Knowing the historical background and significance of the formation of Westminster Theological Seminary is important not only for those who still adhere to orthodox Protestantism, but also for those who want to receive direction in current political debate. Of course, the "liberal" has their own version of the story, and to hear their side would give us the total picture. However, in this article the goal is to simply present information derived from the orthodox camp, and I want to start with D. G. Hart's "J. Gresham Machen: The Politically Incorrect Fundamentalist." Depending on my availability, I want to follow this up by supplementing information from Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics' "Testimony Before the House and Senate Committees on the Proposed Department of Education (1926)," and Cornelius Van Til's "The Story of Westminster Theological Seminary."
The first article considers understanding the refusal of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of USA to nominate Gresham Machen "in 1926 to be Princeton Seminary's professor of apologetics" critical to the elevation of "a debatable political issue" during his time, to the "reorganization of Princeton in 1929 that eroded conservative control of the seminary," and to the foundation of Westminster Theological Seminary.
It is interesting that only Machen suffered the rejection of the General Assemply. Prior to him, the history of the seminary shows no record of such type of rejection. According to D. G. Hart, the primary reason for the failure of Machen's nomination was his political position opposing the endorsement of "the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act." His position was contrary to the position not only of the majority in the General Assembly, but also of the majority of Protestants during his time. Reading D. G. Hart's article, I understand that both the Amendment and the Act are related to "an effort to retain the Protestant character of America in an era that saw the unprecedented surge of non-Protestant immigration in America." Specifically, Machen "opposed the Eighteenth amendment because it consolidated too much power at the federal level."
Machen's political position was informed by his theological conviction. Theologically, Machen was intolerant and a vocal enemy of theological liberalism. Politically, Machen can be considered a "conservative" for "he was a strong advocate of civil liberties and religious pluralism." He "favored the sovereignty of local government," considered "federal legislation" as "unwise" "and was actually causing moral harm." He "also opposed prayer and Bible reading in public schools, child labor laws, and the creation of a federal department of education." For him, "these policies" "infringed upon the religious liberties of non-Protestants and increased the size and power of the federal government." He arrived at this conclusions due to his ideas about the "distinction between public and private institutions," and about the nature of the state as "an involuntary organization" and the church as "a voluntary organization."
The state's "duty was to protect the freedom of individuals, families, and other private associations." As an involuntary organization and as a representative of "the interests of all citizens," the state was not allowed to prescribe any single opinion for it would be considered "an interference with civil liberty." The case is different when it comes to the church. Since it is a voluntary organization, "the principle of religious liberty was not violated by requiring ministers and church officials to hold definite theological views." By maintaining both of these poles, Machen "resolved the tension of supporting intolerance in the church and tolerance in public matters" for he believed that theological intolerance was consistent with civil liberty. Contrary to Machen's position, the Presbyterian Church of USA was theologically tolerant, but politically intolerant. Machen paid the price for his political position.
For D. G. Hart, both the "progressive" and the "conservative" intellectuals of today can learn something from Gresham Machen's position. His conlusion is insightful:
"Those who are dedicated to academic freedom and toleration of all views, or who teach at institutions where the public ideal prevails, must welcome all viewpoints, even offensive ones. In contrast, those, who advocate a particular ideology and believe higher education should inculcate that ideology, should endeavor to found private, ideologically driven institutions."