The Enduring Timeliness of “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”

by Wallace Best

Over the course of the last century, there have only been two sermons made public that have been truly transformative in American society, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” and Harry Emerson Fosdick’s “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?,” and the one would not have been possible without the other. Fosdick’s sermon created the aesthetic, performative, and theological space for King’s, and I would venture that King understood that. Fosdick’s sermon was just that important to King and had become just that central to the American sermonic tradition by the early 1960s. As we celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the preaching of that sermon, we commemorate not only what it accomplished in 1922, but also its enduring legacy and impact. I would argue that when it comes to American preaching more broadly, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” changed everything, or at least what many Americans, across a wide spectrum race, class, region, and denominational affiliation, came to expect from a sermon. It was the sermon that marked American preaching as a hopeful enterprise that distilled the essence of the Christian gospel with a message of peace and unity for a better American society.

Fosdick did not step into the pulpit of the stately First Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village to change American preaching or to cause controversy, but he did both. And the controversy erupted almost immediately. Fosdick had only been at the church for three years and was settling into what he likely hoped would be a long and prosperous tenure there after having served several years as pastor of First Baptist Church in Montclair, New Jersey, and a brief stint as an army chaplain in France. But something he had seen on a recent trip to China troubled him a great deal. He knew that a group of Christian separatists had recently dubbed themselves “Fundamentalists” and had written and reprinted in 1917 a book about it audaciously called, “The Fundamentals.” In it the writers contended that they were presenting a “new statement of the fundamentals of Christianity.” They and those who espoused the “fundamentals” as doctrinal orthodoxy were the true believers while all others were in serious doctrinal error, and therefore, actually not Christians at all. The Fundamentalists were making major inroads in churches across America, gaining ground in nearly every denomination, even in major cities like New York. John Roach Straton, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church on 57th, who would later dub himself Fosdick’s rival, was in fact emerging as one of the nation’s leading fundamentalists. What troubled Fosdick, however, was the international reach of Fundamentalism. It had moved beyond American shores and was beginning to corrupt conceptions of Christianity around the world. He had even witness fundamentalist doctrines being preached by “backward looking” American missionaries in China and Japan the previous summer. He had to say something.

In Fosdick’s view, the Fundamentalists had every right to their version of “doctrinal orthodoxy” regarding beliefs about the virgin birth, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the second coming of Jesus. Christians had for centuries debated those and other doctrinal matters, giving shape to the very doctrinal, social, and institutional structures of the faith around the globe. The state of historic Christianity in 1922 was the result of these long doctrinal debates. As Fosdick declared, “there is nothing new about the situation” and “sincere difference of opinion” about doctrine had been a feature of Christianity since its birth. But the Fundamentalists, among whom evangelists A. C. Dixon and R. A. Torrey were among the early leaders as well as editors of The Fundamentals, had introduced an exclusive element of intolerance not seen before in the modern era. They were using their “fundamentals” not only to divide and to determine who was a “true” Christian but also who was not, even if non-fundamentalists professed faith in Christ. “Correct doctrine” had become the basis of the Christian faith and not individual spiritual experience. As Torrey had proclaimed, all “true believers in the Lord Jesus” and members of true church possess “the same marks” of right doctrine without which one cannot be saved. Intolerance and the audacity of Fundamentalists to designate other Christian believers as un-Christian, therefore, provided the basis of “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”

Fosdick was known to be a very good preacher, but “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” was one of his best in terms of sermonic craft. It was also a masterwork in oration, cultural interpretation, and scriptural interpretation from the “modernist” point of view. The first aim of the sermon, therefore, was to clarify something quite important. Although the concept of a “conservative” Christian had been in existence for a while, the concept of a “fundamentalist” Christian was new, and Fosdick wanted to make sure that the two were not confused or used interchangeably. “All fundamentalists are conservative,” he asserted, “but not all conservatives are fundamentalists.” Conservative Christians were simply not “liberal” in their interpretations of scripture or doctrinal positions. Fundamentalists, however, were “illiberal and intolerant.” It was not enough for them to disagree on points of doctrine. They found it necessary to banish those with whom they disagreed, denying them Christian fellowship and “the Christian name.” For Fosdick, not only was this approach to Christianity divisive and biblically unsound, it was also small-minded in a world filled with large problems in the years just after the conclusion of World War I.

If, during the war, when the nations were wrestling upon the very brink of hell and at times all seemed lost, you chanced to hear two men in an altercation about some minor matter of sectarian denominationalism, could you refrain your indignation?  You said, “What can you do with folks like this who, in the face of colossal issues, play with the tiddledywinks and peccadillos of religion?” So, now, when from the terrific questions of this generation one is called away by the noise of this Fundamentalist controversy, he thinks it almost unforgivable that men should . . . quarrel over them, when the world is perishing for the lack of the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith.

Fundamentalists were distracted by small matters and were distracting others from what truly mattered in a hurting world. So, Fosdick called for Christian unity, acceptance, and peace over “correct doctrine” – a church that was “intellectually hospitable, open-minded, liberty-loving, fair, tolerant.”  For “the worst kind of church,” he proclaimed, was an intolerant one. In this way, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” was a modernist manifesto with a fresh vision for a different Christian church and a different world.

The sermon was well received by the congregation at First Presbyterian Church and many around the country who embraced its fresh vision of Christian brotherhood, unity, and acceptance. However, it sent shock waves throughout the Presbytery and prompted calls not only for Fosdick (who was a Baptist) to be ousted from the church but also for him to be brought up on charges of heresy. For many fundamentalist leaders, Fosdick had with “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” shown himself to be heretic as well as a religious outlaw. Indeed, the sermon became one of the primary catalysts for the “Fundamentalist-Modernist” controversy of the mid-1920s, which set the tone and framework that still endures between “conservative” and “liberal” Christians in both religious and political terms. It set off a theological and cultural conflagration, the embers of which still smolder.

A very good thing happened, however, in the aftermath of the controversy surrounding Fosdick’s sermon. It brought about the building of the Riverside Church in Morningside Heights which gave Fosdick (and many other “modernists,” including King) an even larger platform for his more hopeful message of the gospel. And it has been a beacon of religious liberalism, Christian progressivism, and social and religious acceptance since the 1930s. Fosdick was right to never have regretted preaching his most famous sermon – “When I get to heaven I expect it to be one of the stars in my crown” – for even though it entirely disrupted his life in many respects it provided a promising new direction for American Christianity and a more socially focused set of religious institutional priorities. I call it the Fosdick effect.

If there is a sad part to the story of “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” it is that 100 years later, it remains so relevant. What Fosdick proposed that May morning in 1922 is still the road not taken by American Christians. American Christianity is as divisive as ever, and now a brand of dangerous Christian nationalism is on the rise, seeking to marginalize or exclude all others in religious and political terms. They are doing this not only in a similar fashion as the fundamentalists of old, but they are also indeed a direct historical product of the fundamentalists. Clearly, the country has not learned Fosdick’s lesson that “intolerance solves no problems.”

The fundamentalists, in whatever form they may appear in contemporary society, cannot win, as Fosdick assured us, even when it appears that they are wining. This is the hopeful note we must land on. It is the hopeful note King landed on with his “I Have a Dream” sermon, a sermon so resonant of Fosdick.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

It is a hope that must endure, outlasting the hate and division that have cast a long shadow over our country. Intolerance and division cannot win because ultimately, they have nothing to offer. Our only real hope is that road not yet taken, and a 100 years ago, Harry Emerson Fosdick showed us the way.

Wallace Best teaches at Princeton University where he specializes in 19th and 20th century African American religious history. His research and teaching focus on the areas of African American religion, religion and literature, Pentecostalism, and Womanist theology. He has held fellowships at Princeton’s Center for the Study of Religion and the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University.