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John Gresham Machen Essay



He is a legendary American theologian and fundamentalist leader. During the last days of his life, his health deteriorated and painfully struggled against the health battle. In December 1936, his cohorts warned him against taking a trip to North Dakota because there was frigid temperature.

He was much determined to encourage the faithful members of the movement, which he had founded and was under immense criticisms. He had many sleepless nights worrying about the future of that movement after the defection of a great portion of membership (Stonehouse 75). His desire to stay on course compelled him to take a risk of defying the effects by foul weather to his ill-health.

He ignored every deterrent to his travelling that his cohorts posed yet they were trying to protect him against the worst health conditions. He also demanded that they proceed to Carson and Leith where he intended to meet with the members of his association, but it was noted that his health condition had started to grow worse. Surprisingly, he did not halt the journey complaining of his health rather he kept them awake with humorous stories on their way.

Unfortunately, his cold rapidly became pleurisy, and the team was implored to halt their journey. They turned back seeking for medical help and, despite his illustrious agony, he said that he would not die because of much work that lied ahead of him. His agony increased compelling them to call a doctor, but he still had the strength to maintain a conversational engagement with them (Stonehouse 78). He was diagnosed for pleurisy, but his health condition seemed to grow wearier with time.

They took him for further medical attention in a Roman Catholic hospital where he was admitted. Doctors changed their diagnosis from pleurisy to pneumonia, and despite the struggle he was going through his mind was stuck to his mission. He sent some telegraph messages to members of his association in Philadelphia and energy believed could have saved him if he committed it to the fight against illness.

Early morning on January 1, 1937, he experienced some periods of lucidity and unconsciousness. At a certain interval of consciousness, he wrote a telegram with the help of a colleague that proved to his colleagues to have been his last word to the faithful. The telegram read: “I am so thankful for the active obedience of Christ.

No hope without it” (Hart, ‘Doctor Fundamentalis” 64). Immediately after the telegraph was written his body became so weak that it could not withstand the rigors that had been experiencing (Hart, “Doctor Fundamentalis” 65). He remained in that poor condition for the whole day and at around 7:30 p.m. his soul departed for eternal rest.

Early life

John Gresham Machen was born on July 28, 1881 to Arthur Machen and Mary Jones. He was the second born among three sons and his parents were staying in Baltimore, Maryland by the time of his birth. His was then aged forty five and mother was aged thirty four. Stonehouse posits “Arthur was born in Virginia, trained in Harvard as a lawyer and his interests were deeply rooted in classical traditions of ancient south” (134).

He was good in literature and loved reading and learning new skills. For instance, he read works of Thucydides, Caesar, Greek New Testament, French literature, English literature, and Horace. In addition, he had written some detective and short stories some which won prizes and put him through Harvard law school. Astonishingly, he learnt Italian at eighties claiming to do it for the sake of fun.

Gresham’s mother Mary Jones was born in Georgia. She was twenty one years younger than Arthur Machen by the time the two got married. She schooled at Wesleyan College where he gained the experience as an author after issuing The Bible in Browning in 1903.

Moreover, while the husband was an, “Episcopalian, she opted to be a Presbyterian, and she taught her son shorter version and Westminster Catechism at his tender age “ (hart, “Doctor Fundamentalis” 66). Gresham appreciated his close relatives but spent most of his early days with the mother. This explains the source of his passionate religious influence to the extent of forming religious movements (Hart, “Defending the Faith” 67).

The Machen’s kin exhibited a sturdy association with the southern classicism, as well as, Victorianism. His parents were sturdily cultured, affluent and pious Christian faithful. They attended Franklin Street Presbyterian Church in their hometown, Baltimore.

The church formed a part of the congregation of southern Presbyterian Church that was aligned with the Old School Presbyterianism of rather conservatism. His mother played a prominent role in Gresham’s acquaintance of Christian knowledge through religious training at home (Calhoun 87).

Despite him going for catechism classes at Westminster, his mother obliged him to commit to memory all the teachings as well as the Kings of Israel. That formed a strong foundation of his biblical and theological knowledge. At the age of fourteen years, Gresham decided to be a follower of Christ and he started attending for church services in Franklin Street Church. Also, he developed a love for reformed faith across denominations.

Education Life

As a young boy, Gresham was privileged to attend private school. Private schools were assumed to be for the rich although his parents were financially stable. He was a bright student and his good performance in high school level enabled him to secure an opportunity at Johns Hopkins University in 1898. The university was in his neighborhood and was well known for scholarships. He did entrance examination whose results proved him deserving of a scholarship that was awarded to him (Hart, “Defending the Faith” 69).

Basil Gildersleeve who was his professor, a leading scholar in United States and a member of Franklin Street Church, mentored him. He learned Latin, rhetoric and English literature and Greek while in the university. Basil Gildersleeve always emphasized on the need for interpretation and translation of texts to other languages making Gresham’s knowledge of other languages beneficial (Stonehouse 87).

His minister Harris E. Kirk had suggested to him that he joins the ministry because he was a devout Christian, but he refused. His refusal was initially seen to have been because of his excellent graduate studies and desire to pursue further studies. Notwithstanding his negative response, Gresham signed up at the Princeton theological seminary and pursued his studies in an indiscriminate manner.

Gresham did not undertake subjects that focused on homiletics and Old Testament during his first year. He termed the subjects as iniquity invention. He loved dealing with the New Testament and worked closely with B.B. Warfield, who just like him, believed that consistency is the easiest to defend thus becoming a conservative Christian faithful (Hart, “Defending the Faith” 76).

He took courses in Princeton University for master’s degree though he involved himself with social activities of the seminary. He used to dine at Benham Club because people from there knew him for his stunts. His fellow students and social colleagues had known him for liveliness, good humor, and a fanatic of Princeton’s football team thereby attending football games most of which were campus games.

Gresham later went to Marburg to pursue graduate studies after declining an offer to lecture at Princeton Seminary. He studied under Wilhelm Herrmann who bewildered him by his theological liberalism.

He felt much liberalism to Christianity in the mind of his professor, William Herrmann, making him grow defensive against the faith he had been used. This made him appreciate Princeton Seminary and the professors who had taught him. He was offered one year opportunity to offer tutorials at Princeton Seminary and agreed to take it (Calhoun 87).

Life as an Instructor at Princeton

Hart posits, “In 1906, Gresham returned to Alexander Hall and continued to take his meals in Benham Club…students seemed not to like his elective course and complained to his mother over the issue” (Defending the Faith 85). With time, he became the best teacher in faculty, and as a result his dropped his dream to pursue PhD degree in Germany. He was strict in grading and teaching with a goal to help students acquire the right knowledge and skills (Hart, “Defending the Faith” 89).

In 1909, some students submitted their grievances to the board of directors claiming that they needed a modernized curriculum. A strong rebellion attracted the newspaper’s coverage when the administration refused to change the curriculum in favor of the students. Gresham sided with the administration since he believed that conservative Christianity is the best defense against religious rebellion (Calhoun 87).

His support for the administration proved his maturity to the administration since he had recently gone through the same curriculum that students protested against. He later wrote three articles: “The Hymns of the First Chapter of Luke”, “The Origin of First Two Chapters of Luke”, and, “The Virgin Birth in the Second Century”.

They were published in 1912 by the seminary as Princeton Theological Review. Calhoun alleges, “He also helped in developing articles “Jesus and Paul” up to the volume that seminary published in the celebration of its centennial” (75). He later published several articles in most of which he used critical arguments and utilized critical arguments (Calhoun 76).

Life as a Minister and Professor

On November 3, 1913, at age thirty two, Gresham was put under the care of southern Presbyterian in Baltimore and was licensed on April 22, 1914.

He was not comfortable staying under southern presbytery and that rendered him to getting ordained by Northern Presbyterian church on June 23, 1914 in New Brunswick. Faculty of seminary appointed him as an assistant Professor of New Testament, a month prior to his ordination.

Additionally, he went ahead and compiled a book that accounted for the beginning of Apostle Paul’s creed. The book was made public in 1921. In the book, he responded to intellectuals who had held that Apostle Paul altered the teachings of Jesus by alleging that his restoration was the beginning of faith. Hart claims, “The book was received well by conservative Presbyterians and had many reviews in the newspapers and magazines, across the country” (Defending the Faith 76).

Works Cited

Calhoun, David. Princeton Seminary:The Majestic Testimony, 1869-1929. New York: Banner of Truth, 1996. Print.

Hart, Darryl. Doctor Fundamentalis. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University, 1988. Print.

—. Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America. New York: Barker Publishing, 1994. Print.

Stonehouse, Ned. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir. Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1978. Print.

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