Tuesday, January 21, 2020

African American Morticians



Donna Tyler Hollie

The General Assembly of Maryland enacted legislation in 1902 which established the Maryland State Board of Undertakers. The Board was formally organized on May 22, 1902 at 413 E. Fayette Street and was composed of five undertakers, the Secretary of the Board of Health and the Health Commissioner, all of whom were appointed by the governor and charged with registering, certifying, licensing and monitoring all funeral directors and embalmers in Maryland.[1]

The intent of this article is to offer an overview of African American funeral directors and embalmers as reflected in the minutes of the Maryland State Board of Undertakers.

All of the members of the Board were white men. Three classes of licenses were issued: one to Undertakers who were authorized to embalm and conduct funerals, one to Funeral Directors who could only conduct funerals and a third to Assistant Undertakers who could conduct funerals only under the supervision of a licensed undertaker.[2] The Board administered written and oral examinations in which applicants were required to demonstrate their knowledge of human anatomy and sanitary practices. In the first decades of the Board’s existence there was a $20.00 fee for the examination, which was refunded if the applicant failed.

Upon successful completion of these tests, applicants for the undertakers’ license were required to demonstrate their ability to embalm, using unclaimed cadavers supplied by the Baltimore City Health Department.[3] License renewal was required every two years, with a $5.00 renewal fee.[4] The Board had the power to suspend or revoke licenses for acts contrary to State regulations and for “conduct unbecoming an Undertaker and Embalmer.”[5] Conducting funerals and/or embalming without a license were illegal and the offender was subject to financial and/or criminal penalties. For example, Edward Bryan and George Snowden, of Montgomery County, were reprimanded by the Board for transporting and burying cadavers without obtaining the necessary permits from the Commissioner of Health.[6] Leonard Whalen received a much harsher penalty, revocation of his license, for not burying until April 26, 1929 a man who died on January 21, 1929.[7]

Baltimore’s African American community at the time the Maryland State Board of Undertakers began operation was unique in several ways. First, there was the legacy of the antebellum era when Baltimore was home to the largest population of free Blacks in the nation. In 1830, for example, there were 4,120 slaves and 14,790 free Blacks in the city.[8] In addition, Baltimore’s free Blacks had been relatively prosperous and extremely pro-active in their efforts to improve the quality of life for the entire African American community. Compared to New Orleans, which also had a substantial free Black population, Blacks in Baltimore were much less socially stratified. Consequently, there was a great deal of interaction and cooperation between slaves and free Blacks in the areas of religion, education and business. Also, free Blacks and slaves worked in concert in the Underground Railroad and other anti-slavery efforts. These collaborative efforts were both the result of and a stimulus for unity and strength within the antebellum African American community. After Emancipation, racial segregation fostered a degree of independence from the white community and a continuation of interdependence among people of color.

This spirit of unity was prevalent in June 1902 when Alexander Hemsley, Charles G. Bailey, Felix Pye of St. Mary’s County, Maryland, and John H. Toadvine became the first African American funeral directors/embalmers licensed by the State of Maryland. A week later, licenses were granted to Clarence E. Wright, Robert A. Elliott, Isaac Brown and Joseph Locks.[9] Prior to licensure, most of these men had worked cooperatively in the funeral industry for several years, their businesses having evolved from cabinet/coffin making and from driving carriages. For example, Hemsley, a cabinet maker, practiced as an undertaker at 116 Orchard Street in Baltimore as early as 1881 and in 1884 he conducted the funeral of his friend and fellow undertaker, John W. Locks.[10]

Locks, who owned a fleet of hacks or carriages, worked in conjunction with Hemsley to provide burial services to the African American community. Neither had ever been enslaved and both were financially successful and active participants in religious, fraternal, political and civic organizations before the Civil War. Locks, who had been involved in labor unions, was a co-founder of The Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company.[11] Additionally, he was a leader of Bethel A.M.E. church and served on the board of trustees of the Howard Normal School, which was founded in 1867 for the education of African Americans.[12] Hemsley rose to a position of power as the Deputy Grand Master of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. Following his death in 1912, his son, Samuel, inherited the business which remained in operation for many years.[13]

Many widows also inherited funeral businesses. In the era before public welfare, Social Security and other governmental programs designed to aid the indigent were established, widowed women faced tremendous economic obstacles. Those of African descent were particularly disadvantaged and had limited occupational choices. Apparently, the Board recognized the economic difficulty confronting women, as they were extremely liberal in granting licenses, doing so without requiring examinations as they did for men. Mrs. Joseph G. Locks, the former Edna Francis, was the first African American woman granted a license in Maryland. Her husband’s license had been renewed in April 1911 but by July of that year he was dead from appendicitis.[14] Edna Francis Locks continued the business, more than likely with the assistance of her husband’s friends and fellow undertakers, Hemsley, Samuel Chase and Willis Madden. On 23 April, 1912, the Board granted her a license in her own name.[15] For more than twenty years she operated a funeral business which evolved from the hack service established by her husband’s grandfather in 1865.[16]

In a similar manner, Mrs. Robert Elliott (Zorah) entered the funeral business. In 1913, Samuel Hemsley appeared before the Board and reported that Mrs. Elliott was conducting funerals without a license. (Additional research is necessary in order to clearly define his motivation in making this report.) Summoned before the Board, she admitted that she had violated the regulations out of economic necessity. Her husband had passed away and she had no other means of support. The Board’s decision was to invite her to apply for a license which was promptly approved. She was required, however, to hire licensed undertakers to embalm for her.[17] Since that time, women have been continuously involved in the operation of this establishment. The Elliott Funeral Home, at the corner of Caroline and Biddle Streets, was subsequently operated by Ida Elliott Jones Snowden, who was the daughter of Robert Elliott and the widow of two undertakers, Charles Jones and George Snowden. The Betts Funeral Home currently operates at the same location under the direction of licensed funeral director and embalmer, Mrs. Patricia Betts.

Gender equality and transgenerational support were hallmarks of the African American funeral directors’ community. While women inherited businesses from men, men were often beneficiaries of the knowledge, skill and business acumen of women. For example, Mrs. George A. Holland (Helen) and Mrs. James H. Dennis (Elizabeth) were both widowed and subsequently licensed to continue businesses operated by their husbands. Mrs. Holland, a childless woman, nurtured and trained a non-related neighborhood youth who worked at her establishment after school and during summer vacations. She bequeathed the establishment to him and he currently operates it, with his sons, as Nutter Funeral Home.[18] Thomas E. Kelson, who served his apprenticeship under Mrs. Dennis, continued to operate the business after her death. The Board approved his request to advertise as “Thomas E. Kelson, successor to Mrs. James H. Dennis.[19] George Kelson, who served his apprenticeship under his brother, Thomas, inherited the business. Like Helen Holland, George Kelson trained a non-related neighborhood youth, Vernon Bailey, who operated the establishment after his mentor’s death.

Katie Ringgold Williams stands in contrast to other women in the funeral industry in that she was the first to obtain a license without inheriting a business from her deceased husband. While employed as a waitress in a hotel, Williams may have worked in or served an apprenticeship with a local mortician. In March 1920, she was one of seventeen people---eleven white men, two white women and three African American men---who passed the licensing examinations.[20] Probably the most financially successful female to engage in Baltimore’s funeral business, Williams buried between 10,000-13,000 people during her forty year career.[21] The Baltimore Afro-American Newspapers reported in the January 19, 1963 issue that more than 1,500 people attended the funeral services for the Baltimore native and that twelve clergymen participated, praising Williams for her charitable acts.

According to her nephew, Charles Powell, Williams was trained in anatomy at Johns Hopkins Hospital and received a diploma in 1920.[22] No documentation supporting this statement has been uncovered, however, Joseph G. Locks, Jr.’s assertion that his father was employed in the Johns Hopkins Hospital morgue gives credence to the theory that some informal education in anatomy may have been obtained by African Americans at Hopkins.[23] While adhering to the restrictions of a racially segregated society, the Board recognized the need for formal training for African Americans and, in 1910, voted to inquire of “Dr. Winsey (colored) or any other reputable colored practitioners of medicine as to the possibility of getting them to establish a School of Instruction in Embalming for colored applicants.”[24] The Board’s minutes do not reflect that such a school was ever established. However, the fact that the Harvard educated Whitfield Winsey was a faculty member at Provident Hospital, Baltimore’s teaching hospital established by and for African Americans, suggests the possibility that some training of embalmers may have occurred there.[25]

In matters of race, the Board’s behavior varied. Throughout the minutes, women of both races, who were either in the funeral business or applicants for licenses were consistently referred to by their husband’s first and last names. For example, Edna Francis Locks was referred to in the Board’s minutes as Mrs. Joseph Locks, a courtesy usually extended only to white women. Perhaps the fact that these women operated businesses gave them elevated status in the eyes of the members of the Board. It was not until 1920 that the Board consistently used racial designations when referring to undertakers, most often by inserting the word “colored” in parenthesis after the person’s name. In 1935 Sol Levinson became the first Jewish President of the Board and at that time the practice of identifying people by race ceased. In 1936, the practice was resumed but on an inconsistent basis. In 1924, white applicants were tested in the mornings and Blacks in the afternoon. In subsequent years, both races were tested together.

The passing grade for examinations was seventy-five and few applicants passed at the first attempt. Why then, did so many come to Maryland from Virginia, West Virginia, the District of Colombia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Illinois to be licensed?[26] Joseph Locks, Jr. who passed on his first attempt, theorizes that the examination, although difficult, was easier and more objectively administered than in other states. In states where licensing was not mandatory, some undertakers viewed the acquisition of a license as good for business in that they could advertise themselves as being better qualified than unlicensed individuals. For example, in 1926 John Edward Thomas of Accomack, Virginia applied for licensure in Maryland. Days before the scheduled examination he withdrew his application, indicating that he was too busy burying victims of a mill explosion to come to Baltimore to take the test. The Board voted to refund his application fee. He subsequently reapplied and was successful in passing the examinations.[27] The minutes of the Board do not reveal any bias toward African Americans in the administration of the examination. Baltimore , a city with a history of de facto and de jure segregation in all areas of life--housing, education, religious and social activities and medical care--had a need for African American embalmers, in order to maintain racial segregation even in death.

Again, due to racial segregation, African Americans were unable to join professional organizations established by whites. They therefore formed the Colored Funeral Directors Association in 1904. Among the men who held leadership positions in the organization were Bernard P. Hemsley, Samuel T. Hemsley and John M. Johnson. The first mention of this organization in the minutes of the Board was in 1935. While the group had no official decision making capability, the Board frequently contacted them and took their opinions into consideration before announcing their rulings. As an example, when Adolphus Halstead, who operated an establishment at 904 N. Eutaw St., applied for a license to open a branch office on Brantly Ave., the Board requested the officers of the CFDA to appear in case they wanted to oppose his application. Following their testimony, Halstead withdrew his application.[28] Officers of the CFDA also appeared before the Board to support and defend members charged with inappropriate conduct. In addition, the CFDA policed its members and referred those who did not adhere to State regulations to the Board for censure. The group may have acted out of economic necessity, fearing that all might have suffered for the negative actions of one funeral director. Such actions were common among oppressed people who seek the approval of the majority culture as a means of demonstrating and validating their own worth.[29]

African Americans were also oppressed in terms of access to burial insurance. White companies frequently refused to insure or severely limited the amount and type of insurance available to people of color, claiming that they were poor risks. To meet the need for burial funds, many African Americans turned to fraternal organizations such as the Knights of Pythias, The Order of Good Hopes and the Galilean Fishermen. Social organizations provided the same benefits. For example, one of the incentives for joining The Arch Social Club, which was founded in 1912, was the fact that members were entitled to sick benefits and burial funds. Included in this club’s membership were morticians George Kelson, Elroy Wilson, George Holland and George Bailey who served as president.[30]

Another response to the racism rampant in the insurance industry was the formation of The Burial Association of Baltimore in which mortician Charles H. Alexander, Addison D. Owens and George P. Bailey held positions of leadership. In addition to selling insurance to those considered poor risks, this group applied, as a corporation for an undertaker’s license. On at least one occasion, the Burial Association had been accused of failing to pay a claim to the survivors of a policy holder. Perhaps this was the reason why, after hearing testimony from the survivor and from the officers of The Colored Funeral Directors’ Association, the Board denied the license.

African American morticians have a long and productive history in the State of Maryland. Even prior to the period when licenses were required and a formal organizational structure existed, they functioned with a spirit of cooperation, placing the interests of the group above those of individuals. Through the years they supported needy members such as widows and provided both employment and opportunities for ownership to the younger members of the community. While other professions have sometimes denigrated the abilities of female members, morticians have, historically, supported, respected and learned from them. Currently, African Americans have a wider variety of career choices and opportunities than did the pioneers in the funeral industry. Consequently, there are fewer businesses being passed from parent to child than in years past. Other traditions, however---those which insured the survival and prosperity of African Americans---continue among members of the Funeral Directors and Morticians Association of Maryland, Incorporated.

African American Undertakers in Baltimore, 1920

Charles G. Bailey

John A. Bishop

Isaiah Brown & Son

Wilbert Brown

Samuel W. Chase & Son

James H. Dennis

Mrs. Robert A. Elliott

Joseph A. Farrell

Alfred J. Freeland

Samuel T. Hemsley

John W. Henderson

George H. Holland

George H. Hooper

John M. Johnson

Mrs. Joseph G. Locks

John H. Owens

Felix B. Pye, Sr

Edward Ringgold

John H. Toadvine

Theodore White

Clarence C. Wright

1421 Jefferson St.

1107 Druid Hill Ave.

108 W. Montgomery St

114 N. Schroeder St.

1400 Mosher St., Corner Calhoun St.

1303 Presstman St.

1725 Ashland Ave.

2319 Division St.

114 N. Schroeder St.

578 W. Biddle St.

31 N. Caroline St.

1631 Druid Hill Ave.

606 Little Paca St.

1234 Etting St.

618 N. Bond St.

1222 Division St.

102 E. Mulberry St.

1463 Carey St.

142 W. Hill St.

1702 Gough St.

1364 N. Carey St.[31]


Black Baltimore, 1870-1920, Alexander Hemsley. Maryland State Archives. http://www.mdarchives.state/md.us/msa/stagser/s1259/121/6050/html/114160000.html.

“Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers.” State Agency Histories. http://www.mdarchives.state.md.us/msa/refserv/staghist/html/sh81/html.

Certificate of Death #73820. Baltimore City. March 9, 1884.

Fields, Barbara Jeanne. Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Gaines, Kevin K. Uplifting The Race. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Gatewood, Willard B. Aristocrats of Color. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Locks, Joseph G. Interview by author. 4 July 1999.

_________. Interview by author. 2 September 2000

Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland, 1902-1939.

Nutter, Herbert. Interview by author. 21 January 1995.

Phillips, Christopher. Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790- 1860. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Powell, Charles. Interview by author. 19 September 1994.

The Baltimore Morning Herald. March 10, 1884

The Baltimore Sun. March 11, 1884.

The First Colored Professional, Clerical, Skilled and Business Directory of Baltimore City, 1920-1921. Baltimore: Robert W. Coleman, 1921.

The First Colored Professional, Clerical, Skilled and Business Directory of Baltimore City, 1931-1932. Baltimore: Robert W. Coleman, 1932.

Walker, Juliet E.K. The History of Black Business in America. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.

This article appeared in Flower of the Forest; Black Genealogical Journal Vol. II No. 7. 2000.

A Woman’s Touch

In a home disrupted by bereavement there are innumerable ways in which a lady assistant lends a helping hand. By her kindly manner and diligent application, order is brought out of chaos. Her womanly intuition adds warmth and understanding to the simplest detail. She anticipates every need in the household and is, by nature, able to sympathize perfectly with every member of the family. Such an assistant is part of our service.

Madison 0692

Mrs. George H. Holland

Funeral Directress and Embalmer

1631 Druid Hill Ave.

Baltimore Md.

Moncure A. Brown, Manager

Source: The First Colored Professional, Clerical, Skilled and Business Directory of Baltimore City, 1931-1932, p. 11.

[1]Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland. 1902-1908.

[2]Ibid., June 18, 1902.

[3]Ibid., May 25, 1928.

[4]By 1924 the fee had increased to $20.00. African Americans Eugene Waters, Byron Wright and Edward Graham were among those licensed that year with their fees paid by the United States Veteran’s Bureau.

[5]Ibid., May 10, 1929.

[6]Ibid., February 27, 1925.

[7] Ibid., May 10, 1929.

[8]Barbara Jeanne Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 62.

[9] Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland. June 18-24, 1902.

[10]Baltimore City Certificate of Death # 73820, March 9, 1884.

[11]The Baltimore Morning Herald, 10 March 1884. P.4.

[12]Willard B. Gatewood, Aristocrats of Color (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 263.

[13]Black Baltimore, 1870-1920, Alexander Hemsley. Maryland State Archives http://www.mdarchives.state.md.us/msa/stagser/s1259/121/6050/html/114160000.html

[14]Joseph G. Locks, Jr. Interview by author. 4 July 1999.

[15]Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland. April 23, 1912.

[17]Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland. March 11, 1913.

[18]Herbert Nutter. Interview by author, 21 January 1995.

[19]Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland. May 25, 1928.

[20]Ibid, March 5, 1920. See also Minutes dated March 12, 1925 and March 6, 1928: Williams’ husband, Clarence, passed the funeral directors’ examination in 1925. In 1928, the Board requested that he submit proof of graduation from high school in order to take the embalmer’s examination, however, there is no evidence that he ever did so.

[21]Charles Powell. Interview by author, 19 September 1994.


[23]Joseph G. Locks, Jr. Interview by author, 2 September 2000.

[24]Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland. September 23, 1910.

[25]Efforts to obtain early records of Provident Hospital have not been fruitful. Inquiries made at the John Mason Chesney Archives, which houses the records of the Johns Hopkins medical institutions, yielded no evidence of courses being offered to African Americans.

[26]In 1921, Robert Edward Williams and Daniel E. Smith of Philadelphia, Pa. applied. In 1927 John E. Ridgley of Washington D.C. and Henry G. Reynolds of Chicago, Ill were tested. In 1928 John Thomas of Accomac, Va. and Willie Staley of Pittsburg were tested.

[27]Minutes of the State Board of Undertakers of Maryland, March 9, 1926.

[28] Ibid. , May 10-June 19, 1929.

[29]For a comprehensive account of the effects of racism on the self-perception and behavior of African Americans see Uplifting The Race by Kevin K. Gaines.

[30] The First Colored Professional, Clerical, Skilled and Business Directory of Baltimore City, 1920-1921.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Good Neighbors & Family Papers: Roland Park, Baltimore

Good Neighbors and Family Papers:

C. Harvey Palmer, Jr. (1919-2019) &

Elizabeth Machen Palmer (1926-2008)

We have been fortunate all the years we have lived in Roland Park (since 1971) to have good neighbors. On the East side we shared a driveway and garage with Harvey and Betsy Palmer who were always friendly and helpful, giving good advice, a helping hand, and large gingerbread men cookies for the children at Christmas. Harvey even lent his Jeep Cherokee when a friend and I retrieved a player piano from upstate New York, and then they had to tolerate our limited antique collection of player piano rolls donated by another good neighbor, Dorothea R. Thorne (1933-2019), which wasn’t so bad, except perhaps in the Summers before air conditioning, when the William Tell overture was an oft repeated favorite.

Harvey and Betsy were aware they lived next door to an Archivist, and over the years Betsy sought advice on family papers and books which for the most part are now housed at the Library of Congress[1], although a few remain in family hands or were given away.

gift from the Library of Charles Carroll of Carrollton (September 19, 1737 – November 14, 1832)

library of ecpclio

Shortly before they left for their retirement home, Betsy arrived on our doorstep with a present of a book from the library of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a Maryland signer of the Declaration of Independence, containing a bookplate Carroll had purchased as a young man studying law in London. While Betsy knew how touched I would be by the gift of the bookplate, the book also proved significant. It is the collected works of Edmund Waller, an able politician and poet who advocated religious freedom, a theme dear to the heart of the Carrolls who were Roman Catholics.

Harvey Palmer (1919-2019),

Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Computer Engineering,

Johns Hopkins University[2]

Harvey was always working on some project or another. Most were successful, but not all. My favorite was the fish pond he built in their backyard adjoining our mutual driveway. He never was able to prevent it from leaking, but it was attractive nonetheless.

Harvey loved solving puzzles and knew my passion for historical ones. In 2016 when he was encouraged by the family to unburden himself of the remaining family papers Betsy had left him, he and his daughter Helen showed up on our doorstep with transcriptions of Betsy’s mother’s diaries (which were given to the Maryland State Archives) and a single letter postmarked Baltimore 1890, given to me to tell its story.

I promised Harvey I would, but set it aside until I ran across it in my effort to catalog and dispose of my own papers. It turned out to be quite a story that led me to an ex-Confederate grandfather and the life of the author, a prominent Presbyterian New Testament Scholar whose obituary was written by H. L. Mencken.

The letter on the surface is a treasured piece of juvenalia, written by a nine year old Gresham Machen to his grandfather in Macon Georgia, thanking him for sending him some stamps, one of which was rare, and relating how his father and mother rewarded him for answering all his “Chatesism” [Catechism] questions correctly. In time he would learn how to spell well the word (among many others) on his path to becoming a prominent Presbyterian theologian.

Pardon and application for Pardon of John J. Gresham (1812-1891)

Case files of applications from former Confederates for Presidential Pardons (“Amnesty Papers”), National Archives Microfilm Publication, M1003, Records of the Adjutant General;s Office, 1780’s-1917,

Record Group 94; National Archives, Washington, D. C.

Not long after the letter was written, the grandfather, John J. Gresham (1812-1891) came to live with Gresham and his family, after a long career in Georgia as a lawyer, judge, and prominent businessman. He proved to be a Confederate pardoned in 1865 by President Andrew Johnson on the advice of Supreme Court Justice James Moore Wayne who was also from Georgia, but remained with the Union until his death in 1867.

John Gresham Machen, the author of the letter given to me by Harvey Palmer, was the beloved uncle of Betsy. He grew up to be a distinguished biblical scholar and professor of the New Testament at Princeton Seminary, who left the Seminary to found his own, conservative, Westminster Theological Seminary as a more orthodox alternative. His textbook on basic New Testament Greek is still used today in many seminaries.[3]

Greenmount Cemetery grave of John Gresham Machen next to his Mother

source: Wikipedia

John Gresham Machen died in December 1936, while on a lecture tour in North Dakota and was buried in Baltimore’s Greenmount Cemetery with the wrong year of his death engraved on his tomb.

H. L. Mencken, no fan of his theology, nonetheless, admired his intellect and wrote a glowing obituary (for Mencken) in the Baltimore Evening Sun which ends this tribute to a good neighbor whose gift set me on the trail of the life of a young boy who wrote a proper thank you note to his grandfather, what in today’s world of video game worship and texting friends is a lost art.


"Dr. Fundamentalis"(1)

[Courtesy of https://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/docs/html/gncf/appendix_a.htm]

The Rev. J. Gresham Machen, D. D., who died out in North Dakota on New Year's Day, got, on the whole, a bad press while he lived, and even his obituaries did much less than justice to him. To newspaper reporters, as to other antinomians, a combat between Christians over a matter of dogma is essentially a comic affair, and in consequence Dr. Machen's heroic struggles to save Calvinism in the Republic were usually depicted in ribald, or, at all events, in somewhat skeptical terms. The generality of readers, I suppose, gathered thereby the notion that he was simply another Fundamentalist on the order of William Jennings Bryan and the simian faithful of Appalachia. But he was actually a man of great learning, and, what is more, of sharp intelligence.

What caused him to quit the Princeton Theological Seminary and found a seminary of his own was his complete inability, as a theologian, to square the disingenuous evasions of Modernism with the fundamentals of Christian doctrine. He saw clearly that the only effects that could follow diluting and polluting Christianity in the Modernist manner would be its complete abandonment and ruin. Either it was true or it was not true. If, as he believed, it was true, then there could be no compromise with persons who sought to whittle away its essential postulates, however respectable their motives.

Thus he fell out with the reformers who have been trying, in late years, to convert the Presbyterian Church into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works. Most of the other Protestant churches have gone the same way, but Dr. Machen's attention, as a Presbyterian, was naturally concentrated upon his own connection. His one and only purpose was to hold it [the Church] resolutely to what he conceived to be the true faith. When that enterprise met with opposition he fought vigorously, and though he lost in the end and was forced out of Princeton it must be manifest that he marched off to Philadelphia with all the honors of war.


My interest in Dr. Machen while he lived, though it was large, was not personal, for I never had the honor of meeting him. Moreover, the doctrine that he preached seemed to me, and still seems to me, to be excessively dubious. I stand much more chance of being converted to spiritualism, to Christian Science or even to the New Deal than to Calvinism, which occupies a place, in my cabinet of private horrors, but little removed from that of cannibalism. But Dr. Machen had the same clear right to believe in it that I have to disbelieve in it, and though I could not yield to his reasoning I could at least admire, and did greatly admire, his remarkable clarity and cogency as an apologist, allowing him his primary assumptions.

These assumptions were also made, at least in theory, by his opponents, and thereby he had them by the ear. Claiming to be Christians as he was, and of the Calvinish persuasion, they endeavored fatuously to get rid of all the inescapable implications of their position. On the one hand they sought to retain membership in the fellowship of the faithful, but on the other hand they presumed to repeal and reenact with amendments the body of doctrine on which that fellowship rested. In particular, they essayed to overhaul the scriptural authority which lay at the bottom of the whole matter, retaining what coincided with their private notions and rejecting whatever upset them.

Upon this contumacy Dr. Machen fell with loud shouts of alarm. He denied absolutely that anyone had a right to revise and sophisticate Holy Writ. Either it was the Word of God or it was not the Word of God, and if it was, then it was equally authoritative in all its details, and had to be accepted or rejected as a whole. Anyone was free to reject it, but no one was free to mutilate it or to read things into it that were not there. Thus the issue with the Modernists was clearly joined, and Dr. Machen argued them quite out of court, and sent them scurrying back to their literary and sociological Kaffeeklatsche. His operations, to be sure, did not prove that Holy Writ was infallible either as history or as theology, but they at least disposed of those who proposed to read it as they might read a newspaper, believing what they chose and rejecting what they chose.


In his own position there was never the least shadow of inconsistency. When the Prohibition imbecility fell upon the country, and a multitude of theological quacks, including not a few eminent Presbyterians, sought to read support for it into the New Testament, he attacked them with great vigor, and routed them easily. He not only proved that there was nothing in the teachings of Jesus to support so monstrous a folly; he proved abundantly that the known teachings of Jesus were unalterably against it. And having set forth that proof, he refused, as a convinced and honest Christian, to have anything to do with the dry jehad.

This rebellion against a craze that now seems so incredible and so far away was not the chief cause of his break with his ecclesiastical superiors, but it was probably responsible for a large part of their extraordinary dudgeon against him. The Presbyterian Church, like the other evangelical churches, was taken for a dizzy ride by Prohibition. Led into the heresy by fanatics of low mental visibility, it presently found itself cheek by jowl with all sorts of criminals, and fast losing the respect of sensible people. Its bigwigs thus became extremely jumpy on the subject, and resented bitterly every exposure of their lamentable folly.

The fantastic William Jennings Bryan, in his day the country's most distinguished Presbyterian layman, was against Dr. Machen on the issue of Prohibition but with him on the issue of Modernism. But Bryan's support, of course, was of little value or consolation to so intelligent a man. Bryan was a Fundamentalist of the Tennessee or barnyard school. His theological ideas were those of a somewhat backward child of 8, and his defense of Holy Writ at Dayton during the Scopes trial was so ignorant and stupid that it must have given Dr. Machen a great deal of pain. Dr. Machen himself was to Bryan as the Matterhorn is to a wart. His Biblical studies had been wide and deep, and he was familiar with the almost interminable literature of the subject. Moreover, he was an adept theologian, and had a wealth of professional knowledge to support his ideas. Bryan could only bawl.


It is my belief, as a friendly neutral in all such high and ghostly matters, that the body of doctrine known as Modernism is completely incompatible, not only with anything rationally describable as Christianity, but also with anything deserving to pass as religion in general. Religion, if it is to retain any genuine significance, can never be reduced to a series of sweet attitudes, possible to anyone not actually in jail for felony. It is, on the contrary, a corpus of powerful and profound convictions, many of them not open to logical analysis. Its inherent improbabilities are not sources of weakness to it, but of strength. It is potent in a man in proportion as he is willing to reject all overt evidences, and accept its fundamental postulates, however unprovable they may be by secular means, as massive and incontrovertible facts.

These postulates, at least in the Western world, have been challenged in recent years on many grounds, and in consequence there has been a considerable decline in religious belief. There was a time, two or three centuries ago, when the overwhelming majority of educated men were believers, but that is apparently true no longer. Indeed, it is my impression that at least two-thirds of them are now frank skeptics. But it is one thing to reject religion altogether, and quite another thing to try to save it by pumping out of it all its essential substance, leaving it in the equivocal position of a sort of pseudo-science, comparable to graphology, "education," or osteopathy.

That, it seems to me, is what the Modernists have done, no doubt with the best intentions in the world. They have tried to get rid of all the logical difficulties of religion, and yet preserve a generally pious cast of mind. It is a vain enterprise. What they have left, once they have achieved their imprudent scavenging, is hardly more than a row of hollow platitudes, as empty as [of] psychological force and effect as so many nursery rhymes. They may be good people and they may even be contented and happy, but they are no more religious than Dr. Einstein. Religion is something else again--in Henrik Ibsen's phrase, something far more deep-down-diving and mudupbringing, Dr. Machen tried to impress that obvious fact upon his fellow adherents of the Geneva Mohammed. He failed--but he was undoubtedly right.

If this book helps you gain a new understanding of the Bible, please consider sending a small donation to the Institute for Christian Economics, P.O. Box 8000, Tyler, TX 75711. You may also want to buy a printed version of this book, if it is still in print. Contact ICE to find out. icetylertx@aol.com


1. Baltimore Evening Sun (January 18, 1937), 2nd Section, p. 15.

ecpclio 2020/01/05

[2] image from: https://engineering.jhu.edu/ece/2019/10/21/ece-colleagues-fondly-remember-harvey-palmer/#.XhH1bFunGUk, See also: https://www.osa.org/en-us/about_osa/newsroom/obituaries/c_harvey_palmer/, In Memoriam: C. Harvey Palmer, 1919-2019, August 16, 2019, C. Harvey Palmer, Jr., OSA Fellow and distinguished physicist, passed away on 16 August 2019 at the age of 99. Palmer was a professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, specializing in optics. He was made an OSA Fellow in 1967 and became an OSA member in 1950.

Palmer was born on 8 December 1919 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, to Charles Harvey and Grace Hambleton (Ober) Palmer. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in physics from Harvard University in 1941 (magna cum laude), a Master of Arts in physics in 1946 from Harvard, and a Doctorate in physics from Johns Hopkins University in 1951. While pursuing his master’s degree, Palmer worked as a staff member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Radiation Laboratory, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then went into academia as an assistant professor and associate profession of physics at Bucknell University. Palmer moved to Baltimore, Maryland in 1954 and began his career at Johns Hopkins University. He held various positions in the electrical engineering department at Johns Hopkins over the course of his tenure including assistant professor, associate professor, professor and ultimately professor emeritus (1992).

Palmer was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Physical Society, New York Academy of Sciences, and Sigma Xi. He authored numerous papers, articles, presentations, and was most known for his book, Optics: Experiments and Demonstrations, published by The Johns Hopkins University Press. Palmer was married to Elizabeth M. Palmer for sixty years and they enjoyed many adventures together including hiking Kilimanjaro in 1981 and raising their family. Palmer was a devoted father, brother, and grandfather. OSA and the scientific community mourn the loss of C. Harvey Palmer.