The great desire of Christian parents is that our children will grow into godliness. While they are under our care, we pray that they will come to confess Jesus as Lord, treasure his Word, and be ever-more conformed to the image of that great Savior. And as we pray, we work hard to train them in sound doctrine, to deepen their roots into Scripture, and to discipline them for their good.
Yet every Christian parent also knows that there comes a day when we must open our hands in trust as our children depart into the world. In that day, we hope that our children will not depart from the years of instruction they received at our hands. This is a difficult season, for even if our children struggle with the world and its deceptions, we must choose to love them with steadfastness, to display to them the steadfast love of the Father.
In this collection on Christian Men and Their Godly Moms, we have learned of the power of a mother who was spiritually strong even while physically weak, and we have learned of the power of a mother who fervently prayed. Now we want to examine the power of a mother who diligently trained her son in sound doctrine and steadfastly loved him until the end.
A Happy Home
John Gresham Machen was born on July 28, 1881, in Baltimore, Maryland, the second of three sons born to Arthur and Mary. Arthur was a Harvard-trained lawyer who ran a successful practice and who studied the ancient classics as a hobby. A lover of languages, he was adept in English, Latin, Greek, French, and Italian. He was also an accomplished writer who had a number of works in circulation, though all published under a pseudonym.
Mary, who went by Minnie, was her husband’s equal in intellect and love of knowledge. She was born to a privileged family in Georgia, whose money had come from cotton and railroads. Her religious heritage was conservative, Presbyterian, and devout. She received a degree from Wesleyan College and maintained a lifelong love of reading and writing, and even published a book later in life. Mary was 21 years Arthur’s junior—when they married in 1873, he was 45, and she just 24. They settled easily into married life, and she soon gave birth to three boys: Arthur Jr., John Gresham, and Thomas.
Gresham’s early life was one of ease and prosperity. It was also one of devotion, for his parents were committed Christians who attended Franklin Street Presbyterian Church, a traditional and conservative congregation. Minnie, with whom Gresham always had a special bond, had an especially significant influence on the boy’s upbringing. It was on her knee that he had first learned the Bible and that he first learned of the Christian life through The Pilgrim’s Progress. In line with her Presbyterian roots, she diligently trained her son in the Westminster Catechism, leading him to understand and embrace its historic, Reformed theology. She consistently prepared Sunday-afternoon Bible lessons and discussions for her boys. Later, she oversaw their education, reading and critiquing their papers. It was not long before Gresham distinguished himself as a scholar, ranking first in his class in a number of subjects, ranging from geometry to Greek. By 15, he made a credible profession of faith and was received into full membership at the church.
At this time, neither he nor his parents could have guessed how his life would unfold. He would become a great New Testament scholar, accept a teaching position at the nation’s preeminent seminary, and eventually help found and lead a new seminary and a new denomination. He would also publish many books, including some that have stood the test of time and remain as important and applicable today as the day they were written. He would become a stalwart defender of the orthodox Christian faith in the face of a rising theological liberalism. But we cannot understand his later life without looking at his youthful confrontation with that growing movement and his initial temptation toward it.
The Power of a Counseling Mom
Having completed high school with superior grades, Gresham proceeded to Johns Hopkins University, where he majored in the classics and graduated with distinction. Since he had no clear direction in life, he went on to the University of Chicago to pursue international law and banking, thinking that he might follow loosely in the footsteps of his father. Yet after consulting with his parents and pastor, he decided to enroll instead in Princeton Theological Seminary, though he made it clear that he had no interest in ordination or pastoral ministry. Here he studied under a distinguished faculty and, once again, proved an able student.
In 1905, Gresham decided to study in Germany for a year, and it was here that he endured an unexpected challenge to the sound training he had received as a child. The challenge came in the form of German theological liberalism, and especially its doubts about Jesus’s miraculous resurrection. He had been trained in the classroom to counter the claims of liberalism, but he had not been prepared to encounter that theology in the form of professors who were warm and charitable and who appeared to be exemplars of Christian piety. Of one liberal theologian he wrote, “Herrmann affirms very little of that which I have been accustomed to regard as essential to Christianity; yet there is no doubt in my mind but that he is a Christian, and a Christian of a peculiarly earnest type.” He heard this man’s theology which he had been taught was unbiblical, but saw a faith so much deeper and warmer than his own. Could it be that liberalism was not a threat to the Christian faith but a means to unlock it?
As Gresham found himself grappling with the claims of liberalism, he was also drawn by its respectability. He felt pulled between two competing understandings of the Christian faith, one that was traditional but seen as stodgy and another that was fresh and seen as respectable. It was in this crisis that he looked again to his mother, whom he continued to admire and depend upon for wisdom. He would later write of her, “I do not see how anyone could know my mother well without being forever sure that whatever else there may be in Christianity the real heart of Christianity is found in the atoning death of Christ.” Minnie wrestled with growing anxiety over her son’s doubts. But because she was rooted in Scripture, she knew better than to panic and confront her son in fear or anger. Relying instead on the grace of God, she chose to provide him with comfort and steadfast love. She wrote to him: “But one thing I can assure you of—that nothing that you could do could keep me from loving you—nothing. It is easily enough to grieve me. Perhaps I worry too much. But my love for my boy is absolutely indestructible. Rely on that whatever comes. And I have faith in you too and believe that the strength will come to you for your work whatever it may be, and that the way will be opened.”
Pulled back by his mother’s love, along with the counsel of other godly mentors, Gresham’s crisis was soon quelled, and he returned to the sound doctrine in which he was raised. One of Gresham’s biographers would write, “No one ever seriously rivaled [his mother] in her capacity to satisfy his need of deep spiritual sympathy or in her hold upon his affection and admiration.” With God’s help, the combination of training and tenderness won her son back to his roots.
He soon took up a position at Princeton teaching New Testament and became well liked and highly respected among both faculty and students. He would teach at Princeton until 1926, though his time there would be interrupted by overseas service during the First World War. But liberalism would continue its ascendancy, forcing him to take action. In 1929, he would take the lead in founding Westminster Theological Seminary, and in 1936, a new denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Because Greham was a lifelong bachelor, his mother would remain the closest woman in his life until her death in 1931. This was the most grievous event he had experienced, for no one had held him in greater esteem than his mother. No one had been so unswervingly loyal to him. Perhaps no one had been so impacted by him. She once wrote to him: “I cannot half express to you my pride and profound joy in your work. You have handled in a very able manner the most important problem of the age, and you have given voice to my own sentiments far better than I could myself.” On the day the family laid her to rest, Gresham wrote, “My mother seems—to me at least—to have been the wisest and best human being I ever knew.”
God used Minnie’s powerful intellect and warm kindness to raise up a man who would benefit generations of Christians by his stalwart defense of the faith. And he continues to use such mothers to this day. Mothers, as you struggle to instruct your children in the Word and in sound doctrine, learn from Minnie that your labor is setting a strong foundation for years to come. As you strive to show steadfast love to your faltering children, learn from Minnie that God often uses such compassion to draw his children back to himself. Through your training and your tenderness, you are displaying the love of the Father.
Minnie had been her son’s first teacher and, with her husband, the one who led him to Christ. “Without what I got from you and Mother,” he would tell his father, “I should long since have given up all thoughts of religion or of a moral life… . The only thing that enables me to get any benefit out of my opportunities here is the continual presence with me in spirit of you and Mother and the Christian teaching which you have given me.” At his time of deepest need, she had comforted him with love and counseled him with the Word of God. She had remained loyal to him in that crisis and through every other controversy he endured. In his greatest and most enduring work, Christianity and Liberalism, it is fitting that its opening page bears this simple dedication: “To my mother.”
Information for this article was drawn from J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought by Stephen Nichols and J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir by Ned Stonehouse. This brief account by Randy Oliver was also helpful.