‘A Small Alien Group without American Presbyterian Background’:

In May 1937, the future ETS president (1960) Allan MacRae resigned from the faculty of Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, using a public letter to do so. His letter alleged that the seminary, which at its foundation had been a kind of a coalition of Calvinistic evangelicals, had –through the death or departure of three of its founding faculty–come to be dominated by faculty members drawn from constituencies outside the Presbyterian mainstream. This finger-pointing episode helped to prepare the way for the division of those who had followed Machen out of the northern Presbyterian church in 1936 and to the creation of a rival seminary at Wilmington, Delaware. The episode has become part of the ‘lore’ of three streams of American Presbyterianism and lives on in their published histories.

MacRae had correctly perceived that the center of gravity had shifted — particularly because of Gresham Machen’s passing in January, 1937. Yet his analysis of the situation was deeply flawed, and for five reasons:

1. MacRae, who tried to take the ‘high ground’ in defending the interests of American Presbyterian evangelicalism, had evidently only come into the Presbyterian tradition in the late 1920’s. He was hardly the ‘native son’ that he posed as being.

2. MacRae seemed oblivious to the ‘melting pot’ factor in American Christianity, by which not only Westminster Seminary, but Princeton from which it arose, were increasingly turning to Dutch-Americans or Scottish-Americans to fill their academic posts. This trend had been well underway at Princeton in MacRae’s own student days there in the 1920’s.

3. MacRae played the ‘premillennialist card’ and claimed that premillennialism was being hounded out of the seminary and related denomination (founded in support of Machen). He blamed the immigrant faculty members for this fierce opposition. But he was less than candid in acknowledging his own dispensational premillennial leanings, when that was the actual bone of contention. There was a premillennialist faculty member at Westminster, Paul Woolley, who joined in the opposition to MacRae’s perspective.

4. MacRae seemed to lose sight of the actual grave difficulty surrounding the locating and hiring of orthodox evangelical academics during an age in which most research universities in America and Europe were held suspect by evangelicals. The Free University of Amsterdam was an increasingly favored alternative to these others, but MacRae was prejudiced against what he perceived as theological rigidity in that theological tradition. Ironically, in the rival seminary he helped to establish, he would accept as colleagues a theologian and an OT scholar with Free University doctorates.

5. MacRae portrayed the Reformed theological world as monochrome, shrugging off its complexity. The Dutch-American and Scottish American colleagues he meant to leave behind when he left Westminster were in fact only representatives of identifiable ‘tendencies’ within their traditions. That tendency was strict confessionalism. MacRae knew from past experience that these colleagues did not represent the whole of their tradition; but that confessionalism was now in the driver’s seat in both Westminster Seminary and the denomination Machen founded.

In sum, MacRae had identified an actual shift in American theological education. America’s immigrant minorities _were_ being given an increasing place in American educational institutions. But the interpretations he placed on this were unhelpful and tended to obscure critical underlying matters about which he should have been more candid.

4 thoughts on “‘A Small Alien Group without American Presbyterian Background’:”

  1. Stewart on MacRae
    The proposal comes from a proven and productive scholar and shows promise of an enlightening presentation. It assumes more than clarifies the controversy about which it means to argue that MacRae should have been more candid. But one may expect the paper itself will supply the needed clarifications. Its window on important 20th Century developments seems valuable.

  2. Solid paper
    Paper fits with the aims of our session and definitely should be presented at ETS somewhere.
    This is a promising paper for our session if we decide to move forward with it. I always enjoy Ken’s work.


Leave a Comment