Section navigation

Henry W. Coray on J. Gresham Machen

Category Articles
Date December 10, 2002

To sin by silence when we should protest Makes cowards of us all, The world has ris’n on protest.

The Rev. Henry W. Coray died on October 21 2002 aged 98, His wife Betty is 96 years old. They were married for 71 years and had four children. Coray had studied under Machen in Princeton Seminary, and became a missionary to China from 1936 until 1955 when he returned to the USA and pastored Orthodox Presbyterian Churches.

In 1981 he wrote a ‘silhouette of the life of Dr Machen which was published by Kregel Publications (Grand Rapids (ISBN 0-8254-2327-9). This was his memory of Machen the man:

My first close-up of Dr. Machen left me in a state of semi-shock. It happened in the autumn of 1928. I had just entered one of the dormitories at Princeton Theological Seminary when I noticed the figure of a man bent over double, making his way up a flight of stairs. As he proceeded he slapped the steps with the flat of his hands, and with each gesture he would groan, "Poor old Dassie, poor old Dassie." Later I learned this was quite a common sight, one of the famous New Testament scholar’s clowning charades.

At that time Princeton Seminary was drawing students from all over the world because of its unique stand for Christian scholarship. Those of us who went there did so because we wanted to receive instruction from men mighty in The Scriptures. We were not disappointed.

I found myself rooming in ivy-colored Alexander Hall, a noble if somewhat tired-appearing dormitory, occupied for the most part by seminary seniors. A college friend, Duke Fuller, a senior, had invited me to live with him. I, of course, a lowly junior or first-year man, accepted with unalloyed pleasure. Imagine my further joy when I learned that our room was located directly across the hall from the distinguished John Gresham Machen!

In physical appearance the good doctor more resembled a business man than a theological professor. He was fairly short, a trifle rotund, with dark penetrating eyes that had a way of roving mercurially over objects under surveillance. His mouth was straight and resolute, and frequently curled humorously. He always walked with brisk measured steps, like an Oriental. In dress he favored business suits, finely but not fastidiously tailored.

Why he chose life in a dormitory in preference to a house or apartment one cannot tell. Perhaps it was because he enjoyed being near people. He never married. I suspect he drew considerable comfort from a close association with his students. True, when Westminster Seminary started and we moved to Philadelphia, he took a suite on the twenty-first floor of Chancellor Hall, but that was probably because the mounting pressure of new duties necessitated more privacy.

Invariably his students referred to him, but not in his presence, as Das. The nickname arose because the German word for girl, "das madchen" is learned by school boys with the article, and "Das Machen" is a fair equivalent of the term. I’m sure he was aware of our usage of the nickname, but it offended him not in the slightest.

I was nurtured on the belief that no man can do two things at the same time. Das undeceived me. At Princeton I studied New Testament Greek under him. We used his New Testament Greek for Beginners for our textbook. I shall never forget the way he would swing into our classroom clutching a sheaf of correspondence, take his place behind his desk and direct one of us to conjugate the verb luo, to loose. While the recitation was under way our teacher, to all appearances, would be totally absorbed with his morning mail. But let the conjugator make one slip and Das would be on him like the Assyrian Army on Israel. No orchestra leader ever had a keener ear to detect a sour note. A single syllable mispronounced, and up would go a professorial hand and we would hear, "Ah, ah – let’s go over that again, shall we?"

One of Dr. Machen’s famous aphorisms was, "Boys, there are two things wrong with this institution: you’re not working hard enough and you’re not having enough fun." He would then set about to correct the second of the two defects.

He called these social affairs "tight-wad parties," certainly an original and quite weird epithet. Sometimes on a Saturday evening when there was a break in his preaching schedule he would fling his bedroom door open and we’d hear a stentorian, "All right, men, don’t be tightwads!" It was the signal for us to assemble in his bailiwick, where we would find a waiting cornucopia of edibles: apples, oranges, candy, dried fruits, nuts, cookies, soft drinks. Our genial host always presided over the affair from his place as autocrat of the checker board. There he would take on all challengers and proceed to cut them down, victim upon victim, systematically and mercilessly. An appropriate text for him might well have been, "Samuel hewed Agag in pieces."

His mind seemed to function like a computer: it anticipated each move of his opponent and was prepared to checkmate the manoeuvre. I cannot recall ever having seen him lose at the game. Students who were fortunate enough to have taken his course in the Origin of Paul’s Religion could not help drawing a parallel between the method he used at these board games and the marvelous skill we saw demonstrated in the way he demolished the arguments of brilliant scholars who tried to separate the theology of Jesus from the theology of Paul.

Another delightful facet of seminary social activity was our annual Stunt Night, an occasion when faculty and student body would relax and romp. Representatives from each class would present some light skit, the sillier the more appreciated. Always Machen would be called on to give one or more of his famous stunts. "Both as a student and professor, Dr. Machen was known not only as a scholar, but as a ‘stunter’. At student gatherings he would get off an amusing recitation about ‘Old Bill’ and Napoleon. None thought of him then, as his modernistic foes afterwards caricatured him, as sour, bitter and unfriendly." So wrote Dr. Clarence Edward Macartney in his autobiography, The Making of a Minister.

At these affairs I used to sing a ridiculous little. number called "The Chocolate Cake," accompanying myself on the ukulele. The offering was nothing but a series of stanzas touched up with local coloring.

One year at Westminster Seminary, the students adopted an alley cat – or it adopted us, we never were quite sure which. I will say that animal resembled a cross between a pretzel and a lady’s muff. We promptly gave it the name Papias in honor of one of the early church fathers, and made it the seminary mascot. Before long we realized we’d made a horrible mistake in the selection of the name. Papias, it turned out, was a prospective mother!

About a week after our discovery, Stunt Night arrived. Our mascot had furnished me with excellent material for a couplet in one of the stanzas. I sang:

"It really is an awful shame We’ve had to change poor Papias’ name …"

I thought Das was going to pass out. As when things hit him in the funnybone, he perched precariously on the edge of his chair and rolled up and down like a car on a roller coaster, his eyes shut tight and the tears flowing down his cheeks in rivulets. He was far more comical than the skit and provided a lot of amusement.

”Boys,” he used to say to his students with a twinkle in those bright eyes, "you can’t ever be a good theologian unless you’re a good stunter."

He cherished varied and surprising interests. He was ever a lover of good food, of the opera, of poetry, of children. Younger men seemed to converge on him, as they did on Paul. He enjoyed giving his books away. He climbed towering mountains with the joyful abandon and vigor of a well-trained athlete.

Another of his hobbies was to ride trains. When the schedule of the Broadway Limited eventually recovered from the slowdown of World War I under government control and was restored to sixteen hours from New York to Chicago, Das was really excited. He took a ride to Chicago and back just to see how that crack train ran at its new high speed.

One evening in the winter of 1932, I drove him to a railroad station in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he was to board a night train for Philadelphia. I expressed my sympathy because of the rough trip ahead.

"Listen, don’t feel sorry for me," he said. "I love to curl up in a berth and fall off to sleep." "How in the world do you manage it?" I said. "I can never sleep on trains. They’re too noisy." "Not to me they aren’t," Das said. "The good old sound of wheels rumbling over tracks – that’s a lullaby in my ears."

Now to the more serious side of his nature.

Those who were close to him will always remember J. Gresham Machen as a courtly gentleman, the product of Southern aristocracy, with a profound appreciation for classical learning. This, combined with a full exposure to historic Calvinism, endowed him with a fine balance. Ironically, it was at this precise point that his enemies attacked. When, for instance, the Board of Directors of Princeton Seminary reported to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA (now the United Presbyterian Church in the USA) that it had elected him to the professorship of Apologetics at the seminary, and asked for the customary confirmation, the opposition came out swinging. Machen, his critics charged, was unfit for the post because of "temperamental idiosyncrasies." Exactly what the idiosyncrasies were remained vague, but the stratagem worked. The Assembly failed to approve the recommendation.

Paul reminded the Corinthians that he carried on his ministry "by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report." An American politician once said of the candidate he was nominating, "We love him for the enemies he has made." Not a few of us may say the same of Machen.

Some enemies stooped very low in their attacks on Das. "His preaching was bitter, schismatic and unscriptural," Dr. Henry van Dyke said in a burst of generosity. "A dismal bilious travesty of the gospel." I have heard him referred to again and again as the "beer baron." His family, it was whispered, received its revenue from liquor interests. All manner of vicious calumny was poured on his head. The tactics are comparable to those of the clever attorney who, when the defense of his client breaks down, resorts to the method of destroying the integrity of the witnesses for the prosecution. I will have to say for Das that he never descended to this miserable practice. He was the quintessence of fairness, keeping controversy always on a high objective level and avoiding personal assault. You notice this in his writings.

Ned Stonehouse in his Biographical Memoir has ably answered the criticisms of his character. Dr. Machen never tried to. It is an established fact that Machen never received, to his knowledge, nor did his father, one penny revenue from the alcoholic liquor industry.

An example of the verbal shadow boxing he became involved in is found in connection with the Pearl Buck dispute. Mrs. Buck was a Presbyterian missionary to China prior to 1934. When she began to spell out openly her radical views of the person of Jesus Christ, Machen rose up and demanded some kind of action from the Board of Foreign Missions, under whose direction Mrs. Buck was laboring. I recall his giving an account of the cross-correspondence.

"I wrote to the Board," said Das, "and asked what the Board intended to do about Mrs. Buck. The Board answered, saying, ‘Dr. Speer (one of its secretaries) is a very fine man. ‘I answered,’ I agree that Dr. Speer is a fine man, but I would like to know what you are going to do about Mrs. Buck?’ The Board’s reply was, ‘Dr. Machen, why are you so bitter?’"

The key to his vigorous and often fiery stand for the Gospel lies in the fact that from the depths of his heart to the core of his brain he was a Protestant. Tragically, huge segments of modern Protestantism have ceased to be protestant. We have in reality spawned a school of Major O’Dowds. Of that placid Army officer Thackeray says, "O’Dowd passed through life agreeing with everyone he met on every conceivable subject. He was not a man, really; he was a piece of spaghetti."

Today we are witnessing a professing church in which it is considered an almost unpardonable sin to engage in doctrinal controversy. Lefferts A. Loetscher, in his book The Broadening Church, (The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954) points out that virtually no discussion of theological issues has disturbed the United Presbyterian Church since 1936. It was the year that Dr. Machen and others were ejected from that organization. Men have forgotten that.

To sin by silence when we should protest Makes cowards of us all, The world has ris’n on protest.

I suspect that in those dark hours when he was being tested in the crucible, Dr. Machen was a lonely man. In his gripping story, Alone, Admiral Richard Byrd makes his readers feel the raw pain he endured during the terrible months he spent in solitude at the Antarctic. Robinson Crusoe, cast upon a desert island, so longed for the sound of a human voice that he would station himself opposite a mountain and shout out words so that he could take in the echo. The great Apostle must have known a measure of the sufferings of the Savior when he wrote Timothy, "At my first defense, no man stood with me."

I am certain that Dr. Machen tasted bitterness to the full as he saw friend after old friend part company with him when the going was hardest. Some of them were stout men and true, church leaders who held Machen’s lofty view of The Scriptures and its noble redemptive doctrines, and yet could not see eye to eye with him on certain vital issues. That very fact made the agony of separation all the more poignant. "What Beza said at the end of his brief, but most admirable, biography of John Calvin, can truly be said of Dr. Machen," wrote Dr. Macartney, who eventually broke with Das. "An example which it is as easy to slander as it is difficult to imitate."

I cannot leave the subject of "Machen the Man" without a reference to his public prayers. Who of his students has not been edified as they listened to the renowned Christian scholar standing with bowed head in chapel or in the classroom at the opening of the period, acknowledging in the simplest language the multitude of divine mercies channelled through the infinite merit of the Son of God? Always there was in his supplication a quality of child-like wonder, a tenderness, a naked honesty and humility as he poured out his soul like water before the face of his Heavenly Father. When some of the important lessons we learned from him in the classroom have faded from the cabinets of the mind, the recollection of his prayers will linger, like the scent of rare perfume, beyond the limits of the intellect.

It is understandable why some of us still thank God upon every remembrance of him.

Latest Articles

Intellectual Excercises November 19, 2019

The idea that the Christian faith is better felt than thought and believed is a widespread one. Its roots are widespread as well. In Protestantism since the time of Kant it has been axiomatic that God cannot be known, only ‘postulated’ or ‘projected’. This by-now traditional agnosticism has been reinforced by challenges to the meaningfulness […]

A Few Characteristics of the Gospel of Mark November 15, 2019

According to tradition this Gospel was composed to satisfy the urgent request of the people of Rome for a written summary of Peter’s preaching in that city. However, this cannot mean that the information found in this book must be withheld from everybody living outside of the city limits of the capital. As is clear […]