All Commentary
Wednesday, December 1, 1993

J. Gresham Machen: A Forgotten Libertarian

This leading conservative Christian theologian opposed almost any extension of state power.

Daniel F. Walker is an attorney in Tallahassee, Florida.

“Everywhere there rises before our eyes the spectre of a society where security, if it is attained at all, will be attained at the expense of freedom, where the security that is attained will be the security of fed beasts in a stable, and where all the high aspirations of humanity will have been crushed by an all-powerful state.”[1]

Meet J. Gresham Machen, a leading conservative Christian theologian who led the battle for historic Christianity early in this century.

Machen is often overlooked today, except by those familiar with the world of Reformed Protestant Theology. Such books of his as The Origins of Paul’s Religion and The Virgin Birth of Christ (“monuments to careful historical research and argumentation,” according to historian George Marsden) are periodically reprinted, as is his classic Christianity and Liberalism, a defense of historic Christianity against theological unbelief.

Following undergraduate studies at the Johns Hopkins University, Machen received theological training at Princeton Seminary (in his days a citadel of conservative Calvinism) and post-graduate studies in Germany. A career in Princeton academia and years of doctrinal battling in the Presbyterian Church followed. Years passed, theological stands changed at Princeton; eventually the leftward drift compelled Machen to leave both Princeton and the Presbyterian Church to help found Westminister Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination.

Historian George Marsden refers to Machen’s political views as “radically libertarian. He opposed almost any extension of state power and took stands on a variety of issues. Like most libertarians, his stances violated usual categories of liberal or conservative.”[2]

Following the impulses of his family heritage, which was rooted in the South, Machen tended to place state sovereignty before that of the federal government; in letters he indicated a belief that the Southern states properly exercised their constitutional authority to attempt secession. Most importantly, Machen favored individual fights and families over governmental powers.

Machen detested governmental control of individuals; as he stated in the introduction of Christianity and Liberalism, “Personality can only be developed in the realm of individual choice. And that realm, in the modern state, is being slowly but steadily eradicated.”[3]

Machen minced no words. Of the “dreary regularity” of one of his favorite nature preserves after the federal government made it a national park, Machen wrote, “I almost feel as though I were in some kind of penal institution. I feel somewhat as I do when I am in Los Angeles or any of the over-regulated cities of the West, where pedestrians meekly wait around on the street comers for non-existent traffic and cross the streets only at the sound of the prison gong.”[4]

Long before the federal Department of Education was finally created in the 1970s, efforts had been made to establish it in the 1920s. Machen vigorously opposed those efforts in published letters, essays in national magazines, speaking engagements, and in an appearance before a joint Congressional committee. There, Machen warned against government control over young people: “If you give the bureaucrats the children, you might as well give them everything else as well.”[5]

A national department of education was not the only government intrusion into education which drew Machen’s opposition. The “Lusk Laws” of New York which would have compelled private schools to obtain state licenses, and Nebraska’s Language Law (ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court) which prohibited teaching a foreign language to any pre-9th grade student, were both cited by Machen as examples of improper but not unexpected government interference in the learning process. While not opposing locally operated public schools per se, Machen set forth his position regarding school and state in no uncertain terms:

Place the lives of children in their formative years, despite the convictions of their parents, under the intimate control of experts appointed by the state, force them to attend schools where the higher aspirations of humanity are crushed out, and where the mind is filled with the materialism of the day, and it is difficult to see how even the remnants of liberty can subsist.[6]

In an era of considerable federal and state control over schooling, with powerful teachers’ unions and their fascination with method rather than substance, Machen’s words ring just as true today as when he wrote them over 60 years ago.

The trend of declining personal liberty and a confused public understanding of “equality” deeply worried Machen. He was “dead opposed” to the concept of equal opportunity; he described himself as “old-fashioned in my love of freedom. I am opposed to the attack on freedom in whatever form it may come.”[7]Theological conservatism opposed statism in Machen’s political views. In an age when many favored Prohibition, Machen opposed it—an act which did not help his career. During World War I, he opposed the military draft, describing it as one of the things he opposed more” than anything else in the world,” not only because of “the brutal interference of the state in individual and family life which that entails” but also because “[o]nce established, a policy of conscription would for various reasons be almost incapable of being abandoned.”[8]When the Secretary of Labor in 1925 advocated the “enrollment” of aliens, Machen opposed it on the basis that it would ultimately lead to citizens having to maintain “proof” of citizenship akin to many Europeans having to “show their papers” issued by the state. Little did he know how he anticipated the infamous Social Security card and number.

In the 1920s considerable support grew for a Child Labor Amendment, essentially allowing Congress to ban anyone under age 18 from employment. In a letter published in the New Republic, Machen wrote:

The approval of the amendment would indeed be economically a very great benefit to one class in the population—namely to the vast army of federal agents and inspectors which any exercise of the powers conferred by the amendment would require. The federal agents would be economically benefited; but American liberty and the sanctity of the American home would be gone.[9]

Machen was not one to be fooled by labels falsely worn (he attacked theological liberals who called themselves “Christians” while attacking the Bible) nor by complacency; perhaps because he saw theological liberalism infect mainline Protestant denominations despite its multitude of profound differences with the historic Christian faith, Machen feared the expansion of government power under a name other than that of socialism. As he wrote in Christianity and Liberalism:

. . . the same tendency exhibits itself today even in those communities where the name of socialism is most abhorred. When once the majority has determined that a certain regime is beneficial, that regime without further hesitation is forced ruthlessly upon the individual man. It never seems to occur to modern legislatures that although “welfare” is good, forced welfare may be bad . . . . in the interests of physical well-being the great principles of liberty are being thrown ruthlessly to the winds.[10]

The parallel rise of theological liberalism and the growth of governmental power in this century in America, it could be argued, was hardly coincidental. Historic Christianity was abandoned by theological liberalism, and the “Social Gospel” movement—having given up on the Gospel—wished to impose its own vision of the City of God here on earth. Biblical authority was weakened; a governmental authority filled the void.

Looking back, it is no surprise that Machen—whose primary battles were in the theological arena—was compelled to wage secondary battles against ever-increasing government power.

Machen’s untimely death at age 55 occasioned words of respect not only from friends but also from opponents noted for their dismissal of religion. Of Machen, the acerbic H. L. Mencken said, “Though I could not yield to his reasoning I could at least admire, and did greatly admire, his remarkable clarity and cogency as an apologist, allowing him his primary assumptions.”[11]

Writer Pearl Buck’s assessment of Machen said much. “The man was admirable. He never gave in one inch to anyone. He never bowed his head. It was not in him to trim or compromise, to accept any peace that was less than triumph. He was a glorious enemy because he was completely open and direct in his angers and hatreds. He stood for something and everyone knew what it was.”[12]

Machen is one of many prominent American defenders of political liberty and economic freedom who have been largely forgotten by a people intent on abandoning its heritage of freedom. []

  1.   J. Gresham Machen, Christian Faith in the Modern World (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1936), p. 11.
  2.   George Marsden, “Understanding J. Gresham Machen,” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin XI: 1 (1990), p. 54.
  3.   Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p. 11.
  4.   John W. Robbins, Education, Christianity, and the State: Essays by J. Gresham Machen (Jefferson, Md.: Trinity Foundation, 1987), p. 128.
  5.   Henry W. Coray, J. Gresham Machen: A Silhouette (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1981), p. 50.
  6.   Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, pp. 13-14.
  7.   Coray, p. 49, quoting from a personal sketch of Machen in Contemporary American Theology (New York: Arne, 1933), p. 145.
  8.   Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1954), p. 247.
  9.   J. Gresham Machen, “A Communication: Child Labor and Liberty,” The New Republic (December 31, 1924), p. 145.
  10.   Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, pp. 10-11.
  11.   Coray, p. 126.
  12.   Ibid., pp. 126-127.