New Horizons

My OPC Upbringing

George M. Marsden

The best man at my parents' wedding on June 25, 1935, was Harold J. Ockenga. Carl McIntire officiated. They and my father, Robert S. Marsden (1905-1960), had left Princeton Theological Seminary with J. Gresham Machen in 1929 to be in the first class at Westminster Theological Seminary. Machen himself had been asked to officiate, but could not, because he had been suspended from the ministry of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

Due to that crisis, his three protégés, then ministers in that denomination, would soon go their separate ways. My mother, Bertha Mish Marsden, later recalled that they argued church politics as they were waiting for the wedding to begin.

The wedding picture on the lawn of my grandmother's spacious home in Middletown, Pennsylvania, juxtaposes two worlds that I would be born into four years later. The one world was shaped by the intense theological concerns of the old Princeton tradition that was about to fragment into several pieces. Ockenga would remain in mainline churches and lead the "new evangelical" movement associated with Billy Graham. McIntire and my father would leave the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1936, but after Machen's death at the beginning of 1937, McIntire would found his own Bible Presbyterian Church and later become widely known as a fundamentalist radio preacher and organizer. My father would remain loyal to Machen and the OPC and soon become the tiny church's general secretary for Home Missions, a position he held until 1948, when he became executive secretary for Westminster Seminary.

The other world represented in the picture is that of conventional small-town, post-Victorian America. My father, who had worked hard to make good, came to Middletown to pastor its Presbyterian church in 1930. A year after having married the daughter of one of the town's respected families in 1935, he did something almost unthinkable in polite society. He split the staid Presbyterian church, leading a group of mostly younger or poorer members to form what would become the local Orthodox Presbyterian church.

Since our family always lived with my grandmother in our large old home, even when my father commuted a couple of days a week to his jobs in Philadelphia, there was no escaping the contrasts between these two worlds. In the OPC, we were set apart and stood against the modernism of the mainline churches and, by implication, the townspeople who attended them. Yet my grandmother, who was a model of gracious goodwill, while a member of the OP church, maintained her other social ties.

My father was the dominant figure in the home and in shaping our religious training, even if my mother and grandmother taught by modest, loving example. Dad took over whenever he entered a scene. He was that way outside the home as well. He exuded self-confidence and was quick to let people know that he knew more on a subject than they did. He was a whiz with numbers and could awe supermarket checkout clerks by announcing the total of the bill before they rang it up. He was also the model of the educated clergyman. He read avidly and subscribed to the Book-of-the-Month Club on the grounds that there were too many preachers who knew a lot about theology, but not much about life. He was a fine preacher himself, with a dramatic flair for oratory. He was not known to be self-effacing. Privately he claimed that his super-confident demeanor was a cover for his inferiority complex. If that was so, he put on a good front. He once announced that he could name "the ten best preachers in the OPC." Mary Carson Kuschke, who was as smart and quick as he was, retorted, "So, Bob, tell us who the other nine are."

This sense of confidence carried over into religious training. Growing up OP meant learning from an early age that we were correct in doctrine, based on solid biblical and intellectual grounds. We were not like the modernists, who had both abandoned the authority of the Bible and shaped their theology by modern fads. We were also not like the more revivalistic fundamentalists, who substituted enthusiasm for substance. Correct doctrine was, of course, to be accompanied by genuine piety. In my father's case, that probably showed through best in his love for the great hymns of the faith, a love that he shared with others through untold hours of work as the chairman of the committee that produced Trinity Hymnal.

Our family's sense of being set apart against the rest of our town was reinforced by the founding, under my father's leadership, of the Middletown Christian Day School in 1944, the year I entered first grade. The Rev. Edward Kellogg, our pastor at that time, was cofounder. He was a descendant of Wheaton College founder Jonathan Blanchard, and he and his wife Eleanor were Wheaton graduates. They added a strong evangelical conversionist sensibility to the somewhat more intellectualized Old School Princetonian tone that my father cultivated. Even as a young child, I was deeply impressed by the fervor and energy of Mr. Kellogg's preaching, which was the more effective because of personal warmth.

The golden age for Calvary OPC in Middletown was right after World War II. The great practical problem for the fledgling denomination was that it did not have a social base. As in Middletown, most families that were simply loyal to Presbyterianism remained in the old church, so that OP members had to be recruited from somewhere else. In postwar America, these recruits were to be found among younger people who had strongly Protestant, but not necessarily Presbyterian, backgrounds, and who had recently moved and hence were open to change. Postwar Middletown was next to a U.S. Air Force maintenance base that hired many young men, who moved with their families to housing projects and suburbs. Vigorous recruiting brought in a core of families who contributed much to the church during the next decade.

Although Ed Kellogg began this work, it was effectively carried on from 1947 to 1952 by the Rev. Robert Atwell, who was a very different type of person. If Kellogg represented the warm evangelical side of the Presbyterian heritage, and my father represented the Princeton Old School, Atwell was a product of a more rugged Western Pennsylvania, Scotch-Irish, no-compromise piety that was used to working on rocky soil. Theologically, these men all agreed on the necessity of orthodoxy plus heart commitment. But they went about it in different ways. Atwell was a disciplinarian and had a short fuse, and so most of us children tended to lie low when he was in the vicinity. Nonetheless, his intense passion could be effective, and it included a passion for the souls of young people.

From the point of view of a boy growing up in this environment, the church's ministry to young people seemed most effective when it moved out of town to summer Bible conferences. One problem during the other fifty-one weeks of the year was that the proclaimed doctrines of grace often seemed to be obscured by the strictures of the law. With more or less the same people in charge of discipline in the home, the church, and the school, kids learned how to live in alternative universes. Neighborhood friends, sports, games, and the radio (with its American entertainment and commercial values) all competed for our loyalties—and that list does not include intentionally subversive institutions, such as our "Luckies Club." I report this as someone who was more positively responsive to the church training than were most of my peers. At camp, by contrast, there was a more controlled environment that mixed teaching, sports, and fun with a quest for commitment in a way that rarely happened during the rest of the year.

Robert Atwell has to be given a lot of credit for establishing, along with Louis Grotenhuis, the French Creek Bible Conferences, which began in 1950 and became legendary among many generations of OP young people. There a lot of pastors and laypeople spent much time and energy that displayed their love and concern for the young. Perhaps it helped that most of them were not the people who disciplined and catechized us the rest of the year. They could also step out of their formal roles, get a hearing for the gospel teachings, and simply demonstrate how much they cared. These qualities were surely there the rest of the year, not only from pastors, but also from caring teachers and many other wonderful laypeople. These people surely created the loving foundation that was the basis for any effective ministry. Nonetheless, for me it was in the camp environment that this combination of factors emerged with greatest clarity.

God's grace works through many unpredictable means. One lesson of parenting (and in ministry also) is that there is not a one-to-one correlation between what one intends and how a child responds. We receive our spiritual gifts through earthen vessels that have strengths and weaknesses. In my case, I can see the wonder of God's covenantal work coming through these imperfect circumstances, and I praise God's grace and mercy alone for it. There was certainly nothing that I did to deserve it.

The author, a member of the Christian Reformed Church, teaches history at the University of Notre Dame. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2006.

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