It’s Not 1936

An Appeal to Orthodox Presbyterians and their Friends

I pastor one of the original congregations of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. It is located in the rural hamlet of Hamill, South Dakota, which once boasted a couple of hundred souls but has dwindled to about a dozen, though the congregation itself remains larger than the town. This congregation has paid in blood, sweat, and tears for its faithfulness. When it opted to leave the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. in the separation of 1936, it was rewarded by having its building seized from it by the mainline denomination. With no congregation left to fill it, the PCUSA let the building sit empty for a time before moving it to a neighboring community, where it remains in use to this day as a monument to mainline apostasy and petulance. Undeterred, the Hamill congregation met for a time in a hayloft in a barn, then later a converted bank building, before acquiring its current property in the late 1950s. The congregation has suffered other heartaches and losses for, among other things, faithfully practicing church discipline in a rural western community. Here in a forgotten part of the Dakotas, where so much has changed and left and been lost, the church of Jesus Christ is still here, the Reformation is ongoing. I am often reminded of this legacy of faith when I go through a drawer or bookshelf at the church and find old bulletins and other documents full of first names I don’t recognize and last names I do—the parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents of the current congregants who have gone before.

J. Gresham Machen was visiting churches in the Dakotas when he succumbed to pneumonia on New Year’s Day, 1937. The OPC (then known as the PCA prior to a trademark dispute with the PCUSA, another monument to its petulance) was not even a year old. Machen planted a tree that he never lived to sit under, and for a time the survival of the fledgling denomination was in doubt. And yet, the OPC is still here, not only in the Dakotas but all across the land.

The OPC, more than many other Protestant denominations, has a special relationship with its history. We have a denominational historian, and many articles and books have been written about our relatively small denomination’s past. Our members tend to know and tell our story. And thus the invocations of Machen’s name and the history of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy which led to the creation of the Independent Board, Westminster Seminary, and the OPC carry great power. If you want to get an OPCer’s attention, start talking about Harry Emerson Fosdick or the social gospel or Charles Erdman. Many have sought to frame the doctrinal and ecclesiastical controversies of the present day in the same way Machen framed liberalism—as another religion contrary to Christianity.

One such attempt was recently made on the pages of Ordained Servant, a publication of the OPC for church officers. It is by Richard M. Gamble, professor of history at Hillsdale College and OPC ruling elder. The target of the attempted Machenizing was Stephen Wolfe’s book, The Case for Christian Nationalism.

Gamble’s review (as the Ordained Servant calls it) attempts to draw a parallel between Wolfe’s articulation of Christian Nationalism and the social gospel. I would not actually call it a review because it engages very minimally with Wolfe’s text and arguments. In fact, the only direct citations of Wolfe’s book are taken from the book’s first seven pages. This even as Gamble can scarcely contain his contempt for the work (“Wolfe’s book matters more for the stir it has created than for any weight it carries.”) This is a particularly prejudiced approach, as it ignores the extensive other sources and arguments that Wolfe uses throughout the book that are drawn from orthodox Reformed theologians and history. Gamble says that other reviewers have treated these matters, but he does not specify who or where so that his fellow OPC office-bearers might reference them. One might question how deeply Gamble actually engaged with Wolfe’s book. This is not the question one who is familiar with the “do the reading” critique should want to be raising. Did Gamble actually read and consider Wolfe’s work, or did he mine a few of quotes from guys he didn’t like and go from there? If he wanted to provide a review of Fremantle, Chao, or Renan, that’s his prerogative, but it should not have been presented as a review of something else.

However he got where he did in his article, Gamble got there in the OPC’s lingua franca, drawing parallels to Machen and the social gospel, and likely because of this the article was deemed worthy of the Ordained Servant, even though it is rather thin in substance.

Now, I have heard some on social media intimating that “the OPC” published this article. This is not accurate. No court or congregation of the church exercises direct editorial oversight of Ordained Servant or other OPC publications, this is delegated to editorial staff. And as with any editorial staff, there are slants and biases. It was not lost on me that Ordained Servant in 2022 dedicated an entire issue to paying glowing tribute to Meredith G. Kline, architect of many of the ideas and arguments that gave rise to the modern Two Kingdom theology that Wolfe and others associated with the Christian Nationalist movement frequently critique. One might see this treatment from Ordained Servant and think Kline won the day in the OPC, when in fact many of his ideas and formulations remain quite controversial. The truth is, there is rather broad diversity in the OPC on matters of political and cultural engagement. There are adherents to Klinean 2K, but there are also theonomists (gasp!), Kuyperians (shock!), old Westminster establishmentarians (horror!), and others (mystery!) on the OPC’s rolls (and if you can figure out from reading this article which I am, I’ll send you a nickel if you pay shipping and handling). We even have some (dreaded?) postmillennials, quite a few, in fact. Some of us in the OPC have read Wolfe and, while we may not agree with everything he says, we find his treatment of the tradition and critiques of modern revisionism helpful and incisive. To Gamble and the current editorial staff at the Servant that allowed publication of this piece, I guess we are the baddies because we’re somehow not Machen enough. We are retreaded modernists that are feeding on resentment, and distracted from the gospel, to use Gamble’s own harsh rhetoric.

Look, I love Machen. I loved him even before I came to the OPC. I have and read almost everything the man ever wrote. I went to seminary at a Westminster. My current social media profile picture is me engaged in a presbytery debate, standing behind the last pulpit Machen ever preached from. But folks, it’s not 1936 anymore. For all the good Machen did, and for all the things he gave us, and for all the ideas he had that are still relevant and were so far ahead of their time, the world is not the same. There was no Pride Month in 1936. There were no operatives within public schools seeking to produce more gay and trans children. Pornography was not a multi-billion dollar industry. Much of the country still had blue laws and church attendance was high. If you talked then about religious “nones” people would hear “nuns” and accuse you of popery, which was also much less popular in the U.S. back then. Divorce rates were around 15%. The sexual revolution had not yet come. The country had not allowed the legal slaughter of tens of millions of children. People were not going to federal prison for trying to save babies or getting sued into bankruptcy for the non-endorsement of homosexuality. There had not been World War II, the Holocaust, the Cold War, or communist purges. The long march through the institutions had not yet begun in earnest. The liberals of Machen’s day, for as unbiblical and unorthodox as they were, would seem pretty tame on many college and seminary faculties now, and the moderates of that day would likely be dismissed now as the most hardened of fundamentalists (just like some of the most vociferous critics of “Christian Nationalism” in our churches would quickly be slapped with the CN label if they ever got lost and wandered onto an MSNBC panel). Many think that secular pluralism and appeals to nature are adequate to solve this, that the authorial intent of the Constitution and the consent of the governed will soon arise from their slumber and deliver us from these troubles. We’ve been waiting a while, and it hasn’t happened yet.

Machen did not become Machen by re-litigating the controversies of a century prior while ignoring the plight of the church and world he lived in. He asked hard questions and did hard things. He fought to save the institutions of his day, but the institutions reached a point where they were beyond saving, and when they did Machen knew what time it was and built anew. Machen’s heroism was not in an ability to invoke dubious historical parallelism, but in his ability to stand and fight for the truth when things got hard. He was a man of courage. He is also now in glory and not coming back, and we need courage and leadership in our days if the OPC and its friends are still going to be alive and thriving in 2036 or 2136. If our appreciation for Machen terminates at a quietism that huddles in the ecclesiastical bunker and pretends our enemies don’t exist or grossly misidentifies them while we hear their footsteps outside, perhaps we don’t understand and appreciate Machen well enough. Maybe we need a moratorium on the “Christianity and _________” titles until we figure out what is going on.

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Andrew Smyth

Andrew Smyth is the pastor of Westminster Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hamill, SD. He co-hosts the Once For All Delivered podcast which focuses on Reformed theology and culture.

12 thoughts on “It’s Not 1936

  1. Well written and well said. I am of the firm belief that if Machen were with us in the Church today, many in the Modern OPC would eschew him for being overly conservative. It is well and good to be a prophet who speaks the truth in his time, and the future may thank him for it, but the present never does. Its the “Christian Nationalists” who carry the fighting spirit of Machen forward against the strongest enemies of Christianity, and I’m glad to hear there are some in the OPC who acknowledge their arguments bear at least some value.

  2. The above is a fond look at the good old days from someone who is older than I am. Perhaps I have had the good providence of most of having my growing up occurring in the 1960s. That decade taught me not to blindly regard my good old days on multiple fronts.

    What was consistent in Smyth bringing up Machen was that he neglected to mention two things: Machen’s racism and the systemic racism that occurred in America before, during, and after 1936 from Jim Crow in the South to harsh segregation, including redlining, in the North. Even different ethnic groups of whites warred against each other back then and even into the 1970s. For example, the Irish and the Italians didn’t always get along that well back then. There were other issues I could mention but the point should be well made by now about the value of comparing today’s world with that one’s good old days.

    If we were to write a parable based on the above article with someone like Andrew Smyth and his memories of his past and someone who likes the today’s changes, some of which are somewhat misrepresented by overstatements in the above article, we might end up with a parable called, The Parable Of The Two Pharisees Praying. This parable would include each Pharisee who would favorably boast of their own time for its virtues and condemn the other time period for its shortsightedness. And perhaps such a parable could point out one of the flaws of a Christian Nationalism. That it is based on and supported by a time period of which none of today’s apologists for Christian Nationalism have: personal memories. For it seems that the Reformed Christian Nationalism is based on both how Reformed Christians lived and what they taught in and before the 19th Century. And so I guess that is a different version of how ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder.’

  3. Curt Day evidently read a different article by Andrew Smyth from the one I read above.

    I don’t know how old Andrew Smyth is, nor how old Curt Day is, but I know that I was born in the mid 50s, and lived in the Philadelphia suburbs until I went off to college in the deep South. The point? Curt Day does mention historical facts about the Northeast in the 60s and 70s, which, as far as I can see, have nothing to do with Andrew Smyth’s piece.

    Perhaps yet another example of Reformed people talking right past one another?

    1. LeRoy,
      I am confused by your comment. After all, didn’t Smyth talk about the OPC’s tie to history? Did he not talk about how Gamble referred to Machen to support his negative review of Wolfe? Didn’t Smyth very favorably compare 1936 with now? In fact, didn’t Smyth portray 1936 as an idyllic time that preceded WW II, the Holocaust, and the Cold War as well as not having the problems that we have today? Didn’t he give a glowing review of Machen and how he fought with courage and wisdom when dealing with the problems of his day?

      And so I mentioned that just like today, 1936 had very significant moral problems–I was not just referring to the problems in the 1960s and 1970s, please reread the 2nd paragraph. That Machen was very small part of one of the major problems back then. And so our appreciation for him should be a bit more guarded and selective. While giving Machen the respect due to him, where else was Machen more influenced by his immediate culture more than by the Scriptures?

  4. A longtime admirer of the Reformer for its intellectual rigor, I’ve often found value in such well-reasoned, tightly-written advocacy of views so different from my own.

    Protect it from slipping into unconscious bias! I’m not referring to vivid phrases like there one lamenting the America of Roe v. Wade. If one believes human life begins with conception, abortion would indeed be murder — a logical consequence many of my fellow Democrats don’t even consider.

    But sometimes you slip up, confusing the concept of permission with an affirmative requirement. For example, the freedom to marry a person of one’s own gender does not require you to do so yourself. (I’ve often advised people to simply leave churches that enforce beliefs they don’t share rather than rail against or sue them.)

    And we are not recruiting or ‘grooming’ younger people to identify with a gender other than the one they were born with, but simply advancing their liberty to do so (non-medically, I’d insist).

    I used to feel this should be done only with great discretion, respecting local sensibilities. But then Matthew Shepherd was tortured to death strung up to a barbed wire fence in a God-fearing community, and I became more adamant about the right to be who you are out in public.

    1. Matthew Sheppard wasn’t murdered for being “who he was” in public. He was murdered in a drug deal gone bad. As Ryan says, quit being dishonest.

      1. Gordon,
        Your account is a contested account. But accusing someone of being dishonest is not the same as saying that someone is mistaken. So perhaps both you and Ryan need to step back a bit before leveling accusations.

        1. The way he attempts to rationalize his position based on the Matthew Sheppard story and his reference to “be who you are in public” are both dishonest, even if the facts surrounding the Sheppard narrative are contested. This my comment stands. The entire way the Sheppard narrative was used in the media was manipulative and dishonest.

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