On May 21, 1922, Harry Emerson Fosdick took to the pulpit of Old First Presbyterian Church (est. 1716) in Manhattan to deliver what would be his most famous sermon.
The American church broadly, and the Presbyterian church specifically, were already divided into conservative and liberal camps. Fosdick’s sermon didn’t create this division, but it clearly exposed the division, and it exemplified all the reasons for it. For as much as Fosdick thought of himself as irenic, moderate, and peace-loving, one doesn’t entitle a sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” without meaning to pick a fight.
Sermon for the Times
The text was Acts 5:34–39, where the esteemed Gamaliel, a leader of the Jewish Sanhedrin, counsels an angry mob to leave the apostles alone, for if their “work be of men, it will come to nought: but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it” (KJV).
Whether Fosdick fancied himself Gamaliel or not, he considered the Pharisee’s words from the first century a model for the 20th century. What the church needed more than ever was a spirit of liberality and tolerance, of charity toward the “multitudes of reverent Christians who have been unable to keep this new knowledge [about science, history, and religion] in one compartment of their minds and the Christian faith in another.” Affirming the aphorism “cantankerousness is worse than heterodoxy,” Fosdick argued that “the worst kind of church that can be offered to the allegiance of the new generation is an intolerant church.”
The American church was already divided into conservative and liberal camps. Fosdick’s sermon didn’t create this division, but it clearly exposed it.
The heart of the sermon indicted fundamentalists and their fundamentals. Fosdick made the case that no one has “a right to deny the Christian name to those who differ” on the disputed points of fundamentalism, but it was obvious Fosdick looked at fundamentalist doctrines with incredulity. He questioned the historicity of miracles and the virgin birth, denied the inerrancy of Scripture and the atonement as a propitiatory sacrifice, and he didn’t accept Christ’s second coming as a literal event.
Key to Fosdick’s theological hermeneutic were his convictions that religion was an evolutionary development and that religious belief should evolve. Just as previous generations learned the earth revolves around the sun, so our generation must find a way for “the new knowledge and the old faith” to be “blended in a new combination.” In Fosdick’s estimation, educated people were turned off by the staid doctrines of the past and were starting to look for religious answers outside the church. If the church didn’t offer new ideas for a new day, it would suffer embarrassment and sink into irrelevance.
In his sermon’s stirring conclusion, Fosdick was adamant, “I do not believe for a moment that the Fundamentalists are going to succeed.” Love would triumph over intolerance; that’s what mattered. “There are many opinions in the field of modern controversy concerning which I am not sure whether they are right or wrong, but there is one thing I am sure of: courtesy and kindliness and tolerance and humility and fairness are right. Opinions may be mistaken; love never is.”
That last sentence perfectly captures the sermon’s spirit and the spirit of liberalism Fosdick promoted. For him, it was a “penitent shame that the Christian church should be quarreling over little matters when the world is dying of great needs.” The fundamentalists insisted on dubious theological theories and waging war for doctrinal idiosyncrasies when, in Fosdick’s words, “So much of it does not matter!” In Fosdick’s mind, there was “not a single thing at stake in the controversy on which depends the salvation of human souls.” The need of the hour was not theological wrangling, but laboring so “men in their personal lives and in their social relationships should know Jesus Christ.”
Fosdick’s vision for the church was liberalism’s expansive charity instead of fundamentalism’s cramped rigidity. “God keep us,” he exhorted in his sermon’s last line, “intellectually hospitable, open-minded, liberty-loving, fair, tolerant, not with the tolerance of indifference as though we did not care about the faith, but because always our major emphasis is upon the weightier matters of the law.”
Heretic for His Generation
Fosdick was born in 1878 in Buffalo, New York, into a family he described as both “deeply Christian” and possessing “a strong tradition of nonconformity.” Though he readily embraced his parents’ faith—by contagion rather than coercion—religion became his main source of unhappiness as a child. Fosdick reflected (sounding more adult than childlike) that “some of the most wretched hours of my boyhood were caused by the pettiness and obscurantism, the miserable legalism and terrifying appeals to fear that were associated with the religion of the churches.”
In Fosdick’s estimation, if the church did not offer new ideas for a new day, it would suffer embarrassment and sink into irrelevance.
As a sensitive boy, deeply religious and morbidly introspective, Fosdick recalled “weeping at night for fear of going to hell.” He agonized that he’d committed the unpardonable sin and would suffer forever in the horrors described in Revelation. It’s not hard to see how young Fosdick would grow into adult Fosdick: an earnest man committed to religion’s uplifting power, with an equal commitment to rid religion of antiquated and unhelpful elements.
In 1900, Fosdick graduated from Colgate University, where his thinking was shaped by liberal Baptist theologian William Newton Clarke (1841–1912). At Colgate, Fosdick became a firm believer in evolution and a skeptic toward orthodox Christianity. When he felt a call to ministry, most of his classmates were surprised. By his own admission, Fosdick was a better dancer than theologian. In fact, so eviscerated was his faith, Fosdick wondered whether any church would want him:
I was through with orthodox dogma. I had not the faintest interest in any sect or denomination. I could not have told clearly what I believed about any major Christian doctrine. I did not see how any denomination could ever accept me as its minister. But I did not care. I wanted to make a contribution to the spiritual life of my generation.
In time, crowds would clamor for Fosdick the minister. After graduating from Union Theological Seminary in 1904, Fosdick took the pulpit of First Baptist Church in Montclair, New Jersey. After pastoring there for over a decade, Fosdick crossed the Hudson and served in three New York City churches: First Presbyterian (1918–25), Park Avenue Baptist (1925–30), and the interdenominational Riverside Church (1930–46), whose 2,500-seat gothic cathedral was conceived and financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr. with the intention that Fosdick would be senior pastor.
Fosdick taught homiletics at Union from 1915 to 1946, and he wrote 47 books, numerous articles, and the well-known hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory.” Martin Luther King Jr. called Fosdick the greatest preacher of the 20th century. Labeled as “modernism’s Moses,” Fosdick was a spiritual inspiration to some and a singular instance of spiritual declension to others. Under Rockefeller’s direction, his publicist Ivy Lee sent “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” to every ordained Protestant minister in the country and ensured the sermon was reprinted in numerous liberal periodicals; it’s no surprise there was a quick, vociferous response. For orthodox Presbyterians, Fosdick was everything they’d feared was wrong with their denomination.
In Fosdick’s telling, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” was a plea for tolerance, a good-faith petition for the church “to take in both liberals and conservatives without either trying to drive the other out.” Yet even Robert Moats Miller, Fosdick’s sympathetic biographer, acknowledges that “Fosdick was kidding himself” by characterizing the sermon this way. “What were conservative Presbyterians to think when this Baptist declared . . . from a Presbyterian pulpit belief in the virgin birth nonessential, the inerrancy of the Scriptures incredible, the second coming of Christ from the skies an outmoded phrasing of hope?”
Mired in denominational controversy and feeling the sting of criticism, Fosdick resigned his pastorate at Old Church in 1924. “They call me a heretic,” he said in his farewell sermon. “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.”
Champion for True Liberalism
Judged by historic Christian orthodoxy, Fosdick is a cautionary tale in how to end on the wrong side of Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism divide. Judged by liberalism’s internal logic, Fosdick is a successful though outdated example of how one man reached out with a message of Christian spirituality to an unbelieving world that may not have otherwise listened.
“The idea of liberal theology,” writes Gary Dorrien, is the 300-year-old idea “that Christian theology can be genuinely Christian without being based upon external authority.” Liberalism is the belief that “religion should be modern and progressive from the standpoint of modern knowledge and experience.” It’s the conviction one can be a faithful Christian without believing in hell or a universal flood, without believing God commanded the extermination of the Canaanites, and without believing God “demanded the literal sacrifice of his Son as a substitutionary legal payment for sin.”
In all this, Fosdick was one of liberalism’s most eloquent and effective spokesmen. He was not a revolutionary. He valued the church and believed in Christianity’s transforming power (as he understood it). Like most mainline Protestants of his age, Fosdick was anticommunist and an unapologetic supporter of democracy. Later in life, under Karl Barth’s influence, Fosdick insisted the church must go beyond modernism to help the world rediscover the doctrine of sin. He was an “evangelical liberal” in that he took the Bible seriously—believing it contained old truths that needed new expression—and wanted people to have a relationship with Jesus.
Yet even if Fosdick had an evangelical impulse to win the hearts of the masses, in any true theological sense he was a liberal. Fosdick openly and unabashedly described himself as a liberal. And rightly so. When he preached his sermon “The Modern World’s Rediscovery of Sin,” there was no clear doctrine of Christ’s atonement, no mention of divine wrath, only a vague sentiment that Jesus “came to save men from that inner wrongness that curses human life.”
Fosdick also didn’t believe in Christ’s divinity in any meaningful sense. “Wherever goodness, beauty, truth, love are—there is the divine,” Fosdick preached in a 1933 sermon. We can call Jesus divine if we mean “the divinity of his spiritual life,” but Jesus’s divinity differs from ours only in degree, not in kind. In explicitly rejecting the Chalcedonian Definition—that Christ is the second person of the Trinity, eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, who took upon himself a human nature, so that the two distinct natures were inseparably joined together in one person—Fosdick argued that the historic church had “garbled [Jesus] beyond all recognition. When Fosdick calls himself a heretic, we should take him at his word.
Even if Fosdick had an evangelical impulse to win the hearts of masses, in any true theological sense, he was a liberal.
Miller says Fosdick’s ministry can be summed up with a single line: “though astronomies change, the stars abide.” This was Fosdick’s conviction throughout his pastoral career.
In a later sermon, “Conservative and Liberal Temperaments in Religion,” he described religion as akin to courtesy: an inward spirit that expresses itself in many forms. Preaching about Joshua falling on his face before the ark (Josh. 7:6), Fosdick argued that “arks pass away, but religion remains.” For many Christians, Fosdick explains, their “ark” is a special doctrine or specific denomination, some bit of ritual, some miracle in history, a special theory of the atonement, a belief in fiat creation or the virgin birth. “Such things may have been very precious in your experience,” Fosdick allows, but we mustn’t confuse keeping the faith with keeping the ark. Christians are too easily separated by creeds and rituals when we can find common ground in our prayers and hymns.
That was the essence of Fosdick’s message, the essence of 20th-century liberal Christianity. “If, then, you ask what a true liberalism is, I should say that it is one that pays little attention to the arks that divide, but cares with all its heart about the religion that unites.”
Read other articles in our series on the 100-year anniversary of Fosdick’s sermon:
- Obbie Tyler Todd, “The Sermon That Divided America“
- Thomas Kidd, “Did the Fundamentalists Win? Answering a Century-Old Question“
A version of this article originally appeared as part of a symposium on Fosdick’s sermon published in the May 2022 issue of Reformed Faith & Practice: The Journal of Reformed Theological Seminary.