J. Gresham Machen: Warfield’s Views Are “Black Republicanism”

Warfield’s “Black Republicanism”

Seven days after writing the letter to his mother complaining about a “colored student” coming to live in the Princeton Seminary dorms and a 2-hour disagreement with Benjamin Warfield on this matter, J. Gresham wrote a follow up letter to his mother, dated October 12, 1913.

He begins by describing Dr. Warfield’s views as “Black Republicanism,” a derogatory and racialized slur coined by those who saw the recently formed Republican Party as a defender of Black rights, abolition, and integration.

Machen mentions that “members of the faculty are convinced that the present situation is bad for the Seminary.” It is interesting to note that the Seminary had been integrated for nearly a century, and Warfield had dormed with several Black students while he was a student.

He goes on to describe how his impression of Warfield had changed. He now saw Warfield as, “despite some very good qualities, a very heartless, selfish, domineering sort of man” who “is losing his usefulness” even though he had been a great leader in the past.

Charles Erdman vs. Integrated Dorms: Which Was More Serious to Machen?

A stark contrast exists between how he acts upon his concerns of the possible election of Charles Erdman, a major voice for deviation from Reformed theology, as President of the Seminary, and the possibility of a “colored student” coming into the Seminary dorms. Erdman became Machen’s most vocal opponent at the Seminary and paved the way for the reorganization of the Seminary — which Machen saw as the final nail in the coffin for Modernism infiltrating the Seminary. “The most serious thing about the Seminary situation is the danger of Erdman and Erdmanism,” according to Machen. But, in response to this “most serious” matter, Machen remarks that “I should still, as long as I were permitted, earn my pay by teaching Greek classes…” He remarks that there may be a “possibility of having to seek another job,” but admits that his “fears may be groundless” and doesn’t “know whether [he] should leave Princeton even if things go badly here.”

In contrast, Machen cannot even abide with the idea of living with a “colored student” in the dorms and would rather move out immediately and go to the apartments in town. At this point, Machen was willing to be more tolerant toward teaching under Erdman than an integrated dorm. In his earlier letter dated October 5, 1913, Machen talks about how much of a sacrifice it would be to move out of the dorms because of this (perceived) change in policy toward integration.

Did the Apple(s) Fall Far From the Tree?

When the story of Machen is told, it often places these facts to the side, as though they have nothing (or very little) to do with the work that he did in the denomination, seminary, and publications he founded. These are seen as superfluous footnotes to history. But the matter of fact is that Machen did directly oppose a nearly century-old policy of integrated classes and dorms at the Seminary. He did refer to Warfield’s views with a racialized slur and showed no care for his reputation with the harsh words he used to describe him.

But beyond Machen himself is the legacy that he left. As @AlsoACarpenter so aptly showed, prominent voices of Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (two institutions Machen founded), readers the Presbyterian Guardian (a publication Machen founded), prominent voices of the eventual leaders of the founding of the Presbyterian Church in America who were influenced by Machen’s leadership, were avid segregationists through 1964, and quite likely, longer. Machen and Van Til were known for their frequent speaking engagements at southern, conservative Presbyterian churches that were staunchly segregationist, and these same churches actively recruited from Westminster Theological Seminary because of affinities and similarities.

Clearly, these are not random blips in institutional history, but they stand at the core of the discussion at hand. Whether we like to hear it or not, theological conservatism and social/political conservatism (i.e. status quo-ism) went hand in hand in many cases. Machen and other leaders were not immune to the fact that the fear of Modernism was often tied with the threat of Marxism and Communism, which conservatives associated with integration, Civil Rights, and interracial marriage. Defending segregation and Jim Crow often flowed together with defending the Virgin Birth and the inerrancy of Scripture as a package deal — it was all or nothing for many White theological conservatives, and very few historically were able to parse a third way between “conservatism” and “liberalism.”

Perhaps we should be more honest and sober about the story we tell about Machen. If you look up “J. Gresham Machen,” you’ll quickly realize that there are lots of memorial items set up in his name, including a hall at Westminster Theological Seminary, a dorm building at my alma mater, Westminster Seminary California, and various others. Though I’m not necessarily advocating for any of these to be taken down or changed, we should ask very important questions:

“Is it a stumbling block for seminarians of color to live in/near a dorm named after a man who did not want people who looked like them to live in dorms with White students?”

and

“Will publicly commemorating this man cause our witness to be affected because of his racist actions?”

It’s time for us to take a good look at our history. The resources are out there and readily accessible to those who are willing to look and listen. We should not fear the truth, but rather, know that the truth sets us free, indeed.

Sources:

  • Machen, J.Gresham. “Machen to Mother.” Received by Timothy Isaiah Cho from the Archives of Montgomery Library at Westminster Theological Seminary, 10 October 1913.
  • Machen, J.Gresham. “Machen to Mother.” Received by Timothy Isaiah Cho from the Archives of Montgomery Library at Westminster Theological Seminary, 5 October 1913.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store