A review of Barry Waugh (ed.), Letters from the Front: J. Gresham Machen’s Correspondence from World War I.
John Gresham Machen is best known as one of the prime instigators of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in the United States during the 1920s. He was the author of the classic Christianity and Liberalism, and founder of both Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. What is less well-known is that before he entered the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church to begin his great struggle there, he had been a humanitarian non-combatant volunteer serving with the YMCA during the First World War.
In a labour of love, Barry Waugh has transcribed, edited, and annotated Machen’s correspondence from January 1918 to March 1919 (because, as Fowler in the film Chicken Run tells us, “The Yanks turn up late for every war”). He was stationed in France and saw five sectors of the front around Aisne, Lorraine, Argonne, Woëvre, and Belgium from the Germans’ Michael Offensive until well after Armistice Day. There were no openings in the chaplaincy service when Machen offered his services there, and so rather than enlist with the ambulance corps (which may have led to him being reassigned to munitions transport, which he didn’t want), he ended up serving with “the Y”, despite some serious theological misgivings about their “generic Christianity.” His role consisted mostly of selling hot chocolate, snacks, candles, tobacco, toiletries, and stationery in YMCA huts, of which there were about 1500 by the end of the war; places of rest, entertainment, and refreshment for war-weary troops, away from the horrors of the trenches.
It is at times a charming experience to read of this voyage of adventure, and at times a rather bizarre one. To picture Gresham Machen, for example, on a rocky sea-crossing lecturing YMCA men about the state of New Testament criticism is surreal, but “some of the men appeared to be interested” he tells us! “At any rate, I am glad of the opportunity.” Later he describes chatting with an Italian Count and brushing up on his French. Once in Paris, he tells his mother that it is far less terrifying than he had anticipated (despite the occasional air raid or bombardment) but the food is not so good. It is not the most harrowing of war diaries.
There is some excitement as a gas attack and the death of a man nearby bring the realities of war closer to home for the scholar. He would be forced to flee from the advancing Germans at the end of May 1918, and lose his personal belongings. He also faced a constant war against rats.
But it is some of the religious elements in his story that stand out. At one point Machen tells his mother about a service led by the regimental chaplain, who was Roman Catholic. The general service was “frankly supernatural” (rather than giving a naturalistic interpretation of the feeding of the 5000), and “the moral exhortations were good.” He concludes, “I was pleased with the service. It was far, far better than what we get from the Protestant liberals.” At another point he expresses his admiration for the nuns who cooked and cared for American soldiers.
There is some Bible teaching amongst “the men”, but not much. He complains, “there are lots of men, if only we could get at them, who would welcome not only Bible teaching but the kind of Bible teaching that I like myself.” But no-one is interested in bringing him into contact with such men. Indeed, Machen was later recalled to more of an office job, after HQ heard that his “addresses were above the heads of the men.” But he was clearly longing to get home by that point anyway, or to rummage around in the bookshops of Strassbourg for German books.
All in all, this is a fascinating experience if you have had previous encounters with Dr Machen in his titanic battles against liberalism and might enjoy discovering more about the earlier life of the fiery secessionist. But otherwise, for those to whom Machen is just another name from a far-off, long-forgotten theological tiff, this is not going to open your eyes in any massively significant way to the War, or give you an especially theological reflection on it. There are some touching vignettes, such as when he gave hot chocolate to an appreciative German, and saw a wounded American soldier give his coat to a wounded German soldier (“along with the hatred and bitterness incident to the war, there are some examples of the other thing which like fair lilies in swampy ground are all the more beautiful because of the contrast with the unlikely soil in which they grow”).
It’s not Siegfried Sassoon or Robert Graves or Wilfred Owen. Machen did his bit. But if he did consider the bigger realities and perplexing agonies of the war in any deeper, more profound way, perhaps he just did not feel able to share his meditations on it with his anxious, distant mother?
This review first appeared in Churchman 128/3 (2014).