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Interview: Historian Peter Slade Weighs in on Machen, Christianity, and Race

In a previous article, I revisited Princeton Theological Seminary’s archives and discovered that J. Gresham Machen’s objection to the integration of people of color in the seminary dormitories was an attempt to undo nearly a century-long policy of integration at the seminary. More disturbingly, a parallel event occurred at the seminary’s sister institution, Princeton University, under the leadership of Woodrow Wilson. “…No negro has ever applied for admission…” Wilson boldly remarked, contrary to the historical data. Wilson, who went on to become the 28th President of the United States, used this misinformation to implement longstanding segregationist policies at the university.

Both Machen’s and Wilson’s racist actions at their respective institutions have flown under the radar, until relatively recently. Most significantly, both Machen and Wilson crafted narratives that have been passed on for generations. Machen, in particular, is seen as one who stood in a longstanding stream of theological conservatism and resisted the riptide of liberal theology. The narrative associated with Machen continues to be passed on in theologically-conservative Evangelical circles. If one thing is clear, that narrative is fraught with oversimplifications and truncations of truths.

J. Gresham Machen
Portrait of J. Gresham Machen (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Peter Slade is a historian who has a deep understanding of the intersection between Evangelicalism and racism. A professor of religion who teaches courses in the history of Christianity and Christian thought at Ashland University, Slade’s research has been focused on justice and reconciliation in Christian congregations and communities. He has authored several books, including Open Friendship in a Closed Society: Mission Mississippi and a Theology of Friendship.

In this interview, Slade shares his reflections as a historian on the complex relationship between J. Gresham Machen, theological conservatism, and racism in the U.S. church. The interview was conducted over the phone. The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. [emaillocker id=60875]

Dr. Slade, what’s clear from the records is that Machen was trying to undo a nearly century-old policy of integration at the seminary. How likely is it that this was unintentional and simply a case of what we might call “institutional forgetfulness?”

I’m saying this as a college professor—institutional memory among students is very short. They’re only there for two or three years, so it could have been that during Machen’s time as a student and as a professor that there may not have been any Black students at the dormitory. Machen may have been experientially unaware of integrated dormitories. That’s a possibility. This could show how much things had changed during that period, especially since race relations in the nation were at an all-time low.

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Timothy I. Cho
Timothy I. Cho
Timothy Isaiah Cho is Associate Editor at Faithfully Magazine. Timothy’s bylines have appeared in Religion News Service and Reformed Margins, and he has been interviewed for several podcasts including Truth’s Table and Gravity Leadership Podcast. He also runs a personal blog on Medium. He received a Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from U.C. Berkeley. Email: timothy.cho (at) faithfullymagazine.com

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