Machen Memoir: Fifty Years Later

John R. Muether

This summer the Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church plans to reprint J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir, by Ned B. Stonehouse. The following is the preface to the new edition.

In 1954, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was not quite twenty years old. By then many had left the denomination, some in fundamentalist directions, others for broader evangelicalism, and still others renouncing the OPC's separatism and rejoining the Presbyterian mainline. Among those who remained, there was dissatisfaction with the slow growth in the church and a temptation to grow weary. Some charged that the church was not broad enough in its outlook and that the distinctly Reformed and Presbyterian approach of the church's leadership, especially from the Westminster Seminary faculty, was hampering its progress. It did not help morale that other sectors of American Protestantism seemed to flourish. In 1954, American Lutherans were merging. Congregationalists were uniting with the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Billy Graham conducted a very successful London crusade. And the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. welcomed into its membership President Eisenhower. The OPC seemed to be on the sidelines watching.

It was in this year that Professor Ned B. Stonehouse of Westminster Seminary finally finished his biography of J. Gresham Machen. The book very nearly failed to see the light of day. Stonehouse's task was genuinely Herculean, and he already carried the burden of many responsibilities. He served as editor of the Presbyterian Guardian and the Westminster Theological Journal, and he was the editor of the New International Commentary on the New Testament, which debuted about this time as well. At times Stonehouse confessed great discouragement—the project engaged all of his energy, and he despaired whether he had the strength to finish it.

Though seemingly overwhelmed, Stonehouse was also the most fitting person to write the book. Arguably no one in the young church was affected more deeply by the premature death of Machen than his junior colleague in the New Testament department at Westminster, and perhaps no one knew Machen as well as he did.

Once it was completed, Stonehouse began to worry that the book would not sell well and that it would prove too big and expensive in a clothbound edition. When Eerdmans released the book, seven years after Stonehouse began the project, however, he was not prepared for the response that it would generate. Its popularity went "far beyond my fondest anticipation."[1]

Stonehouse joked to friends about how the book shook up his family life. "There has been such a stir" about the book that he likened it to "having a new baby in the house." The greatest ribbing came from his son, who suspected the swelling of his father's head. "Chip expressed the fear that I would be needing a new hat when he heard some of the first estimates of the book. And there may well be some danger of that." He received over one hundred personal letters, to every one of which he sent a personal response. Mary Gresham Machen (Gresham's niece) pronounced it a "monumental achievement," though she regretted that the author underplayed Machen's grand sense of humor.

Within the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the book was a great encouragement to its readers. One reader thanked Stonehouse for "renewing my courage for the struggle to keep alive the Reformed faith." Another wrote that "I am more determined than ever that I should like Machen seek the approval of God rather than men." One even confessed that the book helped him through a time of depression. Several ministers wrote to thank "Stoney," and said they were taking new heart and dedicating themselves anew to the proclamation and defense of the faith. Stonehouse was particularly gladdened that the book was read by laity, "rather than being a so-called highbrow book."

Equally gratifying was the generally warm evangelical reaction. After the modest first printing quickly sold out, Stonehouse was astonished that the book became a selection of the Evangelical Book Club, which itself would circulate 6,000 copies. E. J. Carnell of Fuller Seminary described it as a "splendid and inspiring work." The British scholar F. F. Bruce wrote that "you tell a straightforward and impressive story, and you leave in the reader's mind a picture of a great man." Roger Nicole congratulated him for serving the "evangelical cause" by "giving this remarkable presentation of a man who is so often maligned."

To an admiring Baptist reader Stonehouse wrote, "The words catholicity and ecumenicity are greatly overworked and worn down and perverted nowadays. But there is a true catholicity and ecumenicity which does not have to sell the truth short, and Machen certainly stood for that." Specifically, he hoped the book would contribute to improving the declining relations between the OPC and the church of his upbringing, the Christian Reformed Church.

Calvin Seminary theologian Louis Berkhof lauded the book and noted that in Stonehouse Machen had found a "loyal biographer" and a "worthy successor." The comparison proved more apt than Berkhof intended. Eight years later, having poured "my life and heart into this work," Stonehouse, like his mentor, died a sudden and premature death. History seemed to repeat itself, as a gifted biblical scholar exhausted himself in service to a small, struggling denomination. Did Stonehouse's devotion to this popular book so consume him as to eclipse his scholarly potential? Was this a waste of his gifts? We can be sure that Stonehouse had no regrets. "The book has proved a great blessing to my own life, first of all in experience of the writing of it, but now also as I hear of the spiritual fruit which it has borne in the lives of many Christians."

But what should we say about this book now, fifty years later? What is its value today?

In any book of this vintage, there are features that are dated, and some matters that concerned Stonehouse may be of little importance to today's readers. Consider, for example, the reviewer in the Westminster Theological Journal who expressed appreciation for the author's "quashing once and for all the malicious, irresponsible innuendos and open attacks against Machen in regard to his attitude toward intoxicating beverages, and concerning the rumor that his income was from shares of brewery or distillery stock."[2] We can be thankful that we have progressed to the point where this falsehood is of little concern.

The book has been criticized for being hagiographic. Stonehouse himself never claimed to be dispassionate about his subject, and his preface makes clear that this was a sympathetic tribute from an intimate friend and disciple. Since then, more scholarly and disinterested treatments of Machen have been published.[3]

Moreover, the author's desire to paint a sympathetic picture of his mentor at times got the better of him. In order to rescue Machen from "the clutches of extremism," Stonehouse significantly embellished his description of Machen's romantic interest in "Miss S," to the dismay of the Machen family.[4]

So why this reprint? Stonehouse himself was not one to put great stock in anniversaries. On the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Presbyterian Guardian in 1960, he warned that it was not enough for Reformed Christians merely to preserve their memory. Rather, the Word of God "must go forward with new strength and a fresh sense of urgency."[5]

Stonehouse's biography offers much more than inspirational reading about a great man. It is a summons for the church today, no less than fifty years ago, to cherish our heritage and to persevere in our faithfulness to the Word of God.

We are still prone to become discouraged or indifferent. It is often suggested that the polemics of Machen's day are dated and inappropriate in a "postliberal" age, where winsomeness should replace contentiousness. John Frame writes, in an analysis of the years since Machen's death, that "once the Machenites found themselves in a 'true Presbyterian church' they were unable to moderate their martial impulses. Being in a church without liberals to fight, they turned on one another."[6] Frame identifies twenty-two theological debates that have engaged "Machen's warrior children," and much of it is a sketch of OPC history, with its struggles over the incomprehensibility of God, the Sabbath, charismatic gifts, and covenant theology. In all of these wars, he claims the moral high ground of a conscientious objector, and from that position he challenges the importance that Machen attached to doctrine: "The almost exclusive focus on doctrinal issues in many Reformed circles is itself part of the problem" of Reformed theological warfare.[7]

Machen might have classified such sentiments as "theological indifferentism," and indifferentism, he insisted, "made no heroes of the faith." Christianity was a way of life founded upon doctrine. Stonehouse was faithful in describing the commitment of his mentor, and his book urges readers not to lose heart in the cause to which Machen gave his life.

In a word, Stonehouse's biography reinvigorated the small church that Machen help to found. "I feel now that I never really understood our movement before I read the book," wrote one minister to the author. "If only every OPC member would read that book."

Another minister predicted that "people will be discussing Machen, and your book, a century and more from now." Time will tell if he is right. But this much is certain. Half a century later, Orthodox Presbyterians should be discussing Machen and Stonehouse's book. It is with that hope that the Committee for the Historian of the OPC is pleased to republish J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir.


[1] This and the quotes from letters that follow are from the Stonehouse papers in the Westminster Seminary archives.

[2] Review by Charles J. Woodbridge, WTJ 17 (1955): 118.

[3] By far and away the best is D. G. Hart's Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), recently reprinted by P&R Publishing (2003).

[4] Charles G. Dennison, History for a Pilgrim People, ed. Danny E. Olinger and David K. Thompson (Willow Grove, Pa.: Committee for the Historian of the OPC, 2002), 170-71.

[5] Ned B. Stonehouse, "1935-1960," Presbyterian Guardian 29 (September 1960): 138.

[6] John M. Frame, "Machen's Warrior Children," in Alister E. McGrath and Evangelical Theology, ed. Sung Wook Chung (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 143.

[7] Ibid., 146.

The author is the historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 2004.

New Horizons: May 2004

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Warren's Purpose Driven Life

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