Allan Alexander MacRae (1902-1997) was one of a few of individuals whose longevity allowed him to experience the glories of old Princeton Seminary, the battles of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, the rise of American evangelicalism and conservatism, and the establishment of three theological seminaries. As a result, his lifetime of correspondence is a virtual “Who’s Who” of 20 th century evangelicalism. He communicated with such notables as Robert Dick Wilson, J. Gresham Machen, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Carl F. H. Henry, Francis Schaeffer, J. I. Packer, Bruce Waltke, three Buswells, two Bob Joneses, and two Marsdens. As a teacher, scholar, administrator and Presbyterian churchman, MacRae lived a relationally well-connected life through all the changing scenes of the last century.
Despite a bit of later confusion as to his exact date of birth, MacRae was in fact born on February 11, 1902 in Calumet, Michigan to John and Eunice (Jennison) MacRae. John MacRae was a Canadian-born physician who valued academic pursuits. He was a member of the Home Fortnightly Club of Calumet around the turn of the century—a social and intellectual club where talks and papers were given on a wide variety of academic and political topics. However, due to John MacRae’s ill health the family sought warmer climates briefly in Italy and ultimately in Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, the MacRae’s attended Highland Park Presbyterian Church (PCUSA).
In 1918, MacRae entered local Occidental College where he received the Bachelor of Arts degree (1922) and Master of Arts (1923). At Occidental, MacRae participated in a short-lived Christian student organization called the Kenowan Klub and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. During the early 1920s, a handful of Occidental graduates went to study at Princeton Theological Seminary. However, MacRae did not immediately join these “Oxy Princetonians.” Instead, he attended BIOLA for one year before being wooed to Princeton by his former classmates and the prospect of studying under J. Gresham Machen and the prominent Old Testament scholar Robert Dick Wilson. In 1927, MacRae completed two degrees: Bachelor of Theology (Princeton Seminary) and Master of Arts in Semitic Philology (Princeton University). Following in the footsteps of his mentors Oswald T. Allis and Wilson, MacRae decided to pursue doctoral studies at the University of Berlin. Yet, before departing for Germany he sought ordination in Los Angeles Presbytery (PCUSA). As The Presbyterian (August 25, 1927) recounted, MacRae appeared without any previous relation to the presbytery and requested immediate ordination so he could go to Germany as a full-fledged Presbyterian minister. This was accomplished by unanimous vote after MacRae’s impressive performance in his examination and a persuasive appeal by Arthur Lee Odell, pastor of Highland Park Church.
While overseas, MacRae studied Semitic languages and antiquities, toured and excavated in the Holy Land, and became enamored with the German language. In 1929, at the request of his favorite teacher Robert Dick Wilson, MacRae reluctantly cut his doctoral fellowship short and joined the faculty of the newly formed Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia, Penn.). At Westminster, MacRae taught Semitic languages and Old Testament while building friendships with fellow-bachelor John Murray and fellow-premillennialist Paul Woolley. MacRae desired to complete his graduate work in Berlin, but his regular teaching duties—increased as a result of the death of Wilson in 1930—led him to complete his doctoral studies stateside at the University of Pennsylvania in 1936. His doctoral dissertation, Semitic Personal Names from Nuzi, catalogued the Akkadian and Sumerian names found in the Nuzi materials and reflected on their various cultural backgrounds.
When J. Gresham Machen and others were forced out of the PCUSA in 1936, MacRae took his stand with them in the new Presbyterian Church of America (PCofA) (later renamed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church). For MacRae, like many others, the fundamentalist-modernist controversy became a lens through which to view theological and ecclesiastical battles for the rest of his life. It was specifically the old Princeton emphasis on the defense of the Old Testament against Higher Criticism, exhibited chiefly by the work of Wilson and Allis, that shaped his future interests. Furthermore, the bureaucratic maneuverings of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy lay behind much of MacRae’s lifelong uneasiness about church-controlled boards and agencies.
However, all was not well with MacRae at Westminster and in the new denomination. The PCofA break with modernism soon began to be viewed as a false start. MacRae resigned from Westminster in April 1937 citing two of the explosive issues of the day: the beverage use of alcohol and intolerance among the faculty toward premillennialism. His resignation largely coincided with the growing dissent within the PCofA on these issues and led MacRae to leave that denomination to become a constituting member of the Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC). The Bible Presbyterians, led by J. Oliver Buswell, Jr. and Carl McIntire, held to traditional Presbyterian commitments regarding the authority of Scripture, the Westminster Standards, and a biblically-based connectional polity. However, in practice they especially rallied around what they perceived as the straightforward biblical teachings of premillennialism and the separated life. Furthermore, MacRae and many of the early Bible Presbyterians exhibited a pronounced Americanism expressed through opposition to what they viewed as foreign threats. Specifically, they showed uneasiness toward Dutch Reformed theological emphases, led an open assault on Communism and any hints of Socialism, and grew increasingly concerned over the growth of Roman Catholicism or “Vaticanism.”
MacRae’s ecclesiastical life took shape in this Bible Presbyterian context. His academic pursuits, however, would be continued through Faith Theological Seminary and later Biblical Theological Seminary. Faith Seminary would especially reflect the Bible Presbyterian distinctives and attitudes. At Faith (founded in 1937 in Wilmington, Delaware), MacRae not only served as president but also took on a massive load of teaching. In the early days he taught most of the courses in the seminary curriculum. The original class of students included at least one noteworthy transfer from Westminster, Francis Schaeffer, who would be a lifelong student and friend of MacRae. Schaeffer credited MacRae with instilling in him a biblical hermeneutic that emphasized not only the trustworthiness of the Scriptures but also the literal (or premillennial) understanding of prophecy.
Also among the students at Faith Seminary were John W. Sanderson, Jr. and his sister Grace Elizabeth Sanderson, a gifted Bible teacher in her own right. Grace worked as a secretary for MacRae and, in 1944, the two were married. The newlyweds’ honeymoon to the Grand Canyon was made especially memorable by the crash of an American military bomber and the subsequent search for the missing pilots. MacRae, himself an accomplished mountaineer, played a key role in locating and reaching the stranded men and garnered some national media attention for his efforts. Four years later, the MacRae’s welcomed their first and only child into the world: John Phillip MacRae, who would become a Presbyterian pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
MacRae’s influence as a teacher grew strong at Faith Seminary. Although the seminary was officially unaffiliated and welcomed students from diverse ethnic and denominational backgrounds, many graduates became ministers in the BPC and went on to various positions of influence in the Reformed Presbyterian Church (Evangelical Synod) and the PCA. However, beginning in the 1950s, tensions within the BPC spilled over into Faith Seminary. Specifically at issue was a debate over synod-controlled agencies, including the desire of some to establish an official denominational college and seminary. MacRae and Carl McIntire (chairman of the board of directors at the seminary) strongly opposed synod-controlled agencies. Thus, most of the faculty members felt that they were being pressured to avoid participation in the agencies and of their own denominations. The subsequent division of the Bible Presbyterians into two synods (Columbus and Collingswood) in 1956 led to a mass exodus at Faith Seminary: professors R. Laird Harris, Peter Stam, Jr., William A. Sanderson, and almost the entire faculty resigned. MacRae, left nearly alone at Faith Seminary, remained loyal to McIntire, the Collingswood group, and the mission of the seminary he had established.
This loyalty, however, would also disintegrate as McIntire’s control over Faith Seminary became overbearing. Beginning in 1969 McIntire tried to force MacRae into functional retirement. In May 1971, McIntire and the seminary board succeeded in ousting MacRae against his will. This action resulted in a final break between MacRae and McIntire. With a heavy heart, MacRae renounced all affiliation with Faith Seminary and left the Collingswood Synod to form the small, unaffiliated Covenant Presbytery. That same year, with the help of Presbyterian evangelist John (“Jack”) W. Murray, MacRae began yet another seminary, Biblical School of Theology (Hatfield, Penn.; later renamed Biblical Theological Seminary). MacRae again served as the seminary president while still teaching tirelessly. For most of his academic career it was his habit to take on heavy teaching duties in addition to his regular administrative tasks. His only respite came in the summers and on holidays when he would take hiking and walking trips to various parts of the country.
By the 1980s, MacRae was finally ready for retirement from his regular duties. Although he officially retired and became chancellor of the seminary in 1983, circumstances made it difficult for him to step out of an active leadership role. G. Aiken Taylor was selected as MacRae’s successor at Biblical Seminary but died in early 1984, a few months after taking the position. Finally, in 1986 David G. Dunbar became president, allowing MacRae to continue on in the honorary role of chancellor until his death on September 27, 1997.
Looking back on MacRae’s life, it is not an overstatement to say that it was filled with his students and administrative responsibilities. Any perusal of his overwhelming collection of letters and taped lectures will easily confirm such an appraisal. Indeed, MacRae was a prolific letter-writer who knew the rare art of maintaining friendships and professional relationships over the course of decades. MacRae even admitted that his obligation to his calling as a seminary professor and president regularly took precedence over his individual scholarly pursuits.
However, over the course of his 95 years, MacRae had ample opportunity to contribute to biblical scholarship, even if it often went unnoticed in the larger academic realm. He served as president of the Evangelical Theological Society in 1960, worked as an editor for the New Scofield Reference Bible, as a translator for the New International Version and as a commentator for the NIV Study Bible. In 1977, Moody Press published his The Gospel of Isaiah, a study of Isaiah chapters 40 – 56. The Prophecies of Daniel finally appeared in 1991 after a disappointing and lengthy search for a publisher. Subsequent efforts included a collection of letters entitled Biblical Christianity (1994) and the monograph Studies in Isaiah (1995). His festschrift, Interpretation & History, another testament to his influence on his many students, appeared in 1986.
Ultimately, MacRae’s place in history is defined by his role as an intersection point for the diverse facets of 20 th century American evangelicalism. Many of the prevalent people and issues that characterized evangelicalism in the last century found their way to and through MacRae. His longevity made this possible, but his unique ability to maintain relationships with students, colleagues, and friends made it a reality. MacRae was privy to the inner workings of the fundamentalist movement in Presbyterianism and provides access to some of the lesser-known players of that movement. He also provides a connection to old Princeton Seminary and the Old Testament scholarship exemplified by Robert Dick Wilson. As Wilson’s assistant and pupil, it was MacRae’s explicit intention to perpetuate this lineage. Also, MacRae’s involvement in the founding of three seminaries, along with the controversies that developed in two of them, provides an inside look at evangelical academia. Furthermore, MacRae’s commitment to biblical inerrancy and premillennialism brought him into the larger stream of American fundamentalism and later evangelicalism. Thus, we find MacRae in contact with the seemingly innumerable organizations and individuals that gave fundamentalism its footing, direction, and unique character. In the end, it is MacRae’s longevity and, more importantly, his unique interconnectedness that defines and establishes his enduring legacy as a teacher, scholar, administrator, and churchman.