What We Believe

Perkins and Machen: An Unlikely Friendship

Brian L. De Jong

Two more dissimilar men you could not find. One a seminary professor, the other a small-town pastor. One grew up in Baltimore in comfortable circumstances. The other came from a farm in Wisconsin, living on modest means. One studied at Princeton and was covenantal, the other graduated from the Moody Bible Institute and was a dispensationalist. One was a lifelong bachelor, the other was married with five children. One was a scholar with an international reputation, the other was largely unknown outside central Wisconsin.

J. Gresham Machen and Arthur F. Perkins were vastly different men, yet a shared faith in Christ united them in deep friendship. These two men suffered similarly at the hands of the PCUSA, both being unfairly disciplined for resisting modernism.

Epistolary Encouragement

Their relationship was initiated by Arthur Perkins in a letter of encouragement to Machen written on February 26, 1935. Over the next eighteen months, these men exchanged thirty-two letters and their friendship and fellowship grew. These letters, housed in the Machen archives at Westminster Theological Seminary, provide a window on their relationship.

They met in person at a Westminster Seminary dinner in 1933, an occasion that Perkins fondly recalled. They saw each other again in Syracuse at the PCUSA’s general assembly. Their final meeting came on June 11, 1936, in Philadelphia at the first general assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church—both men being charter members of the new denomination. Perkins offered the opening prayer that day, and Machen served as moderator.

In the months following, both men worked feverishly to the point of mental, physical, and spiritual exhaustion. By the turn of the new year, both Perkins and Machen had died.

Their relationship was occasioned by the love both held for their church, the PCUSA. Both grew concerned as theological liberalism exerted greater control. Both Machen and Perkins had the courage to speak out against the drift toward modernism, and they suffered for their stances.

They became aware of each other’s situations as they followed developments in the press. In his first letter, Arthur Perkins wrote, “According to the notice in the Presbyterian, today is the time for the ‘second sitting’ in this famous or rather infamous trial. I have been thinking of you and remembering you.”

In his reply, Machen said, “I well know how bravely you are standing for the truth in the Synod of Wisconsin, and I rejoice in that stand with all my heart.”

Their mutual interest in each other was in order to encourage. Perkins wrote to Machen, “How I do thank God that in our great church we have a few great souls who will not ‘bow the knee’ to the modernistic program. I believe, that like Elijah on Mount Carmel, God will use you in this case to confound those who have sold out to lead the people astray … I believe God has raised you up in this day to glorify His dear Son in you.”

Four days later, Machen wrote, “Dear Mr. Perkins, I cannot begin to find words to tell you how grateful I am for your letter of February 26. These are indeed trying times, and few comforts that God gives us in such a time are greater than the comfort of Christian sympathy from people who know what is really going on.”

Machen also sought to encourage his friend. He wrote on September 20, 1935, that “every time I think of you and of the injustice to which you have been subjected, I rejoice again in your courage and reliance upon God in the midst of so much wickedness and unbelief.”

Under Trial

As both Perkins and Machen were put on trial for their convictions, their treatment was similar. In the opinion of Perkins’s defense team, the charges brought against him by the Winnebago Presbytery were extraordinarily like those brought against Machen for supporting the Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions. Both men were convicted by their presbyteries, and their appeals were denied by the PCUSA general assembly without an adequate opportunity to defend themselves. Both of these faithful ministers were put out of the church for having the integrity to question the program of the theological liberals.

One insight into their friendship comes from an exchange in May 1936. Perkins’s defense had cost his friends $436.49—a princely sum during the Great Depression. It seems that Perkins simply did not have the funds to travel to Syracuse for general assembly, although he longed to meet like-minded men. He wrote to Machen that “I shall quietly wait at home.”

Machen responded, “I do wish that it could be possible for you to go to the General Assembly. It is always to me just about the most painful experience imaginable. Yet it does provide opportunities of conference with the remnant of Christian people in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.”

On May 5, the “Defense Committee” sent out an appeal for funds for Reverend Perkins’s expenses, and on May 7 Machen sent “a little contribution of $20 to help enable Mr. Perkins to be present in Syracuse.”

Perkins replied on May 11 with appreciation: “God willing I expect to have the great pleasure of looking into your face and talking with you and fellowshipping for a brief period. I thank God for the high privilege of being allowed by his grace to live today and to stand out here against force and tyranny.”

A mutual respect grew. Machen expressed his opinion of Perkins on April 13, 1936: “Really, I do not know of anyone who has been holding aloft the banner of the cross in a more unselfish way than you have been doing under this sinful persecution which you have endured for Christ’s sake.” And on August 1, 1936, Perkins wrote, “More and more I thank God for your stand through the years and how I praise him for the wonderful meeting of the First General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America [OPC]. I shall never forget your fairness as the moderator.”

Last Letters

The strength of their relationship is seen in their last pair of letters. On August 6, 1936, Perkins wrote another letter in which he was clearly upset. Suggestions had spread that dispensational premillennialists like himself would be unwelcome in the new church. Perkins did not believe the rumors, yet was concerned, and wrote to Machen
for an answer.

“I am a Presbyterian first, last, and all time, and the basis of my fellowship has always been and now is with those who being ‘born again’ center in ‘neither is there salvation in any other; for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.’ I expect men to have freedom on eschatological questions and I expect to be granted the same,” Perkins wrote. “However if such as I are not to be tolerated … please let me know right now.” Although he disliked the idea of being independent, Perkins was ready to do so, if forced by his new church.

Two days later Machen wrote a long and tender letter to “My dear Mr. Perkins” to help him understand his differing perspective on dispensationalism, and why Machen wanted Perkins to remain a member of the new denomination. Neither man wanted to divide over this question.

Perkins invited Machen to preach at his installation in Merrill, Wisconsin, in September, but Machen’s previous commitments prevented him from participating. That fall, Arthur Perkins suffered a nervous breakdown. On December 29, 1936, he died at a mental hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. He was buried on January 1, 1937. On that same day, Machen died in Bismarck, North Dakota. And that day, the souls of these brothers-in-arms met before the throne of their Savior. What joy they must have shared as they both rested from their arduous labors!   

The author is pastor of Grace OPC in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and a member of the Committee for the Historian. New Horizons, October 2020.

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