Machen Was Forged In War

J. Gresham Machen almost died in a war he didn't support, giving Bible studies to two or three soldiers.

One of my favorite stories in church history is the story of J. Gresham Machen in World War 1.

Now at this point he'd already "made it" in terms of career. He was a professor at Princeton. He was in his 40's. And he did not support World War 1. In fact, Woodrow Wilson, was a long time family friend of his, yet he disagreed vehemently with him on going to war.

But once the war was going, Machen signed up for the YMCA to be a volunteer. Even though he hated the war and took a stance for pacifism, he saw it as important to serve and minister to the soldiers.

Many people thought the YMCA people worked as hard as any of the soldiers. They were often running extremely under-staffed stations right on the edge of the trenches. This was the case for Machen. He ran a canteen, serving hot chocolate and other snacks to soldiers coming in and out of the trenches all day long.

A long, tireless, thankless job. You saw all the horrors war had to offer, such as the wounded and dying. Yet you would get no credit for your service as you were a "non-combatant." You'd see the wounded in the camps, and you'd watch as men you served disappeared.

You could hear the bombs of artillery going off so loud that they gave men shell-shock.

He also said you always heard planes flying overhead. And the alarms for chemical attacks which required you to grab a chemical mask were regular sounds in the camp. Each night if you could get sleep you only got 3-4 hours of sleep at most.

At one point the camp Machen was at had to swiftly pack up as the front lines had moved. Their position was about to be overrun and they had to literally run to get out of the area they were in. The Germans were expected to detonate the bridge they crossed at any moment and if they didn't cross it they'd have been left in enemy territory.

Regularly while he worked the canteen he would have to leap into a nearby crater or hole as enemies shelled the camp. Bathrooms were communal, and he said he nearly never got to shower or shave or even get a change of clothing.

This did not even include the emotional wear and tear of living next to the front did to a person. In a letter to his mom, Machen wrote:

"Existence over here is so desperately lonely that it is a comfort to know someone cares."

Regularly Machen would offer Bible studies at the camp. Anyone could come to them. I'd love to say that hundreds of soldiers heard the Gospel and poured into his successful Bible studies. That he evangelized the lost on those hard trenches.

Usually he had one or two soldiers with him. Reading a Bible together, on the outside of a camp. The sound of machine gun fire, the alarms of chemical attacks, the craters. The screams of the wounded and dying not far off. And all he had to show for it, a successful and well known Princeton professor, was 2-3 souls at a Bible study.

Yet when Machen came back to America, he was different, as all were who returned. He had many challenging theological and academic fights in his life. After his time serving in World War 1, he had learned the grit to fight impossible battles.

And he had learned the value of just how important what they were doing was. Gone was the studious academic who knew only books.

Replaced was a man who was ready to fight.

Theological liberalism never stood a chance.