America did not enter the 1914-1918 war until April 6, 1917, although events were followed closely on that side of the water.
Machen's attitude to the war can be gauged from his complaint that Princeton was a hot-bed of patriotic enthusiasm and military ardour, which made him feel like a man without a country. (see Stonehouse, 247). Like other men of God it was Machen's lot often to feel out of step with his times. It happened with regard to the war and with regard to liberalism. (Another obvious example of this was his failure to support Prohibition in the election of 1928 and took the view that this is not even the sort of question the church should advise government on - for which he was unfairly castigated as a drunk).
Machen was at odds with Woodrow Wilson's use of war for idealist aims - to make the world safe for democracy. In a letter to his mother, he declared that,
“An alleged war in the interest of democracy … does not appeal to me .... This talk about British democracy arouses my ire as much as anything.” After the war, he concluded that, “The war for humanity, so far as its result is concerned, looks distressingly like an old-fashioned land-grab.” (Stonehouse, 244, 299).
Writing against a book promoting imperialism, he says (Stonehouse, 246)
“Imperialism, to my mind, is satanic, whether it is German or English … I am opposed to all imperial ambitions, wherever they may be cherished and with whatever veneer of benevolent assimilation they may be disguised … The author glorifies war and ridicules efforts at the production of mutual respect and confidence among equal nations …. [The book] makes me feel anew the need for Christianity … what a need for the gospel!”
Writing to his mother in September 1914 about the Allies he said (Stonehouse, 244)
The alliance of Great Britain with Russia and Japan seems to me still an unholy thing – an unscrupulous effort to crush the life out of a progressive commercial rival. Gradually a coalition had to be gotten together against Germany, and the purpose of it was only too plain. An alleged war in the interest of democracy the chief result of which will be to place a splendid people at the mercy of Russia does not appeal to me.
Great Britain seems to me the least democratic of all the civilized nations of the world – with a land-system that makes great masses of the people practically serfs, and a miserable social system that is more tyrannical in the really important, emotional side of life than all the political oppression that ever was practised. And then if there is such a thing as British democracy it has no place for any rival on the face of the earth. The British attitude towards Germany’s just effort at a place in ocean trade seems to me one of the great underlying causes of the war.
Shortly before America entered the war he wrote to his Congressman complaining about the draft. He was keen to make clear that he was not a pacifist but was convinced that compulsory military service brought not a danger of militarism but was militarism. He wrote (Stonehouse, 247)
“Even temporary conscription goes against the grain with me, unless it is resorted to to repel actual invasion, but my fundamental objection is directed against compulsory service in time of peace.
The country seems to be rushing into two things to which I am more strongly opposed than anything else in the world – a permanent alliance with Great Britain, which will inevitably mean a continuance of the present vassalage, and a permanent policy of compulsory military service with all the brutal interference of the state in individual and family life which that entails, and which has caused the misery of Germany and France.”
“The real indictment against the modern world is that by the modern world human liberty is being destroyed. At that point I know many modern men could only with difficulty repress a smile. The word liberty has today a very archaic sound; it suggests G.A. Henty, flag waving, the boys of ’76, and the like. Twentieth-century intellectuals, it is thought, have long ago outgrown all such childishness as that. So the modern historians are spelling “liberty,” when they are obliged to use the ridiculous word, in quotation marks: no principle, they are telling us, was involved, for example, in the American Revolution; economic causes alone produced that struggle; and Patrick Henry was engaging in cheap melodrama when he said, “Give me liberty or give me death.””
On returning to the USA after the war Machen, like others, saw that many of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles constituted an attack on international and interracial peace so that war would follow war “in a wearisome progression.” As he had warned before the war, his own country faced, “the miserable prospect of the continuance of the evils of war even into peace times.” As often happens with “temporary” government agencies, the war bureaucracies continued to grow and centralise.
A book has recently appeared under the P&R imprint containing letters written from Europe by Machen during the war. There had been thoughts of publishing them nearer the time but it never happened and it is only now that Dr Barry Waugh has transcribed and edited the letters for publication under the title Letters from the front: J Gresham Machen's Correspondence from World War I. The book is about 360 pages in length and contains an introduction and reflections with the bulk of the book being taken up with the letters, chiefly to his mother, who the bachelor loved dearly. The letters were written between January 22, 1918 and March 2, 1919. The book also contains some translations of letters written to Machen in French during the period.
When America declared war Machen was 36 and above the draft age. He wanted to aid the war effort, however. Darryl Hart (Hart, 44) points out that Machen's father had died in 1915 and that he was feeling in a rut at Princeton where students were unresponsive. Hart says that part of his motivation was to “make a difference outside academia”. He thought that as a chaplain his rank would keep him from interacting with ordinary soldiers. He considered driving ambulance but it became clear that there was an abundance of volunteers for that work, which could involve transporting munitions and so it as a YMCA worker that on January 16 of the following year Machen left America. Machen was quite cool towards the YMCA in many ways (he feared “desecration of the Sabbath in the name of Christianity and the like”) but it offered educational and literacy programmes for soldiers and sought to give moral and spiritual guidance at the front, which is where he wanted to be. Their huts in France offered hot chocolate, cigarettes and other goods to soldiers. Machen was eager to be involved in the “religious work” (Machen did not like the expression and always put it in quotation marks when he used it, 239) and did hold many Bible studies with soldiers eventually but he spent much of his time making hot chocolate and serving in other menial ways. He was “a grocery clerk and nothing else” he once quipped. At times he was quite close to the front and knew his share of bombings and other deprivations. The war ended November 11, 1918 but it was some time before Machen felt able and willing to leave Europe for home. Stephen J Nichols has commented on the impact of the war that “the loss of life and the devastation of the landscape” stunned Machen so that he could no longer be “the same academic scholar enjoying his detached academic life”. (Nichols, 40).
The letters are very personal and chatty in tone and contain little of a theological nature and sometimes nothing overtly Christian. However, they are of great interest as they not only give us a good deal of biographical background to a man who God greatly used in his time but also paint for us a picture of a Christian man seeking to serve the Lord in the midst of trying circumstances. His first biographer Ned Stonehouse calls it a “singular period” and says that “on the dark and sombre background of the war some of the facets of Machen's character light up with exceptional brilliance” (Stonehouse, 240).
A number of things come out in Waugh's collection.
1. His desire to be useful and helpful
Throughout it is clear that Machen's chief desire is to be useful in whatever way he can. He wanted to bring the gospel to the men and to help fellow believers, of course, but where that was not possible he was happy to make hot chocolate or to do whatever was needed.
Towards the end of the war he gave a large donation to the McCall Mission. He was not completely satisfied with them but thought they might use the money better than the Red Cross.
2. His desire to bring God's Word to people
His religious efforts were often frustrated. Waugh mentions that Sunday was often pay day for soldiers and that entertainments were often organised then and so “Machen's complaints about the difficulty of serving the soldiers' spiritual needs can easily be understood.”
He made his impact nevertheless. For example Waugh cites a war memoir by R W Johnson that refers to Machen when he worked in Pexonne (163). It reads
In one of the buildings in the central part of the village the Y. M. C. A. had established a canteen, and we wish to say that it was one of the best Y. M. C. A.'s we ever had with us. Our hats are off to the "Y" man of Pexonne.
On December 17, 1918 Machen wrote (239) of feeling encouraged by meetings he had been able to take speaking on The spiritual battle. “Perhaps my trip is going to be worthwhile” he says, betraying how frustrating ut had been to that point.
3. His willingness to make do
Cornelius Van Til once commented on Machen
Machen was known for being a sharp dresser and having a consistent stylish look Well, after he died they found 20 or 30 exact copies of the same suit in his closet!
In war torn France such snappy dressing had to be forgotten. Waugh comments
In France, he spent months in a wet wool uniform, the odour of which was further enhanced by his own filthy body that had not been washed in months.
He became quite expert not only at making hot chocolate in conditions that would give health and safety experts heart failure but also became an expert at catching and killing rats.
On March 2, 1918 he writes (44)
At times I feel a longing for a land of peace and for home. I feel as though it would be a relief to the yes to see a window pane once more, and a relief to the ears not to hear at intervals the noise of the guns and distant shells. There is one little baby in our village. In the midst of the military surroundings it is refreshing to see the little face. I wonder what its first impression of life will be in the midst of all this ruin.
Spiritually, he had to make do too – reading his English Bible rather than in Greek, which brought home some things with a freshness; worshipping with Roman Catholics. Of one sermon he says
“It was far, far better than what we got from the Protestant liberals” (319). In conversation afterwards, he could not agree with the priest on the mass but responded to a complaint that the phrase “descended into hell” was missing from versions issued to American soldiers “I could assure him that I disapproved as much as he did of the mutilation of the creed” (282).
4. His very human foibles
Machen was sometimes frustrated with his fellow workers and by contrary providences and is often disappointed in decisions made that were beyond his control. It is common for him to express his frustrations in one letter only to regret these in another and apologise for being so negative. At one point he loses his fountain pen and at another, more significantly, a suitcase of belongings. On another occasion he is disappointed to hear of a letter and a parcel sent a month before not having arrived. The letters reveal something of the real man not some public image.
5. His intellectual thirst and delight in French culture.
Several times in this period Machen was in Paris and other important French cities such as Tours and was able to take in what they had to offer by way of culture. He made great efforts to acquire the French language though he often felt frustrated by the lack of opportunity and his own slow progress. He loved going to the theatre to watching French plays and later lectures at the Sorbonne, although he regretted not having done so more when he could. At one point he says “it is tantalizing to read the Sunday bills” (270) announcing what was on at the theatre in Paris.
He also later developed quite and interest in French history and says in one place (230)
A perverse desire has come over me to steep myself in the history of the renaissance or of the grand siecle instead of preparing my Sprunt lectures.
In 1915 he had been invited to give the Sprunt lectures at Union Seminary for 1921. These formed the basis of his book The origin of Paul's religion.
6. His thankfulness to God
At the close of the war itself Machen wrote a long letter to his mother. He says (213)
Perhaps, one might regret not having been at Paris when the stupendous news came in. But I do not think I regret it. We heard indeed no clamour of joyful bells, no joyful shouts, no singing of the Marseillaise. But we heard something greater by far – in contrast with the familiar roar of war – namely the silence of that misty morning. I think I can venture upon the paradox. That was a silence that could really be heard. I suppose that it was the most eloquent, the most significant in the history of the world. … But joy should not be careless or exuberant, the dead were being brought in just as I passed … It seemed almost impossible. On that exuberant joyful morning when the whole world was shouting, what possible place was there for death and sorrow? God knows and he alone. Meanwhile I felt more humble but not less thankful.
Towards the end he writes (218)
Meanwhile I am thankful to God for the preservation of my own life. Or rather, that does not just express what I mean, and I am not quite sure whether I can express it. I mean rather that I am thankful that God has not put upon me more than I could bear. It is obvious that other men are far braver and cooler than I am. I lose sleep when they seem to think nothing at all of the dangers that hover in the air. But out in the dressing-station, when the shells were falling close around, I somehow gained the conviction that I was in God's care and that He would not try me beyond my strength & that courage would keep pace with danger, or rather that danger (for I confess it turns out rather that way) would keep within the limits of courage! If for example a shell had hit within five feet of my head & I had been blown six or eight feet by the blast I am a little afraid that my nerves would have given way & I should not have been able to continue my service as coolly as one of my YMCA colleagues did under those circumstances. Nothing terrific like that happened to me, & I got through the trying days, though not at all with distinction, at least without distinct disgrace.