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The War in Words

Allen Tomlinson

Letters from the Front: J Gresham Machen’s Correspondence from World War I, transcribed and edited by Barry Waugh. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2012, xxvi + 342 pages, $24.99, paper.

I began reading Dr. Machen’s books in earnest around twenty-five years ago. Because there is a limited literary heritage we can draw upon as far as works published by J. Gresham Machen, at a certain point I began to allow myself only one new book of his annually. I saw early on that I would soon read all of his works, and finding an enormous amount of enjoyment in reading Machen, I tried to make the experience last, like savoring a sip of a really good wine. Alas, some time ago now all his books and published anthologies of his writings were completed, so that for the last year I have been reading his Presbyterian Guardian articles on line. I will run out of those soon.

My great pleasure in Dr. Machen’s writings is first a theological/biblical pleasure. I happen to agree with him in almost all that he has to say, as far as his works as a New Testament scholar and Christian apologist. Even in those few places where I might not be in total alignment with him, I am always challenged and strengthened as far as my own reflections on the subject or text. His more political articles have also greatly influenced that aspect of my thinking as an American living in the twenty-first century. His concerns were at times almost prophetic, as far as seeing the logical consequences of policies enacted sixty to eighty years ago. Finally, his very style of writing is extremely engaging. His use of logic, as a handmaiden of and not a lord over truth, is compelling, persuasive, and instructive. Whether I agree with him or not, politically or theologically, I have a hard time “putting it down.” I find an aesthetic enjoyment as I savor how he says what he says and how he argues his case, as well as being challenged by the content itself.

That is why I was excited to find that this collection of his World War I correspondence had been published. When I have enjoyed the writings or preaching of an important historical figure, I like to read an account of the life of the subject. Now the kinds of biographies I most enjoy are those that do not spend most of their time “preaching” to me, but those that give me the hard, cold facts. If it is an ecclesiastical figure, I already get my “sermon” from their preaching or writings. What I want in the biography are some details of the author or preacher’s life that help me understand the individual himself better. For example, one thing I really appreciated about George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life[1] is his attention to the details of Edwards’s life. Though appreciating thoughtful but short evaluations by the biographer, I would rather he stick to his work as a historian instead of doing the work of a preacher or moralist.

Now the reason for my seeming digression is this: in a book of collected letters by an individual the reader has access to all kinds of great details about the person. Even the really minor details that a biographer does not have time to fool around with. In the process, I feel like I really get to “know” the great person. That is how this collection of Dr. Machen’s letters made me feel about this professor-author-preacher from whom I had found such great help and pleasure as I have studied his extant writings. I feel like I know the great man himself a little better, which I believe will contribute to my profit and pleasure in re-reading his articles and books. So it is some of the personal details I want to catalogue in this review. With a view to whetting the readers’ appetite to obtain and read the book itself, I will make very brief comments regarding the following aspects of J. Gresham Machen’s character manifested in this WW I correspondence: his relationship with his mother; his work ethic and ability to work with others; his adaptability; and his response to both serious and small trials.

Machen’s close relationship with his mother comes out in his letters to and about her. Most of the letters in the collection are actually to his mother; a few are to other family or friends. It is very evident that this celibate bachelor maintained a great emotional dependency upon his mother. This, to the reviewer, seems very natural and important. If masculinity and femininity both reflect important aspects of God’s image, and if woman was created for man because it was not good for man to be alone, then where it is not God’s plan for matrimony, it would seem important that one’s relationship to mother or father or to a brother or a sister would be important for a kind of “completion” of personality. Not having a wife, Machen’s godly mother would have helped round out his human personality in a way necessary for us all. In the midst of really horrible and even very dangerous circumstances, this great scholar manifests an ongoing concern for his mother, being greatly concerned about her health and her personal enjoyment of life. For both her emotional and physical well-being, for example, he beseeches her to carry through on a planned holiday away from home. When her Christmas package to him was lost, so that it arrived long after the holiday, and when some of her letters were sent to one wrong address after another so that they arrived out of order and very delayed, and when he wrote about re-reading her letters multiple times, it is obvious from his comments how much he depended on her love for emotional strength.

Machen’s high standard for his personal labors is seen in his initial frustration with his YMCA assignments.[2] At his first main post, the French co-director appears to just take over and to micro-manage Machen. How maddening this is to the Princeton scholar is a main theme in several letters. At least in part, this may have been due to Machen being accustomed to less direct supervision in his work as a professor, so that he had to get used to being “bossed around.” However, more to the point is the high standard he set for his daily labors, wanting to be really useful and not redundant. Later when he was the “boss” of other YMCA stations, he worked incredibly long hours at very hard, physical work, and seemed to enjoy a great relationship with whatever assistant he was given.[3] At a later period of his overseas service, he worked in immediate conjunction with other YMCA volunteers, and appears to have worked well and zealously with them, even when, by any stretch, he was not in complete theological agreement with them.

One very interesting aspect of his work was how at first he enjoyed the more physical tasks, which he saw as a sort of break from his normal scholarly activities, as something that would help him have a greater appreciation for his normal calling when he would return to Princeton. However, after about three-quarters of a year into his service, it becomes evident that he is ready to put aside the more physical labors and do some serious preaching and teaching. One sermon in particular was especially used by the Holy Spirit, in spite of Machen’s preaching supposedly being too deep according to YMCA standards. This part of the material is very interesting and thought-provoking. One suspects that if they had turned men like Machen “loose” to preach the real gospel, the “whole counsel of God,” there might have been more lasting and even more widespread spiritual fruit. Most of the YMCA work appears, from remarks made by Machen to his mother, to have been mainly outward, social help and not genuine biblical, ministerial work.

After the war was formally ended, he was given many opportunities to give lectures, but these were often not well attended, at least partly due to other competing activities including some sponsored by other YMCA officials. However, Machen did not allow poor attendance to hinder him from doing his best at reaching out with the gospel and with biblical doctrine to those few who showed any interest.

I was very impressed with Dr. Machen’s ability to adapt. At first, from his expressed struggles while working with the first French YMCA director, I wondered about the adaptability of this Princeton scholar.[4] However, as he later explained his many frustrations and difficulties, including his inability to get any time alone for devotions and study (for days and weeks on end), his inability to even bathe (for months on end!), the nearly criminal lack of supplies or misappropriation or misdirection of such by administrative error, and his regular disappointment over the (at the very least apparent) lack of sound religious priorities on the part of the leadership—I became very impressed with his ability to adjust to the situation.

For example, here is a convinced Sabbatarian per WCF 21, and yet for weeks on end he is unable to worship publicly and barely able to get even a minute for private devotion. However, seeing much of what was going on in this war setting as a work of necessity or mercy, he does not complain and makes the most of his situation, eagerly serving these French and American soldiers. Another example would be his sleeping arrangements, which were manifold and varied, but very rarely really comfortable or even warm. Yet he recognizes that his arrangements are often superior to the soldiers, and so expresses gratitude for every blessing instead of grumbling.

Finally, I want to close with a few remarks regarding Machen’s response to trials. Some of the trials were major: his position being overrun by enemy soldiers and warning coming almost too late so that his life was in grave danger for many hours; his being sent to the front lines to render help with refreshments and such, again being in very serious danger; and his flight from danger through thick mud which destroyed his shoes and socks and left him exposed to the elements. Regarding the last example, he had to rummage through a wounded soldier’s abandoned backpack to find a warm pair of wool socks. He expresses to his mother his willingness, if possible, to find the true owner to reimburse him many times over for these socks. This was a very personal view of the great Greek scholar that I never received as an undergraduate struggling through his New Testament Greek for Beginners.

When being sent to the front lines under great danger, we do not read of him begging off, in spite of the fact he probably could have as a YMCA volunteer who was not a soldier, though we do find him being very careful in his crawling through ditches and hiding behind broken walls. When he was almost captured by the Germans, with only a few minutes to try to salvage a few of his belongings, he was ordered to throw his very hastily packed suitcase onto the back of an army truck. Many months and letters later, he is still trying to find the suitcase and having to do without important personal items.

Another trial was that he had severe dental problems while in France, and due to the war and to differences in American and continental standards had a hard time getting the necessary work done so as to be without pain and discomfort. Again, he “practices what he preaches” and, instead of complaining, merely expresses to his mother these concerns for her prayers.

I have purposefully not footnoted the particulars of Dr. Machen’s letters to which short mention has been made. This was with the hope readers might read Letters from the Front for themselves for a fuller view of the personality of this great American Reformed “Valiant For Truth.” Reading letters such as these, especially from the viewpoint of the man himself, opens up his thoughts and personality to us in ways not seen in his published works.[5]


[1] George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003).

[2] Machen was thirty-seven years old when he arrived in France in 1918, having volunteered for one year with the YMCA. He had been opposed to us entering the war at first, but once his fellow Americans were risking life and limb, he wanted to be helpful in a non-combative capacity. It is interesting that as he sees more and more of the war itself, in his letters to his mother his views seem to adapt to the point where he acknowledges the necessity of America being involved.

[3] One assistant, a French soldier named Monti, remained in contact with Dr. Machen after the war, and some of his letters to Machen are given a special chapter at the end of the collection.

[4] A very interesting part of the earlier letters is his spiritual struggle, which he recognized, at maintaining a godly attitude when working with some very difficult people. What do you know! This “hero” of the Reformed faith had the same spiritual struggles that most of us experience! This aspect of the earlier letters is very edifying.

[5] Dr. Waugh has done us great service in preparing this collection of letters, and by his short footnotes and very helpful “people” index at the back.

Allen Tomlinson is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as pastor of the First Congregational Church of Merrimack, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant Online, February, 2013.

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