“I find that ‘fundamentalism’ is used largely as a term that’s applied to people who are to the right of wherever you happen to be.” – George Marsden
July 10 marked the anniversary of the beginning of the trial of John Scopes, the teacher who
violated the Butler Act, a law enacted by the state of Tennessee in early 1925 that banned the teaching of evolution in its public schools. Williams Jennings Bryan was one of the key representatives for the prosecution. I am not going to focus exclusively on that event (or its
cultural implications which are more complex than people realize), though it does come into play.
Rather, I intend to address first the historical event of the offer of the presidency of Bryan Memorial University to J. Gresham Machen, his reply, my theory on why the presidency was offered to him, and comment on Machen’s association with Bryan.
It was 1927 and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), meeting in San
Francisco, decided not to approve Machen to the position of professor of apologetics at Princeton Seminary. Machen was in England at the time and got word via a letter from William Park Armstrong, his Princeton New Testament colleague.
Upon learning of the GA’s decision, Frank E. Robinson, the president of the Bryan Memorial University association (now known as Bryan College), jumped at the opportunity to offer Machen the presidency, telling the university’s promotional director to see Machen once he gets back from GA (not realizing Machen was in England). “We consider Dr. Machen one of the most scholarly and conservative theologians in America,” Robinson said.
Of that there can be little doubt. As Time magazine reported, “Here, decided Fundamentalists, was a man who could command attention for their religious-scientific arguments…” (June 20, 1927). That line represents, I believe the main reason Machen was asked to accept the presidency of the university. “He’s one of us. He believes the Bible to be true. He stands up for fundamental Christian doctrines. What more could we ask?”
Based on his response, however, it is clear that Machen believed that being a fundamentalist
or a broadly conservative theologian simply did not go deep enough.
It is important to note that Machen previously came to the conclusions stated in his response to Frank Robinson through years of doubt, struggle, study, and finally acceptance, which culminated in his ordination to the Presbyterian ministry in 1915. His “fundamentalist” views, therefore, were already in place well before the term came into the public consciousness a decade later.
After stating his unfitness for this particular administrative position, Machen writes:
“I am somewhat loath, for the present at least, to relinquish my connection with distinctively Presbyterian work. I have the warmest sympathy, indeed, with interdenominational efforts of various kinds; I have frequently entered into such efforts on my own part; and I understand fully that the real attack is not directed against those points wherein Calvinism differs from other systems of evangelical belief, and is not directed even against those points wherein Protestantism differs from the Roman Catholic Church, but that it is directed against the points wherein the Christian religion—Protestant and Catholic—differs from a radically different type of belief and of life.
“That radically different type of belief and of life is found today in all the larger ecclesiastical bodies; and in the presence of such a common enemy, those who unfeignedly believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ are drawn into a new warmth of fellowship and a new zeal for common service. Nevertheless, thoroughly consistent Christianity, to my mind, is found only in the Reformed or Calvinistic Faith; and consistent Christianity, I think, is the Christianity easiest to defend.
“Hence, I never call myself a “fundamentalist.” There is, indeed, no inherent objection to the term; and if the disjunction is between “Fundamentalism” and “Modernism,” then I am willing to call myself a Fundamentalist of the most pronounced type. But after all, what I prefer to call myself is not a “Fundamentalist” but a “Calvinist”—that is, an adherent of the Reformed Faith.
“As such I regard myself as standing in the great central current of the Church’s life—the current which flows down from the Word of God through Augustine and Calvin, and which has found noteworthy expression in America in the great tradition represented by Charles Hodge, Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield and the other representatives of the “Princeton School.”
“I have the warmest sympathy with other evangelical churches, and a keen sense of agreement with them about those Christian convictions which are today being most insistently assailed; but, for the present at least, I think I can best serve my fellow Christians—even those who belong to ecclesiastical bodies different from my own—by continuing to be identified, very specifically, with the Presbyterian Church.”
–(J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir by Ned Stonehouse, pp. 374-75)
Saying someone is a “fundamentalist” (as many claimed and still claim Machen to be) is an easy way to avoid pinpointing what a person actually believes and why. Why do any actual thinking when you can slap a label on someone and be done with it?
But as J.I. Packer stated over 50 years ago in his little book Fundamentalism and the Word of God, the label is “prejudicial, ambiguous, explosive and in every way unhelpful to discussion. It does not clarify; it merely confuses. It is only in use today because critics of Evangelicalism have dragged it up” (p. 40).
Terry Chrisope questions seriously this provocative term as it is applied to Machen:
“In light of Machen’s intellectual development and theological stance, it may well be asked whether he should be regarded as a fundamentalist at all. Would it not serve the progress and clarity of historical analysis to acknowledge that Machen was not a fundamentalist but a confessional Calvinistic Presbyterian of the Old School tradition who allied himself with fundamentalists in a common cause?” (p. 194)
Machen simply did not fall in line with many of the characteristics of those who claimed the
fundamentalist title, characteristics that, though not all-encompassing, included
- ecclesiastical separatism
- theological reductionism
- a lack of concern to engage in scholarly debate
I believe Machen was wise to turn down the appointment. Though there was a “warmth of
fellowship and a new zeal for common service,” the differences theologically, ecclesiastically, and culturally were a barrier too great to overcome, though Robinson may have thought otherwise at the time. Had Machen taken the position, the differences would, I believe, have become accentuated and tensions would have arisen, particularly on how the Church interacts with culture. A robust form of Christianity should be favored over broadly evangelical Christianity, because, as Machen states, consistent Christianity is the easiest to defend.
The differences between Machen and his view of what Christianity should be and how it should battle the modernism of the day can also be seen in Machen’s connection to William Jennings Bryan, and the issue of evolution as it came to prominence at the Scopes trial in Dayton, TN (which in hindsight seems more like one big publicity stunt). Bryan and many other conservative Christians believed this was one of the major fronts in the war with modernism.
Machen, along with others, had been invited by Bryan to appear as a witness for the prosecution. Following is the letter sent to Machen:
[Bryan, writing from Coconut Grove, FL]:
June 23, 1925
My dear Mr. Machen:
Please let me know whether you can come to the Tennessee trial if we need you as a witness. The trial commences in Dayton the tenth of July.
I enclose a brief statement of the case against evolution. Let me know your opinion on the propositions and any additional suggestions you may have. The statement is confidential and I will ask you not to allow it be seen.
As I must leave for Tennessee in less than two weeks, I hope you will reply at once as we would like to know what we can rely on in way of evidence, if we need evidence.
With good wishes, I am
Very truly yours,
Stephen Nichols notes that Machen “declined, ostensibly citing his lack of expertise. Perhaps the real reason lies elsewhere. For Machen, while he did not discredit Bryan’s work, the creation-verse-evolution controversy was not the decisive battle with liberalism. He saw it lying elsewhere” (p. 101).
Elsewhere was beyond the surface that Bryan was aiming at to the more foundational issue of the
authority of the Bible. When asked by the New York Times to address the subject of evolution opposite of zoologist Vernon Kellogg, Machen declined, instead authoring a column explaining the nature of Christianity. The title was “What Fundamentalism Stands For Now”, but right off the bat Machen opens the column stating,
“The term ‘Fundamentalism’ is distasteful to the present writer and to many person who hold view similar to his. It seems to suggest that we are adherents of some strange new sect; whereas in point of fact we are conscious simply of maintaining the historic Christian faith and of moving in the great central current of Christian life” (p. 116).
Ned Stonehouse, in his memoir of Machen, says Machen was not indifferent to the
issue of evolution, but
“to the extent that evolution involved a philosophy of materialism and contradicted the plain teaching of the Bible, he was quite opposed to it as a matter of course…As a specialist in New Testament studies the great issue with regard to Christianity appeared to be that of the supernatural, and though not claiming to be a specialist in the Old Testament, he observed that the same issue was at stake there. But for the rest Machen was exceedingly cautious—some would say excessively so—in expressing himself on the subject of evolution. His scholarly instincts simply did not permit him to pose as an authority in such fields as biology and geology” (p. 350)
Neither was Machen indifferent to scientific discovery, as he writes further in his letter
of response to Robinson:
“I do not, indeed, underestimate the achievements of modern science in the material realm; and the Christian man should never commit the serious error of belittling those achievements. This is God’s world, and those who penetrate into its secrets are students of God’s works and benefactors of their fellow-men.”
His concern, however, was that “such material advances have gone hand in hand with an intellectual decadence in many spheres–an intellectual decadence which is now threatening to engulf all of human life” (p. 375)
Machen did not make the same mistake Bryan did and take a witness stand to be questioned
by Clarence Darrow and be roundly criticized by H.L. Menken (who interestingly praised Machen as “a man of great learning and dignity.”) Much like F.E. Robinson two years later, Bryan thought that Machen should come to Dayton because he believed Machen was “one of us.” It is clear that he was not.
To be fair it is probable that Bryan’s other beliefs, aside from evolution and Prohibition, also greatly differed from other conservative Christians of the time and certainly of the modern day. Bryan seems to only be remembered for the Scopes trial and his stance against alcohol when there was so much more to the man. He was the Secretary of State in the Wilson administration after all.
That being said, I am in agreement with Chrisope’s conclusion on the matter:
It may readily be admitted that the fundamentalists made use of Machen and his case against liberalism. But this may well have been an instance partially analogous to the usage which later fundamentalists made of the person and writings of C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), the eminent British literary scholar and Christian writer; in both cases self-acknowledged fundamentalists claimed the work of one who was not really their own (p. 195).