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

Dr. Peter Slade
Dr. Peter Slade. (Photo: Courtesy of Peter Slade)

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.

From the faculty and administration side, it seems a little unlikely that they all had institutional amnesia. It is possible that from their perspective they felt that the times had changed [in terms of race relations] for the better.

I’ve been doing some research into Princeton Seminary about 10 years after the events you have been researching. I was studying this character named Howard Kester, an ardent YMCA, sort of Social Gospel-type. He’s a young, idealistic guy who goes straight out of college to Princeton Seminary in 1925. And he’s absolutely floored when he gets there because they’re at the height of their Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. What he says about this time period is what I find interesting because it’s different from the “received story” that comes from most theologically-conservative Evangelicals. You see, the “received story” is that Machen was all about doctrinal purity and orthodoxy that resisted and pulled away from a liberal Social Gospel that wasn’t interested in the great truths of the faith.

What Kester experienced was that, in this big fight around liberal theology and Biblical Criticism, neither side was interested in the social implications of the gospel—in the realities of child labor and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and things like that. His experience at Princeton Seminary was that it was extremely racist and not a conducive environment for the Christianity that he believed in. For the rest of his life, Kester called himself a “New Testament Christian,” which I originally thought was reductionistic and Marcionist, but I realize now what he meant by that. He was saying, “You’ve lost sight of the basics of the faith in your complicated doctrinal wrangling.” Kester would have gotten along with the Red Letter Christians today.

In your book, Open Friendship in a Closed Society, you talk about the deep connections between theologically-conservative seminaries and churches that were socially “conservative” in their defense of segregation and other racist policies. Can you expand on that?

Well, starting in the 1930s, Presbyterian churches in the South that ultimately became a part of the Presbyterian Church in America didn’t want graduates from Columbia Seminary or Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, filling their pulpits. So, graduates from schools like Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, which was founded by Machen after he broke off from Princeton, were welcomed into these socially-very conservative and White congregations in the South. Machen and [Cornelius] Van Til—another professor of Westminster Theological Seminary—were both invited speakers in the Mississippi Synod’s youth conferences.

For some of these preachers, I am sure this marriage of Northern conservative theology and Southern Jim Crow racial paternalism was a marriage of convenience.

Descent of the Modernists
A cartoon depicting “The “Descent of the Modernists” by E. J. Pace, 1922 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

You mentioned previously the problems of the “narrative” that conservative Evangelicals have “received” about people like Machen and other theologically-conservative leaders in the 1920s and 1930s. What lies at the core of the narrative, and what’s missing from the narrative?

The narrative goes in many Evangelical circles that the “liberals” or “modernists” were led astray from the “true gospel” because they were too influenced by the “Spirit of the Age”—by whatever was going on at the time. Conservative denominations tell the story as though they have been the guardians of this transcendent truth that’s kind of out there, unattached to anything, unaffected by social or political concerns. Those other people, the liberals, they’re the ones who are allowing their theology to be dragged down into the mud of modernity and diluted and distorted.

But we know that, clearly, theological and doctrinal decisions were being made by conservatives under the influence of their milieu. But, if conservatives acknowledge that, then they’re no longer quite as holier-than-thou than the other folks, especially because we know that at least some of those concerns were racial. That’s consistently the case.

If we go back to the early 19th century during what was called the New School-Old School split in the Presbyterian Church, that’s where I first saw what was something like a deal with the devil. You have the “Old Schoolers” who are fighting against some “New Schoolers” who are joining with Congregationalists and introducing new practices into the church. Meanwhile, you have abolitionists who are pushing to have the largest body of the Presbyterian church declare that slaveholding is a sin. Now, slaveholding is one of those sins which is very obvious. If you still own slaves, then you haven’t repented and you’re still in sin. So, the slaveholding states were just desperate to have this not to be declared a sin. This theological debate has got quite a bit of geographical overlap, and so slaveholding Presbyterians and the Old School made a deal and they realized that together they had enough votes to dissolve the union with the Congregationalists, get rid of the abolitionist threat, and remove the “New Schoolers.”

Rule of thumb: we know that humans do not work in a vacuum. Powerful men—specifically, powerful White men—like to pretend that they somehow transcend all of this stuff, when really, they’re all just as much a product of their ethnicity and environment and concerns of the age as anybody else. I just have to take a moment to say, isn’t this a disturbing story? I mean, we should have a generous hermeneutic when we look at people from the past. We all have blind spots. But the trouble for folks like Machen is that, at that time, there were people who were very outspoken telling them they were wrong. So, ignorance wasn’t an excuse. They certainly knew there were arguments against what they were doing.

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    Written by 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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