Previously, I wrote an article for Faithfully Magazine detailing personal research that revealed a hidden narrative of white supremacy and anti-Blackness underlying J. Gresham Machen’s theology. Machen, who is upheld by many in theologically-conservative, Reformed, and Evangelical circles as a hero of biblical orthodoxy in the midst of a tide of theological liberalism, publicly fought against the integration of a Black student in the dormitories at Princeton Theological Seminary. In a letter that he wrote to his mother in 1913, Machen speaks as though this dormitory integration was a new policy, something that he was willing to quit as a faculty member over.
In his letter, Machen explains that he “most emphatically objects” to the integration of people of color in the dorms because “the intimacy of the relation of the men in the same dormitory where there is only one bath-room, exceeds, in some respects, at least, that of table-companionship.”
What became clear as I dove deeper into this event as it fit into Princeton Theological Seminary’s broader history was that Machen was not fighting a new policy—he was fighting against nearly a century-long policy of integration at the seminary.[emaillocker id=60875]
Overturning Nearly a Century-Old Policy
On May 16, 1825, the board of directors of Princeton Theological Seminary made a landmark decision to make the seminary an integrated institution:
“Dr. McAuley, on behalf of the Presbytery of Albany, applied to the Board to have Theodore Wright, a fine young man of color, admitted into the Seminary. Whereupon, resolved that his color shall form no obstacle in the way of his reception (emphasis added).”
According to Kenneth Woodrow Henke, curator of Special Collections and archivist of Princeton Theological Seminary, historical records prove that Black students not only matriculated into the seminary as early as 1825, but were also residents of the seminary’s dorms since 1874, potentially earlier:
“The catalogues for 1874-1875, 1875-1876, 1876-1877 all list Matthew Anderson as living in what is today called ‘Alexander Hall,’ but what was then known as ‘Old Seminary.’ The catalogues for 1875-1876 and 1876-1877 show Francis Grimke living in Brown Hall his first two years at the seminary and in Alexander Hall during his senior year…”*
Significantly, Dr. Benjamin Warfield, with whom Machen had an extended argument about dormitory integration, lived in the dorms with Black students as a student at the seminary, according to Henke:
“Warfield was a student at the seminary living in Brown Hall from 1873-1876, so he overlapped with several of the African-American students living in the seminary dorms at the time. He was therefore in a first-hand position to be able to refute the claims Machen was making in 1913.”
What is clear from the historical records is that Machen incorrectly portrayed dormitory integration as a new policy at the seminary. Most conservatively, Black students had been living in the dorms for nearly half a century, but it is also entirely possible that they had been integrated in the dorms as far back as 1825.
A Parallel Story at Princeton University
Admittedly, the records do not provide irrefutable evidence that Machen intentionally and actively fought to reverse a longstanding policy of dormitory integration. Yet, within walking distance of Princeton Theological Seminary, a parallel narrative with clear overlap of details occurred at Princeton University. The parallels and echoes are striking, and they provide a potential explanation for what may have been going on at the time in both institutions.
In 1902, Woodrow Wilson became president of Princeton University. During his tenure at the university—which was closely connected to the seminary at the time—Wilson and his administration were actively involved in the erasure of the history of Black presence from the university in order to fabricate historical justification to bar Black students from matriculating into the school.
The earliest records show that Abraham Parker Denny was the first Black student to earn a Princeton University degree in 1891, and the first time a Black student took a class at the university was as early as 1868. Other Black students, including Irwin William Langston Roundtree—the first previously-enslaved student to attend the university—attended Princeton through the beginning of Wilson’s tenure as president there. In fact, Wilson more than likely was familiar with the history of Black students during his time as a student at the university.
Yet, in a letter dated September 2, 1904, Wilson privately wrote a narrative that he propagated publicly:
“The whole temper and tradition of [Princeton University] is such that no negro has ever applied for admission (emphasis added), and it seems extremely unlikely that the question will ever assume a practical form.”
As the Princeton and Slavery project details, the Wilson administration likely was engaged in public and private institutional erasure of the existence of Black students at the university, although historical records clearly contradicted their claims. What lay at the heart of this institutional erasure was an attempt—and a successful one, at that—to provide historical justification for a segregated university moving forward.
The actions of Wilson and his peers at Princeton University took place within a decade of Machen and several of his fellow faculty members at Princeton Theological Seminary, and the parallels are striking. Wilson and Machen implemented the use of institutional forgetfulness to promote a White-centric policy of admissions and dormitory residency, respectively. Both Wilson and Machen were Southern Presbyterians who had severely problematic views of race and racial equity. Both Wilson and Machen’s racist actions at their respective institutions have flown under the radar until relatively recently.
After his time as president of Princeton University, Wilson went on to serve as governor of New Jersey and then, eventually, as the 28th president of the United States. Only recently has serious attention been paid to the severely racist legacy Wilson brought to the White House, and, by extension, the federal government. Among his acts as commander-in-chief, Wilson actively staffed his cabinet members with individuals who were dedicated to the segregationist cause, tossed out a civil rights leader from the White House, and even had The Birth of a Nation—a film glorifying the Ku Klux Klan and debasing Black men—be the first motion picture to be screened at the White House. Only as recently as 2015 did student protests at Princeton University spark a broader discussion about whether Wilson’s name should be removed from university buildings because of his racist legacy.
But Wilson’s and Machen’s most significant accomplishments were that they crafted new narratives that have been passed on for generations as gospel truth. As April C. Armstrong notes regarding Wilson:
“The act of remembering—and forgetting—Princeton’s African-American alumni had consequences, as generations of Princetonians came to see themselves as part of an institution that excluded [B]lack applicants because it always had, rather than because it was actively choosing to do so.”
Machen, for all of his commendable actions in defense of biblical orthodoxy, was not immune to sociological, cultural, and political factors that distorted his understanding of the Christian faith. In fact, contrary to the narrative passed down in theologically-conservative circles about the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, the so-called “conservatives” with whom Machen sided were also deeply affected by racism and White theology (the re-crafting of the Christian faith and the gospel itself to accommodate to the preferentiality, privilege, normalcy, and even supremacy of the self-invented status of whiteness). Furthermore, there were many historic instances when “conservatives” blunted biblical truths and were as culturally captive as the “liberals” they frequently fought against and criticized. Yet, the story continues to be told that Machen was simply a hero of orthodoxy in its purest form and that his supporters were/are only interested in theological faithfulness, when the truth is far more complicated than that.
To this day, a building at Westminster Theological Seminary and a student residential building at Westminster Seminary California are both named after Machen.
The Power of Narrative
The narratives we tell ourselves—individually, corporately, generationally, and institutionally—deeply shape and reshape how we view the world and how we live in light of those views. Theological narratives open our ears to certain voices and close them to others, while giving strong weight or suspicion to labels such as “traditional,” “conservative,” “liberal,” and “progressive.” History, especially church history, is telling an accurate story about the past to the best of our abilities and resources. The way we tell the story impacts the lives and livelihood of our neighbors.
At the very least, Machen’s actions at Princeton Theological Seminary should make Christians within Evangelical and Reformed church traditions pause and critically assess whether the narrative that has been passed down into their hands tells the whole story. Although these facts may disrupt, challenge, and upend a common and powerful narrative that is near and dear to the hearts and heritage of Evangelical and Reformed Christians, we have no need to fear. According to Jesus, it is the truth that sets us free, not a story we’ve created for ourselves. Knowing the ugly truth about our tradition’s family history may be the instrument by which we come to see the beauty of Christ more clearly than ever before.
*Special thanks to Kenneth Woodrow Henke, curator of Special Collections and archivist of Princeton Theological Seminary, for his research at the Princeton Seminary Archives looking into the board of director minutes and admissions and dormitory residence records.[/emaillocker]