John A. Mackay was born in Inverness, Scotland, May
17, 1889, and like a true-blue Highlander was
graduated from the University of Aberdeen with First
Class Honors in Philosophy. "A raw youth," as
described himself, he ventured across the ocean to
Princeton Theological Seminary. It was the first of
many extended voyages that during his life took him
several times around the globe.
Graduating from Princeton Seminary in 1915 with a
fellowship for graduate study, he had hoped to go to
Germany. Central Europe was then into the first years
of World War 1, and John Mackay decided to go to Spain
to study with Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish
existentialist who, before most, had discovered and
written about Kierkegaard. It was the beginning of a
love affair with the Iberian Peninsula and Hispanic
culture to which he would be devoted throughout his
life. Later, he wrote of Unamuno that "he incarnated
Spain in much the same way as the soul of Russia was
incarnated in Dostoyevsky." Though divergent in many
ways, the Highland Celt and the Spanish mystic
converged in a vision of existentialist missionary
witness to the living Christ.
In 1916, John Mackay and Jane Logan Wells were
married, and they set off as educational missionaries
for Lima, Peru. There they founded a Protestant
school, now known as the Colegio San Andres. While in
Peru, John Mackay was invited to occupy the chair of
Philosophy in the National University of San Marcos.
The first Protestant to be appointed to such an
academic position in this renowned university, founded
in 1551, it was an honor equalled only many years
later by an award of the "Palmas Magisteriales"
Peruvian government for John Mackay's contribution to
Under special assignment with the South American
Federation of the YMCA, he began to lecture and write
first in Uruguay and then in Mexico. He was appointed
a member of the Board of Foreign Missions of the
Presbyterian Church with general oversight of Latin
America and Africa. Through this association, he began
a life-long friendship with Robert E. Speer who, at
this time, was President of the Presbyterian Mission
Board and a Trustee of Princeton Seminary.
John Mackay was called in 1936 to the presidency of
Princeton Seminary, where he served for twenty-three
years not only as President, but as Professor of
Ecumenics, the first such designated chair in an
American seminary. It was a time of theological
disruption, and a few years earlier several
reactionary trustees, faculty, and students seceded
during the fundamentalist controversy, which was then
dividing churches and denominations across the
John Mackay came into this unpromising situation with
his eyes open and with missionary zeal. In short
order, he restored stability to the campus,
transcending the and debates that had split the
Seminary and enlarging and strengthening the faculty.
He began overtures with the University toward mutual
recognition of academic programs, raised the morale of
the campus with his ecumenical enthusiasm, insisting
all the time that the theology must be an
intellectually respectable discipline.
The chronicle of John Mackay's life during the
following two decades reveals a series of eminent
positions to which he was appointed. His long and
distinguished ecumenical career began at the Oxford
Conference in 1937, where he headed the Commission on
the Universal Church and the World of Nations. This
occasioned his often-quoted directive, "Let the Church
Be the Church." He was a member of the Central
Committee of the World Council of Churches
(1948-1954), President of the American Association of
Theological Schools (1945-1950), Chairman of the
International Missionary Council (1947-1958), and
President of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches
(1954-1959). He was elected Moderator of the General
Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA in
1953. After his retirement from Princeton, he taught
at the American University in Washington as Adjunct
Professor of Hispanic Thought.
In all these church and official positions, John
Mackay was governed by the interdependence of what he
liked to call "Order and Ardor." He argued for
between ecclesiastical unity and evangelical mission,
between the ecumenical and the confessional, between
the structure of doctrine and the freedom of the
Spirit. Those who heard him speak remember his
impassioned contrasts between "The Balcony and the
Road," "Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe,"
and the Banner," "The End and the Beginning,"
to Tomorrow Leads Through Yesterday."
A prolific author, John Mackay was always in the
process of writing--articles, editorials, reports,
dedicatory inscriptions, and books. He published
thirteen books, three of which he wrote in Spanish. In
1944, he founded and edited the religious quarterly
THEOLOGY TODAY. The first "Aim," as he formulated
for the journal, read, "To contribute to the
restoration of theology in the world of today as the
supreme science, of which both religion and culture
stand in need for their renewal."
In 1953, John Mackay, disturbed not only by the
so-called "McCarthy Hearings" and other allegations
unpatriotic trends in this country, but also by the
silence and timidity of ecclesiastical and educational
institutions, drafted "A Letter to Presbyterians,"
calling for reasonable reflection. In one of his
favorite phrases, he urged leaders in church and
culture "to take the lead." The "Letter"
distributed and acclaimed as a lone voice crying in
In the same vein, he repeatedly advocated open
dialogue and summit meetings of political leaders for
China, Russia, and the troubled areas of Latin
America. Many remember a dramatic community meeting in
the Auditorium of the Seminary Campus Center when John
Mackay, with an emotional introduction, welcomed J.
Robert Oppenheimer, then the Director of the Institute
for Advanced Study and at the time under a cloud of
suspicion because of his association with the atomic
At the time of his retirement in 1959, a special issue
of THEOLOGY TODAY, against his better judgment,
carried a series of tributes to John Mackay from some
of his friends and associates. Among those who wrote
were John Baillie, Walter Lowrie, Emil Brunner, Harold
Dodds, Eugene Blake, Nathan Pusey, James Pike, and F.
W. Dillistone. But high-sounding praise was not to his
liking, for John Mackay was in many respects a plain
man with simple tastes and frugal ways. If to many he
seemed at times austere, to a few intimates, such as
his Seminary roommate, Peter K.Emmons, he was always
"Jock," and on rare occasions he was known to
demonstrate his soccer footwork on the front campus to
an astonished group of seminarians.
Coming out of a small sectarian Scottish church, John
Mackay became a world-recognized ecumenical
ambassador. He liked to say that no one could teach
him anything about divisive sectarianism or rigid
orthodoxy. A born missionary, for whom personal piety
provided the spark for his relentless drive, he hated
proselytism, sentimentality, and piosity. An
essentially reflective person, he had unlimited
confidence in the persuasive power of the spoken and
written word. His public addresses were delivered with
dramatic eloquence, punctuated not only with
rhetorical flourishes, but with imaginative and
symbolic language. He would have made a distinguished
Secretary of the United Nations or a superlative
Shakespearean actor; but John Mackay's ruling passion
was in "bringing into captivity every thought to the
obedience of Christ," in words which he invoked when
granting diplomas to graduating divinity students.
In 1932, and the date is significant, for it was
mostly a time of theological wasteland, John Mackay
was invited to give the Merrick Lectures at Ohio
Wesleyan University. He titled the series "Prophetic
Thinkers." He dealt, prophetically as it turned out,
with Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Unamuno, and
Barth. These early lectures set the tone for later
titles, all hinting at what he called the dimension of
"Beyondness." The following captions are typical:
Endless Journey Starts," "Keep Moving Beyond,"
"Heritage and Destiny," "An Ecumenical Era
Missionary Action," "Let the Church Live on the
On the tombstone for Sir Christopher Wren in St.
Paul's Cathedral which he had designed, we can read
the Latin inscription Si Monumentum Requiris
Circumspice. So, too, of John Alexander Mackay, as we
survey his life and work, and as we try to calculate
his continuing influence, we can say that if anyone
searches for a monument to his memory, all we need do
is look around us.