Not many sermons outlast their preacher, but one delivered by Harry Emerson Fosdick in May 1922 is still being studied and cited 100 years later. It illuminates controversies of its day, but it also sheds light on tensions in our own. Fosdick’s sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” was a landmark of that era’s fundamentalist-modernist controversy.
Roughly defined, modernists were those who believed that new understandings of the Bible and science required significant updating of traditional biblical belief. Fundamentalists were those who defended the “fundamentals” of Christian doctrine, such as the inerrancy of the Bible and the physical resurrection of Christ.
Fosdick portrayed the battle between fundamentalists and modernists in American denominations as a reprise of the biblical showdown between the apostles and Jewish leaders in Acts 5.
Modernists, he proclaimed, were operating in the innovative spirit of Peter and the disciples, who represented the “finest flowering out that Judaism ever had.” The fundamentalists, to Fosdick, manifested the attitude of the stodgy, entrenched Jewish interest, who wished to prevent any progressive adaptation of Judaism in the new era of Christian revelation.
Fosdick commended the wisdom of the Jewish scholar Gamaliel, who warned the other Jewish leaders in Acts to leave the new Christians alone. “For if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God” (Acts 5:38–39, KJV). In other words, fundamentalists were trying to halt the liberals’ accommodation of Christianity to modern sensibilities, but they would do better to accept the presence of modernists in denominations and seminaries. Let God determine by his providence whether traditional or modernist thought would win the day.
Theology in a Modern World
Fosdick had attended Union Theological Seminary in New York City, one of the nation’s bastions of modernist theology. Although Fosdick was originally ordained as a Northern Baptist, he became pastor of First Presbyterian Church of New York in 1918. It was there that he preached “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” The sermon was so controversial that it led to an investigation by the local presbytery, during which Fosdick was defended by the lay Presbyterian and future Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. Fosdick resigned from First Presbyterian in 1924 and eventually became the pastor of the Riverside Church in New York. Riverside was funded by John D. Rockefeller Jr., and it became the most prominent modernist congregation in 20th-century America.
Fosdick’s sermon suggested modern people possessed scientific knowledge that rendered traditional understandings of the Bible untenable. Presumably this new learning included Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and geologists’ calculations of a very old earth. But Fosdick really got specific when he enumerated doctrines that fundamentalists regarded as essential and that modernists now found dubious in light of contemporary learning.
Fosdick suggested modern people possessed scientific knowledge that rendered traditional understandings of the Bible untenable.
In a memorable passage, Fosdick warned that fundamentalists “insist that we must all believe in the historicity of certain special miracles, preeminently the virgin birth of our Lord; that we must believe in a special theory of inspiration—that the original documents of the Scripture, which of course we no longer possess, were inerrantly dictated to men a good deal as a man might dictate to a stenographer.” He further cautioned that fundamentalists insist
that we must believe in a special theory of the Atonement—that the blood of our Lord, shed in a substitutionary death, placates an alienated Deity and makes possible welcome for the returning sinner; and that we must believe in the second coming of our Lord upon the clouds of heaven to set up a millennium here, as the only way in which God can bring history to a worthy denouement. Such are some of the stakes which are being driven to mark a deadline of doctrine around the church.
These doctrines were passé and doomed in the modern context, Fosdick believed, even though he readily acknowledged that many sincere Christians still believed them. But Fosdick wondered why the fundamentalists could not simply accept the modernists’ role in the church, instead of using their narrow concept of orthodoxy to exclude proponents of modernism from pulpits and seminaries.
As suggested by his comments above, Fosdick didn’t exactly convey a gracious attitude toward the fundamentalists either. In his view, they were stubborn bumpkins at best, resistant to observable facts of science. At worst, they were religious power brokers and legalists who were determined, like the Pharisees and Sadducees of old, to stop the progress of Christianity itself.
Fosdick was confident that the fundamentalists would not win the day. They wouldn’t succeed at making doctrines such as inerrancy or the virgin birth tests of orthodoxy in denominations such as the Presbyterian Church in the USA (predecessor to the modern PCUSA) or the Northern Baptist/American Baptist Convention. Was Fosdick right to be confident?
The historical answer to this question is complicated. In one sense, modernists did manage mostly to control what became known as the “mainline” denominations. These were the historic, usually northern-dominated Protestant denominations such as the PCUSA, the American Baptist Churches, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Episcopal Church. Many pastors in those denominations remained relatively conservative, but they and their congregations had to accept that many in their seminaries and denominational leadership did not affirm doctrines such as the entire inspiration of Scripture or the substitutionary atonement of Christ’s death for sinners.
Modernists didn’t necessarily drive conservatives out of the denominational rank and file, but they did bar most senior denominational and faculty positions to them. Traditionalists such as Princeton Seminary professor J. Gresham Machen likewise saw coexistence with modernists—whom Machen saw as advocating a different religion from Christianity—as intolerable. Institutional separation became the only viable alternative for such leaders. Machen went on to help found both the traditionalist Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia and the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination.
Fundamentalists—many of whom preferred the term “evangelical” by the late 1940s—did win in other ways, however. In the decades after Fosdick’s sermon, evangelicals came to dominate the ranks of American-sent overseas missionaries, as modernists largely gave up on the conversionist mandate at the heart of missions and evangelism.
Modernists largely gave up on the conversionist mandate at the heart of missions and evangelism.
Also, in the 1960s the mainline denominations began a cataclysmic decline in membership. As of the late 1950s, more than 50 percent of all Americans were affiliated with a mainline church. Today, only around 13 percent are, and the percentage is going down fast.
The mainline churches and modernist theologians still control elite religion departments and divinity schools at well-heeled Ivy League institutions and others such as the University of Chicago and Emory. A number of scholars have also argued that while mainliners and modernists lost the battle for church adherents, they won the broader war for the dominant ethos of academia (including much of Christian academia), corporate culture, and non-governmental agencies like the YMCA, Red Cross, or United Way.
One point on which Fosdick was indisputably wrong, however, was the idea that traditionalist Christian doctrine could not thrive in the modern world. In terms of global adherents, supernaturalist Christian churches are winning, hands-down, a hundred years after Fosdick. The orthodox biblicism that Fosdick saw as a great obstacle to modern faith is actually the key to its enduring power. Perhaps no doctrines can become completely passé if they’re actually true. In that sense, history answered Fosdick’s question: the fundamentalists won.