A Battle on the Board of Trustees at Westminster Seminary, 1935-1936.

[I’ve been collecting references to this event. While I haven’t written a prose account, I figured the references themselves (chronologically ordered) might be of interest to OPC, BPC, and Machen scholars.]

J. Gresham Machen to Presbyterian minister Roy T. Brumbaugh, 10/9/1935 – “It looks as though the crisis were on in the Seminary board meeting. The reason why the crisis comes up just at this time is that godly people have put the Seminary in their wills. The moment Dr. Craig became independent of living donors — especially your humble servant — and had the money that was left to him by an enthusiastic member of the Independent Board [for Presbyterian Foreign Missions], he began to use the paper [the earlier version of CHRISTIANITY TODAY] to belittle the Independent Board. It does look as though we ought to prevent anything like that happening to the Seminary.”

In the December 1935 issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY Samuel Craig, the editor, first broached the tensions on the Westminster Board of Trustees, then publishing the following:

“The Westminster Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia reports (1935 Minutes) the fifth largest church membership (1742) but the largest Sunday School membership (1699) of the presbytery. Its pastor, Dr. Warren R. Ward, is the moderator of the presbytery. Like many others who have been actively interested in Westminster Seminary from its inception (including the editor of this paper) he has been much concerned for some time ver the growing disposition on the part of certain members of the faculty and trustees of the institution to identify its interests with those of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. This concern of Dr. Ward’s reached its climax when (six days before its regular Fall meeting, on October 22nd) he sent the following letter to the Board of Trustees of the Seminary. We are sure that this letter gives expression to the thoughts and feeling of many concerning this matter. As we go to press it is not definitely known what action the trustees will take. There are grave reasons to fear, however, that it will not be such as to make it possible for Dr. Ward and those who share his convictions to continue their support of the institution. Dr. Ward’s letter follows:

October 16, 1935

The Board of Trustees

Westminster Theological Seminary

Dear Brethren:

Much as I regret to do so I feel constrained to write you concerning my relation and that of Westminster Church to the Seminary.

From its inception we have been enthusiastic supporters of the Seminary. Each year it has been on our Budget for a substantial amount. Recently, however, our ardor has cooled very much and we have not been giving so much.

While there are several elements which have influenced us somewhat, the most important factor is our disagreement with reference to the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. The Seminary seems to be more and more closely identified with this Board. Students at the Seminary, who cannot see their way clear to support the New Board are made to feel very uncomfortable there. It is increasingly evident that loyalty to the Seminary means loyalty to the Independent Board. Graduates who agree even to designate their gifts to the old Board have been subjected to the accusation of disloyalty to all that the Seminary stands for. Some of us who have been supporting the Seminary are falling under the same condemnation.

I look upon this as a calamity to the whole conservative cause. This institution had the promise of becoming one of the greatest powers in the world for the conservative cause. God has prospered the Seminary and no better faculty can be found in the country. But I am sure that I express the conviction of many of the most conservative men in the Church when I say that I think that Westminster Seminary is committing suicide in identifying itself with the Independent Board. Moreover, you are alienating many of your best friends by taking this course. Why it is necessary to take such a step? Cannot the Seminary be rescued from such a policy?

Surely there is room for difference of opinion among truly conservative men with regard to support of the old Board in some form and identification with the New. I have been and I still am a vigorous critic of the modernist tendencies in the Old Board. When the New Board was organized, however, I refused to become a member of it because of very definite convictions with regard to the wisdom of such a policy and the effectiveness of this method. These convictions have been deepened since that time. I cannot agree with those who organized the New Board.

During the past few months it has become very evident that the attitude of the Seminary toward the New Board question has become the concern of all who have been interested in the Seminary.

For instance, we have a group of young men, who are thoroughly conservative in their point of view, and who will be ready to enter some Seminary in the Fall of 1936. I have wanted them to enter Westminster Seminary. However, some of them do not want to enroll there because they are not in sympathy with the New Board. Since the Seminary seems to be making common cause with the New Board these young men are, to that extent, out of harmony with the policies of the Seminary. They have no heart to enroll in a Seminary where they are to be subjected to criticism and almost ostracism because they cannot agree with certain leading members of your faculty with regard to the method of dealing with the problems in the Church. I must confess that I do not feel like urging them to go to Westminster Seminary under such conditions.

Again, the identification of Westminster Seminary with the Independent Board is making it practically impossible for any young man to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., if he attends the Seminary. Many of these young men are not ready to secede from the Church; they want to become ministers in this Church. But the time seems to have arrived when a decision to attend the Seminary means separation from the Church. In other words, these young men are called upon to make a decision which many of us are not ready to make. The question as to whether a student will enroll in the Seminary is one of far-reaching implications. Are you going to allow the Seminary to lead in a movement of secession?

As a friend of the Seminary I wish to say that I am convinced that the time has come when the Trustees and Faculty of the Seminary must make a momentous decision. When you have made that decision, some of us must make our decisions accordingly. Those who have supported the Seminary but will not support the New Board have a right to know where the seminary stands.

For my part, I cannot continue to support the Seminary if it makes common cause with the New Board. I might have withdrawn support from the Seminary and have advised our young men to go elsewhere without advising you of my convictions; but I have chosen to express myself to you before taking such steps. May I have some answer to the questions raised in this letter in due time?

I do pray that God will guide you and give you much wisdom and grace in deciding this most important matter. I hope you will not throw away the greatest opportunity given to any group o men in more than a generation.

Yours Sincerely,

Warren E. Ward.”


Machen to Brumbaugh 12/16/1935 – “Earnestly urge that you come to meeting of Seminary Trustees on January seventh. Rail or air expense will be cared for as before. An effort will be made by some to prevent carrying out Macartney’s plan for handing over the Seminary to those who agree with Faculty. The number of our supporters on the Board are lamentably few. Your presence is absolutely necessary to prevent great danger of immediate destruction of the Seminary.”

Machen to Brumbaugh, 12/21/1935 – “Only ten of the Trustees have voted on our side. The others have either voted against Mr. Rian’s resolution or have not voted at all. Now just who are the ten men that have voted on our side? One of them is a very elderly gentlemen, Mr. Worcester, who has not been attending meetings and who can, I think, only with difficulty, if at all, be induced to attend. I do not think that we can count on his vote in the slightest. Another, Dr. [David S.] Clark [the father of Gordon H. Clark] is also a very elderly man, and I am sorry to say that his mental clearness is nearly gone. He did not, for example, have the slightest notion what a blow to our cause he was striking when he signed that additional call for the meeting along with Mr. Shrader and Dr. Schall. Dr. Clark desires to do absolutely the right thing, but we cannot count on him absolutely all the same. He may well be deceived.”

Brumbaugh to Machen, 12/24/1935 – “There can be no reconciliation between the two groups on the Board. I so stated at the last meeting. We are farther apart than the poles. Further contact with them would weaken our forces. I hate their position and am uncomfortable in their presence. Dr. Craig and Schofield are determined to stay in. They are out to hurt us and our stand. Those who have resigned are not of our feather and so really stand with the Craig party. They have the majority with or without those who have or will resign. So we are in the minority and a feeble one at that, numerically speaking And I feel quite at home with a minority. The sooner we separate the better; and that means Jan 7th. Either the Craig and McCartney groups ought to go out, or be force out, or we ought to go out with the faculty. I expect to do the latter. This is usually the way of true Biblical Christianity. The faculty makes the Seminary, not bldg., library, etc. A student body thoroughly indoctrinated will stand with a faculty that stands with Christ. I believe therefore that we have with us not only the faculty, but 99% of the student body, and so we have surely a complete seminary of undoubted standing.”

Machen to Brumbaugh, 12/30/1935 –“I agree with you right down to the ground in holding that there can be no reconciliation between the two groups in the Board. The alternative is perfectly clear. Either we must elect four or five absolutely sound men whom the Faculty knows it can trust to take the place of some of those who have resigned, or else the Faculty must at once resign and make plans for a new Seminary.” “I think it should be perfectly clear, in this last number of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, even if it was not clear before, that Dr. Craig the bitterest enemy of the cause that we represent.”

In the February 1936 issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Craig provided coverage of the January meeting of the Board, with report of the resignations of thirteen of twenty-eight Trustees. The full text can be read here in the first four pages of that issue:

With a fourteenth member noted there as having affirmed his desire to resign, the remaining board was precisely half of its former self.

A couple authors have commented on this board of trustees battle in later years:

“This attitude, which seemed to add up to a ‘stay in at all costs’ policy, was basically present in the 1935-1936 conflict within Westminster Seminary as the result of which Dr. Allis of the Faculty and Dr. Macartney and several Trustees resigned. In this connection one of the arguments used most persistently was that the Independent Board was having harmful effects upon Westminster Seminary, affecting as it had the ecclesiastical life of professors and students and threatening to close the doors to future opportunity. To a person like Machen, on the other hand, such an argument could not in the nature of the case be allowed to be regulative of the policy or program. To him the issue was much simpler and clear cut: there was only the path of consistent, militant witness and action regardless of consequences — or that of compromise.” – J. Gresham Machen, A Biographical Memoir by Ned B. Stonehouse, p. 497

“There were those, such as Clarence Macartney and Samuel Craig, who thought that Machen’s work in establishing the Independent Board was too divisive, that it would precipitate a split, that it effectively cut off all hopes of reform of the church, and finally, that it would endanger the valuable work just begun at Westminster Theological Seminary in filling the denomination with solid ministers.” – J. Gresham Machen, A Guided Tour of his Life and Thought, by Stephen J. Nichols, p. 196.