In the fall of 1953, General Dwight David Eisenhower was president of the United States. I was six years old and completely unaware that a war was winding down on the Korean Peninsula and that a brewing Cold War would shape most of my youth and young adult years. Yes, I knew that the father of one of my friends had built an underground shelter in his back yard “in case the Russians drop the big one.” And yes, we had periodic drills at school, in which we were required to file quickly into the hall and sit along the wall with our hands over our heads. Children were even forced to crawl under our desks and crouch down on our knees with our hands over our heads. Perhaps this made somebody feel better.
But while I enjoyed a tranquil childhood in a small Texas town, another war raged in America: a war for the nation’s soul. The Cold War brought the threat of communism to the shores of an already war-weary United States. This Cold War dominated life and politics in the U.S. in the early 50s. The will to stop the menace of yet another totalitarian way of governing was clear. In 1946, Winston Churchill, speaking at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, coined the phrase “Iron Curtain” as a metaphor for the division between the democratic values of the West and totalitarian communism in the East. Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, were both Presbyterian. Both were ardently anti-communist.
However, it was a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin who took anti-communist zeal to fanaticism. Joseph McCarthy set out on a one-person crusade to stop potential communist subversion. In 1950 he charged, in a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, that he had the names of 205 communist party members who were still working in the State Department. These charges were so serious that the Senate created a special investigating committee, but the committee found no evidence to support the charge.
Still, McCarthy charged ahead. In 1951 he claimed that General George C. Marshall, creator of the Marshall Plan and the secretary of defense, was aiding and promoting Soviet aims in the world. Using the Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations for his crusade, he launched a campaign of innuendo and fear and trampled on civil liberties. No one was above suspicion. Even a young actor named Ronald Reagan. Movie stars, Jews, university professors and religious leaders were at the top of his list of suspicious citizens and one of these was the Rev. Dr. John Mackay, the Scotland-born missionary who was president of Princeton Seminary from 1936 to 1959. Fear and intimidation became the order of the day and McCarthy’s demagoguery created a climate of fear and silent consent to his methods. Most of America, most politicians, civic leaders and religious leaders simply kept their mouths shut so as not to draw attention to themselves and become the object of McCarthy’s dubious “investigations.”
Into this politically charged world stepped the Presbyterian Church. Religious leaders step into the world of politics only timidly and with great humility, aware that mixing religion and politics is always risky and messy. But John Mackay, moderator of the 1953 General Assembly, was not one to suffer from “a failure of nerve.”
Mackay was born in Inverness, Scotland, in 1889. A true “Highlander,” he was baptized into the Free Presbyterian Church, a tiny offshoot of the Church of Scotland. At age 14, he had a profound religious experience during a communion service that influenced the rest of his life. In 1913, after graduating from the University of Aberdeen, he crossed the Atlantic to attend seminary at Princeton. He then did post-graduate studies in Madrid, Spain, in order to prepare for what he believed was his life’s calling: to serve as a missionary in Latin America. In 1916 he sailed for South America, and for the next 16 years served with distinction in education ministry in Peru and Uruguay, training generations of church leaders for South America. In 1936 he was called to be the president of Princeton Seminary.
Mackay was, by nature, by training and by his own religious instincts, a “conservative.” He was a Scot through and through. He had learned a deep piety in his childhood and he was a serious life-long student of Scripture. But Mackay also had a deep heart for those being oppressed, abused or subjected to injustice. This likely arose from his long years of living in South America with people in abject poverty.
By 1953, John Mackay’s personal integrity and character were beyond reproach. Then the church — and later the entire nation — learned that he was not only pious but courageous. He became so appalled by the injustices of McCarthyism that he resolved to speak out in opposition to it, knowing full well that not all agreed and that many who did agree would not feel it appropriate for a minister to wade into a highly charged partisan political issue. But John Mackay believed that the McCarthy tactics were not only political but idolatrous.
On November 2, 1953, John Mackay sent a “Letter to Presbyterians: Concerning the Present Situation in our Country and in the World.” It had been unanimously adopted by the General Council of the General Assembly on October 21, 1953. At the same time copies of the letter were sent to fellow Presbyterians, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, as well as to Presbyterian members of the U.S. Congress.
In the letter, Mackay asserted that “treason and dissent are being confused. The shrine of conscience and private judgment, which God alone has a right to enter, is being invaded. Attacks are being made upon citizens of integrity and social passion which are utterly alien to the Protestant religious tradition which has been a main source of the freedoms which people of the United States enjoy.”
Then Mackay addressed the “character assassination” at the heart of McCarthyism. It was a violation of the 9th Commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”
Finally, he addressed an issue that is still being debated even today. What is the balance between security and freedom? Mackay asserted, “One could not hope to achieve complete security in this life, nor was security the ultimate human obligation.” Ultimate security, he said, lies in God alone, not any state and not any economic system. Communism was doomed to failure because humans need more than a socioeconomic system to save them. Only God saves.
Reaction to the letter was immediate and widespread. Newspapers editorialized about it, both pro and con. A Presbyterian minister, Daniel Poling, wrote a piece against it in the Saturday Evening Post. However, in 1954, the General Assembly commissioners in Detroit endorsed the letter by a vote of 880-1. When have we Presbyterians experienced such unanimity of purpose on such a controversial matter?
The “Letter to Presbyterians” did not end McCarthy’s investigative techniques. The
end for McCarthy came when he leveled the charge of subversion against the U.S. Army, and hinted that Eisenhower himself was sheltering Communists in his administration. The “Army-McCarthy” hearings were televised, and the display of McCarthy’s discourtesy, use of innuendo and bullying tactics turned the nation against him. The Senate voted to censure McCarthy for “contempt and abuse of Senate committees.” McCarthy had overreached and he never recovered. He died in 1957, his addiction to alcohol hastening his death. John Mackay died in Hightstown, New Jersey, on June 9, 1983, thirty years after his extraordinary courage and faithfulness to the gospel challenged the “principalities and powers.”
I have a personal connection to the 1954 General Assembly meeting in Detroit, and it has shaped my own ministry. My father, a small-town elder from a small Texas congregation, was elected by Dallas Presbytery as an elder commissioner to that General Assembly. Near the end of that assembly, my grandfather had a stroke on the steps of his East Texas farmhouse and was likely dead before he hit the ground. My father flew home for the funeral. I was 6 years old and I well remember dad stepping out of the car with tears in his eyes. What I also remember is a kind note that arrived a few days later. It was from Eugene Carson Blake, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, and in it he expressed condolences for my father’s loss and thanked him for his service to the church.
It was a different time in the life of our denomination. My father heard John Mackay preach at that General Assembly. He remained proud to the end of his days that he had played a small role in standing up to McCarthyism. It is appropriate that the GA in Detroit this summer remember the legacy of these two Presbyterians and so many others like them who stood up to a bully and exhibited moral courage “for such a time as this.”
DAVID M. EVANS is honorably retired and a member of Mission Presbytery.