December 1997
Barr - page 4

Newspaper Coverage of J. Gresham Machen's
Ecclesiastical Trial In 1935

by James Daniel Barr


From 1906 to 1929, John Gresham Machen was an instructor and professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. A respected scholar and noted author, Machen's considerable abilities and forthright eloquence placed him at the forefront of a theological battle that pitted conservative evangelicals against those who professed a modern, liberal religion. Though this battle took on many forms throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Machen's steadfast stand against the encroachment of liberal theology into the church often brought him into the public eye.

Probably the most dramatic confrontation during this time--and therefore most newsworthy--culminated in Machen being tried in an ecclesiastical court for disobedience in February and March of 1935. The controversy surrounded the actions of Machen and others in founding the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. In response, the Presbyterian General Assembly "ordered" him, and all other officers of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. affiliated with this new missions board, to resign from it. Machen considered the order unlawful and ignored it. This resulted in his later being charged with nine counts of disobedience and being placed on trial before a special judicial committee formed by the Presbytery of New Brunswick in New Jersey where he had been a member.

The trial itself was held in Trenton, New Jersey, in February and March 1935. Despite having the five courtroom sessions stretched out over two month's time, the drama of a well-known theologian facing church discipline charges made it newsworthy enough to warrant coverage by many of the major newspapers of the day. Even News-Week, in its December 29, 1934, edition reported that Machen was being tried for disobedience ("Presbyterians," 1934).

But few newspaper reporters grasped the significance of the case. As H. L. Mencken wrote in his column for The Evening Sun, "to newspaper reporters, as to other antinomians, a combat between Christians over a matter of dogma is essentially a comic affair" (Mencken, 1937, p. 15). Despite the fact that most reporters regarded biblical matters as irrelevant to everyday life, even a superficial understanding of the situation offered the kind of conflict reporters looked for in a story.

All in all, it might surprise some that an "in-house" battle over church dogma even made it into the newspaper, let alone front page coverage. But less than a decade earlier, the Eastern press had handled the case of William Jennings Bryan and his Christian faith rather harshly. Though Bryan had run for president of the United States three times and was considered one of the best orators of his day, newspapers nationwide lambasted him for his conservative Christian views. How the press corps dealt with Bryan is strong evidence that its adoption of a non-biblical worldview was increasingly a factor in news reports.

How then was a man like Machen handled when he espoused some of the same Christian ideas for which Bryan had been ridiculed? This paper will address how Machen's case was reported by three major newspapers close to the Machen story--the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Baltimore Sun and the New York Times.

The purpose of this study is to analyze the historical context of Machen's ecclesiastical court case, and from that, to offer a critical review of how the newspapers identified Machen's cause and the opposing position taken by his accusers. The historical analysis is necessary to set the context for the reader and to identify the philosophical milieu of the period. This is very significant if Machen's stance and the reporters' interpretation of the events are to be rightly understood.

An historical analysis will offer the reader a general overview of what was happening in three areas--the nation in general, the field of journalism and the church in America. This will be followed by a review of the events surrounding the trial, which will, in turn, be followed by an analysis and a conclusion.

Historical Setting of the Trial

The General Assembly of 1934 produced a "mandate" calling all members of the independent board to cease their support of it or face discipline. At the end of that year, Machen was charged on nine counts of disobedience, and in 1935 his trial culminated in his "excommunication" from the Presbyterian Church. After an analysis of the historical situation to provide the reader with the context of the trial, the details of Machen's case will be examined later in the paper.

Machen was not through yet. After being found guilty and having both of his appeals to higher courts rejected, Machen and others established what was to become the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in June 1936. This, they felt, was the only way to maintain a doctrinally true Presbyterian Church.

Despite being at the peak of his career, Machen was not to live to see much of his work come of age. With the pressures of the trial, founding the seminary, his writing and speaking, and now the leadership responsibilities of a fledgling denomination, stress took its toll. Though aware of his weakened constitution, Machen pressed on right up until the time he was taken ill and died in South Dakota. His friends and opponents alike mourned his passing. As Albert Dieffenbach, religious editor of the Boston Evening Transcript and a Unitarian minister, said, "out of the historic issue of fundamentalism . . . (Machen) emerges in death as the theologian and crusader, as learned and valiant a spiritual warrior as the Protestant church has produced in modern times" (Rian, 1940, p. 215).

During the years just before Machen's trial, the United States was feeling the tremors of social upheaval. After experiencing what Paul Johnson called, "a general prosperity which was historically unique" (1983, p. 222), America walked blindly into one of the worst economic depressions it has ever experienced. The unemployment rate was 3.2 percent of the labor force in 1929. By 1934, over one-quarter of the population was without any income at all.

As industrial production, business construction and manufacturing fell precipitously, the hopes and dreams of millions were dashed. Politicians, bent on finding answers in social engineering, only worsened the situation with poor public policy decisions (Johnson, 1983, pp. 243-260). In 1932, the depression reached its low ebb, but it was almost eight years later before the country recovered (Johnson, 1983, p. 246).

During both prosperity and depression, America's population continued growing at an unprecedented rate. In 1920, the population stood at more than 105 million. Less than 20 years later, that number had increased almost 30 percent to 131 million (Praamsma, 1981, p. 222). But for these millions, the economic hope and security of the 1920s suddenly dissipated with the depression.

At the same time, the philosophy of modernism which Machen was fighting was making an impact on mainstream America. Historic Christianity had provided a grid of absolutes from which men could find meaning, discern between good and evil, and gain a sense of direction in life. Modern liberalism's subjective theology replaced these absolutes with relativism--which held that there are no absolutes, but that truth is whatever an individual wants to believe--and the result was a continued breakdown of society.

Though history has recorded man's inhumanity in all its grisly details, the 1920s saw this depravity expressed in ways never before experienced in America. Amidst countless religious revival movements and crusades came a time of increasing lawlessness. Gangsters and the Mafia became an ever present part of society (Johnson, 1983, p. 212) and a sexual revolution revealed how this moral decay was infesting the country. As Praamsma said, "It was a time of both Puritans and pirates" (1981, p. 222).

Relativism also made an impact in religion, science, politics, art, law and business. From before the turn of the century, humanistic perspectives ranging from Darwinian evolution to Freudianism slowly pervaded every area of life --including journalism. The common factor in these idealist variations is that ultimately, some form of the human spirit (naturalism) is substituted for the Holy Spirit (biblical supernaturalism).

These philosophies were made increasingly more influential by technological changes which allowed for faster dissemination of such information to the masses. The advent of mass transportation, via the automobile and airplane, united the growing nation. Metropolitan areas were linked with each other and rural areas became accessible as never before. The burgeoning growth of radio made it possible for the entire country to be reached with the same ideas and perspective at the same time, creating a national identity.

Unfortunately, this corporate identity or "Americanization" was fraught with many non-biblical concepts of man and the world. Believing that America and Americans had the ability and resources to conquer the ills of society, this unity created the false hope that with human effort alone things would eventually get better.

It was men like Machen who saw these "advances" as dangerous. Without the attendant guide of a biblical framework, these developments were ultimately leading to further destruction. Though distressed at seeing the church absorb humanistic philosophies and its resultant abdication of societal leadership, Machen's hope lay solely in the church. Only man's dependence on God and His Word as received through the church could reverse these destructive trends. Writing to his mother in 1920, he said, "It destroys my confidence in any human aid. . . . The Gospel of Christ is a blessed relief from that sinful state of affairs commonly known as hundred per-cent Americanism. And fortunately some of us were able to learn of the gospel in a freer, more spiritual time, before the state had begun to lay its grip upon the education of the mind." (Stonehouse, 1987, p. 304)

Even with Machen's heroic and scholarly leadership and his firm stand on non-relativistic principles, the apathy of the organized church permitted these trends to continue. Though various Christian denominations and local churches varied greatly in what they understood to be true Christian faith, the overall direction was away from the Bible to a more humanistic approach. The result was that the United States left its biblical moorings and floundered in a sea of social disorientation. It was in this setting--with humanism (naturalism) being aggressively taught and the church's apathy allowing biblical principles to be trampled under the feet of modernism--that Machen stood firm against the liberal Presbyterian administrative machine.

The Press

The written word has always been one of the most powerful forms of communication. American newspapers of the 1920s and 1930s are ample evidence of this. The daily newspaper--and how it interpreted events--was relied on by Americans to keep them informed of occurrences in their communities, in their nation and around the world. J. E. Rogers said it well in his book, The American Newspaper:

Nowhere in the world has the press found a larger and more receptive audience than on our shores. Here everyone reads; everyone, even the poorest, is rich enough to buy the daily papers; here more than elsewhere, in our characteristic hurry to save time and labor, we are willing to allow others to do our thinking and to serve us not only with the daily history of the world, but with lines of thought and suggestions of conduct ready for use. Herein lies the great power of the press, its power to suggest to a whole community what it should think and do. (1909, pp. 101-102)

Did newspapers use this influential power for the good of their readership? It was Rogers' opinion, 20 years before Machen's trial, that rather than seeking the public's greatest good, the main ambitions of the press are: "On the whole to attract attention, to play upon the people's whims and moods, to seek madly after news, which is then doctored, faked, and twisted to suit the interests of the paper and the taste of the frivolous and the curious; a press which is essentially commercial and irresponsible." (1909, pp. 96-97)

This assertion about the press of Machen's day is corroborated by Marvin Olasky's Prodigal Press (1988). While kinder in his phrasing, he stated nonetheless truthfully, "from the 1920s onward, lowest-common-denominator pluralism and superficiality on the news pages was increasingly seen as essential. . ." (p. 65).

This was not the way it always had been in American journalism. Fewer than 50 years earlier, it "often was Christian journalism" (Olasky, 1988, p. 18). How could it be that in a matter of decades journalism changed so quickly? Tracing this shift, Olasky identifies four particular reasons (for greater elaboration, see Olasky, 1988, pp. 22-25).

First, non-biblical worldviews became increasingly popular in society and fewer biblically-minded men remained in leadership positions on newspapers. Second, with the loss of intellectual integrity, newspapers which sought to offer "Christian" news, resorted to "happy talk" journalism which avoided the reality and result of man's sin nature and the "bad" news of the world. Thus, they rarely spoke to the significant issues of the day and readers lost interest. Often this led to the aberrant idea that Christianity had nothing to do with worldly events.

This "retreat" from reality in the realm of defining news went hand in hand with the third problem--a "retreat" from maintaining high professional and marketing standards in the field of communication. Thinking that Christian views could only be explained through long, scholarly and somber articles, some papers eventually failed because they were unable to present the news in a palatable way to the average reader. Finally, in many cases those newspapers which did survive this decline only did so by becoming denominational organs.

These problems are only the result of what Olasky identifies as the two underlying theological trends. The first was the nationwide trend of casting aside "the Christian principles on which (the nation) had been founded" (1988, p. 23) thus opening the way for non-Christian worldviews to determine how issues and events were interpreted. Non-Christians do not hold the same presuppositions and therefore interpret reality differently.

The second theological trend was actually a non-response by the Christian community to the claims of other worldviews. Despite many great religious revivals during the 1920s and 1930s, where thousands claimed a Christian faith, the practical Christian response to the issues of the day was a defensive "pietism." It offered an escape from worldly matters, but ignored offering truly biblical answers to the critical social issues of the day. In doing so, it opened up the door for other worldviews to offer alternative solutions. In the end, this non-response affected every aspect of society, as we have already seen, including journalism.

The great tragedy in this was that Christians abandoned the most powerful avenue of communication of that era. As Rogers put it,

The newspaper overshadows every other educational agency. The lecture room, the pulpit, the public meeting, the pamphlet, the book are relatively unimportant, for whereas these reach but a small minority of the people during irregular intervals, the daily paper comes constantly in touch with the great masses who read it and depend upon it for their information and recreation. (1909, p. 104)

Over a period of time, this resulted in the general public slowly accepting the interpretation of events as given to them by the anti-Christian journalists. As Rogers stated, "for the most part, the average man seeks his theology, his politics, his creed in the newspapers. The newspaper is the source of his knowledge, and what it publishes he believes as 'Gospel truth' (1909, p. 103). This coincided with what has already been said regarding the moral and social decay of the nation. Though it cannot be claimed that the press was solely at fault, it certainly was a leading factor in the shift of the philosophical pendulum.

During the 10 years in which Machen was making every effort to resist the growing force of liberalism, the press was more enamored with its ancilliary conflict--the ongoing creation/evolution debates. During the 1920s, 37 antievolution bills were introduced in 20 state legislatures (Colletta, 1969, p. 231). Each of these garnered local, if not national, press coverage. The 1925 Scopes Trial dramatizes most forcefully the attention this kind of story generated.

Though this issue was one aspect of what Machen was fighting, he realized early on that the creation/evolution debate was only the "fruit" of a deeper issue--the religious orientation of the nation. In fact, he realized from the very beginning that the battle against modernism in the church and against the teaching of evolution in the public school systems was essentially a battle against the same foe in different arenas.

In 1925, the New York Times invited Machen to engage in a written debate on evolution. He declined. But when they offered him the topic, "What Fundamentalism Stands For Now," he wrote a masterful statement on the nature of Christianity. Not that he was indifferent to the evolution debate (it contradicted the plain teaching of the Bible); rather, he chose to avoid the issue of evolution per se, and stick to New Testament theology as this was his forte. In this way, Machen felt he could best defend the rock-solid nature of Christianity rather than entangling himself with the fields of biology and geology in which "his scholarly instincts simply did not permit him to pose as an authority" (Stonehouse, 1987, p. 402).

Nor was he against the fundamentalism that arose in response to the creation/evolution debate. After the General Assembly of 1927 did not appoint him to the Chair of Apologetics at Princeton, he was approached about becoming the first president of the new Bryan Memorial University--a school that hoped to become the bastion of fundamentalism. In a gracious letter he wrote declining the offer, Machen clearly presented his commitment to the same Christian fundamentals, but also his perspective on the subtle distinctions between fundamentalism and the reformed faith (Stonehouse, 1987, pp. 426-428). Expanding on this issue, Stonehouse stated:

In estimating Machen's place within the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, one must take account of the fact that, judged by various criteria adopted by friend and foe, he was not a fundamentalist at all. His standards of scholarship, his distaste for brief creeds, his rejection of chiliasm, the absence of pietism from his makeup, and in brief, his sense of commitment to the historic Calvinism of the Westminster Confession of Faith disqualified him from being classified precisely as a fundamentalist. And he never spoke of himself as a fundamentalist; indeed he disliked the term.

At the same time, conscious as he was of taking sides in the great debate as to the nature of the Christian religion. . . he did not think it worthwhile to quibble about the term. . . . In spite of significant differences in outlook and emphasis which distinquished him from many fundamentalists, he was convinced that what he shared with them was more basic than what distinguished him from them. (1987, pp. 337-338)

Yet the press, in all the stories of the trial, did not understand how Machen's Calvinist faith differed from fundamentalism. Again and again, as will be shown, the newspapers lumped Machen in with all "fundamentalists." While some may say this reflected a conscious antagonism toward Christianity, it is probably due more to the press's general acceptance of a humanistic perspective. This blinded them to see the case from Machen's biblical view. Classifying it as a "religious matter" with no relevance to society, the press missed the historical significance of the conflict and the social ramifications of its outcome. Overall, the press's arrogance and ignorance led to adequate but shallow coverage.

Foundationally, this shallowness is due to the press's acceptance of a relativistic worldview which had much in common with modernism. This is evident from the records of the First Annual Meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1924. There, a committee of ethical standards created its first Code of Ethics. This code later became known as the Canons of Journalism.

The very fact that the editors perceived the need to create such a "code" reflects both the breakdown of ethics within the profession (and within society), and the humanistic attitude that man is the absolute authority who sets the standards of right and wrong. For some time, journalism had operated with a standard of morality common to all of society--a standard founded on Judeo-Christian beliefs. But as the Judeo-Christian belief system was ignored, other manmade standards were created in its place.

In the field of journalism, the 1924 code was an attempt to offer an alternative set of standards--a vain effort for two reasons. First, in the introduction of the report to the Society's members, the chairman of the Ethics Committee, H. J. Wright, of the New York Globe, stated, "the only thing that counts is public opinion" (1923, p. 40). This statement alone reveals the dilemma all newspapers face when they deny the Christian worldview. Without an absolute standard, all other manmade standards are open to change at the whim of the public or whomever is in charge. Noble as the intentions of these editors were, once they repudiated the Bible as the absolute standard, they fell under the tyranny of their own opinion or that of others--both of which are always changing.

Second, this code of ethics was unenforceable. Section 7 of the code explicitly stated that the only means of correcting any "base conduct" was the hope that it would be met with "effective public disapproval or yield to the influence of a preponderant professional condemnation" (1923, p. 43). In discussion after the meeting, a Mr. Swope of the New York World offered this opinion: "As to the wisdom of institutionalizing ethics in our profession, there can be no doubt. As to how we may obtain practical results, there is grave doubt, because we have no way of sinking our teeth into an offender" (1923, p. 44).

As stated before, this unbiblical perspective rendered newspaper editors and reporters "blind" to the foundational issues involved in Machen's trial. Their interpretation of the event were based on their own ideas of reality, which were clearly different from a biblical approach. Only the most elementary and superficial aspects would be perceived--and as will be seen, only the most elementary aspects were reported.

The Christian Church

From the time Machen returned from the First World War until he was suspended from the Presbyterian Church in 1936, his greatest distress was not the decay of the country's Christian values. He recognized that history was replete with evidence of the world's low opinion of biblical teaching. His greatest concern was the growing lawlessness within the church--and in his denomination specifically.

In both the leadership and the laity, the influence of liberal modernism was becoming more apparent. As early as 1914, Machen wrote of attending a church service that "was possessed of perfect unity" and yet, he concluded, "there was not a touch of Christianity in it" (Stonehouse, 1987, p. 229). Not long after, Machen heard one of the most eminent liberal preachers of the day, Harry Emerson Fosdick, speak on undogmatic Christianity. Writing to his brother about the event, Machen lamented, "I should hate to think that Christianity were reduced to such insignificant dimensions" (Stonehouse, 1987, pp. 230-231).

A poll done by Northwestern University's Department of Education in 1928 found that a large number of ministers were denying the basic tenets of the Christian faith. Of the 436 ministers across the nation contacted, 20 percent doubted the doctrine of the Trinity, 32 percent doubted the reality of miracles, 29 percent doubted the validity of Christ's virgin birth, and 30 percent doubted the Bible was different from other ancient literature (Roark, 1963, pp. 98-99). Though Machen concentrated upon this shift in his own denomination, modernism was making headway in almost every denomination.

But this "decline" was not only to be found in the Presbyterian Church. Across denominational lines, church members began neglecting their financial responsibility to support the work of the church. While the country was experiencing economic prosperity in the 1920s, the church was experiencing the beginnings of economic troubles.

If there is truth in what Jesus Christ said about a person's treasure being in the same place as his heart, then America's heart was not in the church. According to research done by William Handy on the church during the 1920s and 1930s, the United Stewardship Council reported that per capita gifts for benevolence fell from $5.57 in 1921 to $3.43 in 1929 (1960, p. 432). In a similar vein, during the 1926 Foreign Missions Conference of North America, missionary leaders expressed serious concern over the apathy of local churches toward the cause of mission (Handy, 1960, p. 432).

The root of the problem was this: The message of the church, in general, was losing its distinctiveness. Later in his article, Handy quoted Sidney E. Mead who suggested that this shift in perspective was not a sudden change, but a gradual one: "During the second half of the nineteenth century there occurred a virtual identification of. . . denominational Protestantism with 'Americanism' or the 'the American way of life'" (1960, p. 435). But it wasn't only Americanism that was being adopted. In the first few decades of this century, secular humanism manifested in a variety of forms including scientism and behaviorism. As these became more accepted by the general population, "religion was often viewed with a negative if not with a hostile eye" (Handy, 1960, p. 434).

In response to this shift, an amorphous collection of biblical conservatives spoke out for a return to the fundamentals of the faith. After they produced a series of booklets on the fundamentals, they became known as fundamentalists. While a broad spectrum of Christians agreed on these fundamentals, and garnered much popular support, a few of the more obscure theological positions came to the forefront.

This shifted the emphasis from the agreed-upon fundamentals to an overemphasis on millennialism which focused too heavily on the idea of Christ's return to reign for 1,000 years at some future date. The result was too often a neglect of contemporary life and an inconsistent and uncomprehensive Gospel message which failed to offer biblical answers for the questions non-Christians were asking. As Louis Praamsma wrote, "They called for separation--not reformation" (1981, pp. 225-226).

In short, Machen's post-war analysis of the church was very accurate. The church was not being "salt and light." Rather than offering an alternative, the church either ignored the Gospel's social responsibilities or became indistinguishable from the society it sought to change. The roots of this decay go back several decades. As Edwin Rian wrote, "this conflict. . . was not a controversy over some trivial matter or a difference between certain individuals but the culmination of many years of doctrinal defection" (1940, p. 13).

Missionary and author Henry Coray points out the important events in the Presbyterian Church which opened the door and allowed modernism to gradually gain control. Though it started before the turn of the century, Coray identified the General Assembly's adoption, in 1903, of a change in the Church's confession of faith which really began undermining the conservative position. Only a minor controversy at the time, it paved the way for later, more significant changes.

By 1918, the liberal camp had gained enough strength to propose a union of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America with 17 other Protestant bodies despite some glaring doctrinal differences. In the same year, when the General Assembly ordered the Presbytery of New York to do something about Dr. Fosdick's liberal preaching in a Presbyterian pulpit, the presbytery did nothing. That no steps were taken to pressure the presbytery to act is evidence of the increasing weakness and apathy of conservatives and the acceptance of the more liberal theology.

Possibly the most blatant attempt to legitamize the modern liberal stance occurred in 1923 when more than 1,200 Presbyterian ministers signed the "Auburn Affirmation." This statement challenged the historic interpretation of the foundational tenets of the Christian faith--the inerrancy of the Bible, the incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection and the continuing life and supernatural power of Jesus Christ. It was at this time that Machen's second book, Christianity and Liberalism (1923), vaulted him into the middle of this theological battle. This much discussed book, Rian wrote: "was accepted as the best statement of the issue between Modernism and historic Christianity, (and) compelled the public to recognize Dr. Machen as the intellectual leader of those who believed in the Christianity of the Bible" (1940, p. 41).

Despite such accolades, Machen's position became a threatening minority within the denomination. Throughout his troubled times at Princeton and until he was suspended, Machen stood firm in his conviction that the Presbyterian Church was in error. Rian's appraisal of the situation said it well:

In 1893 the Church suspended Dr. Charles A. Briggs of New York from the ministry because he did not believe in the infallibility of the Bible, and in 1936 the same Church suspended Dr. Machen from the ministry because he was determined to follow the teaching of the infallible Word of God. Do not these two actions indicate the tremendous transformation in the Presbyterian Church from orthodoxy to Modernism? (1940, p. 187)

The Machen Case

From the time Machen wrote Christianity and Liberalism in 1923 until his death in 1937, he continually sought to alert the church--and ultimately the society at large--of the suicidal course of a non-Christian worldview. Though many acknowledged him as one of the most outspoken opponents of modernism and regarded him highly, those who stood with him were few.
These were turbulent years for Machen. Some opponents disparaged him. Others thought his cause to be too narrow. Yet it must be said that for all he suffered, critics who took time to analyze what he was saying found little fault in him.

Even two of the most outspoken journalists of the era, Walter Lippman and H. L. Mencken, found him to be in a class by himself. Lippman highly commended Machen, writing in his book, A Preface To Morals:

There is also a reasoned case against the modernist. . . . stated in a little book called Christianity and Liberalism by a man who is both a gentleman and scholar. . . . It is an admirable book. For its acumen, for its saliency, for its wit, this cool stringent defense of orthodox Protestantism is, I think, the best popular argument produced by either side in the current controversy. We shall do well to listen to Dr. Machen. (1929, p. 32)

Mencken, who belittled the Christian faith of William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes Trial in 1925, wrote of Machen four years later:

Dr. Machen is no mere soap-box orator of God, alarming bucolic sinners for a percentage of the plate. On the contrary, he is a man of great learning and dignity. . . . I confess that as a life-long fan of theology, I can find no defect in his defense of his position. . . . As I have hinted, I think that, given his faith, his position is completely impregnable. There is absolutely no flaw in the argument with which he supports it. If he is wrong, then the science of logic is hollow vanity, signifying nothing. (Coray, 1981, pp. 40-41)

Even Fosdick was said to have admitted in a seminary lecture that granting Machen's presuppositions, a person had to go all the way with his arguments and that his reasoning was foolproof (Coray, 1981, p. 43).

Yet, despite their profound admiration for his work, these men never truly accepted Machen's perspective. Though they recognized the power of his argument, they chose to live their lives according to a different standard. Their response was indicative of the response Machen generally encountered from the public as well.

This kind of opposition was constantly before Machen and yet he still battled on. What was his motivation? What reasons did he have to become entangled in an ecclesiastical controversy for over a decade? One of his contemporaries, Henry Coray, summed it up well by saying:

What is it in Dr. Machen that stands out above everything else? . . . To me the answer does not lie in his scholarship, or in his teaching ability, or in his literary skill, great as these are. In my opinion the one feature about him that overshadows everything else is this: his burning passion to see the Lordship of Christ exercised in His church. (Coray, 1981, p. 70)

It was this burning passion--his love for a pure Church--that led him to be at the center of this theological controversy. At first, his involvement took the form of public speaker. At conferences and from various pulpits, Machen drew out his argument that the distinction between historical Christianity and modernism was more than two different facets of the same faith. From his orthodox position, Machen saw modernism as a gross deviation from historic Christianity on all essential points--making it a different religion altogether.

As stated earlier, his efforts to keep conservatives in control of Princeton Seminary drew much criticism. But this did not deter him from fighting on. In 1932, Machen again took a leadership role against liberalism when a Laymen's Committee unofficially published a controversial pamphlet which espoused a liberal view of missions. His response, entitled Modernism and the Board of Foreign Missions, charged that modernism had worked its way into the very heart of the Church's missionary agencies.

This issue became a central topic at the 1933 General Assembly held in Columbus, Ohio. There, Machen brought specific evidence that modernism was being supported and even propagated through the mission agencies. The General Assembly basically ignored Machen's criticisms and, in fact, gave the missions board a strong commendation.

Because of this action, Machen was no longer able to support in good conscience the denomination's official Board of Foreign Missions. Shortly after the Assembly, he, and others of the same conviction, announced the formation of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. It was offically founded in June of that year with Machen as president.

It was this action which drew the fire of the Presbyterian Church hierarchy. Fearful that such a board would siphon off funds from the Church's own mission board, and reasoning that such an effort by an ordained Presbyterian minister was devisive, the General Assembly questioned the constitutionality of Machen's independent board. After some high-handed tactics by the liberal leadership at the 1934 General Assembly, it was demanded through the 1934 Mandate of the General Assembly that Machen, and all others associated with the independent missions board, sever all connections with it.

Further, it was declared that refusal to obey this order would subject them to the discipline of the Church, an unheard of pronouncement that essentially found Machen and other like-minded men guilty before being tried. Despite much protest, all presbyteries were ordered to proceed with any appropriate action in any case where the directives of the Assembly were not obeyed (Stonehouse, 1987, p. 485). As Praamsma put it, the official boards of the Church, feeling their status quo threatened by Machen's efforts, took countermeasures to stop him (1981, p. 230).

Machen refused to obey and stated that the General Assembly did not have this authority. But in the final months of 1934, the Presbytery of New Brunswick took action and began making formal inquiries. Though their jurisdiction was questioned because Machen had become a member of the Philadelphia presbytery after starting the seminary there, the New Jersey presbytery brought formal charges against him in December 1934. On February 14, at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Trenton, NJ, a special judicial committee from the modernist-dominated presbytery convened to hear Machen's case. Though Machen and his counsel challenged the ability of every member of the commission to be impartial to the case due to their modernist bias, only one of the challenges was accepted.

The charges against Machen were as follows: Violating (his) ordination vows; disapproval of the government and discipline of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America; renouncing and disobeying the rules and lawful authority of the Church; advocating rebellious defiance against the lawful authority of the Church; refusal to sever his connection with the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions as directed by the General Assembly; not being zealous and faithful in maintaining the peace of the Church; contempt of and rebellion against his superiors in the Church in their lawful counsels, commands and corrections; breach of his lawful promises; refusing subjection to his brethren in the Lord (Stonehouse, 1987, p. 489). In response, Machen's counsel attempted to bring evidence that proved that his position was biblically correct and it was the General Assembly's position which was in error. But the commission ruled over and over again that the trial was dealing with "administrative" issues only, and no doctrinal debate would be heard. Without being able to appeal to the Presbyterian constitution or the Bible to prove the unlawfulness of the charges, Machen's defense council could only listen as each of their protests were denied ("New Brunswick Commission," 1935). In the end, Machen called the trial a farce--even before the final verdict of guilty was announced ("Machen Convicted," 1935).

Though this decision was appealed by Machen to the state Synod and the 1936 General Assembly, in both cases, the suspension was upheld, forcing Machen either to repent of his deeds or leave the Church. Claiming that he had done no wrong, Machen stood his ground and was formally suspended from the ministry. Soon after, he led the effort to establish the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

At the time Machen was being tried, other Presbyterian ministers were also being brought to discipline for their involvement with the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. In Pennsylvania alone, there were nearly a dozen cases which the Presbyterian Synod of Pennsylvania ruled on later that year. None of those trials received as much attention as Machen's did, probably due to his stature in the public eye. As a well-known author and outspoken public figure, Machen's decade-long intradenominational battles had caused him to become something of a celebrity, albeit a quiet one.

Remarkably, his stand for orthodox Christianity in 1935 has been compared with Martin Luther's historic stand before church leaders centuries earlier (Rian, 1940, p. 213). As Luther stood his ground in his defense of sola Scriptura against the dictates of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, so Machen stood for the authority of God's Word against the unlawful rulings of the Presbyterian General Assembly. In the end, both men were expelled, evidence of how intolerant both churches had become of biblical stances.

An analysis of the newspaper articles of the case will reveal that there was an ideological conflict between Machen and the press, as much as there was one between Machen and his Modernist accusers.

Coverage by the Three Newspapers

By contemporary standards, the media gave considerable coverage to Machen's trial. Stories on the trial not only appeared in the "church news" section of the three newspapers being considered in this study, but two times articles on Machen's trial appeared on the front page and 14 times in the first 10 pages. But the volume and visibility of news on this trial reveals more than just the chronology and the facts of the case. It also reveals what the press failed to report.
This study will first offer a content analysis comparing the number of stories, story length and story placement. Second, an analysis will be done on titles and auxiliary identifications given to Machen. From these two, a foundation will be established to better understand those things not reported.

Of the three newspapers, the New York Times carried the greatest number of stories concerning the Machen trial. From December 20, 1934, when the Presbytery of New Brunswick formally charged Machen with disobedience, until March 20, 1935, when he was found guilty, the Times ran 13 stories about the trial (and one covering a speaking engagement of Machen's in which he dealt with the case). This compared with The Baltimore Sun's six stories and the Philadelphia Inquirer's seven stories during the same time period.

Considering Machen's personal connections to Baltimore, it seems odd that The Baltimore Sun did not cover this story more closely and extensively. Machen was from a well-respected family of Baltimore, reared and educated in that city. He had gained international acclaim for his many books and writings. Plus he was much in demand as a speaker. Why The Baltimore Sun did not give him more "native son" coverage is somewhat puzzling.

Similarly, after being involved in much controversy at Princeton, Machen moved to Philadelphia in 1929 to spearhead the organizing of Westminster Theological Seminary. Surely his reputation as a theological scholar would have been well-known and respected throughout Philadelphia. The Inquirer was also closest of the three newspapers to Trenton, New Jersey, where the trial was held. Yet, for all this, the Inquirer did not cover the story as heavily as one might expect.

A more significant factor in considering how these newspapers covered the event was the manpower each put into covering the story. Six of 14 story items in the New York Times, those directly covering the court proceedings, were written by a "Staff Correspondent." Perusing the pages of the Times revealed that stories of similar length were labeled "Special to the New York Times" or nothing at all. In the instances where the stories covering Machen's trial were designated "Staff Correspondent," it would seem that an editorial decision was made to specifically assign someone to the event to report the happenings.

In comparison, six out of seven Philadelphia Inquirer stories were taken from the Associated Press (AP) wire service. The seventh story (on page four of the March 9 edition) had no dateline, was given an insignificant headline, and its length and placement on the page were probably due more to its utility as a "filler" story rather than a recognition of its newsworthiness. Here, it would seem, that generic coverage was enough for that paper's editors.

In The Baltimore Sun, three of the six stories were AP stories. The other three were identified as "Special Dispatch to The Sun." Two of these three "Special Dispatch" stories were only three paragraphs long, giving a bare sketch of the trial's details. The third one, covering the opening day of the trial, though longer, was the shortest account of that specific day's events (compared to the other two newspapers). The Sun did give its March 8 article front page status, but it was only a three-inch story and was at the very bottom of the page.

In all three newspapers, a single head shot photo of Machen, but no photo from the scene of the trial, was used. Both The Sun and the Times carried Machen's photo on December 21, the day the trial was announced. The Inquirer used a photo on March 30, when the ecclesiastical court passed sentence.

The one measure which showed the differences in coverage most strikingly was simply the number of column inches each newspaper devoted to the trial. In terms of volume, the New York Times printed over 180 column inches of story while The Baltimore Sun recorded less than 50 column inches and the Inquirer just over 70 column inches. This is somewhat inexact by virtue of different size and column width used in each newspaper's format. But even allowing for some leeway, the difference appears significant. In every case where two or all three newspapers ran stories covering the same day's event, the New York Times' stories were always longer, and in their greater length, included more information.

Another factor affecting how much press Machen's trial received on any given day was the other issues and events vying, as it were, for the attention of the newspaper and the public. Just a cursory glance through any of these papers shows that three other issues and events were always "making headlines" in February and March 1935.

With the country suffering through an economic depression, these newspapers all gave high visibility to special federal relief legislation and particularly to the political arguments for and against it. Which city, state or area of the country was getting federal money and how much always received front page coverage. Then, as now, editors were aware that "John Q. Citizen" is always interested in things which affect his or her bank account.

During this same time, Europe was in turmoil. Germany and Italy, led by Hitler and Mussolini, were becoming political bullies. As they built up their military, other countries responded with outcries and diplomatic pressure. The ongoing debate over this issue and the American response, plus all associated stories, were often on the front page and peppered throughout the rest of the paper.

But in all three newspapers, the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was accused of kidnapping the baby of aviator and American hero Charles Lindbergh, grabbed big front page headlines and often dominated the first three or four pages during the period when Machen was on trial. With its drama and national attention, the questions and answers of attorneys and witnesses were often printed in their entirety. Multiple side-bar stories, offering readers every possible angle on the story, usually accompanied each lead story. This news story was all the more significant to these three cities because the event happened in New Jersey, very close to all three newspapers.

Having described the stories physically and placed them in their historical context, this thesis will now analyze the information presented in the newspapers in two ways. First, an analysis will be made of how the newspapers identified Machen and the members of the New Brunswick Presbytery's special commission to see if there was any difference in how the press perceived their ideological stances. Second, an analysis will be made of how the reporters defined the issues involved in the case and whether the reporters' efforts provide a balanced and impartial approach.

Because this thesis is dealing with the sometimes veiled editorial stance and hidden biases of reporters and editors, I have chosen to analyze the "labels" these three newspapers gave to Machen and the other principle characters connected with the trial. Clear identification of primary persons involved is basic to any news story. This identification can take the form of connecting the person or persons with their title or office, or by labeling his or her position to the issue at hand. In both cases, subtle or not-so-subtle connections can be made by the terms used.

In The Baltimore Sun, Machen was directly identified 16 times in six stories. Consistently his name was prefaced with "Rev. Dr." or with just "Dr." alone. In many cases, the terms "cleric," "minister" or "clergyman" were used to clarify his vocation in the church. But during the trial, two significant secondary identifications were made which had negative associations. On February 15 he was described as a "former member of the faculty at Princeton Theological Seminary" ("Challenges Halt," 1935). Then again on March 20, he was identified as a "former Princeton Seminary professor" ("Church Court Studies," 1935). In both of these cases, and in all the other stories in The Baltimore Sun, nothing of a positive nature was said of his current position as founder and president of Westminster Seminary or of his significant achievements as an author and theologian.

The Philadelphia Inquirer also consistently used the title "Dr." and four times added "Philadelphia clergyman" to bring in the local angle. But whereas The Baltimore Sun connected him with Princeton, the Inquirer was more sensitive to identify him with Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. On March 8 they called him "president" of Westminster. On March 9 they identified him as "professor of New Testament" at the school ("Machen Assails," 1935), and on March 30, he was called a "student of Biblical interpretation and an officer of Westminster" ("Dr. Machen Guilty," 1935).

The other major label given to Machen by the Inquirer was the five times they connected him with the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. Once he was called the "organizer" ("Presbytery Votes," 1934), once the "president" ("Church Court Bars," 1935), twice the papers called the board "his" ("Machen Trial Bars," 1935; "Church Court Bars," 1935), and on February 14 they said he formed it "with the assistance of his followers" ("Dr. Machen Faces," 1935).

The New York Times also properly included Machen's academic titles of "Dr." and "Rev." when appropriate in its stories. Only once did it make a reference to Machen as a "former" Princeton professor ("Machen Convicted," 1935), while three times it connected him with Westminster--twice as professor of New Testament ("Machen Demands," 1934; "Dr. Machen Scores," 1935) and once as its founder ("Board Challenged," 1935).

More often though, the Times identified Machen with the Independent Board. Four times they call him the "president" ("Presbytery To Try," 1934; "Machen Demands," 1934; "Dr. Machen Scores," 1935; "Machen Convicted," 1935). Twice they call him the "head" of the missions board in the headlines ("Presbytery To Try," 1934; "Board Challenged," 1935) and once in the body of the story ("Dr. Machen Charges," 1935). The only other two connections with it said it was "his independent Presbyterian Missions Board" ("Dr. Machen Scores," 1935) and identified him as the one who organized it ("Machen Convicted," 1935).

The title that all three newspapers used which most clearly reveals how the papers misperceived Machen's ideological stance was "fundamentalist." This term had initially been used to describe those who held firm to the basic fundamentals of the Christian faith. These fundamentals were detailed in a series of booklets published some 20 years earlier by many of the leading evangelicals of the day. But the term soon became synonomous with a popular movement whose leadership often lacked a formal education in theology and doctrine. Their oversimplistic responses to complex issues often were more damaging than helpful to the cause of the church. Machen's academic prowess and insight certainly separated him from the fundamentalist camp, but the newspapers ignored this important destinction.

In The Baltimore Sun, the story describing the opening day of court called Machen a "fundamentalist leader in the Presbyterian Church" ("Challenges Halt," 1935). This single identification carries more weight considering that only two of The Sun's six stories were longer than three paragraphs.

This same connection to fundamentalism is made in two Inquirer stories. In the February 14 story, covering the trial's opening day, he was called "the Philadelphia Fundamentalist" ("Dr. Machen Faces," 1935). In the March 30 story, when the sentence was passed by the special judicial committee, it said he "calls himself a 'Fundamentalist'" ("Dr. Machen Guilty," 1935). This was said in spite of the fact, as was presented earlier (see above, p. 28), that he had taken particular pains throughout his career to disassociate himself with the term.

An analysis of the New York Times revealed that it used the term "fundamentalist" most consistently. In fact, all six stories which covered the trial proceedings directly identified Machen as a "fundamentalist leader." Two times the paper said he was a fundamentalist leader in the Presbyterian Church ("Board Challenged," 1935; "Machen 'Jury' Bars," 1935). Once it said he was the fundamentalist leader "who heads the Independent Board for Presbyterian Mission" ("Dr. Machen Charges," 1935). Three times the term "fundamentalist leader" was simply set apart as a qualifier after his name ("Machen Declines," 1935; "Decision Reserved," 1935; "Machen Convicted," 1935).

Overall, the use of this title seems egregious considering the many other positive achievements Machen had made and by which he could have been identified. Though Machen had never completely dismissed the "fundamentalist" title, he had clearly clarified his position as Calvinist and Reformed in his writings and during the trial. The press, it seems, never made this distinction.

The problem, though, is not as evident in each individual, isolated story. What makes these direct connections to "fundamentalism" so significant is that in all these articles there was not one instance where the newspapers identified Machen's opponents as "modernist" or "liberal." They were simply given the most simple and appropriate professional titles such as "Rev.," "Rev. Dr.," "elder," "moderator," "clergyman," or, as a unit, the "special judicial commission." The only time the men who sat on the commission were described as "modernists" were when the press quoted Machen or his lawyer directly or in summarizing Machen's efforts in the courtroom to identify the partisan makeup of the commission members.

Granted, Machen was the one on trial, but as Dieffenbach said, "according to the very letter of the Church's belief, (Machen) is the faithful one, and his accusers the ones who should be on trial" ("The Amazing Trial," 1935). In light of this, and if only for the sake of balanced reporting, would it not be appropriate to identify the "camp" his opposition occupied? Overall, though Machen raised the issue of conflicting interest quite clearly, the press seemed to ignore it and dismiss it just as summarily as did the court.

Labeling Machen a "fundamentalist" shows how the press missed the foundational issues and focused on lesser things. Rather than seeing the central issue as one between two opposing perspectives (fundamentalism vs. modernism), the press reported it as a conflict between personalities (fundamentalists vs. modernists). This made it look like a conflict between personal opinions rather than a conflict of doctrine which went beyond individuals.

The coverage given the Scopes Trial in 1925 shows this kind of deceptive reporting. Judicially, the Scopes Trial was a cut and dried matter. Historically, it could have very easily been an insignificant and forgotten case. But the press practically ignored the issue by focusing on Bryan and Darrow, two well-known figures of the time. As the press played up their courtroom battles, the trial's real issue was lost and the verbal contests became a media event that was unparalleled in that period of history.

This focusing on personalities rather than on issues was evidenced in Machen's trial. Instead of dealing with the movements, the press focused on the more tangible struggle of Machen against the Presbyterian political "machine." That was a legitimate part of the story. But Machen was a news-getter and the "fundamentalist" label only created greater controversy in the public's understanding.

Further analysis revealed that the newspapers did more than use the term "fundamentalist." The Inquirer and the Times identified Machen as having "followers" ("Dr. Machen Faces," 1935; "Machen 'Jury' Bars," 1935). This gave the impression that he had his own sect, or cult following. Though not true, the terminology strongly implied that Machen's theological orientation and objectives (and therefore that of the fundamentalists) were not within the mainstream, and so are to be regarded as a splinter sect.

Machen's leadership role was confused further as reporters at Machen's trial often concluded that Machen was on trial for refusing to disband "his" independent mission board, even though it was not his to disband. As has been stated, Machen was an eloquent spokesman for the cause, but the existence of the board did not depend on him. There were 15 others just as singlemindedly committed to the same cause who were disciplined for their involvement. They all worked as fellow adherents to the higher cause of Jesus Christ, not to the thoughts or ideas of Machen.

With Machen the focus of attention in the trial, maybe the press did not realize how different the special commission's theological stance was to his. Considering Machen's press release before the trial, which specifically outlined how the judicial commission was partisan, it seems unlikely that the press was ignorant of the situation. In these protests, Machen clearly presented the fact that the members of the commission were all theologically opposed to him and concluded, "this interlocking relationship between prosecutors and court may be convenient, but it will hardly create a great impression of impartiality" ("Dr. Machen Scores," 1935).

Further, these charges by Machen were officially introduced into the record during the trial proceedings a few weeks later. This time, they were reported in The Baltimore Sun ("Challenges Halt," 1935) and the New York Times ("Board Challenged," 1935). Yet, after recording the evidence, the newspapers continued to label Machen as a fundamentalist while those who maintained the opposite position were not labeled.


Throughout the trial, the distinctions between Machen's position and that of his opponents were hardly recognized. With the presuppositions of these two positions being diametrically opposed, the differences should have been obvious. Why then, was the press so nonchalant--almost apathetic--to the clearcut conflict between the two parties? And considering such a dichotomy, is it not also obvious that Machen's pretrial pronouncements, declaring the special commission would find him guilty, simply a recognition of the intolerance of those who sat in judgment (see "Dr. Machen Scores," 1935)?

The historical analysis showed how far the Presbyterian Church, the press, and the nation as a whole, had drifted away from biblical truths and had accepted a view of life rooted in humanistic naturalism. Machen, therefore, with his biblical worldview, was going up against the mainstream of his day. With this basic misunderstanding between him and his opponents, the conflict was natural.

According to Casper Yost, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and author of The Principles of Journalism, the role of the press is twofold: First, to accurately report events in an orderly manner, clearly identifying the main people involved, and second, to bring any and all available facts to light which bear on the issue involved (1924, pp. 61-63). By so doing, the news reporting allows the truth to surface.

In this case, the press may be excused somewhat for their presuppositional blindness to the root issue involved. But their partisan presentation, though decidedly "low-key" in its anti-biblical bias, was actually most damaging because it was done under the cloak of neutrality.

In Tennessee, Bryan faced the press's open and vehement attack on the soundness of his profession of faith, but in the reporting of Machen's court case, the press tactics were more like guerilla warfare. While championing itself as the faithful and independent observer, the press actually masked its own humanistic approach to the news and hid its biases within the reporting. This analysis clearly showed how in primary and secondary identifications Machen was framed in a narrow, sectarian role rather than in his proper place within the broad historical traditions of the church. As has been pointed out, labels such as "fundamentalist" may have been acceptable if only those who opposed him had been identified with the "liberal" equivalent.

Such "name-calling" basically trivialized the event, when in reality, the trial offered much historical significance. Other than recording the daily trial proceedings and presenting both sides evenly, there were other issues for the press to investigate. As Roark stated in his doctoral thesis on Machen, several legal issues were involved which were never pursued:

First, did the General Assembly Commission have the right to pronounce against the board and Machen without a trial? Did not the very pronouncement before a trial render them guilty before a hearing? Secondly, did the General Assembly Commission have a right to pronounce against the board because it was not within the Church? Thirdly, did the General Assembly Commission have the right to direct the sessions of Presbyterian congregations in what way they were to spend their monies? Fourthly, did the Presbytery of New Brunswick have the right to try Machen? Fifthly, was the mandate any more than an administrative action that neither presbyteries nor individuals were compelled to obey?

These questions have never been conclusively answered to the satisfaction of the sides involved. The "denomination men" declared that the issue was not doctrinal but administrative and involved the peace of the Church. Machen and his followers maintained that doctrine was the very heart of the issue. (1963, pp. 129-130)

It was in this squabble over whether the issue was a doctrinal or administrative matter that the newspapers missed the essence of the story. In and out of court, Machen offered the reporters truthful evidence of the weaknesses in his opponents' position. But for whatever reason, the newspaper reporters were content to record something of these arguments while they did little to follow up on these obvious injustices. Their so-called neutrality never questioned the court officials' consistent ruling against Machen when there was ample evidence to suggest it was Machen who was right and not his opponents.

Yet this is what Yost said is the duty and responsibility of the press--search out the truth in such cases, even if it is obscure:

The newsgatherer is not trying a case, but he is seeking the facts that are necessary to the presentation of the news, and he is confronted with the same obstacle with which the court must deal. . . . the newspaper has no magic wand to reveal the truth, but when it is veiled or concealed must make the best of the information obtainable and seek laboriously for more facts whenever the importance of the event warrants. (1924, p. 65)

This is what the press failed to do. Whether this is because of arrogance, ignorance or apathy (or a combination of the three) is hard to determine, but the evidence clearly showed that the press was happy to report less than the bare minimum and determined this case was not important enough to warrant any extra effort in seeking elsewhere for veiled facts.

Yet, in fairness, the press did not come out blatantly against Machen. There was no direct attack as happened with Bryan a decade earlier. Nor were the obvious facts of the case manhandled to deliberately distort the issue. But this evidence strongly points out that the reporters ignored the ample opportunity to go outside the courtroom and verify the arguments of the prosecution and the rulings of the judicial committee. Unfortunately the result was the same--by not pursuing obvious leads, the real issues were not exposed and readers therefore were given a less-than-true perspective.

The everyday events during the trial were dutifully recorded by the reporters in the inverted pyramid style relating the basic facts in the "who, what, where, when, and how" fashion. But missing from all this was any effort to answer the "why" of the issue in a comprehensive manner. This was the very heart of the matter. In missing the "why," the press missed the real battle.
On the surface, the trial appeared to simply be an issue of Machen's obedience or disobedience to the General Assembly's order, but there was a deeper conflict. The New Brunswick Presbytery's special commission said the final authority was the order from the General Assembly. Machen's defense sought to appeal to the higher authority of the denomination's constitution and the Bible. His accusers claimed it was just an administrative problem of Machen submitting to Church authority (i.e., Church officials). Machen agreed that he should submit to the Church, but only as its authority conformed to and was derived from the Scriptures.

The newspaper reports never seemed to be concerned about whether Machen or his adversaries were correct in their positions--and therefore never sought the underlying truth of the case. When the court ruled Machen's doctrinal arguments inadmissible, the press accepted that ruling at face value. Is this neutral reporting or ambivalance, or worse, deliberate distortion? Any studied investigation of the doctrinal issues will show Machen stood on far firmer ground. But the press rarely reported more than the "bare bones" of the event.

The issue here seems to be whether the press came into the trial impartial to the claims of both parties or did it accept the position of one over the other? These three newspapers consistently accepted the court's rulings without question. But there were others within and without the denomination--and journalism--who felt the case to be highly controversial.
Dieffenbach, the noted modernist Unitarian newspaper editor of the Boston Evening Transcript, wrote of Machen's situation: "It was a dramatic situation, extraordinary for its utter reversal of the usual situation in a judical doctrinal conflict. It amounts virtually to this: One man is declaring that, in administrative effect, his whole Church has become heretical" (1935, p. 4). And later in the same article, "All the opposition against him has come from those who are on the modernist side. There is no question it is a battle of beliefs" (p. 4).

Even the atheist Mencken, who often wrote caustically against those who held the Christian faith, actually defended Machen's stance. After a cogent analysis of Machen's argument, he completely sided with him, saying: "The body of doctrine known as Modernism is completely incompatible, not only with anything rationally describable as Christianity, but also with anything deserving to pass as religion in general" (Mencken, 1937, p. 15). Furthermore, he said, the efforts of modernists to square their positon with the faith in the Bible "is a vain enterprise" (1937). Mencken concluded by saying that though Machen tried to persuade his fellow Presbyterians throughout his career, "he failed--but he was undoubtedly right" (1937).

Within the Presbyterian denomination itself there were modernists who seriously questioned the trial and its outcome. In a New York Times article following Machen's conviction, Dr. Daniel Russell, moderator of the notoriously modernist Presbytery of New York, which Fosdick had been a part of, said of the trial:

The whole proceeding raises grave questions for the Presbyterian Church. . . . Was Dr. Machen's trial a fair one? Ecclesiastical lawyers may maintain that no question of doctrine is involved. In the more adequate view there are doctrinal differences which run into the heart of the entire problem. These the accused was not permitted to discuss in his defense. (1935, Sect. 2, p. 1)

If these men and many others questioned the trial's findings, why did the press not hold the special judicial committee accountable in the court of public scrutiny? The humanistic pragmatism that had come to dominate the field of journalism then was philosophically sympathetic with the modernist churchmen on the special judicial committee. This would naturally lead them to conclude with the court's rulings and not see the need to seek further answers.

This is not to claim there was any conspiracy, but rather a common ground of understanding between the committee members and the press. Both denied biblical absolutes and God's supernatural intervention in history. From this would follow the denial of any absolute authority outside of man. They might agree to the idea of a "god" existing, but not the God of the Bible.

The humanistic perspective looks to the authority structures of man--in this case, the General Assembly and its appointed lesser courts. Authority then comes from these designated men. With this perspective, the special judicial committee and the press would have truly believed that such a ruling became the "final word," rendering meaningless Machen's steadfast appeal to the higher authority of Scripture and the denomination's constitution. Though Machen was fully correct in his demand for doctrinal discussion on the matter, his protestations were only perceived as further evidence of his "unrepentant disobedience."

From the historical analysis, it should be apparent that Machen's struggle was not just against the modernists in the Presbyterian Church. In standing up for orthodox Christianity, he stood up against all who disagree with this position. It was the age-old battle between historic Christianity and the effort to synthesize it with humanism. Machen held to a God-centered world and life view and those who held a man-centered evaluation of life and history stood opposed to him.

Everything Machen stood for was antithetical to the modernists within his own denomination and plainly against anyone who did not claim to be a Christian. Both the modernists within the Presbyterian Church, and the secular humanist reporters who covered the court case, were opposed to Machen in that they philosophically disagreed with everything that made historic Christianity distinctive. During his trial, Machen confronted modernist accusers in the courtroom and their unspoken allies in the press, who by their blind indifference and ignorance misunderstood the root of the conflict.

This analysis does not pretend to be exhaustive. The three newspapers I selected were chosen primarily for their proximity to the trial and proclivity to report on it. Despite their obvious differences of location and audience, there does seem to be great similarities as to the unstated editorial stance they took toward Machen's trial.

Other Philadelphia newspapers may have added other valuable information to this analysis. The Inquirer was initially chosen at random, but further research indicated that two other Philadelphia newspapers, the Public Ledger and The Bulletin, may have offered more coverage of the event. The differences in the coverage by the other Philadelphia newspapers would throw more light on how Machen was perceived in that city. Using one of these two newspapers instead of the Inquirer may have offered further insight on the press's handling of Machen's case.

Along with newspapers, magazine coverage, both in the secular and religious press, was only touched on in a few quotes though many of the denominational magazines closely reported on this case, commenting heavily on the significance of the outcome.


Board challenged by Machen trial. (1935, February). New York Times, p. 14.
Challenges halt Dr. Machen's trial. (1935, February). The Baltimore Sun, p. 13.
Church court bars Dr. Machen defense. (1935, March). Philadelphia Inquirer, p. 3.
Church court studies Machen case evidence. (1935, March). The Baltimore Sun, p. 9.
Church rebellion laid to Dr. Machen. (1935, March). Philadelphia Inquirer, p. 4.
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Decision reserved in Machen case. (1935, March). New York Times, p. 23.
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Dr. Machen agrees to attend his trial. (1935, February). New York Times, p. 16.
Dr. Machen charges his trial "unfair." (1935, March). New York Times, p. 16.
Dr. Machen faces church trial today. (1935, February). Philadelphia Inquirer, p. 3.
Dr. Machen guilty, to appeal verdict. (1935, March). Philadelphia Inquirer, p. 3.
Dr. Machen scores closed door trial. (1935, February). New York Times, p. 10.
Dr. Machen's trial will start today. (1935, February). New York Times, p. 8.
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Machen assails trial. (1935, March). Philadelphia Inquirer, p. 4.
Machen convicted of defying church. (1935, March). New York Times, p. 12.
Machen declines to offer defense. (1935, March). NewYork Times, p. 15.
Machen demands a "trial in open." (1934, December). New York Times, p. 7.
Machen "jury" bars doctrinal issues. (1935, February). New York Times, p. 14.
Machen trial bars doctrinal issues. (1935, February). Philadelphia Inquirer, p. 5.
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