Primary Sources for the Presbyterian Masses

The Modernist Controversy through a Journalist’s Eyes, Part VIII (1933)

In League of Evangelical Students, Modernism, Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., Princeton Theological Seminary, Robert Dick Wilson, Robert E. Speer, Samuel G. Craig on 22/06/2009 at 17:59

Part VIII.

It is profitless to thresh over the old straw of the Presbyterian controversy. The field is gleaned and the grain garnered. But Princeton Theological Seminary looms so large in Presbyterian history and Dr. Craig came so close to prevailing upon the Presbyterian Church to continue the maintenance of Princeton in its former glory, that considered simply as a feat in journalism the achievement deserves a thorough-going examination.


The Presbyterian
now stood practically alone among other papers. In all the prolonged struggle newspapers and magazines in general realized no more than that at Princeton was a flourishing theological school, very famous, very old, very rich and most influential; and that its President was in disagreement with the Board of Directors, with the Faculty and with a large majority of the students. Because of the Seminary’s prominence various accounts of current developments were published, as reporters understood them. But the reason for President J. Ross Stevenson’s campaign against his colleagues never was made quite clear in the newspapers. An ordinary reader had to guess at causes; and one guess was as good as another.

wilsonRDReligious papers were more illuminating. The presented an occasional idea of the issue involved. But the religious press as a whole was so deeply sympathetic with Liberalism, and editors were so enthusiastic in anticipating the overthrow of a stronghold of Calvinistic theology that references to Princeton took on the finality of a sentence upon a convicted prisoner. In The Presbyterian Advance and The Presbyterian Banner the case was settled almost before it began. Princeton’s prestige, and Princeton’s aggressive advocacy and defense of the Reformation Faith had been irritating them for years. If President Stevenson wanted a different Seminary they were glad; if he desired to discipline Professor Robert Dick Wilson and Assistant Professor J. Gresham Machen, they were delighted; if his purpose was to neutralize Princeton for the duration of the Church’s conflict with Liberalism, that suited their plans precisely. They were for anything that was against the time-honored position of Princeton Seminary in the van of contenders for the faith. So they joined the hue and cry for complete reorganization.

Unhappily much of the Presbyterian Church’s opinion of Princeton was formed without the aid of Journalism. Stories which the tellers were careful to keep out of print attacked the reputation of members of the Board of Directors and the Faculty until it appeared that the President of the Seminary had understated his case. These tales had no guarantors; they were a by-product of the intensity of men’s feelings and were repeated with blind and unreasoning prejudice, and as might be expected, they also were repeated with progressive exaggeration. Contradiction did not overtake them. Only the perspective of time would be able to demonstrate their absurdity, and meanwhile they ran their baleful course.

Dr. Craig and Dr. Kennedy addressed themselves to the defense of the Seminary. They could not deal with whispered slander, but they were resolved to meet every responsible statement with full information. If they could publish the facts they thought the Church would not act with the instincts of a mob clamoring for frontier justice. With humility and a sense of their own inadequacy, once more they put on the armor of God and enlisted as Christ’s soldiers in love’s battle for the truth. Both of them knew they would suffer before the battle was done.


The Presbyterian
was printed accordingly. And for three years the Church did refuse to re-make Princeton despite the activity of every agency of persuasion and emotion known to church politicians. Princeton was safe in the debates of 1926, 1927 and 1928. Three years of assault, and the institution was standing like an impregnable rock.

Christians who remember only that “Fighting Fundamentalists” (a designation of honor, by the way, as the term was applied) lost Princeton may have forgotten why they lost. Princeton certainly was not lost as long as Dr. Craig was given a reasonable opportunity to print the truth. The old Seminary had more friends in 1928 than in 1926; on the other hand supporters of President Stevenson steadily decreased in number. In 1928 the Reorganization’s Chairman, Dr. W.O. Thompson, was ready to quit, and said so.

It scarcely could have been otherwise. With The Presbyterian to consult, a substantial proportion of Commissioners at each Assembly knew: (1) That President Stevenson’s definite objective was a complacent Seminary conforming to, not opposing the drift of the times, and suggesting some model in his mind which may have been McCormick Seminary in Chicago where he himself had studied and taught. Whatever the model it was very unlike the doctrinally aggressive Princeton of the Alexanders and Hodges and their successors. (2) That the Board of Directors was under fire because the majority of its members were adhering loyally to the Seminary’s purpose and design. (3) That Professor Wilson as Student Advisor occupied a position created by the students themselves, and that they appreciated to the utmost the difference in attitude of Dr. Wilson and President Stevenson toward Princeton’s standards. (4) That Dr. Machen was within his rights in pointing out a breakdown in faith in the pulpits, boards and schools of the Presbyterian Church. (5) That the League of Evangelical Students was obnoxious only to those who disliked its straight-forward evangelical stand. (6) That President Stevenson, Dr. Erdman, Dr. Mudge, Dr. Speer and Dr. Thompson represented a pronounced minority opinion on the Board of Directors, Faculty and Student Body and had a majority opinion in their support only on the Board of Trustees. And (7) that the plan of reorganization, in the judgment of qualified lawyers, was illegal. These were telling facts. And they were prevailing as facts have a way of prevailing ultimately, when press and speech are free.

Success was in sight in 1928, and then came one of the strangest bi-partisan measures ever agreed to on this earth by a body of men who have contended for the truth. In Tulsa, in 1928, the conservative forces who dominated the General Assembly voted to postpone action on Princeton for yet another year. Bad though this was, it was not the worst. Indeed it sounded fair enough, for at the rate at which the friends of Princeton were multiplying, victory was probably more certain a year ahead, and meanwhile steps could be taken to deal with President Stevenson and his revolutionary plans through Princeton’s own authorities. But in addition to the postponing resolution was the fatal provision of another resolution. Presbyterian papers were asked to withhold comment on Princeton during the intervening twelve months.

When the veterans in the long struggle for a great cause fell into the double trap which we must hope was set for their feet unwittingly, their gallant fight was over. They had surrendered. Absolutely to prevent adjustment of the internal differences at Princeton, all President Stevenson and his associates had to do, and did, was to refuse to co-operate. Internal troubles were to be accentuated, piled mountain high, before the year rolled around. The faithful Board of Directors had been chastised with whips; now they were to feel the lash of scorpions. Informing publicity was shut off; nothing could be written about it. The bare disclosure of confusion and deadlock was all that was to be exhibited to the next General Assembly.

Dr. Craig had been prompt to announce that a General Assembly resolution could not bind privately-owned papers and that he considered himself free to print whatever news would promote the welfare of the Church. Shortly before the twelve months had elapsed he did publish several reports. But the pledge of secrecy hung over Princeton like a thick cloud and no publicity was possible in time to do good.

Removal of a Board of Directors apparently unable to direct, was a foregone conclusion at St. Paul in 1929. Platform debate, limited to a few minutes, was perfunctory. Commissioners were impatient. If ever they had known the real meaning of reorganization as it had been explained to other Assemblies, they had forgotten it. They acted as wisely as men could act in the circumstances.

Would the same Commissioners vote today as they voted in 1929? Of course, not. In justice to them we cannot write on the tombstone of the old Princeton, “This institution died because the General Assembly of 1929 condemned her witness to the Westminster Confession of Faith.” To use one of Dr. Machen’s penetrating phrases, Princeton’s death sentence was pronounced by men who were compelled “to think with an empty mind.”

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