A Note On Machen’s Death
John G. Bales
Some of the details of J. Gresham Machen’s death on New Year’s Day 1937 are recorded in two excellent biographies by Ned Stonehouse and D. G. Hart. But on a recent trip back to my hometown of Bismarck, North Dakota, I was able to view copies of the Bismarck Tribune for January 2nd and 4th, 1937, at the State Library. The following is a very brief attempt to provide more details surrounding Machen’s death.
Machen traveled to Bismarck at the request of Rev. Samuel J. Allen, a former student of Machen at Princeton Seminary and Westminster Seminary. Allen, a pastor of churches at Carson and Leith, had been one of the constituting ministers of the First General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (now known as the Orthodox Presbytertian Church) in 1936. He had been barred by a PCUSA court order from exercising any control or preaching at the churches where he was serving because of his association with the new Presbyterian movement. There was at least one other local Presbyterian pastor who was being prosecuted by the presbytery for similar reasons. Machen came to these small, northern plains churches to speak on the differences between the newly formed Presbyterian Church of America (now OPC) and the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, the parent denomination from which Machen and other conservative Presbyterians had separated themselves. (Allen left North Dakota in 1940 to serve Gethsemane OPC in Philadelphia. He later returned to the PCUSA. Carson OPC is the only remaining particularized OPC in the state.)
As Machen travelled from Leith to Bismarck, he became ill with what he assumed was pleurisy. After he was attended to by a Bismarck physician, Machen gave a speech in a Bismarck auditorium despite having a fever of 102 degrees. By the following morning pneumonia had set in, from which he never recovered. He died in the Bismarck Hospital (as Stonehouse reminds us, “a Roman Catholic institution.”)
Adjacent to the Bismarck Tribune’s January 2nd article on Machen’s death announcement was another article from Chicago in which Dr. Herman N. Bundesen, Chicago Health Commissioner, reported that 521 persons had died of influenza and pneumonia in Chicago in December 1936. Influenza and pneumonia are often categorized together by government agencies which collect such information. Further research indicates that there were thirteen Type A influenza epidemics between 1934 and 1963 in the United States. The worst was the epidemic between January and March 1937. According to the National Office of Vital Statistics, more people died in the United States of influenza and pneumonia in that three month stretch than at any other time during that thirty year period. Machen died during an epidemic when tens of thousands died of a similar cause.