80 Years Ago Today: J. Gresham Machen Was Elected Moderator of a New Presbyterian Denomination



On June 11, 1936, the Presbyterian Church of America (renamed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in February 1939) was founded, electing 55-year-old professor J. Gresham Machen as its first moderator. Less than seven months later, Machen would die, but the denomination continues to bear gospel witness today. For a short history, see D.G. Hart and John Muether, Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1995).

On May 23, 1956, members of several Philadelphia OPC churches gathered in Glenside for an anniversary celebration. Robert Marsden—whose 17-year-old son George would grow up to become one of the most influential historians of American fundamentalism and evangelicalism—offered his reflections on the founding of this denomination for the defense of the gospel.

Here is an excerpt from his remarks:

Will the little meeting of less than 150 elders, ministers and laymen gathered that hot Thursday afternoon in the New Century Club of Philadelphia on June 11—will that little meeting go down in history with a permanent monument in the battle for the defense of the gospel?

It was a dramatic moment that afternoon. The auditorium was not crowded. But when the chairman got up to read the enabling act one could have heard a pin drop. As I look over the congregation tonight I see a number of you here who were there at that time. And we heard the chairman say:

In order to continue what we believe to be the true spiritual succession of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., which we hold to have been abandoned by the recent organization of that body, and to make clear to all the world that we have no connection with the organization bearing that name, we, a company of ministers and ruling elders, having been removed from that organization in contravention as we believe of its constitution, or having severed our connection with this organization, or hereby solemnly declaring that we do sever our connection with it, or coming as ministers or ruling elders of other ecclesiastical bodies holding the Reformed faith, do hereby associate ourselves together with all Christian people who do and will adhere to us, in a body to be known and styled as the Presbyterian Church of America. We, a company of ministers and ruling elders, do hereby in our own name, in the name of those who have adhered to us, and by the warrant and authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, constitute ourselves a General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America.

And as Dr. Machen took the moderator’s chair, maintaining the dignity of that office even amidst the unpretentious surroundings, there was in his face and in the hearts of us all a mark of the solemnity of the occasion. We trusted that in the power of God we were entering upon a new phase of history, set for the defense of the gospel. And we trusted that a new monument was being erected to mark a major battle in the war—a war declared by God himself and recorded as early as the third chapter of the book of Genesis, a war to be fought throughout the entire age, to a successful conclusion in the Day of Christ. It was a Gideon’s band indeed. Its weapons were not carnal but spiritual to the pulling down of the strongholds of Satan. Its confidence was not the arm of flesh, but in the arm of Jehovah of Hosts. The battle was not just a battle to maintain the pride of tradition, or to establish a name for anyone, but to uphold the banner of the gospel of Christ before a lost and dying world which should be called upon to accept that faith.

There were set in motion the immediate events of history which bring us here tonight to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of this denomination. None could predict what that history would be. There were all sorts of views, from the most pessimistic to the most sanguine. The latter saw churches established all over the country, by the dozens and by the hundreds, with people coming out of apostate organizations in large numbers. Our enemies saw the church dying before it was born. A recent writer in the Presbyterian Church has told us that we had but the zeal of despair. Our enemies had much more reasonableness for their prediction if they looked only at the outward aspects of a movement which resulted in the feeble actions of June 11, 1936.

That movement had been begun some years before. It had had a good deal of popular support within the Presbyterian Church in the early days of its inception. I’m only guessing, but I think that perhaps as many as a quarter of the people within that Church had at least some tacit interest in what we stood for. But every time anything decisive was done, the band was cut in half, until by the time the enabling act was adopted that Thursday afternoon only a Gideon’s band was left. And then within six months Dr. Machen was taken from us. And some of our enemies openly rejoiced and actually praised their god that he who had troubled Israel had been silenced. But whether there should come great and easy success or slow and painful struggle, the important point for the present consideration is that there can be no denying that the new organization was born of the need for an instrument that would be set for the defense of the gospel.

You can read the whole thing here.

Below is a photograph from the inaugural class of Westminster Theological Seminary (1929–1930). Robert Marsden is in the front row, third from the right. Machen is in the second row, sixth from the left. Carl McIntire is also in the second row, first on the right. Harold John Ockenga was also in this class, but I am not certain of his location in this photo.


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