Liberalism and Lost Days: A Re-evaluation of Fosdick

by Leonard I. Sweet

Leonard I. Sweet is president of United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

He reviews the book: Harry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet (Oxford University Press, 608 pages.) by Robert Moats Miller. This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 18-25, 1985, pp. 1176-1179. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


A review of Harry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet, by Robert Moats Miller. Fosdick’s life, including his let-downs, put-downs and come-downs, is explored with great sensitivity, insight and attentiveness to the personal and domestic spheres.

Greatness, by definition, is not typical or cheap. We expect to pay a price. We sense the need for a degree of imperfection in every great art form, some "redeeming defect." We expect great persons to have dark secrets. Every greatness, we suspect, has its grave. We expect greatness to be impure, and come in messy, mixed-up packages. As Edith Sitwell said of the poet William Blake, "Of course he was cracked, but that is where the light shone through!" According to Robert Moats Miller, all this is wrong when it comes to Harry Emerson Fosdick, a goliath among lesser liberal 20th-century giants. Miller lays his cards down in the third line of his biography: "I believe . . . he was a great human being." And a great human being need not, it seems, be a flawed human being.

Harry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet (Oxford University Press, 608 pp., $38.50) is the story of a "protean man" whose public talents needed no advertisement or apology and whose private life resembled "the rose without the thorn." Fosdick had "not a milligram of self-pity in his make-up," "bare no grudges." was "always loyal," possessed a "modesty [that] was legendary," enjoyed a storybook marriage, was "unscarred by any serious imperfection of character," never went on a truant outing in his life, and "never gave less than his best in his entire life." Miller disproves Oscar Wilde’s dictum that it is usually Judas who writes the biography.

With two biographies of liberal church leaders under his belt (see his earlier work on Ernest Fremont Tittle [1971]). and with a third now under way (on G. Bromley Oxnam), Miller bids fair to become America’s foremost biographer of liberalism, and a major force in the rescue and revitalization of the genre of scholarly biography, which sadly has been out of favor in recent years. If Harry Emerson Fosdick broke the rules of greatness, Harry Emerson Fosdick breaks the rules of modern historical writing:

It abounds in anecdote, revels in rich characterization, maintains a strong chronological narrative, and soars at times in lyrical quality. Albert C. Outler once called the story of Fosdick’s life the biopsy of an epoch, and in Miller’s skillful hands Fosdick is allowed to give personality to an era. The book is wealthy in new insights, revisionist interpretations, and excavated conclusions about Protestantism’s response to all the great political, social, cultural and religious developments of the first two-thirds of the 20th century. But it is most riveting as a look at the lost days of liberalism, and why they are gone forever.

These were the days when Christians literally beat down the doors to get into church. "Crowds Smash Door: Near Riot to Hear Fosdick" ran the headlines of a 1924 newspaper. It was not uncommon for people to wait in front of the church for more than two hours in what they called the "bread line" so that they could be fed at Fosdick’s table. Church members were ticketed to ensure seating, but others had to find fragments of nourishment where they could, with some sneaking into already packed balconies through fire escapes and other evasive subterfuges, and with Fosdick’s own seat filled by a standee as soon as he entered the pulpit. The carnationed, gray-gloved ushers, or what Fosdick termed his "Guard of Honor," were really the city’s best-dressed bouncers and bodyguards. "We had a hectic time yesterday in the ushering business," one memorandum from a head usher reported. "One lady fainted. Two ladies crawled under the ropes on the pleas of wanting to go away and then beat down the center aisle. Mr. Lawton held them up. The crowd in the south gallery was dense and passing the plate was difficult and lengthy, as every one wanted to chip in -- bless their hearts. This explains why the other chap and I had to sprint down the aisles to catch up with the procession." Liberal causes found patrons in wealthy benefactors like John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who was ubiquitous in Fosdick’s career, and prominent public-relations experts like Ivy Lee, who retailed Fosdick like breakfast cereal through market analysis, mass distribution and image-building.

Some of the book’s most inspiriting reading and special satisfactions for pastors can be derived from the sections on how Fosdick conceptualized, prepared and presented sermons. Fosdick has been portrayed as the perfect model for the widely touted preacher’s formula: one hour of study for every hour in the pulpit. But Miller demonstrates that Fosdick’s success at preaching was a function of both time and technique -- time spent in roaming across a vast range of literature, and technique in collecting and organizing insights and illustrations from the resources read. In a marvelous metaphor, Miller compares opening up one of Fosdick’s preaching notebooks to "looking into a magician’s bag of tricks after marveling at his acts." It would take weeks, months, sometimes years of notebook preparation for a sermon to be born. "It’s like going to an apple tree," Fosdick explained. "and saying, ‘this one is ripe now."’ Miller also clears up much confusion by showing that for Fosdick the "project method" and the "expository method" of preaching were not mutually exclusive.

A preacher may be moving and still not be persuasive. Fosdick was both. The book works hard to portray Fosdick as the remarkably inventive and productive preacher he was, to explain how he could sustain such a level of excellence week after week, and to give a sense of why more than one preacher visiting Riverside staggered out of the worship service sighing, "I can never preach again!" It tells us where to go to find the best introduction to Fosdick’s preaching, his best books, his most powerful sermons. But the book also reveals why seminarians today have trouble picking Fosdick up, and why liberal church leaders will not find in Fosdick clues to revitalizing today’s "oldline" (mainline) churches.

Miller astutely positions Fosdick within the evangelical tradition and repeatedly calls him an "evangelical liberal," but the concept is never precisely defined. The book is somewhat shy about defining terms -- all the more to be regretted because Miller at times seems to be tottering on the brink of gifting us with creative focus and form in an area that is confusing for the exercise of critical judgment. If only he had probed more systematically Fosdick’s own self-description -- "I may be a liberal, but I’m evangelical, too!" -- we would have been treated to a tracing of the contours of "evangelical liberalism’s" placement within liberalism, an account of the evolution of Fosdick’s modernism from 19th-century evangelicalism, and an assessment of whether Fosdick belongs in the evangelical wing of the social gospel movement along with his hero, Walter Rauschenbusch. One comes away unclear as to how much Fosdick saw himself either as heir of his own past or as harbinger of a fresh religious movement.

For another, while Miller demonstrates that Fosdick’s theology was no lightheaded liberalism, he also sees him as a power-of-positive-thinking pioneer and somewhat of a "mystic" (Fosdick repeatedly called himself a Quaker at heart). But Miller also makes it clear why the conservatives were right in detecting modernist murmurings throughout Fosdick’s theology. Many of them professed to love and respect him, but did so as fox hunters are said to love the fox. Few preachers have so rubbed the liberal world the right way, or demonstrated so graphically that conservatives did not have a corner on the Bible, Miller’s account of Fosdick’s 1922 sermon titled "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" is superb in assessing the furor it created among Presbyterian fundamentalists and the reasons why they moved against him.

Even when Miller goes through the accustomed hoops, his skills are impressive. The geography of Fosdick’s life, including his let-downs, put-downs and come-downs, is explored with great sensitivity, insight and attentiveness to the personal and domestic spheres. Miller has many perceptive comments about Fosdick’s initial casting of his theological weight behind interventionism, and then shifting it toward pacifism. There is an excellent chapter on the building of Riverside, and Fosdick’s insistence that the architecture accommodate his two wishes for "beauty" and "a warm church to preach in." The relationship of Fosdick to Rockefeller is illuminated as it never has been before. When Fosdick informed Rockefeller that he did not want to be known as pastor to the richest man in the country, he found his comeuppance in Rockefeller’s retort: "Do you think that more people will criticize you on account of my wealth than will criticize me on account of your theology?"

At many points Miller could have mounted a platform and warbled knowingly about Fosdick’s failed vision and cultural captivity. Fosdick’s relationship with America’s Jewish community was anything but easy, but Miller’s analysis of Fosdick’s support for a binational state and the Jewish reaction to what was perceived as his pro-Arab bias is a model of a scholarly tightrope performance. The same can be said for Miller’s treatment of Fosdick’s stance on issues relating to women and racial justice, the latter subject having an entire chapter devoted to it (chapter 24).

Miller comes the closest to being critical of Fosdick in regard to (1) his method of sermon preparation. (2) his almost haughty neglect of ecclesiology, and (3) his inordinate image consciousness.

Ironically, Miller can be most impatient with Fosdick for what he did best -- prepare and preach sermons. While scrupulous about checking and rechecking his quotations, Fosdick sometimes quoted original sources from secondary reading, thereby sending out misleading signals about the expanse of his reading. Fosdick’s repeated self-borrowings bother Miller no end, as does the manner in which Fosdick "achieved transparency, often, at the expense of accuracy." Miller registers "two major reservations" about the reading habits of this man who consumed staggering numbers of books: ‘Fosdick read too lightly in twentieth-century imaginative literature, and too frequently he rifled meretricious stuff for homiletical purposes.

Miller presents the picture of a liberalism void of a doctrine of the church. Fosdick’s professed loyalty was to Jesus Christ, not to the church. One wishes that Miller had inquired into Fosdick’s astonishing revelation that he had once considered leaving "the historic Christian organizations" and starting his own "independent movement." At Riverside, Fosdick was interested not in building a community of Christians so much as in carrying out a ministry to individuals. "I would rather help individuals," Fosdick said, "than preach sermons." Fosdick imagined his parishioners marching to heaven single file, not side by side. Fosdick offered no "sustained articulation of his understanding of corporate worship." Children were not welcome, or even safe, in worship. And one of the greatest preachers America has produced pooh-poohed the traditional role of preaching, redefining it in more acceptable therapeutic terms as "personal counseling on a group scale."

Through his books and writings, Fosdick may have been pastor to other pastors and laity throughout the nation, but he can scarcely be called pastor to his parishioners at Riverside. Armor-plated with a glass screen that kept people from getting too close without feeling shut out, Fosdick maintained a physical (though not always emotional) distance from his congregation. A leading apologist for the clinical pastoral education movement in America, Fosdick nevertheless scheduled counseling appointments for only 15 minutes each. He never made pastoral calls, and few members of the church spent even as much as an hour in his company their entire lives. The book’s most poignant passage tells of a woman parishioner who lived near the church writing Fosdick in his retirement, begging him and his wife to come over for a cup of tea:

A minister has never said a prayer in my home. I have an old-fashioned notion that a house is never a home until the minister has been there and blessed it. Dr. McCracken with his family problems is far too busy to do this as are all of the ministers at the church. So are you, I know, but maybe sometime you will need a cup of tea badly enough to come. I just want you to know that you would be welcome and that I would be highly honored. If you do come, I hope that you are not afraid of small, timid lame cats, because I have one. Thank you for being such a wonderful man and for giving people like me a faith to live by.

Fosdick may not have known the people with whom he worshiped, but neither did he know the city in which he lived. His relationship with New York City was curiously uninvolving. This was partly because though at home in theological modernism, he was ill at ease around cultural modernism -- a man of pastoral, not urban, sensibilities. Self-possessed, reserved, impassive and calculating, Fosdick did not know how to live adventurously, spontaneously or, at times, even casually. To a person who could never let himself go, even for a moment, the city was a whirlpool of danger. Pastor of the church that faced the city, he himself turned his back on the city, embarrassed by its glitz, glitter and garbage, proud of his ignorance of its restaurants, nightlife, and social and cultural offerings.

Miller mounts a defense of his failure to provide a critical bibliography on the basis of quantity of material ("over one thousand items") and complications of multiple publications, which only further reinforces the absolute necessity of its presence. Nobody does their homework better or researches more meticulously, than Miller. In "sparing" us footnotes and bibliography, Miller has deprived scholars and others of a rich deposit of soil in which to plant and to putter. No historian is likely to pass this way again for some time, which makes our loss even greater. What Miller terms his first "foolish thought of presenting here a critical annotated bibliography’’ should not have been dismissed so cavalierly.

Second, Fosdick is known for exercising an almost immoral influence over his readers. A common way to introduce Fosdick was, "I give you Dr. Fosdick, whose sermons you have heard and preached." Fosdick is the preacher whose sermons we would have written if we had been the preacher he was. Some preachers still find it necessary to ration strictly their reading of Fosdick for fear of unconscious plagiarism or incomplete weaning. At times one wonders whether Miller has entirely escaped the Fosdick sorcery himself, and whether he has not written the kind of biography Fosdick would have written. It would be untrue to say that Fosdick now has a scholarly autobiography, but it is fair to say that Miller is at his best when he is least under the Fosdick spell.

This solicitous attitude is no more apparent than in his treatment of Fosdick’s famous nervous breakdown, which Miller diagnoses as "a severe neurotic reactive depression." The story of Fosdick’s "terrifying suicidal smashup" while a student at Union Theological Seminary in 1902 is unfolded with great care and sensitivity, and the account of how Fosdick turned tragedy into literature is profoundly moving. But Fosdick’s journey into the land of shadows remains an enigma that will not crack. Chastened by the criticism accorded the author’s earlier biography of Tittle, Miller is at great pains to avoid unwarranted psychologizing. He even refrains from the scholarly sport of speculating about what Fosdick described as "the most perilous temptation that I ever faced in my young manhood." Miller shows little kindness toward Lytton Strachey’s belief that discretion is not the better part of biography.

No one will ever write a biography that is beyond criticism. However, this book is so good it makes one feel frustrated that it is not better. Indeed, it is only the need to chip away more mass and marble that prevents this erudite and indispensable volume from being truly magisterial.