Twelve Tests of Character

by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Harry Emerson Fosdick was one of the most eminent and often controversial of the preachers of the first half of the twentieth century.

Published by Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York and London. Copyright, 1923, by The International Committee of Young Men’s Christian Associations. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


(ENTIRE BOOK) Some fundamental tests of character which our new generation is tempted to forget. With many schemes for the world’s salvation, everything rests back on integrity and driving power in personal character.


  • Foreword
  • Chapter 1: First Things First

    Preoccupation is the most common form of failure. For the ultimate trouble with preoccupation is that it takes no account of the flight of time. So the day passes and the enriching experiences which fellowship with the Highest offers us are lost, not because we deliberately discard them, but because our time and attention are preëngaged.

  • Chapter 2: Long Ropes and Strong Stakes

    Real freedom never is obtained by mere release from old limitations; freedom is the positive substitution of inward self-control for external restraints.

  • Chapter 3: A High Opinion of Oneself

    Anyone who starts by holding a high opinion of himself will certainly end by being ashamed of himself. Self-esteem and self-conceit are opposites. When a man thinks loftily of his life’s meaning he is hard to satisfy. The real reason why so many people think too much of themselves is that they do not think enough of themselves.

  • Chapter 4: Seeing the Invisible

    No man is the whole of himself until he has developed this capacity to see something in life besides its prose. Any man’s life has been a failure when its whole story can be told in prosaic, indicative sentences. The deepest and finest experiences of humankind have always been expressed in poetry, bodied forth in pictures, symbolized in imagination, set to music and sung.

  • Chapter 5: The Privilege of Living

    The kind of insight which discovers happiness in difficult situations, commonplace people, and customary tasks is one of the surest tests of character, for it always involves generosity, appreciativeness, love. The one man who cannot know abiding happiness is the self-absorbed man.

  • Chapter 6: Minding One’s Own Business

    The man who has not successfully grappled with himself will never grapple successfully with anybody else. At its deepest this inner problem of human life is simply the age-long religious problem in its intensest form — the relationship of a man with his own soul.

  • Chapter 7: Obedience

    Almost every aspect of God’s significance for human life has been pushed to the fore in our generation, except this. We have made him very amiable, very approachable, even affectionately maternal, and we often have forgotten that, whatever else God means, he represents moral order. He is no friend of undisciplined living.

  • Chapter 8: Above the Average

    Our innermost temptation is to reduce ourselves to some denomination’s lowest common denominator, to sink to the ecclesiastical average, to help to put down the worst in men, but at the same time to miss the best, lacking vision to see what the Most High would reveal to us, and then lacking courage to say what we see, until, like other ministers of organized religion in history, we help to put three crosses on Calvary. The hope of the church lies in leadership above the average and ahead of the time.

  • Chapter 9: Harnessing the Caveman

    The difference between the best lives and the worst does not lie in the possession of strong primitive instincts by the low and the lack of them by the high. The difference lies in the purposes around which those primitive instincts are organized and the ends to which they are directed.

  • Chapter 10: Magnanimity

    To care about the welfare of mankind supremely, to rejoice in better work than ours which helps the cause along, to be interested in the thing that needs to be done and to be careless who gets the credit for doing it, to be glad of any chance to help, and glad, too, of any greater chance than another may possess, such magnanimity is both good sense and good Christianity.

  • Chapter 11: Possessing a Past Tense

    The principles of Jesus, the power of applied science, the idea of democracy — from these three things the most hopeful elements of our civilization flow. These things are the heart of the heritage which we hold in trust from our fathers before us for our children after us. God pity the man who ever grows so sophisticated that the thrill drops out from any one of them!

  • Chapter 12: The Power to See It Through

    The power to see life through to a great conclusion is obviously a matter of patience, and patience is of all virtues one of the most difficult to achieve. Nothing in this world, however, is likely to get on without it, for the world itself is built on patient lines.