Appearing in the Baltimore Evening Sun on January 18, 1937 was an obituary for J Gresham Machen written by cultural critic and essayist HL Mencken. It’s an interesting tribute from an unlikely source. Machen’s life was a heroic struggle against the influence of Modernism within the mainline Presbyterian church, and a tireless attempt to contend against fake Christianity that revised and rejected the Bible. For his part, Mencken wasn’t a Christian and believed that the doctrine Machen espoused was a horror little removed from cannibalism. Yet, Mencken highly praised Machen as more clear, cogent, and consistent than his adversaries. The closing words of the epitaph simply read: “He failed — but he was undoubtedly right.”
In one sense, that assessment is understandable. If we measure success in human terms then Machen did appear to fail. His compelling and intellectual defense of the orthodox faith — summarized so well in his book Christianity and Liberalism — didn’t persuade most of his contemporaries. The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and Princeton Seminary theologically collapsed forfeiting biblical Christianity, and America’s other mainline denominations followed a similar course.
The inability to stem the tide is still felt today. One hundred years after first being published, World Magazine named Christianity and Liberalism as their 2023 book of the year. Why? They explained: “If you want to explore the background of the moral collapse in churches today over same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ issues, this book is a good place to start. That collapse follows logically from the more important and foundational fight of 100 years ago.”
Of course, Machen’s “failure” may only be a matter of appearances, and perhaps Mencken wasn’t quite correct in his analysis. That’s because Christianity has never gauged success as the world gauges success — by sight and not by faith. If someone had penned an obituary for Jesus the day after his death, it might have very well concluded with the same words: “He failed.” But such a memorial would betray an ignorance of the God of resurrection. Often what appears to be failure and defeat is, in fact, success and victory.
What was Machen’s success? With clarity and consistency he drew a line in the sand. He sharpened the creedal edge that had long been blunted by compromise. You either stand on the side of biblical Christianity or you don’t. Even though only a few stood on the right side, it was a division with a tremendous effect. For nearly five generations now, it has given some the confidence to stand on the claims of God’s Word. For others, it has exposed the mirage of a substanceless Christianity and the hypocrisy of those who are more interested in modern sensibilities than holding fast the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. In this, we hear the echo of the Apostle’s words: “I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Corinthians 11:18-20).
At any rate, it doesn’t seem one can say — by a biblical measurement — that Machen failed. The failure lies with those who refuse to hear and heed the clarion call of the gospel of Jesus Christ, of which J Gresham Machen was a humble servant and steward.