Harry Emerson Fosdick


A speaker at Silver Bay YWCA conferences in the 1910s and ‘20s, the Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) was a central figure in the Fundamentalist vs. Modernist controversy within American Protestantism. Although nominally a Baptist, he preached in New York City at First Presbyterian Church and then at the Riverside Church.

While at First Presbyterian, on May 21, 1922, he delivered a sermon called “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”, presenting the Bible as a record of the unfolding of God’s will, not as the literal Word of God. Among the heretical passages were these:

“”When one turns from the Koran to the Bible, he finds this interesting situation. All of these ideas, which we dislike in the Koran, are somewhere in the Bible. Conceptions from which we now send missionaries to convert Mohammedans are to be found in the Bible. There one can find God thought of as an Oriental monarch; there too are patriarchal polygamy, and slave systems, and the use of force on unbelievers. Only in the  Bible these elements are not final; they are always being superseded; revelation is progressive.”

“Ministers often bewail the fact that young people turn from religion to science for the regulative ideas of their lives. But this is easily explicable. Science treats a young man’s mind as though it were really important. A scientist says to a young man: ‘Here is the universe challenging our investigation. Here are the truths we have seen, so far. Come, study with us! See what we have already seen and then look further to see more, for science is an intellectual adventure for the truth.’ Can you imagine any man who is worthwhile turning from that call to the church if the church seems to him to say, ‘Come, and we will feed you opinions from a spoon. No thinking is allowed here except such as brings you to certain, specified, predetermined conclusions. These prescribed opinions we will give you in advance of your thinking; now think, but only so as to reach these results.'”

Shortly after the sermon was delivered, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church ordered Fosdick’s local presbytery to investigate his views. Fosdick eventually avoided censure by resigning and was hired as pastor of a Baptist church whose most famous member was John D. Rockefeller Jr., who then funded the interdenominational Riverside Church in Manhattan, where Fosdick became pastor as soon as its doors opened in October 1930.

In a 1925 sermon, he included this memory of Silver Bay:

“Some time ago I attended a woman’s student conference at Silver Bay. As the sun was setting over Lake George the young women in their summer gowns, the embodiment of youth and gayety, streamed down along the lake, but I saw a Chinese missionary looking at them with tears in her eyes. ‘What is the matter?’ I said. ‘I am looking at those girls,’ she answered. ‘So many of them are going as foreign missionaries! I have lived as a foreign missionary in China for years and I know what it is going to cost. They are so light-hearted and gay about it now, but I know what it is going to cost.’

“Who that knows anything about life can look at youth without sometimes thinking about that. It is going to cost even to live honorably with oneself.”

Harry Emerson Fosdick knew what it cost, and kept the faith. I would like to say that his 90-year-old sermon on Fundamentalism is dated, but sadly, it appears more relevant today than ever.

* * *

Fosdick’s 1922 sermon is collected in A Chorus of Witnesses: Model Sermons for Today’s Preacher (1994), edited by Thomas G. Long and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.

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