J. Gresham Machen on Liberty and Education

J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) was a professor of New Testament at Princeton and Westminster seminaries, and he founded both Westminster Theological Seminary (1929) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1936). Machen is known as a defender of biblical Christianity, seen in his classic work Christianity and Liberalism.

But Machen was also a great champion of both liberty and Christian education. In 1933, he gave a lecture at the Educational Convention in Chicago titled, “The Necessity of the Christian School.” In this lecture, Machen sounds as if he is addressing our educational problems today—yet he is speaking of America’s schools 80 years ago!

The first thing Machen addresses in his lecture is the growing federal control over public schools. Machen opposed this entirely, and he specifically addresses federal money being given to public schools:

The thing is really quite clear. Every lover of human freedom ought to oppose with all his might the giving of Federal aid to the schools of this country; for Federal aid in the long run inevitably means Federal control, and Federal control means control by a centralized and irresponsible bureaucracy, and control by such a bureaucracy means the death of everything that might make this country great.

Against this soul-killing collectivism in education, the Christian school, like the private school, stands as an emphatic protest. In doing so, it is no real enemy of the public schools. On the contrary, the only way in which a state-controlled school can be kept even relatively healthy is through the absolutely free possibility of competition by private schools and church schools; if it once becomes monopolistic, it is the most effective engine of tyranny and intellectual stagnation that has yet been devised.

Unfortunately, Machen’s fear of federal control was realized in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which gave federal money to public schools. But as Machen knew, there is always a string attached to money. Machen recognized that the competition of private schools was good for public schools, but with the decline of much of the private school system, we are witnessing the very “intellectual stagnation” in the public schools that Machen warned about.

Though Christian schools are good for liberty, Machen ultimately embraced the Christian school because he believed in the necessity of Christian education: 

While truth is truth however learned, the bearing of truth, the meaning of truth, the purpose of truth (even in the sphere of mathematics) seem entirely different to the Christian from that which they seem to the non-Christian; and that is why a truly Christian education is possible only when Christian education underlies not a part, but all, of the curriculum of the school. True learning and true piety go hand in hand, and Christianity embraces the whole of life—those are great convictions that underlie the Christian school.

It matters not only what students are learning but also who is teaching them. And it is sad that so many Christians today have given their children over to unbelieving teachers and a godless curriculum. As Machen said, 

I can see little consistency in a type of Christian activity which preaches the Gospel on the street corners and at the ends of the Earth, but neglects the children of the covenant by abandoning them to a cold and unbelieving secularism.

I commend Machen’s essay to you. May it stir up passion for Christian education, as it has done for me. And may it lead us to make wise educational decisions for our children.

J. Gresham Machen, “The Necessity of the Christian School,” in Education, Christianity, and the State, ed. John Robbins (Unicoi, TN: The Trinity Foundation, 2004), pp. 74-75, 81, 82. This book is an excellent collection of Machen’s works on education. You can read his entire lecture online here.