D. G. Hart
To claim that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church would not exist if not for a magazine is a bit of a stretch but has enough proximity to historical circumstances to be plausible. One year before J. Gresham Machen said of the OPC, “a true Presbyterian church, at last,” he had established a magazine, The Presbyterian Guardian, to inform fellow Presbyterians about the latest developments in the PCUSA.
The Guardian was actually the third magazine that conservatives had used to make known their objections to theological liberalism. The Presbyterian, founded in 1851, had been the chief avenue outside theological quarterlies for pastors and theologians in the North to reach a popular audience. Thanks to disagreements about strategy in the controversies of the 1920s, Machen and Samuel G. Craig in 1930 founded Christianity Today (not the one in print today) to express the views of conservatives associated with Westminster Seminary. The Guardian came five years later, once Presbyterians in the seminary’s network divided over the wisdom of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions.
Through the long years of doctrinal debate and news stories about denominational politics, magazines informed ordinary readers about the details and significance of the church struggle.
Before the rise of the internet and online publishing, magazines were the most popular print medium for reaching national audiences. In the 1830s in the United States, thanks to cheap printing costs and relatively easy delivery by the postal service via roads and canals, mass magazines became a regular part of a reader’s time. Some of the most popular titles were Godey’s Lady’s Book, a nineteenth-century favorite, and Saturday Evening Post, a publication that dominated newsstands the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.
During much of this time, Protestant denominations produced their own magazines. The Presbyterian was the first within the PCUSA. In the twentieth century, publishers appealed across denominational lines. The Christian Century, which took the name in 1900, became the flagship magazine for mainline and liberal Protestants. Evangelical Protestants had to wait until 1956 to have their own conservative alternative: Christianity Today. The Century and Christianity Today remain in print, as do denominational magazines. But the news coverage and opinion that magazines used to offer in the heyday of magazine readership has declined.
A century ago, however, writing for magazines was such a habit and expectation that at almost every turn in the church controversy that led to the OPC’s formation, a weekly or monthly periodical was there to leave a trail of documentary crumbs for historians.
In 1920, commissioners to the general assembly heard a plan for an organic union of the largest and most influential Protestant denominations in the United States. The president of Princeton Theological Seminary, J. Ross Stevenson, was the chair of the Presbyterian committee that recommended union to the assembly. But the majority of his faculty opposed the plan because of its lukewarm religious affirmations. The place where Princeton faculty decided to publish their views was a magazine, The Presbyterian. Machen himself wrote three articles, all of which employed arguments that he expanded in Christianity and Liberalism (1923).
The Presbyterian continued to be the outlet for conservative Presbyterians during the ensuing years of theological turmoil in the PCUSA. In fact, the magazine was at the center of fractured relations at Princeton Seminary when disagreements over trends in the church—like church union—elevated Princeton itself into a political football.
At the 1925 general assembly, arguably the most pivotal in the sixteen years of controversy that led up to the OPC, liberals in New York were prepared to leave the denomination because commissioners were about to reaffirm the virgin birth of Christ as a fundamental article of Christianity. This would have been a difficult vote for New Yorkers to swallow since they had ordained two ministers who could not affirm (though they did not deny) the virgin birth.
But instead of letting the vote take place, the moderator, Charles Erdman, professor of practical theology at Princeton, decided to form a committee to study the sources of the Presbyterian controversy. That investigation found that conservatives were largely responsible for sowing seeds of distrust. It recommended that criticism of ministers and church agencies cease. The committee also advised that the assembly form another committee to investigate why Princeton Seminary faculty were quarreling.
Part of the evidence this commission examined consisted of editorials in The Presbyterian that had criticized Erdman’s candidacy for moderator of the 1924 assembly. Erdman had assumed that Machen, a member of the magazine’s editorial board, was the author of one of the negative editorials. Machen had not written the column in question, but Erdman’s perception was another indication of the role that magazines played in the dissemination of news and views in church life.
The committee to investigate Princeton Seminary eventually recommended administrative changes that undermined conservative control. That was the motivation for Machen and other conservatives in 1929 to found a new seminary in Philadelphia—Westminster Theological Seminary. The start of a new school for training Presbyterian pastors was also the occasion for launching another conservative Presbyterian magazine. Investors at The Presbyterian were not thrilled with Samuel G. Craig’s editorials against the changes at Princeton. In an effort to create a platform for unfettered coverage of Princeton and Westminster, Craig and Machen founded Christianity Today, a publication of the newly formed Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company. In addition to his work as a writer and editor, Craig served on the board at Westminster. For five years, conservative Presbyterians used Christianity Today to oppose the denomination’s liberal drift.
Between 1930 and 1935, the controversy over foreign missions enveloped the church. In 1932, a report sponsored by Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Dutch Reformed, and conducted by a branch of what became the Rockefeller Foundation, determined that the traditional purpose of missions—saving lost souls—was outdated. Instead, the churches needed to cooperate with indigenous religions for the sake of social improvement. The report, published as Re-Thinking Missions, launched the last phase of the Presbyterian controversy. When Machen and other conservatives were unable to persuade the PCUSA’s mission board to condemn the report, they founded the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. Independent Board members faced charges from their respective presbyteries for defying regular channels for foreign missions.
The creation of the Independent Board also split conservatives at Christianity Today and at Westminster Seminary. Samuel Craig himself resigned from the seminary’s board and refused to defend the tactics of the Independent Board. That editorial decision led Machen to found The Presbyterian Guardian—the title that Machen had originally wanted for Christianity Today. Its first issue, published on October 7, 1935, placed before readers news about the church, the work of foreign missions, and instructional material for young people and adults. It was also a clarion call for conservative Presbyterians, as Machen explained, that in a world of controversy and flux, the one thing they could put their confidence in was not the visible church or Western civilization but the Word of God.
The Guardian remained a platform for orthodox Presbyterians to follow news about church life, receive doctrinal and biblical instruction, and offer opinions about the OPC’s place in the world. But throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the OPC general assembly heard and entertained various calls for a denominational magazine that promoted the general interest of the church. What ensued was an almost three-decade conversation about the merits of a magazine that engaged in polemics to defend conservative Presbyterianism as opposed to a publication that reported in a promotional way on church affairs.
Out of those deliberations in 1980 came New Horizons, a publication that reported on activities of the church’s agencies. A declining readership (as well as pool of writers) meant that over time the Guardian could not support itself without a subsidy from the OPC. That financial arrangement made full and frank discussion of church life difficult without offending patrons.
By 1979, the Guardian’s assets and circulation list had been sold to the conservative southern Presbyterian magazine, The Presbyterian Journal, which in turn (1986) became the basis for World magazine.
If OP members still desire a magazine that gives room for theologically informed opinion and news coverage of the wider church world, the reason likely has something to do with the role that magazines played in the formation and sustenance of the OPC.
The author, an OP elder, teaches at Hillsdale College. New Horizons, January 2020.