I’ve come across a quote attributed to Dr. J. Gresham Machen which, so far, I’ve been unable to track down. If Dr. Machen said this, when and where did he say it? Context is important and sheds further light on statements made. Here’s the quote, as embedded in the earliest instance I’ve found of it’s use, in The Christian Observer, vol. 129, no. 1 (1 January 1941), page 1 [the quote I’m researching is shown here in bold type]:
The neglect of the religious life on the part of many people of today helps to rob the next generation of some of the great blessings which our own generation has inherited from the past. The late Dr. J. Gresham Machen nearly two decades ago spoke these urgent words to the parents of the nation: “America is today running on the momentum of a godly ancestry. When that momentum goes, God help America!” Christian educators and ministers of the Gospel for many years have been warning us that this momentum is dying out and will ultimately lose its force altogether unless it is handed on by this generation. This warning is especially needed in a time of uncertainty and crisis such as that through which the world is now passing. Pertinent, therefore, are the words recently uttered by Dr. Ernest E. Cole, president of the University of the State of New York: “The time has come when some way must be found to instill into all our children the spiritual faith and idealism of the fathers and a healthy reverence for religion.” This faith that has come to us out of the past must be handed down unimpaired to those who are to come after us. And there is no way by which this may be done save as we earnestly adhere to and practice “the faith of our fathers” in our own daily walk and conversation.
While there is more provided here than the mere Machen question required, there were two clues in the reference, that Machen’s statement dated to roughly the early 1920’s and that he spoke to parents, perhaps in some message on the topic of education. I do know that education was a concern of Machen’s, and we even have one of his addresses on the subject posted on the PCA Historical Center web site. But “On the Necessity of the Christian School” was delivered in 1933, so the date is wrong, and that discourse does not include this quote that we’re trying to locate.
PCA pastor Steven Wright [Bethel PCA, Lake Charles, LA] observed that he “see[s] more attributions of that quote to General Omar Bradley than to Machen when I search on-line. Some of the language of the quote is found in this statement on p. 48 of Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism (1923):”
“It is especially by such transformation of life, to-day as always, that the Christian message is commended to the attention of men. Certainly, then, it does make an enormous difference whether our lives be right. If our doctrine be true, and our lives be wrong, how terrible is our sin! for then we have brought despite upon the truth itself. On the other hand, however, it is also very sad when men use the social graces which God has given them, and the moral momentum of a godly ancestry, to commend a message which is false. Nothing in the world can take the place of truth.” [emphasis added]
Pastor Wright then proposed that perhaps Bradley [1893-1981] borrowed (knowingly or unknowingly) Machen’s language. That may well be, but it would appear from this earlier paragraph in the Christian Observer that the original quote remains quite surely Machen’s. So until someone can help in this search, we’ll keep looking.