Harry Emerson Fosdick:
Reluctant Defender,
Liberal Protestant Symbol,
and Personalist Oracle

by Gary Dorrien

Harry Emerson Fosdick enlisted very reluctantly in the liberal Protestant fight against fundamentalism—so reluctantly that he denied for years afterward that he held any fighting intention. He had become famous by writing devotional books that sold in the millions and that British and American soldiers carried into World War I. In 1922 he was consumed with repudiating the pro-war jingoism that had boosted his fame during the war. Enlisting in another battle, this time against a self-named fundamentalist movement, was not what Fosdick wanted, even as he believed that fundamentalist theology was terribly wrong, harming the church, and embarrassing it. Fosdick would have gladly left this fight to others had his prominence and liberal opinions not made him a lightning-rod of controversy. To him, “liberal” and “modernist” were interchangeable terms, and both contrasted with the fighting mentality. Liberal theology was about the right to individual freedom, allowing science to explain the physical world, accepting the historical critical approach to the Bible, and being charitable. Fosdick claimed to the end of his days that he had not meant to provoke fundamentalist leaders into battle against him. He was a peaceable unifier and reconciler who tried to prevent a schism—by warning that a reactionary movement might take over the Protestant churches and impose its backward dogmatism on them.

He had graduated from Union Theological Seminary in 1904 after recovering from a shattering depressive breakdown. Fosdick ministered in his early career at First Baptist Church of Montclair, New Jersey, at first delivering conventional expository sermons, but people didn’t come to church to learn what happened to the Jebusites, so why spend half the sermon on historical excavation and exegesis? He tried his hand at topical preaching, but that was a pundit-rehash of the same things that people talked about all week. They didn’t come for that, either, even as an ascending social gospel movement contended that Christians must care about social justice. Fosdick reflected that people come to church because they have spiritual concerns. He resolved to preach about living, hoping, illness, suffering, being anxious, working with others, and trying to pray. Some of his sermons waxed knowingly about gently raised youths who fell into neurotic depression because they were afraid to fail. The early Fosdick was straightforward about being theologically liberal and a bit cagey about the social gospel. Conservative dogmatism, he said, was not an option for him. Had he felt forced to choose between dogmatic religion and no religion, he would have settled for no religion. Meanwhile he vaguely supported a mild version of the social gospel, which folded into his sermonic assurance that modern progress was creating a better world.

In 1913 he began to publish the devotional books that made him famous–The Manhood of the Master (1913); The Assurance of Immortality (1913); The Meaning of Prayer (1915); The Meaning of Faith (1917); and The Meaning of Service (1920). Fosdick joined the Union faculty in 1915 and was called in 1918 to the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan while keeping his day-job at Union. The early Fosdick read his patriotic Americanism into the gospel ethic of self-sacrificing love and courage. It appalled him that liberal Protestants campaigned to keep America out of World War I. Fosdick’s Anglophilia and excitability went into overdrive—how could Americans not defend the heirs of Shakespeare, Milton, and Tennyson from the Teutonic militarists? He shamed audiences across the nation on this theme, accusing President Woodrow Wilson of being too proud to fight and condemning Republican candidate Charles Evans Hughes in 1916 for waffling evasively. When Wilson finally intervened, Fosdick whipped up enthusiasm for the war, conflating faith in Jesus with faith in the USA.

His pro-war manifesto, The Challenge of the Present Crisis (1917) boosted his Meaning fame; Fosdick exuded that nothing had ever excited him as much as cheering for the war. In 1919 he was crestfallen when the Treaty of Versailles shredded Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the US Senate refused to ratify the treaty containing Wilson’s proposal for a League of Nations. Fosdick began to say that he was chagrined at being used, though of course, he had preached militaristic gore long before the government enlisted him to do it. In 1921 he called for a naval disarmament conference, observing that war no longer generated public virtues or shielded civilian populations from attack. The following year, he and pacifists Kirby Page and John Nevin Sayre organized an ecumenical anti-war declaration. Fosdick had not yet announced his conversion to pacifism when the controversy over fundamentalism erupted. In 1923 he declared that he was done with the war business: “The war system means everything which Jesus did not mean and means nothing that he did mean.” Fosdick contended that the battle between modernists and fundamentalists was a triviality compared to “this supreme moral issue of our time: Christ against war.” This was the (new) conviction for which he wanted to be known, not his warning that the fundamentalists might be winning.

He was the kind of liberal who believed that liberals should not have to fight to prevail in the churches; sheer modern progress and enlightenment should sweep them into positions of leadership. Fosdick was radical only in his world-federalist pacifism, and it acquired mainstream respectability in the 1920s. In 1922 he gave the Cole Lectures at Vanderbilt Divinity School, published as Christianity and Progress. He cautioned that many of his fellow progressives underestimated the ravages of sin and relied too much on reform movements. Fosdick was for individuals simply as persons, believing in reason and the latent good faith of every person, and in progress and progressive revelation, which do not occur in a straight line. He taught that progressive revelation is the key to the unity and meaning of the Bible. Scripture begins with Yahweh in a thunderstorm and ends with Jesus saying, “God is Spirit.” It begins with a tribal deity who leads warriors to battle, demanding the slaying of the Amalekites, and ends with Jesus commanding love of enemies and the gospel proclaiming that God is love. Fosdick allowed that the Christian Testament has a lot of inferior, non-progressive material, being a river in which bad things swoosh with the current. Liberal theology, he said, stands for the ideal of progress, which is not always the reality. For example, Europe and the USA were on a far higher moral level in 1912 than in 1922. It would take a lot of progress to get back to 1912.

To Fosdick, every chapter of Christianity and Progress was irenic, temperate, balanced, and good-spirited—who could read it as an attack? Many did so, finding it shocking proof that Fosdick denigrated true Christianity, and true Christians like them.  One fateful sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”, which Fosdick preached on May 21, 1922, lit the fuse of the modernist-fundamentalist explosion. Conservative evangelical leaders had compiled lists since the 1880s of “fundamental” Christian beliefs that modernists relativized or set aside. In 1920, conservative Baptist leader Curtis Lee Laws coined the term “fundamentalist” to designate those who, he said, “mean to do battle royal for the faith.” Fosdick taught at a seminary that had been driven out of the Presbyterian Church in 1893 for supporting the right of its biblical scholar Charles Briggs to apply historical critical methods to the Bible. In 1922, Fosdick feared that the wing of the Presbyterian Church that clung to biblical inerrancy had gained the upper hand in its battle against the modernist wing, and that the same thing was true in his Northern Baptist denomination. Thus he raised the specter of a fundamentalist rout, describing fundamentalism as a reactionary movement in modern Protestantism.

Fosdick was careful to say that he did not fear traditional conservative Christians. He feared the “essentially illiberal and intolerant” spirit of fundamentalism, which repudiated science and required Christians to believe unbelievable things about biblical inerrancy, the virginal conception of Jesus, and the second coming of Christ. He observed that the ancient world routinely accounted for great personalities by attributing miraculous births to them. Most of the Bible takes patriarchal polygamy and slavery for granted, pictures God as an Oriental monarch, and endorses violence. Modernists were not less Christian than fundamentalists for believing that these retrograde aspects were superseded by a love ethic of reverence for personality. To be sure, the ancient world had no concept of progressive development, but Fosdick said this concept is the key to the true meaning of Christianity.

The worst thing about fundamentalism was its reactionary illiberalism, denying to all non-fundamentalists the right to the Christian name. Fosdick acknowledged that fundamentalists had no monopoly on intolerance. He knew liberals who dreamed of driving out the fundamentalists, and he deeply resented Unitarian cleric Alfred Dieffenbach for saying he could not respect a liberal like Fosdick who tried to prevent the churches from splitting. Fosdick could not take criticism from the left; he also exaggerated how much of it existed, to magnify his moderate self-image. There was no Christian left of the 1920s that called for schisms. The closest thing to it, the fading National Federation of Religious Liberals founded in 1908, tried to foster closer relations between Unitarians and Universalists, and failed. Meanwhile the fundamentalists were strong in the historic denominations. Fosdick was not trying to drive them out; he was just trying to prevent them from gaining control.

“Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”, a call for broad-church civility, was dramatically divisive. It inflamed fundamentalists, nerved wishy-washy liberals for battle, and compelled many pastors to choose sides. A coalition of Presbyterian conservatives led by former US Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan objected that Fosdick was allowed to dispense his opinions in a prominent Presbyterian pulpit. They demanded that Fosdick either become a Presbyterian—which would yield a heresy trial—or resign his position. Princeton Seminary theologian J. Gresham Machen blasted liberals for demeaning the beliefs and feelings of orthodox Protestants: “They speak with disgust of those who believe ‘that the blood of our Lord, shed in a substitutionary death, placates an alienated Deity and makes possible welcome for the returning sinner.’” The quote was from Fosdick’s controversial sermon. Machen said the Fosdick-types trampled upon the hearts of true believers when they poured scorn on holy teachings. How was that a religion of love and good will?

“Fundamentalist” never described Machen, an orthodox Calvinist who believed in evolution. He cringed at being called one. Bryan became the public face of fundamentalism by pressing for Fosdick’s removal from First Presbyterian Church and by defending a Tennessee state law forbidding the teaching of evolution in public schools. Both controversies came to a head in 1925. Bryan led the prosecution in the spectacular Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, winning the case but reaping a crush of public ridicule. Fosdick lost the legal battle to save his position at First Presbyterian and was unwilling to submit to a heresy trial. His case received enormous publicity, drawing overflow crowds to First Presbyterian, where he declared in his farewell sermon: “They call me a heretic. Well, I am a heretic if conventional orthodoxy is the standard. I should be ashamed to live in this century and not be a heretic.”

The upward trajectory of the fundamentalists ended in 1925. The Scopes trial battered their public image, they failed to capture a single denomination, and many took the path of separation, building their own vast network of ministries, Bible colleges, parachurch organizations and denominations. Modernists gained control of the Northern Baptist and Presbyterian churches, and John D. Rockefeller Jr. lured Fosdick to Park Avenue Baptist Church, a way-station while Rockefeller built a spectacular Gothic cathedral for Fosdick in Morningside Heights, Riverside Church.

The demands of his renown caught up to him and Union gradually morphed into the side-job. Fosdick told Union president Henry Sloane Coffin in 1927 that he appreciated Union’s willingness to adjust to his needs. Two years later he relinquished his seminary pension while remaining on the faculty and bargaining to keep his spacious faculty apartment. In 1930, Riverside opened its doors, across the street from Union, with Fosdick as pastor. At Riverside his fame as a pastor soared to the level achieved previously only by Brooklyn spellbinder Henry Ward Beecher, refashioning the religion of healthy, buoyant, aesthetic, outward-moving care that Beecher pioneered at Plymouth Church. On occasion Fosdick said an edgy word about capitalism, but not to the point of offending Rockefeller. Good religion, he preached, is an art that cultivates and enhances human personality. Wherever goodness, beauty, truth, and love exist, the divine is present. Human beings are divine to the extent that they embody and mobilize these qualities. Jesus was uniquely divine because he embodied these qualities fully; his divinity was the divinity of his spiritual life; he stands out in the history of religion precisely as the champion of personality.

Fosdick said repeatedly that Christianity is true as the religion of personality: “Take it or leave it, that is what Christianity is about.” Divinity is not a supernatural reality, he stressed. It is the perfection of immanent love that every person is capable of mobilizing. On this ground, Fosdick rated Christianity as the truest religion, because it valorizes personality, he placed Judaism and Islam in the middle range, and he rated Buddhism as the least-true religion, because it despairs of personality. If that smacked of a surprising prejudice, he could live with it: “Christianity is aggressive and spiritually militant. It believes in personality, its infinite possibility, its permanent continuance, its ultimate victory.”

Fosdick was a quintessential Victorian long after the Victorian age passed. Good religion brings individuals to an awareness of their better nature, mobilizes their capacity to live out of it, and creates a better church and world. The mission of the church is to redeem the world by nourishing the development of personality. To Fosdick, it was terribly important not to conflict with science, but he never believed that theology should aspire to become as scientific or chemistry or sociology. He said the appropriate language of religion is art, not scientific naturalism. If Jesus had used the scientific jargon of his time his sayings would have been quickly forgotten. Jesus speaks to all ages because he used the language of beauty, which alone is timeless and universal.

Fosdick believed that his educated, upwardly mobile, mostly White congregants yearned for religious meaning in a society dominated by science, economics, and technology. They yearned especially for beauty; Fosdick said religion is worthless if it is not beautiful. Art, music, poetry, love, and religion do not submit to scientific modalities, being expressions of the human spirit that belong to the realm of beauty.

The territory of religion is the realm of spirit, personality, and beauty that religion shares with art.

In every way he symbolized the sensibility, strengths, prejudices, and blind spots of White liberal Protestantism, which took a therapeutic turn partly under his influence. Fosdick often recalled that seminarians of his generation received no training in pastoral counseling or psychology of religion. He was self-taught in these fields, and he played a key role in the founding of pastoral counseling in the mid-1920s as an academic field. Social gospel stalwart Justin Wroe Nixon longed for the old social gospel that fought for economic democracy and did not know the difference between neurosis and psychosis. Fosdick sympathized on the former point, but countered that emotional pain is just as real and disabling as injustice. He loved clinical work, taking informal clinical training from a psychiatrist, and drew upon his experience of depressive anxiety, often assuring clients he knew how they felt.

The convention that Fosdick conflated Christianity with cultural progress was true enough and slightly misleading, since he argued from the mid-1930s onward that the modernizing phase of liberal theology had run its course. In 1927, one year before Reinhold Niebuhr joined the Union faculty, he wrote an icy put-down of Fosdick’s book Adventurous Religion, chiding that it was middle-class and not very adventurous. The following year they met for the first time at Park Avenue Baptist, now as colleagues, where Niebuhr preached as Fosdick’s guest. Niebuhr flushed with embarrassment, finding himself “with an eminent man, whom I had treated with little grace.” After the service Fosdick took Niebuhr into his study and quietly remarked, without mentioning Niebuhr’s attack upon him, that each generation has only one battle in its system. His generation fought off the fundamentalist insurgency; now they had to trust Niebuhr’s generation to fight the church’s next battle.

Niebuhr took ecumenical Protestant theology in his direction for two generations. In the 1930s he combined a liberal version of neo-orthodox theology with left-Socialist politics; in the late 1940s he became a pillar of the Democratic Party establishment and a leading proponent of the Cold War. Niebuhr excoriated the liberal language of progress and moral idealism, which seemed like sentimental mush in the Depression era of collapsing economies and governments. He was scathing about the class privileges that liberals like Fosdick took for granted in fashioning a decorous religion of middle-class ethical idealism. Niebuhr might have chastised Fosdick for dispensing racist cultural stereotypes in his sermons and playing a leading role in the American Eugenics Society. But Niebuhr and Fosdick were typical liberals of their time in believing that they were anti-racist for preaching against racism; their own asides about the supposed cultural inferiority of Black Americans and other non-white cultural communities were supposedly not racist. Fosdick even persuaded himself that eugenics was not racist; he led the American Eugenics Society’s Committee for Cooperation with Clergymen, conferring clerical respectability on eugenics. Niebuhr’s blistering attacks on progressive moralism might have added that it smacked of rank supersessionism—the replacement theology belief that Christianity superseded or replaced the Mosaic covenant. But supersessionism was too deeply embedded in liberal Protestantism even to be construed as a problem.

It remains for our generation to strip bare the white supremacist racism of our religious, cultural, and national traditions and institutions, and to nurture religious communities that live up to Riverside’s historic self-description of being “interdenominational, interracial, international.” Some aspects of the history of American liberal Protestantism are extremely painful to recount, and Fosdick symbolizes some of the worst. But Fosdick was not wrong to base his ministry upon a claim about the sacred dignity of every human life. Neither was he wrong to emphasize the Christian lineage of this claim. The idea that there is such a thing as an individual person, and the corollary idea that this individual person bears a sacred dignity and worth by virtue of being a child of God, are Christian. They didn’t come from anywhere else, and their possible truth is not diminished by recognizing their Christian origin and lineage. Every way in which Fosdick fell short was characteristic of the liberal Protestantism of his time. Yet these blind spots and transgressions did not prevent Benjamin E. Mays, Howard Thurman, and Martin Luther King Jr. from hearing a Christian message of hope and redemption in Fosdick’s preaching at Riverside.

Mays, Thurman, and King did not need Fosdick to be perfect to hear the gospel from him, and to hear it in a way that they relied upon. They appreciated that Fosdick occasionally condemned lynching and racism, but beyond these statements, they drew from Fosdick’s weekly grappling with Scriptural texts and his pastoral commentary on spiritual struggles of the time. They heard in Fosdick the gospel message of liberation that founded Black American Christianity in the first place. The Black Church was born liberationist, hearing a message of freedom and equality in Christianity that was not what clerics of the First and Second Great Awakenings preached to them. Mays, Thurman, and King had Black Church radar for preaching that held fast to the Jesus of the gospels and was not a cultural prop for the US American empire. Moreover, Fosdick took seriously Niebuhr’s polemic against liberal idealism, especially that liberals of his generation baptized bourgeois culture. By 1935, Fosdick was willing to say so from the Riverside pulpit, declaring that the age in which liberal theology accommodated science and historical criticism had run its course.

Liberal theology, he said, rightly stood for intellectual freedom, science, democracy, racial decency, social welfare policies, and peaceable cooperation. But its rhetoric of progress and modernization had become an embarrassment. The one thing that most Americans knew for sure was that they were not living in an age of progress. Their world was filled with insecurity and dreadful deprivations. The mannered ideals of Victorian moralism were alien to them. Fosdick declared: “My soul, what a world, which the gentle modernism of my younger ministry, with its kindly sentiments and limitless optimism, does not fit at all! We must go beyond that.” Liberal theology could no longer make progress by keeping up with modern culture. If it was to remain a vital religion of wholesome moral character, it would have to sail “against the terrific down-drag of an antagonistic world.” Liberal theology was not merely an adjustment to the educated refinement of the upper middle-class—even at Riverside, and especially at Riverside.

Gary Dorrien teaches at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. His many books include Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit, which won the PROSE Award, The New Abolition, which won the Grawemeyer Award, and Breaking White Supremacy, which won the American Library Association Award.