The Legacy of J. Gresham Machen and the Identity of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church -- By: Darryl G. Hart

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 53:2 (Fall 1991)
Article: The Legacy of J. Gresham Machen and the Identity of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Author: Darryl G. Hart


The Legacy of J. Gresham Machen
and the Identity of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

Darryl G. Hart

The fact remains that to us he was a dearly beloved Christian brother whose life touched ours for good at a thousand points. Indeed, he was far more than a brother to many of us. He was a father in Israel and we have become orphans.1

WHEN J. Gresham Machen died on January 1, 1937, many regarded him as one of the most important spokesmen for conservative Protestantism. The Southern Methodist Advocate remarked that evangelicalism had lost “its ablest exponent and defender.” The editor of The Banner, the organ of the Christian Reformed Church, agreed that “the cause of orthodoxy” had lost “its most prominent champion.” Albert C. Dieffenbach, a Unitarian and the religion editor for the Boston Evening Transcript, wrote that Machen was “as learned and valiant” a theologian and crusader “as the Protestant church has produced in modern times.” Princeton Seminary’s Caspar Wistar Hodge declared that Machen was “the greatest theologian in the English-speaking world”; evangelical Christianity, he said, had “lost its greatest leader.”2

Forty years later, however, in what Time magazine dubbed “the year of the evangelical,” Machen’s name was unfamiliar to many of America’s conservative Protestants. To be sure, memories of Machen could hardly compete with such popular figures as Charles Colson, Johnny Cash, Billy Graham, and Jimmy Carter. But within evangelical academic circles, an area in which Machen could have served as a model, he was known primarily as a fundamentalist who had defended an inerrant Bible and had advocated a pure church. Westminster Seminary, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), and the Presbyterian Guardian meanwhile were eclipsed by such institutions as Wheaton College, Fuller Seminary, the National Association of Evangelicals, and Christianity Today. To be sure, the diversity of American evangelicalism minimizes the impact of any single individual upon the movement. But within one generation the

institutions Machen helped to establish were on the fringe of what one scholar has called the evangelical establishment.3

Machen’s declining influence is poignant because many of evangelicalism’s leaders early in their careers had looked to him as their mentor. Harold Ockenga, the first president of Fuller Seminary and the founding president of the National Association of Evangelicals, attended Princeton and eventually ...

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