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May 9

Machen and Macartney

On May 9, 1936, J. Gresham Machen wrote Clarence Macartney regarding Macartney's offer to serve as Machen's counsel before the Permanent Judical Commission of the Presbyterian Church (USA). While thankful for Macartney's offer, Machen graciously declined. Later in his life, Macartney stated that he believed that Machen declined because Machen did not want to be acquitted. Ned B. Stonehouse disagreed and sent a letter to set the record straight that was published in the December 8, 1961 issue of Christianity Today. Stonehouse wrote:

Please permit a brief footnote to G. Hall Todd’s attractive review of the new autobiography of Clarence E. Macartney (Oct. 13 issue). The book should be widely read because of its firsthand report of the doctrinal controversies of the twenties and thirties as well as for many other features to which the reviewer draws attention.

Particularly gratifying in my judgment is Macartney’s evaluation of the character and witness of J. Gresham Machen which may serve to correct certain persistent distortions. Yet one statement of Macartney’s in this context is highly disturbing. It is that after Macartney offered to act as Machen’s counsel before the Permanent Judicial Commission in 1936, Machen declined, “saying that if I defended him, he might be acquitted, and that was not what he wanted” (p. 189). The full correspondence is available to myself and shows that at this point Macartney’s memory failed him. In a letter of about 1200 words Machen, while expressing deep gratitude for the offer, declined on the ground that he felt that his counsel, who would be his spokesman in connection with the subsequent appraisal of the trial regardless of the outcome, had to be a person who would “represent my view in the most thorough-going way,” which, to Machen’s distress, Macartney did not do.

At this time indeed (May 9, 1936), after many years of struggle for reformation from within, Machen had come to believe that the denomination was apostate and he longed for a separation. Nevertheless, as this letter also emphasizes, Machen’s sense of obligation to fulfill his ministerial vows was such that he could not condone the evil involved in his anticipated condemnation even though it might become the occasion of good. In his own words in the letter, “But I cannot acquiesce in that evil for a moment, and therefore I am adopting every legitimate means of presenting my case even before the Modernist Permanent Judicial Commission.”

Picture: J. Gresham Machen on stairs of WTS Pine Street Building

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