Faith and Learning: The Heritage of J. Gresham Machen

Katherine VanDrunen

New Horizons: October 2012

Our Presbyterian Heritage

Also in this issue

The Personal Side of Charles Hodge

The Legacy of Geerhardus Vos

Planning for a Minister's Retirement

J. Gresham Machen was raised with the values of honest scholarship and confessional Reformed Christianity. That made him well suited for his studies and his later teaching career. These values were long held on both sides of his family.

Machen attributed his exceptional knowledge of Scripture and his love for Reformed Christianity to his parents’ example and instruction. In this article, I will bring out some relatively unknown facets of his heritage.

Machen received an essential element of his intellectual and religious foundation from his father, Arthur Machen. Arthur was confident that honest inquiry was useful, rather than dangerous, to the Christian faith—so long as reason never superseded the authority of Scripture. He viewed reason as a gift from God and free inquiry, “pursued in a reverent spirit,” to be “our vocation as rational beings.”

While living and working in Washington, D.C., Arthur’s father, Lewis, chose churches based on conservative confessional principles, either Presbyterian or Episcopal. When the Machens moved to Virginia, their only choice was the Episcopal Church, which had been greatly influenced by the Calvinist bishop John Johns, a graduate of Princeton Seminary and a good friend of Charles Hodge. Johns’s theology was described as “built on the holiness, justice and mercy of God ... and on the guilt and depravity of man.”[1] Arthur settled in Baltimore and attended Central Presbyterian Church, whose organizing pastor was Stuart Robinson. Arthur described him as a man of intellect and energy, fervent in his work. However, Arthur eventually settled at Christ Episcopal Church, which had been founded by Johns before he became bishop of Virginia, and which had maintained the Reformation gospel.

Although appreciative of the Episcopal liturgy, Arthur insisted on joining Minnie Gresham after their marriage at Franklin Street Presbyterian Church, where he held a pew for his mother and sister. His seriousness regarding this decision is evidenced by his analysis of the differences between the Thirty-nine Articles and the Westminster Confession. His grandson, Arthur III, observed that this revealed the scholarly atmosphere of the Machen household and that having the family united in the Presbyterian Church greatly aided “Uncle Gresham’s” ministry.

J. Gresham Machen described his father:

He was a profoundly Christian man, who had read widely and meditated earnestly upon the really great things of our holy Faith. His Christian experience was not of the emotional or pietistical type, but was a quiet stream whose waters ran deep. He did not adopt that “Touch not, taste not, handle not” attitude toward the good things or the wonders of God’s world which too often today causes earnest Christian people to consecrate to God only an impoverished man, but in his case true learning and true piety went hand in hand.[2]

In his wife, Minnie Gresham, Arthur found an intellectual and spiritual equal. Of his mother, J. Gresham Machen wrote: “I do not see how anyone could know my mother well without being forever sure that whatever else there may be in Christianity the real heart of Christianity is found in the atoning death of Christ.”[3] Minnie was actively involved in the religious training of her sons. Sunday afternoons were regularly spent studying questions she prepared ahead of time about a book of the Bible, and correspondence with her adult sons included such subjects as prayer life, Bible reading, and Christian faith.

Minnie came from a strong, conservative Presbyterian heritage. Her father, John Gresham, joined the Presbyterian Church in Athens, Georgia, while attending Franklin College (University of Georgia). In his membership class was his future wife, Mary Baxter, whose Presbyterian heritage was unequivocal. Mary and her sister had been tutored by B. M. Palmer while he studied at the university and lived in their home. When Mary’s mother died, Palmer, by then a Presbyterian leader, wrote, “Her brave heart preserved an equal trust in the God of her salvation. A sweet and winning piety was hers ... rendering her whole life a sweet gospel, full of the savor of Christ.”

John Gresham expressed his strong Reformed beliefs in a letter to his daughter: “You must never imagine that you can save yourself by any thing you can do. Reading the Bible, attendance on church, and even prayer has no merit in them except as acts of obedience to God. They cannot save you.... We must admit that we are unprofitable servants and rely entirely on the merits of Christ for salvation.” He encouraged her to rely on Scripture to “explain” itself and to leave the mysteries of God to God.

John Gresham was described as a natural leader with a powerful personality. He started the first manufacturing company in Macon, Georgia, had a part in the development of the railroad lines and the state bank, and served as a state senator. An elder for forty years at First Presbyterian Church in Macon, it was said at his death, “He gathered up in himself the history of the Presbyterian Church in this city and section of the State. The two Presbyterian churches of Macon are, to no slight degree, the monuments of his loving purpose, his constant prayer, his indefatigable zeal, his generous giving.”[4]

John Gresham had such an impact during his life that his funeral closed the public schools in Macon, closed the offices of both the Southwestern Railroad and the Central Bank of Georgia, and recessed all activities at the University of Georgia, which held its own memorial service. In addition, Second Presbyterian Church and the high school that bore his name were draped in mourning. His desire for honesty and justice, his strength of character, his conviction to stand for what he saw as right, and his interest in education, the church, and the work of the state, were important values passed down to his grandson and namesake.

The value of education ran deep in J. Gresham Machen’s heritage. Although his grandfather, Lewis Machen, had limited formal education due to financial circumstances and familial responsibilities, he was an avid book collector and taught himself several languages. His son Arthur was given a strong formal education in Washington, D.C., and thereafter Lewis guided his study while Arthur worked on their farm in Virginia. Arthur went on to Harvard Law School and became a successful and respected lawyer. He was praised by his colleagues for his logical and reasoning mind that produced convincing arguments amply supported by precedent and authority, masterfully unfolded, giving him “influence and sway with the Courts.”[5] This clear oratorical style and straightforward approach would carry down to his son Gresham.

J. Gresham Machen’s grandfather, John Gresham, experienced the educational opportunities of early nineteenth-century agrarian Georgia, from primitive one-room schools to the state college and on to legal training. His wife, Mary Baxter Gresham, also came from a family that valued education: all five brothers graduated from the University of Georgia, and she and her sister were tutored and provided with the formal education available to women in the university town of Athens. Their son Thomas earned his college and legal degrees, and Minnie graduated from one of the first women’s colleges that strove to provide an education equal to a men’s college. Her professors later wrote to Minnie’s mother: “Miss Minnie’s high mental and moral worth, her uniform courtesy and the Christian graces that adorn her character have given her a permanent place in our esteem; and we will never cease to feel an interest in her success and welfare.” One of Minnie’s notable achievements was a book published by Macmillan on Robert Browning’s use of Scripture in The Ring and the Book. The firm foundation of her faith made it possible for her confidently to study nature and science, as well as secular literature. This enabled her to educate her sons to love the Scriptures as well as the pursuit of knowledge.

Minnie Machen was actively involved in her sons’ education—from providing instruction in the home in their early years, to choosing primary schools for them and visiting them frequently, to arranging for tutoring while on visits to Macon, to reading and critiquing their papers in college. Gresham was her willful child. He was known to his younger brother Tom as the one “who wants a spanking.” At age three, when asked why no cracker was coming to him for not complaining at washing up, he replied, “I s’pose you heard me growling.” However, he was very likeable and friendly—while his older brother read the newspaper, Gresham learned the news from the milkman. On vacation, he would quickly befriend everyone at the hotel.

Summers were filled with outdoor activities, but his intellect was never neglected. On a trip to the Adirondacks in 1895, Gresham was in a tennis tournament, Tom caught his first fish, and the two older boys camped with their father. In addition, Minnie listened daily to Arthur’s French lesson, studied Homer on her own, and on Sunday afternoons read the Bible with Gresham, heard his Bible lesson, and catechized Tom. The result of her effort was advanced degrees for every son. After graduating from The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Arthur studied law at Harvard, and Thomas studied architectural engineering at Cornell and then in France. Gresham, after graduating from Johns Hopkins, spent another year there studying Greek, went on to Princeton University and Princeton Seminary, and then studied at Göttingen and Marburg in Germany.

An excellent student throughout his life, J. Gresham Machen graduated first in his class at Johns Hopkins with a bachelor of arts degree. The university had been founded to encourage scholarship and advance knowledge at the highest level, unhindered by ecclesiastical or political constraints, which was unprecedented in American academics. Gresham wrote that “even an undergraduate could appreciate to some extent the stimulus of such an environment.”[6] He stayed for a postgraduate year studying Greek under Basil L. Gildersleeve, taking a course at Johns Hopkins designed for advanced research and the training of future experts in their fields.

During that year, Gresham studied Plato through lectures and exercises stressing “close analysis of words, grammar, and syntax, especially origins and changing usage.”[7] He later wrote:

I shall never forget the hours that I spent with the little company of students.... They were all men who intended to make the teaching of language their life work.... Never was there an environment where earnest study was had in more honor than in that group of students.... In such a company Gildersleeve would let himself go. With a magisterial disregard of anything like system, he started with Greek syntax and then allowed his thought to range over the literature of the world.... Particularly fortunate were we who sat in the seats of the learners in that classroom.[8]

In addition to being a scholar of whom it was said, “In sheer insight into the structure and genius of the Greek language he has no equal,” Gildersleeve came from a heritage of Presbyterianism and was a fellow member with the Machens at Franklin Street Church. Of John Calvin he wrote: “A genius for common sense, a genius for fair and honest interpretation ... of unrivalled moral force.” Then he applied this observation to scholarship in general: “Honesty of attainment and honesty of temper are indispensable requisites for the scholar.... A deep sense of duty to the subject at hand ... is duty to truth, and so a duty to God!, to that which is and to him that is.” [9] This passion for honest scholarship in submission to God reinforced Gresham’s earlier training.

The following summer Gresham studied Pindar with Paul Shorey, another leading philologist, at the University of Chicago. During this time, Gresham realized that his work would be better spent studying the ancient texts of the Bible. His training would benefit the many later theological students who would learn biblical Greek from his grammar book (which is still in print and translated into several languages). As a professor at Princeton Seminary, he expressed frustration with students who complained of the rigors of studying Greek, and repeatedly emphasized its importance to New Testament studies as well as the entire curriculum.

Of his decision to study at Princeton Seminary, he wrote: “I turned at last to the field upon which I had for some time been casting longing eyes. How much more worthwhile it is, if one is to apply modern scientific methods of research ... to those books whose every word is of an importance to humanity with which the importance even of Homer and Plato can never for one moment be compared!”[10] Machen applied the training he received from his parents, from his formal education, and particularly from Gildersleeve, to his studies, writings, and teaching at Princeton Seminary.

He is remembered by his niece and students for his love of clowning and inherent gaiety, which he used to encourage people and put them at ease. Above all, he is remembered for “his ability to teach the deep things of the Scriptures with simplicity,” but also refuting every criticism of solid doctrine.[11] His faith in the infallible Word of the living God and the Christ of the Word was childlike; his handling of the Word was that of an expert scholar.


[1] Wm. A. R. Goodwin, History of the Theological Seminary in Virginia and Its Historical Background, 2:1–5.

[2] J. Gresham Machen, “Christianity in Conflict,” in Contemporary American Theology, ed. Vergilius Ferm, 247.

[3] Machen, “Christianity in Conflict,” 248.

[4] Testimonials to the Life and Character of John Jones Gresham, 29.

[5] Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen (OPC edition, 2004), 11.

[6] Machen, “Christianity in Conflict,” 250.

[7] John M. Cooper, Jr., Walter Hines Page, 34.

[8] Machen, “Christianity in Conflict,” 250–51.

[9] The Selected Classical Papers of Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, ed. Ward W. Briggs, Jr., 55–58.

[10] Machen, “Christianity in Conflict,” 251–52.

[11] “Personal Remembrances of J. Gresham Machen,” Presbyterian Journal 44.31 (November 27, 1985): 6–13.

The author is a member of Escondido OPC in Escondido, Calif. This article is based on her Ph.D. dissertation, “The Foothills of the Matterhorn: Familial Antecedents of J. Gresham Machen” (Loyola, Chicago). New Horizons, Sept. 2012.

New Horizons: October 2012

Our Presbyterian Heritage

Also in this issue

The Personal Side of Charles Hodge

The Legacy of Geerhardus Vos

Planning for a Minister's Retirement

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