Pleasant Mountain Presbyterian is a congregation in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Our denomination was formed on June 11, 1936 after almost two decades of controversy within the northern Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). Sometimes known as the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, the conflict among Presbyterians produced a number of different conservative parties, some advocating the “fundamentals” of the faith, some lamenting the loss of Christian civilization in the United States, and some wanting to maintain the character of Reformed faith and practice.
The best-known of conservative Presbyterians during the 1920s and 1930s was J. Gresham Machen, the man who also led in the founding of the OPC. A New Testament scholar at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1906 to 1929, Machen challenged the emergence of liberalism in the Presbyterian Church through scholarly and popular books. In his biblical scholarship, such as The Origin of Paul’s Religion (1921) and The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930), Machen defended the historicity of the New Testament and resisted the trends of modern liberal scholars. His popular works defended historic Protestantism from the acids of relativism that tried to separate the kernel of Christianity (e.g., God’s love) from its husk (e.g., Christ’s vicarious atonement). Through his popular writing and speaking, Machen became a modest celebrity and the person that many editors and professors invited to express the conservative Protestant perspective on the issues of the day.
Machen was not simply a professor and speaker, but also a deeply committed churchman. Throughout the 1920s he sought to turn back the influence of liberalism in the Presbyterian Church. But the forces against him were too great and too deeply entrenched. His opponents often heaped ridicule upon him and other conservatives, and blamed Machen for the controversy in the church. The opposition was so great that church leaders in 1929 eventually reorganized Princeton Seminary, the one denominational institution that refused to give a green light to changes in the church. This action led Machen to found Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia to train the kind of pastors that Princeton had traditionally. In the 1930s, Machen continued to try to reform the Presbyterian Church. In 1932 when a controversial report on foreign missions, co-sponsored by the Presbyterian Church, was published, Machen led the charge among conservatives. The report stated that the old rationale for missions of saving the lost was no longer adequate for modern times. For Machen and other conservatives, this was a singular example of liberalism’ inroads into the highest levels of the denomination’s agencies and confirmation that it was not Christianity but another kind of religion.
Nevertheless, Machen’s arguments could not change the official Board of Foreign Missions. In 1933 he helped to found the Independent Board for Presbyterian Missions. Officials in the Presbyterian Church ruled, however, that the new board was illegal. They also instructed the presbyteries to bring members of the new board to trial for violating their ordination vows. In 1935 the Presbytery of New Brunswick found Machen guilty and suspended him from the ministry. After the General Assembly of 1936 rejected Machen’s appeal (along with several other members of the Independent Board), he led other conservatives in founding the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Its aim was to be the spiritual successor to true Presbyterian Church in the United States.
Although its numbers have been small since 1936, the OPC has maintained that original vision that Machen formulated. Too Reformed for fundamentalists and evangelicals, and too conservative for liberal Protestants, the OPC has often been misunderstood for its adherence to Calvinistic creeds, Presbyterian polity and Reformed worship. Yet, as unpopular as its witness has been, the church is still committed to the idea that Machen propounded throughout his life – namely, that the Reformed faith is a glorious summary of what God has revealed in his infallible and inspired Word.
For further reading:
D. G. Hart and John R. Muether, Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia: OPC Committee for the Historian, 1995).