A hero to many within Reformed and conservative Evangelical circles, J. Gresham Machen is often depicted as an exemplary theologian with an unwavering devotion to biblical orthodoxy. Yet, a key historical document shows that this hero of the Christian faith allowed white supremacy to redefine, reshape, and even undo tenets of the gospel.
The Dominant Narrative
Few names are more significant in the narrative of conservative American Christianity than J. Gresham Machen. For those who are unfamiliar with the name, Machen was an American Presbyterian theologian in the early 20th century who was highly influential during the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy that splintered denominations throughout the United States. In particular, Machen is often considered as a stalwart of theological conservatism, as someone who stood for truth against the rising tide of theological liberalism in his Presbyterian denomination and Reformed seminary. He pointedly states in his book, Christianity and Liberalism, that there was a fundamental and irreparable rift between the historic Christian faith and what he identified as a theologically liberal movement that readily denied fundamentals of the Christian faith, such as the virgin birth, miracles, and the resurrection.
As his own denomination and seminary shifted toward the rising liberalism of the day, Machen dug in his heels to stand for orthodoxy until he led a conservative base to form a new denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), and a new seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS). This base was distinctly and robustly Reformed and conservative in its theology. Machen’s influence is seen throughout both the Reformed and conservative Evangelical landscapes. A hero to many within these circles, Machen is often depicted as an exemplary theologian with an unwavering devotion to biblical orthodoxy.
This was the narrative that I had been told as a longtime member in the OPC and as a student in an institution that shares its name with WTS. Yet, through personal research in a desire to know the truth about the past to the best of my ability, I discovered that this narrative has an entirely different and rarely acknowledged side.[emaillocker id=60875]
The Hidden Narrative
In a letter addressed to his mother dated October 5, 1913, Machen writes about a tumultuous development at Princeton Theological Seminary: a “colored man” was planned to be integrated into the seminary dormitory.*
“…any time a room is vacant [the colored man] may move over here. If I am to make any objection, now is the time to make it. Of course if he came over here I could simply move out. It would be a big sacrifice to me.”
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.”
In fact, Machen alludes to the “separate but equal” principle from the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling to make the claim that “the case is not as though [Princeton Seminary] were the only place which [Blacks] could come if they are to be educated for the ministry,” citing historically Black theological institutions in existence during that time.
Furthermore, Machen claims that his views were not unique among the faculty at Princeton: “I have talked to a number of members of the faculty…They all sympathize fully with me,  to Dr. Warfield himself, not a single member of the faculty agrees with him.” Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, the head of Princeton Seminary at the time, is known for his writings against slavery and segregation. Machen writes of a two-hour argument with Warfield regarding the integration of the Princeton Seminary dormitories, of which he claims, “My total impression was that, despite his remarkable gifts… [Warfield] is bitterly lacking in appreciation of the facts of human nature.”
Lastly, while Machen claims that the faculty agrees with him about keeping the dormitories segregated, he makes note that some of these professors have been “sticklers” for the civil rights of Blacks, and that equal rights for Blacks is dangerous to the livelihood of White men:
“It is true some of them are ‘sticklers’ for the civil rights of negroes – it always makes me intensely angry to hear people talking glibly about equal civil rights of negroes when in many parts of the South those equal rights would mean that every legislator and every judge would be a savage of a  type and the white men would be more unsafe in parts of this country than in the most  parts of the world where at least the protection of his home government is to some extent with him.”
White Theology Unmasked
While this is a private letter between Machen and his mother, the events and actions mentioned in the letter are anything but private. Machen’s stance on segregation is perfectly clear, and this adds an entirely new layer to the narrative about him. He was not simply a stalwart of Reformed and conservative theology, but also a vocal and public defender of segregation and thought negatively of the civil rights of an entire group of fellow image-bearers. His actions had broad institutional and systemic impacts in the seminary and beyond.
Furthermore, his feelings and actions surrounding this topics of segregation and civil rights was anything but non-theological or theologically neutral. This is a clear example of a man who allowed his cultural captivity to redefine, reshape, and even undo tenets of the gospel at the core of the Christian faith. White theology is simply this—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. The Christian faith was molded into Machen’s ideals of how he thought the world should operate and how people groups should or should not relate to one another. His confessional theology (what he said he believed) and his practical, experiential theology (what he lived out in the day-to-day) was never more clearly divorced than in this occasion.
Nevertheless, Machen is an example of how some White Christians allowed their whiteness and desire to protect their privileged status to blemish and skew the gospel and undermine the scandal of the cross. If his claims are correct, Machen’s whole faculty less one was on his side in this matter on segregation. White theology has a long-standing track record of protecting an invented status of whiteness at the expense of another invented status of non-whiteness. White theology made it church practice and policy to deem the baptism of enslaved peoples as inferior to the baptism of their masters. White theology not only enslaved, colonized, and dehumanized, but it also found these heinous acts to be perfectly reconcilable with confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Perhaps the most insidious fact of White theology, though, is that it thrives in hiding or twisting the truth to protect itself from honest and fair criticism. It is not only Machen, but many White and European theologians in Reformed and conservative Evangelical circles are often portrayed as the default and definitive voices of all good, objective, and unbiased theology. Non-White Christian voices are seen as superfluous at best or theologically spurious at worst. Alleged or actual moral failings by theologians of color are used to question their orthodoxy, while sins of the same substance by White theologians are explained away due to being “a product of their times.”
Toward an Honest Narrative
The fact that Machen held to theological orthodoxy on the one hand while firmly holding to segregationist convictions on the other should cause all of us to pause and think about how we tell the story of our own theological heroes and heroines, as well as who we consider as our theological adversaries. It should make us consider if we have wrongly pedestaled those in our own tribes while unfairly putting down others. Have we inculcated an atmosphere of spiritual and theological hubris? Have we told the narrative as honestly as possible, or have we hidden facts that inconveniently undermine our positions of credibility and authority? Christians, as those who believe that the truth will set us free, should be more than willing and eager to tell history as honestly as possible—the good, the bad, and the ugly. It is only then that we can appreciate truth wherever it’s told and lament sin wherever it’s found.
*Source: Machen, J.Gresham. “Machen to Mother.” Received by Timothy Isaiah Cho from the Archives of Montgomery Library at Westminster Theological Seminary, 5 October 1913.