Feast of Harry Emerson Fosdick (October 5)   6 comments

Above:  Harry Emerson Fosdick

Image in the Public Domain



U.S. Northern Baptist Minister and Opponent of Fundamentalism


…we cannot harmonize Christ himself with modern culture.  What Christ does to modern culture is to challenge it.

–Harry Emerson Fosdick, “The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism” (1935); quoted in Dewitte Holland, ed., Sermons in American History:  Selected Issues in the American Pulpit, 1630-1967 (Nashville, TN:  Abingdon Press, 1971), 377


Harry Emerson Fosdick was one of the most influential ministers in the United States of America during the twentieth century.  He, controversial in life, has remained so postmortem.

Fundamentalism is inherently ahistorical.  This is not an idea original to me.  Consider, O reader, Karen Armstrong:

…fundamentalism is ahistorical:  it believes that Abraham, Moses and the later prophets all experienced their God in exactly the same way as people do today.

A History of God:  The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (1994), xx

One might also consider G. E. Mendenhall, author of The Tenth Generation (1973):

Biblical fundamentalism, whether Jewish or Christian, cannot learn from the past because in so many respects the defense of presently accepted ideas about religion is thought to be the only purpose of biblical narrative.  It must, therefore, support ideas of comparatively recent origin–ones that usually have nothing to do with the original meaning or intention of biblical narrative because the context is so radically different.

–Quoted in W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah:  A Modern Commentary, Vol. IV, Numbers (New York:  Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1979), xiv-xv

Fosdick, born in Buffalo, New York, on May 24, 1878, came from a devout family with a tradition of valuing education.  His father was Frank Sheldon Fosdick.  Our saint’s mother was Amy Inez Weaver.  His brother, Raymond B. Fosdick, grew up to become an esteemed attorney, as well as a friend and associate of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-1960).  Our saint, baptized at the age of seven years, thought about becoming a missionary before deciding on domestic ministry.  He, having graduated from high school in 1896, matriculated at Colgate University.  He graduated with his A.B. degree four years later, and was the class poet.  Fosdick, ordained a Baptist minister in 1903, graduated from Union Theological Seminary the following year.  He married Florence Allen Whitney (d. 1964) on August 16, 1904.  The couple had two daughters.

Fosdick served in a few congregations and taught at Union Theological Seminary.  He, from 1904 to 1915 the pastor of First Baptist Church, Montclair, New Jersey, began his 38-year-long stint of teaching practical theology at Union Theological Seminary in 1908.  He was an instructor (1908-1915), a professor (1915-1917, 1919-1934), and a part-time faculty member (1934-1946).  In 1917-1919 our saint worked as a chaplain with the Y.M.C.A. in France.  After World War I he returned to New York City, to begin duties as assistant minister (1919-1925) of First Presbyterian Church.

Fosdick became a central figure in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., a denomination to which he did not belong.  In 1922 he preached a seminal sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”  He condemned the intolerance of fundamentalism and criticized minor theological disputes (such as arguments about the Virgin Birth) as distractions

when the world is perishing for the lack of the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith.

–Quoted in Holland, ed., Sermons in American History, 347

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., liked the sermon so much that he paid for the printing and mailing of the text to every Protestant minister in the United States.  Clarence Macartney (1879-1957), conservative pastor of Arch Street Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, replied via a sermon that year.  He asked, “Shall Unbelief Win?” and accused Fosdick of heresy and intolerance.  After much controversy, Fosdick had to resign in 1925.

Above:  Park Avenue Baptist Church, New York, New York

Photographer = Irving Underhill

Image Source = Library of Congress

Rockefeller, Jr., offered Fosdick another position, though.  Our saint accepted the pastorate of Park Avenue Baptist Church on four conditions, which he established:

  1. That baptism by immersion cease to be a requirement for membership;
  2. That the congregation become interdenominational, accepting Christians of all creeds;
  3. That the congregation move to a less swanky neighborhood; and
  4. That the initial salary cap for Fosdick be $5000 ($69,900, adjusted for inflation, to 2017 currency).

Above:  Riverside Church and Grant’s Tomb, New York, New York

Image in the Public Domain

Rockefeller, Jr., financed the construction of the Gothic edifice of the renamed Riverside Church, located near Columbia University and Grant’s Tomb.  The congregation’s first Sunday in the new building, dedicated in 1931, was October 5, 1930.  Fosdick wrote the hymn, “God of Grace and God of Glory,” for the occasion.  For 15 years 1931-1946) Fosdick was the most influential Protestant minister in the United States.  For 20 years (1926-1946) he preached on national radio.  He retired from Riverside Church in 1946.

Fosdick was a prolific author of books and articles.  Some of these were volumes of sermons.  Many other books were psychological-theological in nature.  Examples of these included Twelve Tests of Character (1923) and On Being a Real Person (1943).

Fosdick, who preferred modernism to fundamentalism, was critical of modernism, too.  In 1935 he preached a sermon, “The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism.”  Modernism, he said, was a necessary advance.  However, our saint stated, the church needed to move beyond it, for modernism was imperfect.  It was simultaneously preoccupied with intellectualism and too sentimental, according to Fosdick.  He also argued that modernism had

largely eliminated from its faith the God of moral judgment.

–Quoted in Holland, ed., Sermons in American History, 373

Our saint also asserted that modernism had accommodated too much to the world that it (modernism) had placed people at the center and relegated God to an advisory capacity.  Modernism, Fosdick argued, had also surrendered the moral high ground.  Our saint was arguing for Neo-orthodoxy.

Fosdick stood up for a range of controversial positions.  His adopted pacifism, evident in his hymn, “The Prince of Peace His Banner Spreads” (1930), was more popular at certain times than others.  Our saint also advocated for the civil rights of African Americans when doing so was often unpopular.  The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. (1939-1968) thought of Fosdick as a prophetic figure.  Fosdick, eschewing anti-Semitism, also sympathized with displaced Palestinians.  He, not a Zionist, opposed the creation of the State of Israel.

Fosdick wrote four hymns, all of which have remained germane:

  1. God of Grace and God of Glory” (1930),
  2. The Prince of Peace His Banner Spreads” (1930),
  3. O God, in Restless Living” (1931), and
  4. O God, Who to a Loyal Home” (1956).

Fosdick, aged 91 years, died in Bronxville, New York, on October 5, 1969.

Perhaps the précis of Fodick’s life was the following excerpt from “God of Grace and God of Glory”:

Save us from weak resignation

To the evils we deplore;….







O God, by your Holy Spirit you give to some the word of wisdom,

to others the word of knowledge,

and to others the word of faith:

We praise your Name for the gifts of grace manifested in your servant Harry Emerson Fosdick,

and we ray that your Church may never be destitute of such gifts;

through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit

lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Wisdom of Solomon 7:7-14

Psalm 119:97-104

1 Corinthians 2:6-10, 13-16

John 17:18-23

–Adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), 720


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