembly. Students returned to their classes that autumn knowing that the die had been cast and the following year, the final for many in the class of 1927, had a sense of impending doom. “Movemental?” It was inevitable that there would be sides, the debate was very public, and professional boundaries between students and teachers became obscured and faculty solidarity collapsed. There was a bonding unique to the ethos of Princeton Seminary. With most students (all male) living on campus, very few married, and the eating club system bringing them together frat house-like for daily meals[20], there was an intense commitment to each other that, in spite of the subsequent divisions and schisms, continued throughout their lives. At the centre of it was Das Machen whose untimely death at 56 in 1937 did not end the interconnectedness many felt. Two examples will illustrate the linkage that existed.

There were two sons of China missionaries, born in the Middle Kingdom, in the class of 1927: Charles Woodbridge[21] and Alexander MacLeod. On graduation Woodbridge did a summer in a Virginia church and then went off to Germany for studies. “I want to thank you for the courage you have helped to inspire in me,” he wrote from Berlin that October.[22] Homesick, he writes “I dreamed about Bonham Club last night, a romantic eatery. I would like very much to drop in on the boys, and hear Das stunt.” Describing his theologically challenging studies he wrote “I pray God that He may let me live to take my place in the ranks of those who are upholding the standards of the Cross, against the subtle but devilish attacks of the forces of sin. I speak strongly, Das, but my heart is on fire.”

Everett Harrison[23] joined the Class of 1924 from Alaska where his father Norman B. was a well-known Bible teacher. On graduation he felt the pull of the mission field but the situation in China at the time meant that he took an appointment to Nova Scotia for a year. From the Manse in River John, Pictou Co., he wrote Machen in early 1928 “Thank you for sending your pamphlet on the Princeton situation. It puts the case squarely and I hope it proves an eye-opener to some. I certainly admire your courage in doing this.””It is just another proof of your love for Princeton and for the gospel which it proclaims.”[24] After teaching at the new Evangelical Theological Seminary, Dallas (rejoining later) he and Estelle followed my parents to Peiping and then went on to Hunan Bible School. As founding faculty, Fuller Seminary, in 1947, unlike Woodbridge, he stayed the course.

Indeed, the remarkable thing about the Class of 1927 was the number who went to the foreign mission field. In his Reminiscences  my father counted ten: Clarence Duff (Ethiopia), Karl Bowman (India), Austin Fulton (PCI) (Manchuria), Reynolds Good (Brazil), Victor Peters (Korea), Everett Harrison (China), Kenneth Landon (Thailand) whose wife Margaret wrote Anna and the King of Siam which Rodgers and Hammerstein choreographed as “The King and I”, Albert Sanders (Philippines), Kirkland West (China). James Dickson[25] went out with the PCC and became a significant leader in their Formosa (Taiwan) field for forty years. As Principal of the Taiwan Theological Seminary in Taipei he invited my father, having left China in 1949, to teach New Testament there.

During his time at Princeton my father was approached by Watson Hayes[26], organizer in 1919 of the North China Theological Seminary (NCTS), the so-called “Princeton of China.” Hayes was a protégé of B. B. Warfield while at Western Seminary Pittsburgh during Warfield’s brief time there. Established in 1919 by Chinese students as a protest against the liberalism of Qilu Seminary NCTS looked to Princeton as its model until Pearl Buck helped to destroy confidence in the reliability of the sending church. In later life these members of the Class of 1927 covered the theological spectrum from Duff (who joined the OPC in 1936) to Sanders and Landon. Some like Dickson temporized while maintaining their own warm faith, weary of the conflicts they had witnessed while PTS students and afterwards and wanting to get on with the Great Commission.

My father spent the year before he left for China as an assistant professor of history at Wheaton. He was appointed editor of a new alumni/ae quarterly which appeared in January 1929. As a graduate of the pre-Buswell class of 1923 looking back, he was dubious of the academic rigor of his studies then. He credited Machen with making him much more of a student, careful in his scholarship, and credible in his conclusions. His editorial in that first quarterly sounded a new note with Machen firmly in view in his mind: “Sound religion demands sound scholarship and thorough work” he wrote. “As a school that is frankly conservative Wheaton cannot afford to come short of the highest educational requirements.”[27] After the Scopes trial fiasco those proudly calling themselves “fundamentalist” (which Machen never did) were an embarrassment. Machen exemplified the confessional and Reformed faith Christians require at timed of challenge. The highest standards of scholarship were required in order to have any credibility.

One PTS student[28] captured this aspect of Machen’s charisma. My uncle Wesley Ingles, Wheaton 1926, PTS 1929, wrote Silver Trumpet, a fundamentalist equivalent of The Great Gatsby. Published in 1930, it was a major recruiting tool for “Wharton” (aka Wheaton College). The novel tells how football hero and sophisticate D. Crawford MacRae, a stranger to the fundamentalist subculture he finds at Wharton is smitten with a woman named Fay who is part of it, comes to a  series of meetings held in Chapel.  Guest speaker Dr. Nostrum (aka Machen) is no ranting evangelist or fiery fundamentalist. Widely read, “He had come to a rational conviction through thorough examination of the evidence.” “At times the man would become dynamically eloquent. His English is the language of culture and refinement; some of his expressions silver-tongued in beauty; others dramatic in power and intensity.”[29] MacRae is convinced, convicted and converted. Machen’s much loved mother Minnie, a well-read and cultured Southern woman[30], was his literary inspiration.

That is the side of Machen that is not always known or appreciated. The magnetic appeal of a man completely convinced that he was being faithful to the inspired and inerrant Word of God, ultimately counter-cultural, a man who, with all his eccentricities, impacted a whole generation of young men. “Movemental”? I think his response would be that he was simply being faithful and others followed his lead. And for that they (and he) paid a heavy price. President Ross Stevenson was said[31] by Carl McIntire, Junior Class President, PTS x1932, to have come by his room in Alexander Hall in April 1929 pleading with him not to leave Princeton, to complete his course and succeed to a large church for which his gifts entitled him. But he had made his decision and there was no turning back. Was it the right one, given his stormy and disruptive subsequent career? Would staying at Princeton have channeled his energies and compensated for the insecurities of a fatherless young man? History cannot delve into “what if’s” but it raises important questions.

The eloquent conclusion of Machen’s final sermon in Miller Chapel 26 March 1929,  was a mantra of my youth: “There are many hopes that I cherish for you men, with whom I am united by such ties of affection. I hope that you may be gifted preachers; I hope that you may have happy lives; I hope that you may have adequate support for yourselves and for your families; I hope that you may have good churches. But I hope something for you far more than all that. I hope above all that, wherever you are and however your preaching may be received, you may be true witnesses for the Lord Jesus Christ; I hope that there may never be any doubt where you stand, but that always you may stand squarely for Jesus Christ, as he is offered to us, not in the experiences of men, but in the blessed written Word of God.”[32]






[1] Most recently, Bradley Longfield’s Presbyterians and American Culture, A History. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013. Ch. 4, 149-174. Moorehead, James T. Princeton Seminary in American Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing, 2014. Ch.13, 340-369. In a generally fair and factual approach to the PTS conflict, Moorehead describes Machen as an “ultraconservative” which is indicative of his perspective.

[2] Marsden, George. Fundamentalism and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. 280, note 26.

[3] In a letter of 3 December 1981.  It was one of 5 points he made in a letter that Marsden wrote me, in a recent email, he  remembers receiving. I do not have his response, if any, to my father but it would be courteous.

[4] See my C. Stacey Woods and the Evangelical Rediscovery of the University. Downer’s Grove, IL. 2007. 68-71.

[5] Allan A. MacRae (1902-1997) PTS 1927. Ph.D. Univ. of Pennsylvania 1936 following graduate work in Berlin. A brilliant  OT scholar, he left the PC(USA) with Machen in 1935 and then left the OPC with McIntire in 1937 to found the Bible PC. He split with McIntire in 1971 to form the Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatboro, PA

[6] Paul Woolley  (1902-1984) Princeton Univ 1923 PTS 1923-8 (interrupted by studies in Germany); LES Director (1928-9); ordained Moody Church 1926, PCUSA (1932-6), OPC (1936-84). Registrar & Professor Church History,

WTS (1929-1977). Machen wrote (29 Oct. 1924) recommending him to the Rhodes Scholarship Board.

[7] Machen, J. G. “The Separateness of the Church,” 3.

[8] Machen, J. G. “The Separateness of the Church,” 16.

[9]  As quoted in Utzinger, J. Michael. Yet Saints Their Watch are Keeping: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and the Development of Evangelical Ecclesiology, 1887-1937. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2006. 237.

[10] Machen to Robert Johnson, 3 August 1925 (Machen Papers WTS).

[11] Machen to Andrew Grant, 3 August 1925 (Machen Papers WTS).

[12] See my article in the March 2015 (Canadian) Presbyterian Record “The Birth of the Continuing Church: Looking at 90 years of the new PCC” 35-7.

[13] For Machen and the PCC see my “Knox College and Knox Church: Going Separate Ways after Church Union” 2012 CSPH papers (http://www.csph.ca/assets/csph-2012-papers—don-macleod.pdf).

Canadian Society of Presbyterian History 29 September 2012

[14] See Bush, Peter, “PTS and the PCC, 1820-1929,” Canadian Society of Presbyterian History Papers 2006. 1-9.

[15] Machen to Donald MacOdrum, Stellarton, NS (28 April 1925). (Machen Papers WTS).

[16] Machen to McCulloch Thomson, Clerk of Cape Breton Presbytery, 11 July 1925. (Machen Papers, WTS)

[17] Machen to Robert Johnson (8 September 1925) (Machen Papers, WTS). Johnson (1876 – 1947), an Ulster import, at the time minister Westminster Church, New Glasgow, NS, led the anti-Unionists in Pictou Co. Two years later he was called to Knox Church Ottawa and became Moderator of the General Assembly in 1932.

[18] Machen to Wm. Grier, 3 September 1925 (Machen Papers, WTS) Wm. Grier (1902-1983) graduated Queen Univ., Belfast, 1923, PTS 1923-5; Assembly’s College Belfast 1925-6; licensed PCI 1926, founding member 1927 of EPC after the unsuccessful heresy trial of J. Ernest Davey, OT prof at AC; author of The Momentous Event.

[19] Lefferts A. Loetscher The Broadening Church. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954, 132. Loetscher, PTS 1928, son of PTS Prof Frederick Loetscher, created a sense of betrayal among some of his PTS classmates. To them even the very title of the book, while accurate, suggested a lack of objectivity and bias.

[20] Paul Woolley, chapter II, “The Benham Club” on Alexander St., Princeton. Machen was a “stunter” there. The Significance of J. Gresham Machen Today. Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1977. 2-3.

[21] Charles Woodbridge (1902-1995) First PCUSA Flushing, LI, NY, 1928-32; Missionary, Cameroon, 1932-4; Secy Independent Bd, 1934-7; PCUS, Salisbury NC (1937-45) Independent Church Savannah (1945-50); prof church history, Fuller Seminary (1950-57); Bible teacher with Jack Wyrtzen 1957-62; independent Bible teacher 1962-

[22] Charles Woodbridge to Machen 28 October 1927 (Machen papers WTS)

[23] Everett Harrison (1902-1999) PTS 1927; Ph.D. Univ. of Pennsylvania, 1950; River John, NS, 1927-8; ETSDallas 1928-30, 1934-40; 1943-7;  China, 1930-2; 3rd PCUSA Chester, PA 1940-3;  Fuller Seminary, 1947-72.

[24] Everett Harrison to Machen (16 February 1928) (Machen papers WTS).

[25] See my “Celebrating Our Cross-cultural Evangelistic Missionary Heritage: The Centennial of James Ira Dickson.” Channels, Fall/Winter 1999/2000. 8-12. The Dickson papers are in the PCC archive, Toronto, ON.

[26] See my “Watson Hayes and the NCTS” in Baugus, Bruce, Ed. China’s Reforming Churches. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books. 2014. Ch 2, 59-72. Hayes’ colleague was Albert Dodd who joined the Independent Board in 1934 and was a long-time supporter of Carl MacIntire.

[27] MacLeod, A. N. “Upbuilding Wheaton” in Wheaton Alumni Quarterly Vol 1. No 1 (Jan 1929). 8.

[28] J. Wesley Ingles (1905-1984) Stony Brook School 1929-35; assistant pastor, Westfield NJ PCUSA, 1938-41;

Pt Jefferson LI NY ABC 1941-4; teaching Bates College (1944-50), Eastern Baptist (1949 – 68), For the impact and significance of Silver Trumpet  see also Nelson, Rudolph. The Making and Unmaking of an Evangelical Mind: The Case of Edward Carnell. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 28-9.

[29] Ingles, J. Wesley. Silver Trumpet. Philadelphia: American Sunday School Union, 1930. It is dedicated to Charles Blanchard “who, of all my teachers, has left the deepest and most abiding impress upon my life.”

[30] Mary (“Minnie”) Gresham Machen, Das’  beloved  mother (1849-1931).

wrote The Bible in Browning (1902)

[31] As quoted in Rhoads, G T & Totzek, Nancy. McIntire: Defender of Faith and Freedom. Xulon Press.  2011. 28.

[32] Machen, J. G. “The Good Fight of Faith.” The Presbyterian, 99.13 (28 March 1929). 10.