J. Gresham Machen and Billy Sunday

I am currently re-reading Ned Stonehouse’s J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir.  Machen was a professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary in the 1910s and 1920s.  Because of the encroaching liberalism which was beginning to take over sectors of the Presbyterian church, including Princeton Seminary, Machen and a number of other professors resigned and started a new school, Westminster Theological Seminary, which is, of course, my alma mater where I received my masters and doctoral degrees.

Tonight, one of the sections I read in the biography had to do with Machen’s reaction, early in his career at Princeton, to the preaching of the evangelist, Billy Sunday, when the latter came to Philadelphia, in 1915, to conduct evangelistic meetings.  Sunday was, in essence, the Billy Graham of the first decades of the twentieth century.  His sermons were very colloquial and highly animated.  His evangelistic meetings were emotionally charged, perhaps even bordering on being in the showmanship category, and drawing crowds, in Philadelphia, of 20,000 people.  Additionally, Sunday had never attended seminary; and even though he was a member of a Presbyterian church, he could only be characterized as a moderate Calvinist.

Machen, on the other hand, was somewhat of an introvert, very academic, a strong Calvinist, and rightly critical of some of Sunday’s methods, resistant to the showmanship.  But what would Machen’s reaction be to the content of Sunday’s preaching?  I reproduce here some scattered comments that Machen wrote about Sunday:

[From the first time Machen heard him]: The text of the sermon was Rom. 12:1, and the treatment was thoroughly textual.  I was impressed as I have seldom been with the permanent power of great words.  In an environment so intensely modern, the words of Paul seem to be as up-to-date as they ever were.

The big argument for Billy Sunday is the result of his preaching.  “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

[From the second time Machen heard him]: I was very greatly impressed—far more so than on the other occasion.  The text was II Sam. 12:13.

The sermon was old-fashioned evangelism of the most powerful and elemental kind.  Much of it, I confess, left me cold . . . . But the total impact of the sermon was great. . . . The climax was the boundlessness of God’s mercy; and so truly had the sinfulness of sin been presented, that everybody present with any heart at all ought to have felt mighty glad that God’s mercy is boundless.  In the last five or ten minutes of that sermon, I got a new realization of the power of the gospel.

But what I really want you to catch is what Machen says in the two following paragraphs:

The surprising thing is that the gospel which is having this unprecedented effect in Philadelphia is so aggressively and uncompromisingly old-fashioned.  The magazines are expressing wonder at it.  This wretched, immoral conception of the atonement!  This absurd view of the authority of the Bible!  And not a thing about the “social gospel,” which everybody knows is the really powerful thing today!  Instead of it just the old notion of the individual soul in the presence of God!  Even the opponents have to admit that the thing is bringing results. . . .

The Unitarians in Philadelphia are carrying on an active fight against the Billy Sunday movement. . . . Every morning, on the page of the paper devoted to Billy Sunday, a Unitarian statement appears in opposition.  I like Billy Sunday for the enemies he has.

Atonement.  The authority of Scripture.  The gospel.  And a preacher who could be admired on account of his enemies.

I love it.

Jerry Shepherd
June 2, 2014

One thought on “J. Gresham Machen and Billy Sunday

  1. I wrote my church history paper on Billy Sunday. When you read his sermons you get the impression that he knew his Bible well. There were some deep flaws in his ministry and character but as a whole I don’t think you could have accused him of being sloppy with the text.

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