Dakota Datebook

J. Gresham Machen

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

 

On January 1, 1937, a man lay dying in St. Alexius Hospital in Bismarck. John Gresham Machen had never been to North Dakota until he stepped off a train into 20-below-zero temperatures a few days earlier. On Christmas break from teaching seminary courses, he was there to speak on his favorite topic, reforming the Presbyterian Church.

Born to a prominent Baltimore family in 1881, he had earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Johns Hopkins University at the age of twenty. His academic pursuits were aided by a sense of duty and a love for books and foreign languages. He had large pockets sewn into his coats to accommodate a small portable library.

He went on to graduate studies at Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago, Princeton University and Theological Seminary, and in Germany, receiving advanced degrees and honorary doctorates. At Princeton he was invited to the home of University President Woodrow Wilson, soon to become U.S. President. He also served with the YMCA in France during World War One.

But Machen was not all work and no play. At parties, he was known for his impersonations of Napoleon, and he loved mountain climbing in the Alps.

As a professor at Princeton Seminary for 23 years, he became a leader in the controversy separating liberals from fundamentalists in the Presbyterian Church of that era. Labeled a troublemaker in the early 1930s, he was stripped of his ministerial credentials. Machen and his colleagues went on to found the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination, the Presbyterian Guardian magazine and Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He taught at the seminary, authored many theological books and spoke endlessly on behalf of Scriptural inerrancy and the sovereignty of God.

Though he was exhausted, his mission brought him to Bismarck that December day in 1936. The Reverend Samuel Allen drove him to speaking engagements in Carson and Leith, where he became ill with pneumonia. Returning to Bismarck and groaning with pain, he nevertheless insisted on keeping his speaking commitments there, explaining, “I can’t die now; I have so much work to do.”

The next day he was hospitalized, but “He was all spirit,” according to the nuns who cared for him. In and out of consciousness throughout the night and the next day, he dictated telegrams and spoke with the Rev. Allen until his death the evening of New Year’s Day, 1937.

Dakota Datebook written by Karen Horsley

Sources:

J. Gresham Machen, A Silhouette, by Henry W. Coray, 1981

J. Gresham Machen, A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought, by Stephen J. Nichols, 2004

J. Gresham Machen, A Biographical Memoir, by Ned B. Stonehouse, 1954

 

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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