While H.L. Mencken spent his life and built his career in his native town of Baltimore, J. Gresham Machen spent his adult life in Princeton, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Despite having left the South, Machen never lost his Southern connections.
John Gresham Machen was born on July 28, 1881, less than a year after Mencken’s birth. Baltimore, the home city of both men, not only attracted German immigrants like the Mencken family, but also became a magnet for many displaced Southern families after the Civil War. Baltimore was in the unique position of being a Southern coastal city in a state that did not secede. With the destruction of Southern commerce and society, Baltimore offered new opportunities for the now uprooted and displaced Southern aristocracy.
In spite of his Germanic sounding last name, Machen’s heritage was English on both his father’s side (the Machen family) and his mother’s side (the Gresham family). Machen was born into a world that was a mixture of the Southern gentry culture, Presbyterian piety, and classical learning. His father was a lawyer by profession but had also written and published fiction and reviews before entering his law practice. He was also an avid collector of classical works of literature. Machen’s mother authored a book titled The Bible in Browning, which dealt with Robert Browning’s poetry, that was published by Macmillan in 1903. The Machen family was connected with literary, political, and theological figures of their time. Their circle of friends included such people as Sidney Lanier, the Southern poet, theology professor James Woodrow, and his well-known nephew Woodrow Wilson, who became a U.S. President.
Machen attended the University School for Boys in Baltimore, which was said to be “the largest and most fully equipped private day-school for boys in the South.” Here he was fully immersed in Latin and Greek classical studies. Machen was an outstanding student who earned high marks in geometry, algebra, Latin, Greek, natural science, English, and French. Machen’s studies continued when he entered Johns Hopkins University. It was there that he studied under Basil Laneau Gildersleeve, who was one of the leading classicists in America at that time.
Because of his Presbyterian heritage and interest in theology, Machen entered Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. Since Germany was at its height as a center of theological research, Machen spent a year there furthering his education. After a series of internal struggles regarding his own beliefs, Machen returned to Princeton where he accepted a position as a teacher of New Testament studies and Greek.
The lives of Mencken and Machen would seem to have only a few common threads. Both were born in Baltimore during the same period, and both entered careers involving study, writing, and communicating ideas. However, Mencken’s work put him into the controversies, pressures, and perils of journalism, while Machen entered the life of serious academic study, poring over Greek texts and unraveling theological treatises. Machen maintained the charm and manners of a Southern gentleman, while Mencken’s immigrant heritage and business experiences gave him a grittier approach to life and society.
To make matters worse, American culture was being tossed and turned by a series of theological controversies. The doctrines at stake became known as the Fundamentals and the term Fundamentalist, which was coined in that era, is still used today for people who hold to the historical Christian doctrines. These issues were not mere internal church squabbles or disputes merely among theologians. Whole denominations were at war, and that included many prestigious educational institutions, such as Princeton Theological Seminary. Prominent businessmen on both sides of the issues promoted either the Fundamentalist teachings or what were known as theological Liberals.
The issues related to science, morals, and education. Prominent figures such as Nobel-Prize-winning writer Pearl S. Buck entered the fray; in her case, it was as an advocate of the liberal theology. The best known battle in this war was fought in Dayton, Tennessee, at the Scopes Trial, also known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, where the issue at stake was the teaching of evolution. The Tennessee legislature had passed a law forbidding that teaching in the classroom.
It was here that the most prominent defense attorney and atheist Clarence Darrow came to defend the coach and part-time biology teacher John Scopes. On the other side, supporting the views of many Christians and prosecuting on behalf of the State of Tennessee, was William Jennings Bryan. Three times Bryan had run for the Presidency as the Democratic candidate and lost. But as a lecturer, a hero to the common man (Bryan himself was called “the Great Commoner”), and as a prominent lay Christian, Bryan had opposed Darwinism. Although earlier in life he had read and embraced Darwin’s teaching, he came to have great concerns about the social and moral implications of the doctrines.
The Scopes Trial was the media sensation of its day. Journalists from all over the world converged during the hot summer of 1925 on Dayton. The most prominent of them all, and the most vocal in his support of Darwin’s theories and opposition to Christian belief was H.L. Mencken. Missing from the trial was the most prominent Bible-believing scholar of his day, J. Gresham Machen. Not only did Machen stay away from the trial, he said very little about it. In later years when supporters of Bryan and his views started a college in Tennessee named William Jennings Bryan College, they asked Machen to accept the role as president, but he turned them down. Students of the historical and theological battles still enjoy speculating on how Machen’s presence and testimony could have altered the perceptions of the trial. (The outcome was obvious from the beginning. Scopes had broken the law, and his defense attorneys never argued otherwise. Their desire was to publicize the science and educational debate and take the issues to higher courts.)
Machen’s fight was on another front. He wrote a scholarly book called The Origin of Paul’s Religion that defended Pauline theology against its critics. His more successful and influential book was Christianity and Liberalism. Here Machen argued that his theological opponents had constructed a religion on theologically liberal premises that were polar opposites to historic Christian beliefs. Historic Christianity and the theological beliefs of the liberals were not different shades of the same beliefs but were radically different religions, according to Machen. In his book, he defended such doctrines as the authority of the Bible, miracles, and the Deity of Jesus Christ. His writings, teachings, and preaching were embroiling him in a number of controversies within the Presbyterian Church of the United States (PCUS). The matters of debate at the Scopes Trial were not his focus.
Both Mencken and Machen were prominent leaders in their fields. Both were on the front lines of a cultural war in the country. At that time, Machen’s church battles and controversies in the seminary led to a trial in the Presbyterian Church that was covered by all the major newspapers. Machen’s loss of the court battle and other controversies led him to leave the northern Presbyterian Church and Princeton Seminary and to start a new denomination and seminary. It was Machen’s “no compromise” positions that led to his unresolved controversies over theology.
Both Machen and Mencken attacked religious views in their times. Machen would not have approved of Mencken’s atheism, but his battles were never against atheism. In terms of his arguments, Mencken’s attacks on Christianity did not come within the range of Machen’s battles. From looking at many available sources, Machen never took aim at Mencken. On the other hand, Mencken did occasionally take notice of Machen and his battles. While he had no sympathy or agreement with Machen, Mencken did acknowledge the uniqueness and logical consistency of this one theologian.
Mencken had lashed out against Christian beliefs and Christians in general on many occasions in his writings. In his contribution to a symposium on divorce, Mencken had referred to traditional arrangements between men and women as being guided by “ancient imbecilities.” He went on to say, “The first thing necessary, then, is to get rid of the theologians. Let them be turned out politely but firmly; let us pay no further heed to their archaic nonsense.” Machen, the theologian, would obviously have disagreed.
As it happens, however, these two Baltimore native sons did have a few points of contact in their views of issues. Both opposed Prohibition. Although many Christians held to Temperance views and supported Prohibition, Machen opposed it primarily because of his opposition to government interference on such issues; nor did he think the Presbyterian Church should enter into the political realm. He himself rarely drank anything alcoholic other than the occasional glass of eggnog at Christmas.
Also both opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Both have been described politically as Libertarians, but they were actually more grounded in the older Democrat tradition of Grover Cleveland. Neither believed in extensive government involvement in economic and social matters. On those topics, both could have enjoyed a good conversation and cigars. Machen was known among the seminary students for his parties for the seminarians featuring free food and cigars.
Both men were first rate scholars. Mencken is still noted as a literary critic and his command of language is unsurpassed. He also wrote a book called The American Language which is still regarded as a master work on English as spoken in the United States. Machen’s language of study was Koine Greek, which is the form of Greek used in the New Testament. His work, titled New Testament Greek for Beginners, remains in print and is still a highly regarded text for teaching Greek.
There wasn’t much chance of Mencken and Machen getting together in either a church or a bar. Who knows whether they would have enjoyed camaraderie over politics and literature, or whether they would have clashed over religion? Since they never sat down together, one can only speculate how they might have viewed one another in person.
When Machen died in 1937, Mencken wrote a column about him that was filled with praise. Certainly people often go out of their way to speak respectfully and kindly of the dead. Mencken was not the sort of man to follow social niceties. In this case, he genuinely tipped his hat and honored a man whose views he opposed, but whose character and intellectual honesty he respected.