For Machen, Fosdick Was a Small Part of the Problem

D.G. Hart
Distinguished Associate Professor of History
Hillsdale College

Harry Emerson Fosdick’s provocative sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?,” delivered on May 21, 1922, is as good a date as any to locate the start of the controversy between conservatives and liberals in the Presbyterian Church.  It did prompt conservative reactions and put the Presbytery of New York at the center of Presbyterian deliberations for the next three years.  It was in a sense a clarifying moment for Presbyterians.

But it came from an unlikely source.  For one, Fosdick was a Baptist and though preaching as stated supply at First Presbyterian Church, New York City, he had no obvious awareness of developments in Presbyterianism beyond his urban associates.  Fosdick had recently visited China and seen the opposition from conservative Baptists to stop the spread of liberal views.  Indeed, the origin of the word, “fundamentalist,” was Baptist. Two years before as conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention along with northern and Canadian counterparts fought liberalism along a variety of fronts, Curtis Lee Laws, the editor of the Baptist newspaper, The Watchman-Examiner, popularized the term.  It became a badge of honor among Baptists, including John Roach Straton, who kept close tabs on liberals in New York City, which meant keeping an eye on Fosdick.  For this reason, Fosdick was likely most concerned about fundamentalism among Baptists.[1]  He unintentionally kicked the sleeping Presbyterian giant by raising fears about fundamentalist intolerance in the setting of an apparently welcome environment like First Presbyterian Church.  He had not counted on Presbyterian polity and a system of graded courts.

Gresham Machen was a frequent visitor to New York City for its bookstores, theaters, and restaurants. He often attended the churches of known liberal preachers to hear the other side, though his efforts to monitor modernist sermons became most notable after 1923. When Fosdick preached his infamous sermon, Machen was more involved in his own academic work.  His New Testament Greek for Beginners had just been published with Macmillan.  Machen was also likely thrilled to see a positive response from liberal New Testament scholars to his first book, The Origin of Paul’s Religion, published the previous year also with Macmillan.  Although many reviews faulted Machen for not granting more influence from the surrounding first-century culture on the apostle’s thought, most were also impressed by the young scholar’s command of the sources and secondary literature.  Benjamin W. Bacon, professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School, esteemed the book as “worthy of a high place among the products of American biblical scholarship.” Even Rudolf Bultmann praised Machen for representing fairly the views of scholars who questioned the supernatural character of the New Testament.[2]

This is not to say, however, that Machen was indifferent to liberalism in either American Protestantism or European theological scholarship.  His book on Paul was an obvious demonstration of being steeped in the kind of polemical scholarship, both biblical and theological, that had long characterized Princeton Theological Seminary’s faculty going back to Archibald Alexander, Samuel Miller, and Charles Hodge.  Machen was also keenly aware of liberalism in the Presbyterian Church in 1922 and was preparing his famous book, Christianity and Liberalism at the very time that Fosdick preached his controversial sermon.

Machen’s alertness to liberalism predated the Fosdick controversy by two years.  In 1920 he had attended in Philadelphia his first General Assembly as a commissioner.  There he heard a report from a special committee of the General Assembly on “Church Cooperation and Union.”  The presentation contained a plan for an organic union of the major Protestant denominations in the United States that would constitute a national body comparable to the United Church of Canada (formed in 1925).  This proposed merger went beyond the federal union involved in the already existent Federal Council of Churches (1908).  Instead of cooperating in a federal system that still recognized the several powers of member denominations, the proposed organic union would combine the ratifying denominations into a single body.  The proposal alarmed Machen partly because the person presenting the report was J. Ross Stevenson, the president of Princeton Seminary.  In the subsequent year, many of Princeton’s faculty along with Machen wrote articles in opposition to the plan because its creedal basis was meager to the point of being pointless.  Machen also came to see that the interdenominational and ecumenical endeavors of America’s leading denominations were vehicles for the Social Gospel.  Ever since the reunion of the Old and New School (northern) Presbyterian Churches in 1869, Presbyterians had led the way in channeling the resources of the church on behalf of the nation.  The Social Gospel was in fact an early example of Christian nationalism in the sense that Protestants cooperated to promote policies and laws that preserved the Christian character of American society.  Evidence of the social aims of ecumenism came explicitly at the first meeting of the Federal Council where the body produced a “Social Creed for the Churches,” a list of roughly fifteen points to end the unrest between organized labor and industrial capitalism.[3]

Machen’s concerns about the plan for union drew him into the company of conservatives in the presbyteries of Philadelphia and Chester (just south and west of Philadelphia) who also saw church union as a threat to the integrity of the PCUSA.  He gave a lecture in 1921 to a body of elders in the Presbytery of Chester which became the basis for an article, “Christianity or Liberalism,” in the fall issue of the Princeton Theological Review.  What alarmed Machen about the plan, as he explained repeatedly throughout the Presbyterian controversy, was a “basis for Christian fellowship” that was “couched in the vague language of modern naturalism.”  Such vague affirmations of the faith “relegated to the realm of the nonessential our historic Confession of Faith.”[4]

The social utility of the plan was also a big part of Machen’s forthcoming book on liberalism.  Instead of attacking erroneous views of creation and Christ’s return, or even faulty understanding of the infallibility of the Bible (Machen mentioned inerrancy in Christianity and Liberalism on a mere two-page section), he argued that liberalism’s understanding of salvation contradicted historic Christianity.  Liberals promoted a gospel of improvement and human agency unlike the doctrine of salvation taught in the Bible which depended on the supernatural entrance of God into human history to accomplish the salvation of his people.  For Machen this saving work was especially dependent on the work of Christ and the vicarious atonement.  Curiously enough, in the very same chapter (the longest) where Machen defended that doctrine of salvation, he also mocked the ham fisted social utilitarianism that informed Protestant modernism.  To the question of immigration, Machen wrote, liberals “called in” the Bible to solve the problem of cultural diversity.  “We are inclined to proceed against the immigrants now with a Bible in one hand and a club in the other offering them the blessings of liberty. That is what is sometimes meant by ‘Christian Americanization.’”[5]

At the same time, even if Machen was on guard against liberal developments in the PCUSA before Fosdick’s sermon, the Princeton professor was by no means indifferent to the sermon or its significance.  When Machen gave testimony to various Presbyterian committees between 1925 and 1935, he listed Fosdick right behind the Plan for Organic Union as the leading examples of modernism in the PCUSA.  When asked to testify before the Special Commission of 1925, for example, a body whose task was to diagnose the causes of controversy in the church, Machen stated that Fosdick represented “in typical fashion the pragmatist skepticism of our day, which holds that what is really constant in religion is an inner experience that clothes itself from generation to generation in necessarily changing intellectual forms.” Again, in his testimony before the Special Committee to Investigate Princeton Seminary (1926), another body charged with exploring the causes of controversy at the church’s oldest seminary, Machen identified Fosdick as an example of liberalism in the church.  In his explanation for supporting Clarence Macartney instead of Charles Erdman, a Princeton Seminary faculty member, as moderator for the 1924 General Assembly, Machen brought up Fosdick.  When a leading Presbyterian praised Erdman as a man “who stands for presenting a united front rather than the encouragement of controversy,” Machen vigorously dissented.  For him it was foolish to embrace unity over conflict when “agnostic Modernism as represented by Dr. Fosdick and his Presbyterian supporters was contending for the control of our church.”

As it turned out, Machen himself preached a sermon that became an inflection point in the Presbyterian controversy and that seemed to have all the marks of a direct reply to Fosdick.  During the second half of 1923, Machen filled the pulpit at First Presbyterian Church, Princeton.  His last sermon of the calendar year, “The Present Issue in the Church,” became part of a national news story when it prompted one of the congregation’s prominent members to leave the church.  Henry Van Dyke, a professor of literature at Princeton University and Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Netherlands, objected to Machen’s argumentative sermons and determined to worship elsewhere.  Van Dyke actually held a press conference to announce his decision.  As a result, reporters included material from Machen’s sermon in their coverage.  Many also began to pester Machen for comments.  One indication of his new found celebrity was the increase of sales of Christianity and Liberalism.  In 1923 the book had sold roughly 1,000 copies.  The next year that figure jumped four-fold.

One reason to think that Machen had Fosdick in view was that he countered the liberal Baptist directly on the question of intolerance in the church.  Fosdick was concerned about the tension between modern science and Christian conviction.  Modern learning was out of step with certain doctrines and he did not want fundamentalists to drive out of the church “multitudes of young men and women at this season of the year are graduating from our schools of learning.” Part of the solution was tolerance. “As I plead thus for an intellectually hospitable, tolerant, liberty-loving church, I am of course thinking primarily about this new generation. . . . the worst kind of church that can possibly be offered to the allegiance of the new generation is an intolerant church.”[6]

In his own sermon, Machen was also concerned about modern learning and tolerance.  His message was one of hopefulness.  He wanted to see a return to the theology of the Reformation and the kind of intellectual vitality that had sustained it.  One factor necessary for such a recovery was intellectual honesty.  Modern hermeneutics had given license to interpretative models that implicitly allowed denials of mathematical and historical truths.  For instance, modern examples of interpretation could render six times nine not as fifty-four but as one-hundred-twenty-eight, or the Declaration of Independence was adopted not in Philadelphia but in San Francisco.  It could even turn “the third day He arose again from the dead” into “the third day He did not rise again from the dead.”  This was not exactly a brief for intellectual achievement but Machen was trying to acknowledge that in the conflict between science and faith, Christians might have to choose faith over science.  Otherwise, they might wind up abandoning truths upon which Christian salvation depended.[7]

When it came to tolerance, Machen was surprisingly on Fosdick’s side, but with a twist.  For a revival of the Christian religion, Americans need to return to the “great achievement of our forefathers” – “tolerance or religious liberty.”  Parents, churches, and schools needed the freedom to teach children “any form of religious belief they desire.”  Machen in other essays included Roman Catholics and Jewish Americans in this freedom.  He was particularly agitated about Progressive educational reforms that restricted what private and religious schools could teach in the interest of assimilating all children to American patriotic ideals.  Many Protestants supported these measures again in the interest of preserving a Christian America in which all people, no matter their religious or ethnic background, supported American civic norms.  Machen regarded such restriction of freedom of association and religion as a hindrance to “any great spiritual advance.”  “Place children in their formative years under the despotic control of experts appointed by the state, and you have a really more effective interference with civil and religious liberty than the Inquisition.”[8]

The contrast between Machen and Fosdick is striking.  Both understood that advances in modern learning had made implausible important parts of older Christian convictions.  Neither of their sermons proposed how to resolve the conflict.  Fosdick did worry that the church would lose its younger generation if it did not welcome modern scholarship.  Machen, in contrast, worried what would become of Christianity if the church followed Fosdick’s advice.  Also, both recommended tolerance.  For Fosdick, the church needed to be open to all points of view.  For Machen, the state needed to protect religious and intellectual freedom which in turn would allow the church to be free to follow its own convictions.  That freedom also involved excluding those (at least officers) who refused to affirm the church’s creeds.

In effect, Machen’s reaction to Fosdick was of a piece with his opposition to the ecumenism of the mainline churches and the Social Gospel.  Was the church a servant to the nation, an institution that mirrored civic norms in order to promote the larger society’s well-being?  Or was the church called to be a separate institution in service of a kingdom that transcended national borders and patriotic virtues?  Machen and Fosdick answered each question differently.  That difference in turn reflected a fundamental divergence at a crucial point in American church history.  By rejecting the political and religious strategies of Progressive Protestants like Fosdick, in 1922 Machen was objecting to more than simply theological fuzziness on inerrancy or the virgin birth.  He was rejecting the nationalism that had informed mainline Protestantism fifty years earlier since the end of the Civil War and that would eventually crash and burn fifty years later during the Vietnam War.

[1] On the Baptist context for Fosdick’s sermon, see Wallace Best, “Battle for the Soul of a City: John Roach Straton, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy in New York, 1922–1935,” Church History 90 (2021): 367-97.

[2] For reviews of Machen’s Origins of Paul’s Religion, see D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 53-54.

[3] On Presbyterians and ecumenism in the Progressive Era, see D. G. Hart, The Tie that Divides: Presbyterian Ecumenism, Fundamentalism, and the History of Twentieth-Century American Protestantism,@ Westminster Theological Journal 60 (1998): 85-107.

[4] Machen, “The Second Declaration of the Council on Organic Union,” Presbyterian 91 (March 17, 1921), 26.

[5] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (New York: Macmillan, 1923), 148.

[6] Fosdick, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Christian Work 102 (June 10, 1922) 720.

[7] Machen, “Sermon on the Present Issue in the Church Preached in the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton,” Presbyterian 94 (April 17, 1924) 8.

[8] Machen, “Sermon on the Present Issue in the Church Preached in the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton,” 8.