At 7:30 pm on January 1, 1937, J. Gresham Machen died in St. Alexius’ Hospital, Bismarck, North Dakota. He had traveled to the Great Plains four days earlier at the request of Rev. Samuel J. Allen to speak on behalf of the newly formed OPC. Machen arrived already sick and his conditioned worsened thanks in part to his insistence on fulfilling his speaking engagements. On December 31, 1936 he was admitted to the hospital with what physicians thought was a case of pleurisy. Doctors soon changed the diagnosis to lobar pneumonia, the cause of death.
News of Machen’s death was so sudden that the editors of the Presbyterian Guardian in their January 9, 1937 edition could only insert a brief announcement. By the time of the next issue, Ned B. Stonehouse uttered a lament that resounded throughout the small, new Presbyterian communion: “The fact remains that to us he was a dearly beloved Christian brother whose life touched ours for good at a thousand points. Indeed, he was far more than a brother to many of us. He was a father in Israel and we have become orphans. The cry of our grieving hearts in these days has been: ‘Our father, our father, the chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereof!’ But God who was so gracious to him has not forsaken us.”
From a different corner of media attention came the reflections of H. L. Mencken, a man of roughly the same age as Machen and also from Baltimore, but of decidedly different convictions. Even so, Mencken’s assessment captured a good deal of what Stonehouse had found so appealing about Machen: “[Modernists] have tried to get rid of all the logical difficulties of religion, and yet preserve a generally pious cast of mind. It is a vain enterprise. What they have left, once they have achieved their imprudent scavenging, is hardly more than a row of hollow platitudes, as empty as [of] psychological force and effect as so many nursery rhymes. They may be good people and they may even be contented and happy, but they are no more religious than Dr. Einstein. Religion is something else again—in Henrik Ibsen’s phrase, something far more deep-down-diving and mud-upbringing. Dr. Machen tried to impress that obvious fact upon his fellow adherents of the Geneva Mohammed. He failed—but he was undoubtedly right.”
[Editor’s note: We thank Dr. Darryl Hart for composing today’s entry.]
Picture: J. Gresham Machen mountain climbing in the early 1930s.