Harry Emerson Fosdick

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Harry Emerson Fosdick (1868-1969), Protestant preacher, was perhaps the single most influential leader in 20th century American Liberal Christianity. Although not a theologian he was an effective popularizer and was often seen as the chief exemplar of the new liberal theology, he was hailed by The New Republic as "the prophet of modernism." Based in New York City, he rose to national prominence through his undoctrinaire evangelicalism and ability to use radio and the press, especially his 40 books and uncounted magazine articles that appealed to a wide readership, as well as a nationally broadcast radio program. He was a friend and collaborator with John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and advised his brother Raymond Fosdick, who headed the Rockefeller Foundation.
Time magazine Sept. 21, 1925

Fosdick supported many liberal political and social causes, especially opposition to war.[1] Fosdick stressed both personal growth and social change. As a pragmatist, he strove to make religion compatible with secular society.

Contents

Career

Brought up in a devout Baptist family in upstate New York, Fosdick was educated at Colgate University and Union Theological Seminary (B.D. 1904); he was on the Union faculty 1908-46. Fosdick was ordained to the Northern Baptist ministry in 1903, and was pastor at First Baptist Church of Montclair, New Jersey, until 1915 when he took a full-time faculty post at Union A series of best-sellers gave him a national reputation. The books reflected Fosdick's interest in consequential belief and apologetics; each argued for the pertinence and reasonableness of Christian faith, while encouraging Christian fortitude in faith and conduct amid the stresses of modern life. They included The Second Mile (1908); The Assurance of Immortality (1913); and The Manhood of the Master (1913), The Meaning of Prayer (1915), The Meaning of Faith (1917), and The Meaning of Service (1920). He explained in vivid language the feasibility and practical benefit of Christian devotion.

While still a Baptist he was called by the newly formed First Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue in New York City. His theological enemies, led by William Jennings Bryan, tried to destroy his career, but after two lengthy investigations the General Assembly of the Presbyterian church finally agreed that Fosdick could retain the First Presbyterian pulpit if he became a Presbyterian and ascribed to the orthodox Westminster Confession. Fosdick refused to assent to any creed, so he resigned in 1925. Baptists wanted him back, and Rockefeller built for him the monumental Riverside Church in Morningside Heights, New York City. The church was dedicated in 1931, and Fosdick remained there until his retirement in 1946, drawing large live audiences as well as a national radio audience for his program "National Vespers".[2]

Critical of modernism

Fosdick originally supported eugenics, but became increasingly critical of it. For Fosdick, the idea that eugenicists were an enlightened cadre leading the dull masses revealed a dangerous hubris. He concluded, "The question is not whether changes will occur." Fosdick and other liberal religious leaders already agreed that scientific advances made social changes inevitable. The question was "how they will occur, under whose aegis and superintendence, by whose guidance and direction, and how much better the world will be when they are here."[3] He remained a strong advocate of birth control for married couples. During the Great Depression Fosdick was highly critical of unfettered capitalism, but he believed the American people could achieve a more just economic order without embracing leftwing radicalism; he dreaded Communism as the very devil.

Fosdick never retreated from his theological liberalism, but by the mid-1930s he increasingly criticized religious modernism. In a sermon in 1935, "Beyond Modernism," he accused himself and others of excessive intellectualism, naive cultural optimism, implicit humanism, and moral accommodation. The World War and the clear dangers of Nazi and Soviet tyranny revealed the persistence of sin and guilt and the fragility of the reigning progressive optimism. Fosdick thought modernism was necessary and cogent in its day, but now needed to take on realism and moral rigor to sustain its appeal.

Battling the Fundamentalists

When he visited Christian missions in China in 1921, Fosdick discovered Fundamentalists were engaged in an aggressive campaign against the liberals, even to the extent of trying to force their retirement. He saw similar troubles when he returned to the United States. This led to a 1922 sermon circulated under the title, "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?"[4] Pleading for tolerance, Fosdick also presented the case for the liberal position on the major issues of the Virgin Birth, the second coming, and biblical interpretation. The sermon became one of the most important pulpit statements of the 1920s, causing a minor pamphlet war, and it thrust Fosdick onto center stage as the archetypal liberal. Conservative attacks on him knew no bounds.[5]

Different views of the role of Christianity in the face of the secularization of American culture fueled the conflict between the liberal modernist and conservative fundamentalist factions inside the Presbyterian Church during the 1920s and 1930s. Modernists, led by Fosdick, Henry Sloane Coffin, and Robert E. Speer, promoted inclusiveness and denied the inerrancy of scripture, while fundamentalists such as J. Gresham Machen, Clarence Macartney, and William Jennings Bryan defended traditional doctrine. The fundamentalist cause, popularly identified with antievolutionism, was damaged in the view of most Presbyterians by the Scopes Trial in 1925. In 1929, fundamentalist leaders Machen and Macartney left their positions at the Princeton Theological Seminary to found the Westminster Theological Seminary to defend the traditional orthodoxy.[6]

In his sermon "The Peril of Worshiping Jesus," Fosdick complained that too many people would rather put Jesus "up on some high altar, pray to him, sing to him, do anything for him" than do his will in the troubled present age.

Further reading

  • Dorrien, Gary. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity 1900-1950 (2003) and text search, ch 6
  • Fosdick, Harry Emerson. The Living of These Days (1956), autobiography; primary source
  • Miller, Robert Moats. Harry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet (1985), the standard scholarly biography excerpts and text search
  • Potter, Richard H. "Popular Religion of the 1930's as Reflected in the Best Sellers of Harry Emerson Fosdick." Journal of Popular Culture 1970 3(4): 712-728.

References

  1. See "At Geneva," Time Sept. 21, 1925 online
  2. See "Riverside Church" Time Oct. 06, 1930 online
  3. Quoted in Christine Rosen, Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement (2004) p. 131.
  4. Full text online at "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?"
  5. George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American culture‎ (2006) p. 171 online
  6. Bradley J. Longfield, "For Church and Country: The Fundamentalist-Modernist Conflict in the Presbyterian Church." Journal of Presbyterian History 2000 78(1): 34-50. 0022-3883

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