Dr. Ferm is dean of the chapel at Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 3, 1978, pp. 472-474. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Theodore and Winnie Brock.
A man for all seasons, Fosdick speaks as clearly to us today as he did at the height of his influence. For forty years he was at the forefront of theological and social thinking and controversy. He brought to his country a prophetic voice of reasoned faith and enlightened hope. He teaches us that personal and social experiences are equally important and that both should form the crucible of authentic faith.
May 24, 1978 marks the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Harry Emerson Fosdick, America’s greatest liberal preacher of the 20th century. For more than 40 years Fosdick was at the forefront of theological and social thinking and controversy as he brought to his country a prophetic voice of reasoned faith and enlightened hope.
Born in Buffalo, Fosdick received his formal education at Colgate University and Union Theological Seminary (New York), beginning as a virtual fundamentalist and ending as a vigorous advocate of reason and common sense in religious faith. As he later wrote:
What finally smashed the whole idea of Biblical inerrancy for me was a book by Andrew D. White, president of Cornell University, entitled History of The Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom. It was a ponderous two-volume work, but I devoured it. It seemed to me unanswerable. Here were the facts, shocking facts about the way the assumed infallibility of the Scriptures had impeded research, deepened and prolonged obscurantism, fed the mania of persecution, and held up the progress of mankind. I no longer believed the old stuff I had been taught. Moreover, I no longer merely doubted it. I rose in indignant revolt against it [The Living of These Days (Harper, 1956), p. 52].
Fosdick was ordained in the Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York city in 1903 after an unsettling seminary career that included a period of service in the filth and poverty of the Bowery, which quickened his social conscience, and a nervous breakdown which made him, as it had made William James, sensitive to the dark side of human nature. The difficulty, he would later counsel, is not in the adversity but in the adversity’s effect. That same year, 1903 he married Florence Whitney and assumed his first full-time pastorate at First Baptist Church of Montclair, New Jersey. "Preaching for me," he once said, "has never been easy, and at the start it was often exceedingly painful." Early its his ministry he discarded expository and topical preaching as unsuitable and came to look upon preaching as "personal counseling on a group scale." He declared:
Every sermon should have for its main business the head-on constructive meeting of some problem which was puzzling minds, burdening consciences, distracting lives, and no sermon which so met a real human difficulty, with light to throw on it and help to win victory over it, could possibly be futile [ibid., p. 94].
Fosdick remained in Montclair until 1915, when he became Morris K. Jesup professor of practical theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York (he had taught part-time there since 1908); for the next several years he taught scores of young men the Fosdickian method of preaching, focused on helping people solve their real problems -- personal, social and theological. He also began an extensive weekend itinerant ministry to college campuses across the country and thus widened his range of influence and liberal notoriety.
In the meantime, he had begun another important phase of his ministry -- writing. "I do not see how a man can preach without writing," he declared. "I always have thought with my pen in hand" He published more than 30 books in his career, perhaps the most significant, in addition to his collections of sermons, being the trilogy The Meaning of Prayer, The Meaning of Faith and The Meaning of Service; The Modern Use of the Bible; A Guide to Understanding the Bible; On Being a Real Person, and his autobiography, The Living of These Days.
In 1918 Fosdick became the preaching minister at a newly formed Presbyterian Church which had resulted from the merger of three Presbyterian churches in midtown New York. Thus began a period of six years during which Baptist Fosdick became embroiled in the modernist-fundamentalist controversy, which rocked all the major denominations but especially the Presbyterian Church. As the controversy began to emerge, Fosdick preached a sermon titled "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" It was, he thought, a plea for fair play and for a church tolerant enough to allow for a diversity of theological viewpoints. Unfortunately the sermon had an unintended effect, exposing instead Fosdick’s own liberal leanings. As he later admitted:
The trouble was, of course, that in stating the liberal and fundamentalist positions, I had stood in a Presbyterian pulpit and said frankly what the modernist position on some points was -- the virgin birth no longer accepted as historic fact, the literal inerrancy of the Scriptures incredible, the second coming of Christ from the skies an outmoded phrasing of hope [ibid., p. 148].
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, meeting in 1923 and to a large degree under the spell of arch-fundamentalist and dynamic orator William Jennings Bryan, adopted a resolution asking the Presbytery of New York to take such action "as will require the preaching and teaching in the First Presbyterian Church of New York City to conform to the system of doctrines taught in the Confession of Faith."
This resolution also specified some of the doctrines which Fosdick’s opponents believed were in the confession: biblical inerrancy, virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, physical resurrection and the second coming. Fosdick, of course, could not accept the mandate of this resolution, and though the First Presbyterian Church tried to work out a compromise so that they could keep him, the controversy became so raging and bitter -- one fundamentalist minister referred to him as "a religious outlaw" and as "the Jesse James of the theological world" -- that Fosdick resigned and preached his final sermon at First Presbyterian in March 1925. In that farewell sermon he said: "They call me a heretic. Well, I am a heretic if conventional orthodoxy is the standard. I should be ashamed to live in this generation and not be a heretic" (ibid., p. 176).
The best of Fosdick was yet to come. John D. Rockefeller of Park Avenue Baptist Church in New York approached him about the possibility of his becoming the minister of that church. Fosdick demurred on two grounds: that baptism by immersion was required for full church membership and that the church was located in a rich residential area where its influence on the greater social problems of the city would be minimal. The Park Avenue congregation voted to remove these two obstacles by forming the new Riverside Church at Morningside Heights, completed in 1931, the citadel of the best in American Protestantism and a lasting tribute to the high ideals of Harry Emerson Fosdick. The story of Riverside Church is a story in itself -- of preaching and counseling and service to the community, of a church interdenominational and interracial. Fosdick’s insistence that Riverside Church have neither any creed nor one mode of baptism made him an ecumenical pioneer. He himself wrote the dedicatory hymn:
God of grace and God of glory.
On thy people pour thy power;
Crown Thine ancient church’s story,
Bring her bud to glorious flower,
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the facing of this hour.
Fosdick remained at Riverside until his retirement in 1945; during that period of 20 years at Riverside he was a regular preacher on the National Radio Pulpit, through which his name became a household word. He remained active as a preacher and writer for many years after his retirement and died in 1969.
The task of summarizing the major contributions of this modern-day prophet is somewhat intimidating. Three aspects of his legacy stand our in my mind. First, he consistently attempted to express the abiding truths of the Christian faith in the changing categories appropriate to the modern world. He knew that no theology could be expressed in final form. As he put it,
If the day ever comes when men care so little for the basic Christian experiences and revelations of truth that they cease trying to rethink them in more adequate terms, see them in the light of freshly acquired knowledge, and interpret them anew for new days, then Christianity will be finished [ibid., p. 230].
For this reason Fosdick waged a lifelong battle against the fundamentalists and proponents of a static orthodoxy. On the other hand, he also opposed the radicals who threw out the abiding truths of the Christian faith. To quote him:
Unable to be a theological reactionary, I could not be a theological radical either. The radicals always seemed to me to have decided that the stars had vanished because an old astronomy had gone. My own reaction has been the opposite: the old astronomy was wrong about something real and permanent, and to get at that reality afresh, to see it again more clearly and more trimly was the only solution that in the end counted for anything [ibid., p.230].
Fosdick teaches us to be aware of our limitations and our need to change our religious views with the times, but he also admonishes us to keep our eyes on the stars, on the ultimate things which are as real today as they have ever been. In short, he tells us to "believe both in abiding stars and changing astronomies"
"Without faith in God," his sermons testify, "the whole climate of man’s life would become so arctic that the best in man’s ethical life would become impossible." Fosdick declared that if God is not personal, then he would have no concern for human life and "a God of no concern is a God of no consequence." And in one of his most moving sermons he declared: "If we are to have a profound religion we may indeed throw away our old, childish, anthropomorphic ideas of God, but we may not throw away God and leave ourselves caught like rats in the trap of an aimless, meaningless, purposeless universe" (The Power to See It Through [Harper, 1935], p.133).
Second, Fosdick tells us not to forget the importance of reason in faith. He lived through a period of violent theological upheaval when the winds of doctrine shifted unpredictably, often leaving the individual believer in confusion and turmoil. He had great difficulty with neoorthodoxy, which he believed downgraded human reason and overemphasized human sin. Fosdick valued reason not because of a naïve optimism, but because he himself had struggled with fundamentalism and obscurantism. As he once put it: "What present-day critics of liberalism often fail to see is its absolute necessity to multitudes of us who would not have been Christians at all unless we could thus have escaped the bondage of the then reigning orthodoxy" (The Living of These Days, p. 66).
Certainly, reason is not infallible. Human beings are highly prejudiced and imperfect. The first rule for all who believe in a progressive world, he once said, is not to believe in it too much. But still the Christian faith must speak to our deepest insights into our own humanity; otherwise, faith becomes an arbitrary exercise. "Faith and reason." Fosdick insisted, "are not antithetical opposites. They need each other. All the tragic superstitions which have cursed religion throughout its history have been due to faith divorced from reason" (ibid., p. 258). Fosdick warns us that we ignore humanity’s rational nature at our own peril. At present we see many faiths competing for the allegiance of humankind; how will we choose among them? Fosdick answers: "To take the best insights of them all, to see the incompleteness and falsity in them all, to trust none of them as a whole, to see always that the Reality to be explained is infinitely greater than our tentative, conditioned explanations -- that seems to me wisdom." (ibid., p. 232).
Finally, Fosdick grounded his faith in personal and social experience, in the tragedies and failures, the hopes and dreams of individuals. The most vital thing in religion, he said again and again, is firsthand personal experience. Fosdick was greatly influenced by Walter Rauschenbusch and the social gospel movement, and his intense social concerns are reflected in his writing and preaching. One of humankind’s most insistent needs, he wrote in The Meaning of Service, is the interpretation of religion in terms of service and the attachment of religion’s enormous driving power to the tasks of service. He was a pacifist in World War II. Echoing William James, he insisted that the only way to abolish war is to make peace heroic. And he was an early supporter of Margaret Sanger and her planned-parenthood campaign. He was involved in the great social issues of his day. He declared that "the ultimate criterion of any civilization’s success or failure is to be found in what happens to the underdog." Fosdick believed that both the social and personal dimensions of the gospel were essential:
As a preacher I found myself constantly on a two-way street. If I started with the social gospel I ran into the need of better individual men and women who alone could create and sustain a better social order, and so found myself facing the personal gospel; and if I started with the personal gospel, I ran straight into the evils of society that ruin personality, and so found myself facing the social gospel [Ibid., p. 280].
Fosdick teaches us that personal and social experiences are equally important and that both should form the crucible of authentic faith. For it is in both personal and social spheres that the moral imperatives become real and the spiritual needs become obvious, that we experience sin and guilt along with love and forgiveness, and that "we do confront Jesus Christ -- disturbed, provoked, challenged, fascinated by him and, if we will, ushered by him into a new life."
Harry Emerson Fosdick was and is a man for all seasons, one who speaks as clearly to us today as he did 30 years ago. Life for him was a continuous adventure into the unknown, into a future in whose possibilities he believed -- a future that demands insight and daring. Humanity, he always insisted, "desperately needs what Christianity at its best has to offer." Fosdick gave his best to his life and faith; he asks the same of us:
Grant us wisdom,
Grant us courage
For the living of these days.