[I received the following email from historian of American Christianity, George Marsden. An author of 10 books, Dr. Marsden is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.
His father, noted in the email, was Robert Marsden who, according to A Ministerial Register of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1936-1991, was born in Philadelphia in 1905, received an A.B. at Penn in 1927, studied at Princeton Theological Seminary 1927-1929, and graduated from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1930. A pastor in the OPC, he died in 1960.]
Thank you for sending your book. I have not yet finished it, but I have been very fascinated by the parts that I have read, particularly the controversy in the OPC. I am particularly interested in that because “the Clark controversy” was a common phrase that I heard during my childhood years. And I knew quite a few of the people involved. Ed Kellogg was our pastor in Middletown. I remember when Strong and Gray et al left the denomination, particularly because one of their allies was Frank Dyrness who ran the Quarryville Bible Conference and my father was on the board of that. I attended the Conference a couple of times, including I think in 1948 when I was 9 and the breakup was in full swing.
My father was, of course, deeply involved in a lot of this. I gave the papers I had of his to the Westminster Library a year or so ago, but I did not notice much directly on the controversy. He inherited the executive job for the Christian University after Rian left and it was being phased out. But those papers don’t indicate much except who was contributing to the cause. He was also the moderator of the 1946 General Assembly, I believe. I think, like Kellogg, he was initially on the side of Clark, but then lined up with the WTS folks versus those who left. So he was viewed highly enough by the WTS faculty to get job as Executive Secretary of WTS in 1947 (prior to that he was the denomination’s secretary for home and foreign missions—probably his letters re the controversy are in those files). He must have known Clark from way back. He was 3 years younger than Clark and from the same part of Philadelphia (though I think they went to another Presbyterian church) and they were at Penn at the same time as Senior and Freshman—and then Clark was a grad student and headed the League of Evangelical Students to which I’m pretty sure my father belonged—since he then went on to Princeton Theological Seminary.
Because of his deep involvement in all this, I’ve long wondered what was going on. I later got to know the Westminster faculty people fairly well and regarded them as persons of the highest integrity. Somehow Van Til convinced them that there was a matter of high principle involved and Murray was willing to argue for that. But it seems clear, as it did even to many pro-WTS types at the time, that they were setting a standard of doctrinal precision for Clark that would not have applied to anyone else. (This was complicated by the fact that Clark as well as Van Til was very argumentative and would not concede much about his positions—so there was not much of an atmosphere to encourage agreeing to disagree—the earlier Wheaton controversy suggests that he was prone to get into such disputes.) But to me the most illuminating point is the Program for Action that involved gaining control of WTS and turning the denomination in a direction that would be more attractive to fundamentalists. This became a political battle for control of the denomination. Ostensively it was about Clark. But the majority who sided with WTS in a general way, even if not necessarily on the specifics of the doctrinal-philosophical debate, managed to make it uncomfortable enough for those who designed the Program of Action that they left. I guess the crucial moment was the firing of Rian from the Christian University. And, as you show, others associated with that party were going to be given a hard time. But in the meantime, the tide had actually turned in favor of Clark so that the question of his ordination was no longer really the issue. I do think that there is something to Hakkenberg’s point (if I recall it) that this was the second instance in the wake of Machen’s death when his followers battle over whether the denomination would be more “American” or follow the lead of the Dutch allied with one Scotsman.
I’m not writing this as a criticism of the way you present things. I think you present them very well. I’m just trying to think through for myself how “the Clark case” could turn out to be such a fiasco that went so far beyond the bounds of the theological questions involved. Partly because of his own strong personality, partly over the precisionism of Van Til and others, and party because of the dissatisfaction of those who saw (with some justification I think) the OPC as getting to withdrawn into its doctrinal shell, it became the precipitant for a major political struggle for control of the denomination.
So thank you for your fine contribution. I understand the matter better now—even if questions remain.