A presbyterian giant...

This is a review of The Life of John Murrayby Iain H. Murray (2007, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust). The review is written by Rev. David Wegener, a theological educator who, with his wife, Terri, works with the Reformed Baptists in Lusaka, Zambia as a missionary of the Presbyterian Church in America's mission arm, Mission to the World.

John Murray was the finest Presbyterian theologian of the twentieth century. Recently, I had a chance to read his biography written by Iain Murray (no blood relation). I love the way Iain Murray writes history: to instruct, to edify, to rebuke, and to encourage. Here is what I learned.

John Murray was born in the Highlands of Scotland and came from a strong believing family. His father was ordained to the Presbyterian eldership at the young age of 27 and was known for his physical strength, his integrity and his above-and-beyond fairness. Born in 1898, John was the last of eight children, six boys and two girls.

Murray was blessed in the home in which he was raised. His father was the finest example of genuine godliness that John ever encountered. Four Murray boys fought for the allies in WWI and only two returned. John was one of the sons who returned, although he had lost his right eye to shrapnel. He was given a glass eye and it so closely resembled his other eye even those who knew him well forgot it.

During his school years in Scotland, Murray was an excellent student. In 1923, following the war, he received an M.A. from the University of Glasgow. The following summer the Northern Presbytery of the Free Presbyterian Church took him under care as a candidate for the gospel ministry and he went to America to study at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Princeton was passing through the most unsettled period in its long history. In 1921 B.B. Warfield had died, leading J. Gresham Machen to remark, “It seemed to me that Old Princeton... died when Dr. Warfield was carried out” (p.21).

At that time there were three groups battling for control of the Presbyterian Church... in the U.S.A.: liberals (like Henry Emerson Fosdick), moderates, and conservatives (like Machen). Moderates were men whose theology was conservative but they believed they could cooperate and coexist with liberals. With help from the moderates, the liberals won and Princeton Seminary was reorganized leaving its Board of Trustees with only moderates and liberals. This led to a split and the formation of Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia).

Murray distinguished himself at Princeton. He was recognized by all of his teachers, both conservatives and moderates, as an excellent student. Summers he preached in Free Presbyterian Churches in Canada and elsewhere. In 1927, he won the prize in Systematic Theology and received his Masters of Theology.

Murray's heart was in the pastorate, so he returned to Scotland to begin his ministry. The Free Presbyterian magazine reported he had completed his studies at Princeton and the notice left the impression that he would soon receive a call to serve a church. This was not to be, though; Murray had walked into another controversy which ultimately led to a change in direction.

His denomination was embroiled in a fight over what you could or could not do on the Lord’s Day. The specific issue was, should a man use public transport to enable him to attend church on Sunday. Murray’s position was that he would not himself, as a matter of conscience, use public transport on the Lord’s Day, but, “It was going beyond the authority of Scripture to turn away from the Lord’s Table someone who gave evidence of love to Christ, solely because they had used a tram to make their attendance possible” (p.44). As a result, Murray was debarred from preaching in the Free Presbyterian Church and, with sadness, he moved to Edinburgh in 1928 and began further study in theology (and German).

The following year he received a call to come back to Princeton and assist Caspar Wistar Hodge (grandson of Charles Hodge) in teaching systematic theology. Murray agreed to do so—but only for one year. Princeton wanted him to stay longer, but in 1930 Murray accepted a call to teach theology at the new Westminster Seminary, and so began his long tenure there.

With this long introduction, let me recount some episodes from Murray’s life that give us a feel for the man.

- Although Machen was a great and courageous man, his specialty was not in the fine points of systematic theology and he came to rely heavily on Murray in this area.

- Machen’s last recorded words came from a telegram sent to Murray: “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” The two men had been talking and corresponding on that doctrine in real depth during the weeks leading up to Machen’s untimely death on New Year’s Day, 1937.

- Murray joined with Machen in the group that came out of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. which was named the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The split was messy, as Warfield had predicted. Machen had spoken to the dying Professor in 1921 and mentioned that he expected and hoped there would be a split away from the PCUSA. Warfield was not so hopeful. “No, you can’t split rotten wood” (p.88).

- At one Sunday dinner, Machen and Murray (both bachelors) were guests in the home of O.T. Allis (a fellow professor at Westminster). Their conversation turned to baseball and it was noted that Murray was silent. When asked his views, Murray replied, “I never discuss baseball on the Sabbath” (p.61).

- The small group that left Princeton and the PCUSA suffered a division among themselves. They differed over independency in church government and whether drinking alcohol was consistent with living “a surrendered life.” Murray was adamant on the last point. Lacking Scriptural command, to require total abstinence of believers was no small issue. Murray opposed forbidding what God allows, being convinced such rules denied the perfection and sufficiency of the Bible.

- Murray was active preaching and evangelizing in New England, especially during the summers.

- When in Philadelphia, each Sunday following worship, Murray spent time in the home of his pastor and best friend, David Freeman. Murray used to catechize and teach the Bible to Freeman’s children and this was remembered with great fondness many years later.

- Murray was known for being frugal, but he was also generous. Thus, if stereotypes are correct, he was only partially a true Scot.

- When Murray’s father died in 1942, his letter to David Freeman describes his love for his dad in moving terms, mixed as it was with sadness and much thankfulness to God. Murray’s father spent his last two days on earth reading and meditating upon Psalm 51.

- Murray taught a regular Bible class at church each Sunday following worship. The class was for both adults and children. There are records of some of his question and answer sessions with children. A whole lot of doctrine can be taught to young people.

- Murray played an important role in the attempt to found a Christian university in the Calvinistic tradition. Ultimately, that attempt ended in failure despite generous financial backing. The men could not agree on what was actually Calvinistic. Some believed the theology of Barth and Brunner (neo-orthodoxy) qualified as true Calvinism.

- Murray believed we have an obligation to see that true religion (=Calvinism as confessionally understood) “embraced every department of life: ‘Industry, agriculture, education, recreation’” (p.114).

- Murray used Hodge’s three-volume Systematic Theology as his course textbook, but the meat in his courses was his exegesis of Scripture.

- In his lectures and writings, there was no fluff and only a few illustrations. Every word was part of the logic of his argument. A 200-page book by Murray is like a 300 or 400-page book by another author.

- Murray did not like questions to be asked during his lectures. He found they interrupted the train of his thought, so questions were taken at the end (or following) class. He was excellent at answering questions, though. 

- He walked a mile each day. He was a lifelong smoker.

- He did not believe in the celebration of religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter. Yet, when a child presented Murray with an Easter egg decorated just for him, he received it warmly and with a hug. Seminary students who witnessed this were quick to pounce, charging their teacher with inconsistency. He rebuked the young Pharisees, responding to their criticism: “Receive all things with thankfulness asking no questions for conscience sake."

- Murray was a strong supporter of the ministry of Banner of Truth and frequently spoke at their Leicester Conferences for ministers.

- Murray and Martyn Lloyd-Jones were both used of God to promote the Reformed faith in Britain, and though Murray’s influence was considerable during the sixties and early seventies, the influence of Lloyd-Jones was much more extensive and occurred over a longer period of time. The two men did not know each other well, but were cordial. 

- Murray’s legacy continues, not only in the lives of his students, but in his books. Several began as articles: specifically Christian Baptism, Divorce, and The Imputation of Adam’s Sin. Others works by Murray include the classic Redemption: Accomplished and Applied (1955) and a commentary on Romans in the NIC series (vol. 1:1959, vol. 2:1965)

- Fall of 1954, a young woman named Valerie Knowlton matriculated at Westminster. Murray corresponded with Knowlton for many years. Then, in 1967 when Murray was 69 years old, the two finally married. By the time of their marriage, Murray had retired and was living back in Scotland while Valerie had earned a doctorate at Harvard and was an Assistant Professor of Anatomy in Pennsylvania.

- Their marriage was blessed with two children, Logan and Anne-Margaret. His daughter was never very strong and died one year after the death of her aged father.

- While Valerie was at home following the birth of Anne-Margaret, Logan would accompany Murray to church—even when his father was preaching. It was fine when he could sit next to his dad, but what would happen when Murray was preaching and his wife could not be there? The solution was that Murray took Logan into the pulpit where he would fall asleep on the floor, thus restricting his father’s pacing but not his proclamation of the word of life.

- In 1975, following a painful battle with cancer, Professor John Murray died.

Pictures of John Murray show a dour expression, sober and grave as Presbyterians ought to be. He could indeed be severe, but those who knew him, loved him; and those who knew him best, loved him the most.

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and fifteen grandchildren.


David, thanks for the review. I read this book a little while ago. I find biographies to be among the most spiritually helpful reading for me--especially those written by Iain Murray.

[This is David's using Terri's computer while mine is in the shop.]

Me, too, Stephen. I was encouraged by Murray's life as written by IM. If there is such a thing, and I think there is, IM has the gift of writing biography.

I just bought the book at the Reformed Family conference and had a chance to read it (when I should have been doing other things).

The only area where I'll venture to criticize Murray is on his marriage. He did not have the gift of singleness and yet he waited until age 69 to marry. Why? Marriage and raising children is hard work and it takes lots of time away from other things. But this is part of God's call on most of us and we need to get after it. Murray didn't.

True, he didn't waste his time on frivolous activities and gave himself to his vocation of preparing men for the ministry. And he did it well, but not as well as he could have if he had married younger. Part of the preparation of a future minister is to teach them how to be a husband and father and most of that work is done by example.

Great review, David. I want to put a plug in for Murray's Principles of Conduct. It has a very helpful section on the creation ordinances. 


David commented:

The only area where I'll venture to criticize Murray is on his marriage. He did not have the gift of singleness and yet he waited until age 69 to marry. Why? Marriage and raising children is hard work and it takes lots of time away from other things. But this is part of God's call on most of us and we need to get after it. Murray didn't. True, he didn't waste his time on frivolous activities and gave himself to his vocation of preparing men for the ministry. And he did it well, but not as well as he could have if he had married younger. Part of the preparation of a future minister is to teach them how to be a husband and father and most of that work is done by example

I'll state the obvious here, and add that so much of a pastor's work is with marriages and families that ministry students need to see that lived out as well as taught.

a dour expression, sober and grave as Presbyterians ought to be

Dear David,

I know you're joking about "as Presbyterians ought to be"---there is no Presbyterian ideal, just a Christian ideal. Sobriety is a Christian ideal, but if Mr. Murray lacked joyfulness that was a fault.

Presbyterians are typically more afraid of being branded charismatics than we are of disobeying the Lord's command to "shout joyfully to the LORD," and that is our sin. May we soon repent of it!



Yes, Daniel, I was joking, but there is more truth in jokes, sometimes, than we like to realise. I'm not sure if Murray was a joyful man or not. It didn't seem so to me from this biography, but maybe people who knew him saw the joy.

I once heard a joke about why Presbyterians don't raise their hands in worship. It wasn't fear of being labeled charismatics. It was the sober realisation that once we start doing it, we're going to be doing it for the next two hundred years, so we have to get it just right. 

David, after reading the biography myself, I saw Dr. Murray as a delightfully cheerful man. The children loved him, after all.

I'm a little behind reading you guys...

Thanks for this background. I am using Murray's Romans for my own preaching series. It is good to know a bit more about him. Of course as a Baptist, I regularly argue with him, but I am sure his theology is 100% correct now!

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

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