Volume 13, Issue 1: Historia
History on Location
One Lord's Day I preached in the chapel of a magnificent building in the ancient part of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was rented for the inaugural service of a new, tiny Presbyterian church. First Timothy 6:12 was my text: "Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses…" The text recalls what warfare it is to embrace the gospel, and charged this body to fight for their faith, to live by their confession, to bring up their children in it, and to hold their ministers accountable to it.
After the service I strolled the churchyard. In the still graveyard I saw monuments of many who fell in 1777, having died for the cause of liberty. This was my first time in Pennsylvania, my first visit to places I had read about. I knew what had happened there, but I knew only from books. I stared long into those grave stones, monuments of a war I had never seen nor touched before. I marveled.
The following day I traveled to my real destination for that trip, Philadelphia. I was on Highway 1, squinting tourist-like at a road map. Focused on my destination, I was wholly unprepared for what I passed. To the left: Brandywine Battlefield. Brandywine! Oh, those were dark times for the Continental Army. September 11, 1777, was one of the bloodiest days in the whole war. Washington could not hold back Howe and Cornwallis, and from here the red coats moved on to Philadelphia. My car turned to the battlefield. From the lot I saw a general's headquarters: was it Washington's or Lafayette's? As my car idled I glanced at my watch. This was not the battlefield I had come for, so I returned to the highway, on to Philadelphia.
I turned onto Interstate 76. Again I was startled by a sign my map hadn't warned me about: the Valley Forge exit. After Philly was taken, 12,000 men of the Continental Army marched up Gulph Road to Valley Forge. I was practically there. I thought of Howe's men celebrating in the city while Washington's men foraged for supplies and while Baron von Steuben drilled them. My car changed lanes to exit, but again I glanced at my watch. No time now; the real battlefield was still ahead.
My exit was next. After a few turns I found the arterial: Germantown Avenue. Signs along the row houses identified Cliveden House, the British headquarters that Henry Knox bombarded. There was Johnson House, a site of more fighting. The Battle of Germantown on October 10, 1777, was General Washington's hardy attempt at driving the British from Philadelphia. He failed and withdrew to Valley Forge. I didn't stop; I had to stay on course. Germantown was close, but I had come to see the battlefield near Chestnut Hill, Church Road.
I arrived at last, pulled up the drive, and stopped at a stone building. I found myself standing in Machen Hall, Westminster Theological Seminary. I could have stood there for hours were it not for the receptionist, who wasn't used to seeing a guy who could just stand there for hours. "Can I help you?"
She directed me to the Montgomery Library across the way. There I was greeted kindly, and led down two flights of stairs. A very solid door was keyed and opened to me. Now, finally, I entered the battlefield I had come to see. This was the archive holding the papers of Dr. J. Gresham Machen. Boxes sat on the floor, and smaller ones were stacked to my left, all labeled, filling the whole wall. It was a vast correspondence, dwarfing the nearby papers of Van Til and Murray.
I chose boxes containing letters from 1935 and 1936, sat down, and for three glorious days I relived the greatest war, for the noblest cause, that the city of Philadelphia had ever known. Here was the war I had come to relive. This war my children, and my children's children, must never forget.
Here were letters from pastors from all over the country, asking Dr. Machen his advice about this presbytery fight, about that point of doctrine. "My book on Paul might be helpful on this point," Machen would write, "I have instructed our bookstore to send you a copy," and added, in case after case, "of course, at no cost to you." Here were letters from grandmothers thanking him for his important work in the war. Here was a handwritten letter from his colleague, Professor Murray, attached to Murray's typewritten article on confessional subscription in the Church of Scotland - Machen had needed it for something. Here were letters from the Secretary of the Presbyterian Board for Foreign Missions, Robert Speer, whom Machen had debated before presbytery in 1933. Here was a letter from Lewis Mudge, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly that in 1936 dismissed Machen's appeal, and thereby suspended Machen from the ministry. Here were simple questions written in crude grammar. Machen would reply promptly, with sound answers, and with warm gratitude for so important a question.
Machen's sister-in-law had coaxed a Christmas list out of him: Machen wanted books, of course, classics in Greek. And here was the telegram he dictated as he lay on his deathbed, to Professor Murray: "I'm so thankful for active obedience of Christ. No hope without it."
This was war, artillery in every bit of correspondence. I pored over the papers, page after page, file upon file, battle blows. My thoughts returned to my sermon the previous day. I had put in a good deal of study before delivering it. But as I sat over those papers, I realized that I was just now coming to know the text I had preached: "Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses..."