The Presbyterian Controversy: A Review

Bradley Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

This review was published originally in a slightly different form in The Reformed Heraldin 1993. It was written for the Reformed Church in the U.S. which publishes the magazine.



Bradley Longfield, of Duke University, has written an important book about the struggles surrounding the formation of the OPC in the 1920’s-30’s.

Know Yourself

This book is of interest to us for three reasons. First, the OPC is family and we have an interest in the history of our brothers and sisters. Knowing the family history helps us to understand ourselves and to make corrections where necessary. Knowing the sacrifices and faith of earlier generations edifies, reminding us that God uses sinful people for his own glory.

Second, we have, in many respects, a parallel history with the OPC. Both bodies are separatist churches who withdrew from (in the case of the OPC) or stayed out of (in the case of the RCUS) liberal denominations for the sake of the gospel and the reformed faith, at nearly the identical point in this century. That we are self-consciously, militantly reformed and separating bodies has largely determined our actions, methods and confession for more than fifty years. Certainly there is no other denomination with which we have closer ties. (2)

Third, there are a number of striking parallels between the struggles between the Presbyterian Controversy and what is taking place today in the wider reformed community, especially for those in the Christian Reformed Church, where the parallels with the Presbyterian Controversy are acute.(3) This book also speaks to the situation of those conservative UCC congregations who are mulling over their future.

It is not only theologically conservative Christians who find themselves in drifting churches who face a crisis, but those liberal bodies themselves. From 1966 to 1987 the Presbyterian Church (USA) has lost 1.2 million members. In roughly the same period the United Methodist Church suffered similar losses and every evidence suggests that the trend continues. (4)

Longfield tells us why these churches are becoming numerically anemic. In the 1920’s and 30’s American mainline churches deliberately adopted a policy of doctrinal pluralism. That is, the PCUSA, like the UCC after it, decided that it was in the church’s best interest not to require belief in or subscription to only the historic Christian faith as summarized in the reformation creeds and confessions (5). Instead, they believed, in order to remain credible before an increasingly secularized, sophisticated and urbanized population, the church could no longer present what they viewed as a quaint, out dated, message to society. (6) Pluralism meant that biblical, historic, confessional, reformed Christianity became only one option among many, but as it usually is with liberals, the pluralism didn’t last. Eventually, after the influence, first of Classical Higher Criticism, then of Neo-orthodoxy followed finally by the Death of God theology, reformed confessionalism became nearly extinct within these denominations.

The result of the banishment and death of orthodoxy in the mainline denominations has been ruinous. The immediate problem for these denominations is that, as far as most members can tell, the liberal church believes nothing substantially different than the vast majority of the culture. The liberal church simply lags a few years behind in ratifying the latest degenerate behavior of the culture.(7) If the church’s message is an affirming, “I’m okay, you’re okay” message, then why bother to roll out of bed on Sunday?

The Beginning of the End

How did mainline Protestantism decline so? Longfield’s main argument is that at the turn of this century, there were three options available to the mainline churches, Fundamentalist, Moderate and Modernist. The leadership in the Presbyterian Church made a tactical mistake in the 1920’s and 30’s by choosing the modernist option, doctrinal pluralism. For Longfield, of the remaining two options is still viable for the PCUSA and which, if deliberately chosen, might begin to rectify things in the PCUSA and other mainline churches.

Longfield has carefully chosen certain representatives of the various camps. The Fundamentalists are represented by J. Gresham Machen, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Macartney; the Moderates by Charles Eerdman and Robert Speer; and the Modernists by Henry Sloane Coffin. I think these are fair samples of the thought and leaders of the various factions in the PCUSA at the turn of the century.

Obviously, we are most interested in what Longfield has to say about those with whom we most closely identify, especially J. Gresham Machen.

The Modernists

One of the strengths of this book is that Longfield avoids simplistic characterizations. In truth, people rarely are simple neither are their motives. For example, it would be quite easy for us to dismiss a man like Henry Sloane Coffin whose views we so utterly reject, but there is much to be learned from coming to know him a little better. Coffin regarded himself as a “liberal evangelical” redeemed by Jesus Christ. He categorically rejected attempts to reduce Jesus to a mere teacher. (8) Coffin thought of himself as a man who wanted to reach people, particularly the residents of New Yorker City, with the gospel. Coffin was raised on the Westminster Standards, but he came to think of them not so much as living embodiments of God’s truth, but as charming relics of the 17th century. Like Schleiermacher, Coffin thought he was doing a service to Christianity by attempting to restate its truths in contemporary terms. The issue for Coffin was not “what do the Scriptures say?” but rather, “what do you believe and how has it affected you?” In other words, experience is king. (9)

The Moderates

The Moderates whom Longfield highlights were men who had solid evangelical credentials. Robert Speer was deeply influenced by the evangelist Dwight L. Moody (founder of the Moody Bible Institute), (10) associated with the YMCA movement and who was regarded as perhaps the leading missions expert of the day. Charles Eerdman was certainly no flaming liberal. (11) Eerdman became convinced that he could not learn enough about the Bible at Princeton, so he interrupted his studies there to study with his father for a year. Eerdman was also closely associated with Dwight L. Moody, pastoring Moody’s Chicago Ave. Church for three years.

These Moderates were men who personally held the Bible to be the Word of God and the fundamental tenets of the faith to be true. Nevertheless, they believed that it was necessary to cooperate with those with whom they personally disagreed, for the sake of the gospel. They valued the visible advance of the Kingdom over doctrinal differences. This pragmatic approach is most clear in the case of the Foreign Missions Board. Speer disagreed with the increasingly liberal and even blatantly non-Christian views of the Foreign Mission Board. Speer, however, refused to allow the presence of liberals on the board or its leftward drift, deter him from supporting the board. He disagreed with Machen who argued that liberalism on the board constituted grounds for ecclesiastical discipline.

One of the important messages of The Presbyterian Controversy is that although separated by labels, Coffin, Eerdman, Speer and Machen were united by a common desire. What motivated Coffin is what motivated the men whom Longfield describes as Moderates is what motivates many sincere, evangelical Bible believers today: the desire to see the Kingdom of God have an impact on our culture and nation. By impact, I mean concrete observable changes in morals, social policy and legislation. The difference between Machen and the others is that Machen ultimately was unwilling to sacrifice his doctrinal commitments for the sake of a social vision.

The Fundamentalists (12)

Longfield paints an equally engaging picture of the Fundamentalists, Machen, Bryan and Macartney. Bryan is portrayed as a populist, not terribly Presbyterian, evangelical who remained at essence a politician, ready when to make deals for the sake of his social vision.

The heart of the book is Longfield’s portrayal of Machen and Clarence Macartney. In Machen we have the engine of the controversy and arguably the most interesting character of the drama. In Macartney, Longfield sees the neglected solution to the problems of the PCUSA.

Macartney was a Princeton Seminary educated ally of Machen’s for much of the controversy. Raised in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, Macartney later became convinced of the old Princeton theology. Throughout his life, Macartney held on to one aspect of his Covenanter heritage, the vision of a Christian America. Ultimately, it is this vision, which led to his separation with Machen. Unlike Machen, Macartney was unwilling to press the matter of the Independent Board for Foreign Missions. 13) Macartney had been willing to support Machen’s new seminary (Westminster Theological Seminary) but he would not support Machen by joining him in the fledgling Presbyterian Church of America.(14) Macartney believed he could have a greater influence on the PCUSA and Princeton Seminary from within the denomination.

Machen is described as an articulate, cultured, politically and theologically conservative southerner committed to what some have called the “cult of the lost cause.” (15) For Longfield, Machen’s crusade against the Foreign Missions Board and against the reorganization of Princeton Seminary (16) shows that his downfall was his inability to reconcile himself to the pragmatic necessities of the day. For Longfield, it is Machen’s unwavering commitment to the truth of Scripture and principle which forced him to separate from Princeton and the PCUSA to create new institutions.

Clearly, Longfield has felt the force of Machen’s arguments. Repeatedly the author admits that Machen was essentially correct of his analysis of the consequences of compromise with liberalism and the decline of the Presbyterian Church. (17) Longfield’s response to Machen seems to be to say only that Machen was too ruthlessly logical and that Machen failed to understand that his southern upbringing and theological education (and crisis) in Germany equipped him to see the issues in a way that his opponents and some of his friends could not.

Let me deal with the latter argument first. Longfield creates a misleading impression by implying that the Presbyterian Controversy was as much a matter of personalities shaped by circumstances as a conflict of ideas. True, some previous biography has perhaps not fully accounted for Machen’s upbringing, but there is more to the story. It truly was and is a story of competing theologies.

Machen was no more a victim of his philosophical presuppositions, i.e., his unspoken but firm adherence to the Princeton Scottish Common Sense tradition, than were his modernist opponents. It is unquestionable that Machen accepted the Common sense tradition. It was that very intellectual heritage that Cornelius Van Til later called into question as a doorway of liberalism into the church, but the essence of the Common sense tradition is that it is not skeptical. Princeton believed that the Scriptures were clear enough to be understood. This is not a liability for Christians!

So why does Longfield fail to point out the equally obvious debt of the Moderates and Modernists not just to the New School theology of Bushnell and Taylor but to the Kantian presuppositions which lay behind it all? The Modernists believed that man is the measure of all things and there is a ditch fixed between the ancient and modern worlds such that we can never be too insistent on the truth or clarity of such a pre-scientific book as the Bible. Of the two sets of presuppositions, which has had the most disastrous consequences for the PCUSA, Christianity, the Nation and the West?

There are other criticisms to be made of Longfield’s portrayal of Machen. Longfield does not entirely succeed in making his case that Machen is a disciple of the great southern Presbyterian James Henley Thornwell. While it is true that Machen undoubted imbibed deeply of the spirit of the Old South, the identification of Machen with Thornwell ignores the fact that Machen received his formal theological education at a distinctly northern institution, Princeton, where Thornwell was not a dominant influence. (18) Longfield’s association of Machen with Thornwellian theology also overlooks the fact that when Machen had the opportunity to form his own seminary, Thornwell’s theology was not a significant component. Nor does “Machen’s denomination”, the OPC, reflect a great deal of influence of Thornwell.(19)

I could also quibble with Longfield’s characterization of Machen as a “radical civil libertarian” (20) This is somewhat like describing Machen’s love of mountains, as radical environmentalism. In current usage, “civil libertarian” is as misleading as would be “environmentalist.”

In the end, Longfield believes that although Machen was essentially correct, and that time and declining church attendance support Machen’s criticisms, Macartney’s response was the better one. Longfield tries to bolster his case for the Macartney option, that of maintaining an evangelical presence within the mainline denominations as opposed to separating, by pointing to the influence which Macartney had later on: a)Macartney pastored a prestigious church, b)gave prestigious lectures at Princeton, c)was able to publish his point of view in prestigious magazines, d)and that Macartney had a positive influence on the next generation of evangelical leaders such as Harold Ockenga.

It is doubtful whether more conservatives within the PCUSA would have had the effect Longfield predicts. In fact, many good men did stay in. Obviously, they did not have the salutary effect they wished. So is it a question of quantity? It is more likely that Macartney was allowed to remain in the Presbyterian Church because he tacitly accepted an arrangement with the liberal leadership of the Church whereby he was allowed to to maintain his position so long as he refrained from challenging the liberals.” (21)

Fuller Seminary is a case in point. Longfield points to Macartney’s influence on Fuller Seminary founder Harold J. Ockenga as proof that Macartney did the right thing by staying in the PCUSA. In fact, Fuller was the product of men who were not quite comfortable with Westminster’s fervent defense of the faith. They founded a school dedicated to the proposition evangelicalism could be reasonable and thus acceptable to the mainline majority. Instead, Fuller has ceased to leaven the PCUSA for good and has instead become leavened by the PCUSA. The present state of Fuller is full vindication of Machen. There is no middle way between liberalism and Christianity, they are distinct species of religion.

Most unhappily, Longfield points to the smallness of the OPC as proof that separation does not work. While it is certainly true that denominations which are primarily organized around doctrinal concerns are, by that fact, going to have relatively limited appeal in an overwhelmingly pragmatic nation typically disinterested in ideas, it is simply far too simplistic for Longfield to argue that the OPC is small primarily because it is doctrinal. First, It is the mainline communions which are bleeding to death, not conservative, doctrinally oriented groups. The PCA is a confessional church, and it is one of the fastest growing denominations in the U.S.

Second, Longfield’s argument is naive precisely because it ignores the the fact it is the apostasy of the liberal churches which has helped to create the highly secularized society in which many denominations are struggling. Separatist groups such as the OPC were divorced from their resources, institutions and organizational familiarity(22) at exactly the moment when the nation was emerging from its agrarian cocoon to become an industrialized economic super power.(23) Just how were rag-tag bands meeting in unfamiliar, often unpleasant settings, supposed to match the luster of the established denominations?

Longfield seems to have assumed that in the end, doctrine really is less important than perceptible impact and numbers. Is it true that we can measure the “success” of a given movement? What if, Speer, Eerdman and Coffin were correct and the Presbyterian Church had begun growing exponentially because the church chose the Modernist-Pluralist option? Would such a choice then be justified?

J. Gresham Machen remains a powerful and compelling personality is because he was right. Machen had stared into the lovely face of the liberal seductress and rejected her completely. Machen could not do what Longfield seems to have done, i.e., assume a stance of cool detachment toward the cardinal doctrines of Christianity, as though they were negotiable.


My criticisms of aspects of Longfield’s book should not obscure the fact that this is a very well written book. Longfield lays out his thesis clearly and supports it well. He has done an excellent job of recreating the historical situation in which this great drama unfolded. He brings the characters to life, painstakingly, even lovingly, placing them within their respective cultural and social settings. If you read this book you will come away with a clearer understanding of the beginnings of the OPC (and by analogy the RCUS) but also a clearer understanding of the present crisis in so many of our sister churches find themselves(24).


2. I intend no slight to our brothers in the RPCNA, or any of the other bodies with whom we have fraternal relations. The fact is, we are separated from most of these bodies by geography, culture or history in a way we are not separated from the OPC. It is also true that many of our pastors studied with OPC professors and future OPC pastors at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and in Escondido, CA. The same cannot be said about most of the other churches with whom have fraternal relations. This doesn’t mean we should neglect these brothers and sisters, on the contrary! We will have to work even more diligently to improve relations with the bodies with whom we have less natural affinity.
3. This is where I believe Longfield’s book will be most helpful. The experiences of Machen and Macartney should serve to warn CRC conservatives. Liberals do not long practice the “pluralism” they preach.
4. Over the same period, scholars Peter Berger and Dean M. Kelley, among others, have been warning for decades about these sorts of developments. Even the arch liberal, Henry Sloane Coffin, for Longfield’s purposes, admitted something of the truth of this charge later in his career.
5. Referring to the Presbyterian Church of fifty years ago as the PCUSA is anachronistic, since the PCUSA is really a composite body including the former UPCNA and PCUS. But it is clearer for my purposes to refer to use the contemporary designation or simply the title Presbyterian Church. I trust our brothers in the OPC and PCA will understand.
6. For an excellent critique of this position see the essay by Derke Bergsma, “Preaching for Modern Times” in Practical Theology and the Ministry of the Church, ed. Harvie Conn (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1990).
7. Camille Paglia, has written a scathing critique of the attempt by the PCUSA, in their recent report on sexuality, to sanitize and normalize homosexuality. Paglia is much more honest about the matter. She says the point, and for her, the thrill of sexual deviance is that it is deviant and unacceptable. “The Joy of Presbyterian Sex” in Sex, Art, and American Culture (London: Viking, 1992).
8. p.88. For Coffin and other Modernists, the term liberal was worn as a badge of honor. For them liberal connoted generosity, charity and broadmindedness.
9. p.89.
10. For most of this century, the Moody Bible Institute, Moody Church and related enterprises (e.g., Moody Broadcasting, Moody Monthly, Moody Press) has been a bulwark of conservative evangelicalism.
11. Eerdman did, by the 1920’s adopt a “limited inerrancy” view of the Bible (p.140). Limited inerrantists, as they are called, believe the Bible to be true and authoritative on matters of faith but subject to challenge on matters of historical, geographical or scientific “fact”. How we are able to trust the Bible completely when it tells us that Jesus was raised from the dead but not when it tells us that animals talk, is a question which limited inerrantists have not answered for more than 70 years.
12. The term Fundamentalist was coined in 1920, derived from a series of volumes published between 1910-15 called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. p.21.
13. In reaction to the liberalism of the Foreign Missions program of the Presbyterian Church, Machen and other conservatives formed The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. It was Machen’s refusal to disassociate himself from the IBPFM which became the formal grounds on which Machen was disciplined by the PCUSA.
14. The PCA later became of the OPC after a court challenge by the PCUSA over the use of the name Presbyterian Church of America.
15. pp.36-38.
16. Because of tensions between conservatives and liberals in Princeton Seminary, the denomination approved a reorganization plan which placed liberals in control of the school. This move, in the view of most of the faculty, seriously undermined the school’s ability to carry out its mandate, to uphold the historic reformed faith uniquely among all the seminaries in the U.S. at the time.
17. E.g., pp.176, 234.
18. it is true that Warfield is a southerner, but it is also true that his writings are not usually associated with traditional southern Presbyterian themes.
19. That the PCA has a strong southern, hence Thornwellian, influence and the OPC does not, is likely one of the factors which has kept the two groups apart.
20. p.50.
21. Proof of this implicit arrangement is that Macartney, like many conservatives in the CRC today, became functionally Congregationalist. See p.216. By opting out of Presbytery and Synod, Macartney is no longer engaging the liberals but conceding the fight.
22. From a marketing point of view, the OPC lost her “brand name” and had to start from scratch. That the PCUSA recognized such to be important is proven by the fact that they went to court to prevent the OPC from using a similar name, not to mention the numerous property battles which exhausted the resources of small local congregations.
23. This is not to say that separatist churches such as the RCUS and OPC share no blame in remaining small fifty years after their separations from the mainline churches. We have sometimes contented ourselves with defending the faith to the neglect of reaching the lost.
24. I would suggest that you supplement your reading of Longfield with other valuable books on the period including, D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Grand Rapids, 1994); D. G. Hart and and J. Muether, Fighting the Good Fight. A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia, 1995); Edwin Rian, The Presbyterian Conflict. OPC: (repr) 1992; Ned B. Stonehouse. J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954); Henry Coray. J. Gresham Machen: A Silhouette (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1981). In addition most of Machen’s books are still available. You should begin with the readable classic, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946).