ON SUNDAY MORNING, May 21, 1922, Harry Emerson Fosdick preached one of the most famous sermons ever delivered in American religious history. It was entitled "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" Robert Moats Miller in his magisterial biography compares the sermon with Lincoln's decision to resupply Fort Sumter. It was not exactly the shot that started the war between liberals and fundamentalists but the signal that the liberals were determined not to be dislodged. Miller might have extended the analogy. The fundamentalists did open fire. They charged Fosdick with the "open denial of the essential doctrine of the Presbyterian Church . . . and . . . of the essential truth of Christianity as received, confessed, held and defended by the Christian church in all ages." The liberals fought back. The ecclesiastical carnage had begun. Before it was over Fosdick had been removed from his pulpit; John D. Rockefeller Jr. had built the Riverside Church on Morningside Heights for him; and Protestant mission boards, seminaries and church presses had been rent asunder by the strife between the two parties.
In fact, the battle never really ended. Like the Civil War its action moved from region to region and continues to this day. A few years ago in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church and currently among Southern Baptists, the successors to those who removed Fosdick are still attempting to cleanse pulpits and especially seminaries from what they consider to be the rot of heresy. If today the lines within the more liberal denominations are drawn more along what appear to be political and social fronts, this probably means that a new generation of weapons has replaced the muzzle loaders of previous era. La guerre itself is far from fini.
The reason why hostilities may wane but never cease within American Protestant religious life is that there are and always have been two contending parties at the very least. To call them "liberals" and "conservatives" may miss the point. On the one hand there are those who, like John XXIII or Hans Kung among Catholics, believe that the only way to state an old truth in a different age is to state it differently. On the other side are ranged the banners of those who view any such reformulation with deep suspicion. The first side always runs the risk of overaccommodation, the latter of obscurantism and antiquarianism. One might expect that any church would make room for both, but the history of religion does not provide much ground for such a sanguine hope. Fractious adversaries secretly love the more dramatic examples of the other side. If religious liberals did not have Jerry Falwell today, they would have to invent him. The quarrel between Friar Leonardo Boff, the Brazilian liberation theologian, and Pope John Paul II seems to have been made in heaven. Likewise was the flamboyant Fosdick the favorite whipping boy of the fundamentalists.
And no wonder. As Miller so scrupulously documents, Fosdick was a zealous celebrant of everything the modern world, especially in its American expression, stood for. He wanted faith not only to adjust to but to doxologize reason, progress, science, democracy and all the rest. Tolerance might be added to the list as well, but Fosdick's irenic spirit flagged in the face of religious expressions he disliked. After a trip to the Holy Land, he described the Orthodox and Roman Catholic services he attended there as "garish," "hideous," and "disgusting." After visiting a Greek monastery, he pronounced the monks to have been "ignorant, lazy, stupid, frowsy, a mongrel breed." Throughout his colorful career, Fosdick's comments on those forms of spirituality that differed from his own up-to-date version of liberal Protestantism reveal that fundamentalists are hardly alone in the scorn with which they view positions other than their own.
SOMETIMES a well written biography provides the best access to a chapter of history. But there must be a suitable blend. Too much psychology removes the person from the larger patterns of the age. Too much sociology erases the human face of the subject. Miller avoids both temptations and presents us with a Fosdick who is at once a man of his times and a man. His life, stretching from 1878 to 1969, 91 years, spanned more than half the history of the American republic. Growing up in Buffalo in a Baptist church, little Harry was born-again at the age of 7. His father, a teacher of classics in the local high school, taught him Latin and Greek. The home which nurtured him was warmly religious, open to new ideas (his father had embraced the theory of evolution the first time he heard about it), supportive of hard work and achievement, and genuinely "evangelical." Fosdick later wrote that when he entered college at Colgate he did not entertain the slightest doubt about his deeply held faith. "The fundamentalists in later years have hated me plentifully," he once wrote, "but I started as one of them."
There followed a rather classic college- years crisis of faith, a decision to enter the ministry, enrollment at Union Theolgical Seminary in New York City, a stinging exposure to poverty during field work in the Bowery, a nervous breakdown which brought him back to Buffalo temporarily, graduation and his first pulpit in the Baptist Church of Montclair, N.J., in 1904. Never really wedded to a particular denomination, Fosdick served both Presbyterian and Baptist churches before settling in 1925 into the Riverside Church. It was built for him by John D. Rockefeller Jr. with a total contribution, including subsequent gifts and endowments, of over $32 million. This great gothic edifice, now housing a lively interracial congregation and led by the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, is affiliated with both the Baptist and United Church denominations. The arrangement makes Coffin, Falwell and Jesse Jackson, ironically enough, all pastors of Baptist congregations.
Rockefeller's lifelong interest in Fosdick supplies an informative sequence in the always lively interaction between religion and business in America. Not all segments of the business class supported Fosdick. After all, he had openly endorsed Socialist Norman Thomas in the New York City mayoralty race of 1929 and had defended his friend Reinhold Niebuhr against charges that he was too radical. He had even been named in Elizabeth Dilling's The Red Network because his books were "highly recommended by socialists and other radicals." The wealthy Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker, one of Fosdick's principal foes, hosted the meeting of that city's Presbytery which called for Fosdick's removal, in his own home. Why, then, did the one man who symbolized wealth and privilege remain so loyal?
WHEN it became known that Rockefeller would be the main financial angel of Riverside Church, the Daily Worker smelled a capitalist plot. "Fosdick is a 'modernist,'" its editor wrote, "but Rockefeller knows that he can be relied on to philosophize about the Bible and keep the mind of the workers from their troubles with the bosses, and the 'silk stocking' crowd entertained." Did Fosdick disappoint his patron? Miller devotes an entire chapter -- "An Evolving Social Gospel" -- to Fosdick's political and social thought and action. The record is mixed. Fosdick never quite uprooted fully the upstate racism he absorbed as a youth and was not averse to using darky stories in his public lectures. His views on war were often contradictory. Still, he helped wrte the controversial Federal Council of Churches document, The Church and Industrial Reconstruction, a critique of laissez-faire capitalism, and was a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union. Fosdick was obviously no Rockefeller stooge, as their occasional disagreements -- during which Fosdick always stood by his convictions -- show.
Still, there can be little doubt that the kind of religion Fosdick stood for was, by and large, just what Rockefeller wanted as well. Rockefeller represented not the age of robber barons but that of a succeeding generation of secure wealth. He foresaw, as Miller says, "a rationalized church, nondenominational, world embracing." He believed that what worked for Standard Oil -- sound bureaucratic procedures devoid of mystery -- should also work for the churches as well. The link between Fosdick and Rockefeller eludes any simple conspiracy theory because they did not need to conspire. They were both energetic boosters of the brave new world of American enterprise which finds more advocates today among the followers of Jerry Falwell than it does among the dwindling band of theological "liberals" for whom Fosdick is still an exemplar. The main critics of Fosdick's approach,, on the other hand, are the U.S. Catholic bishops, the Rainbow Coalition and the liberationists whose underlying theology might appear to Fosdick as ignorant and medieval. Still, Fosdick had a great capacity for personal change. I think he would have understood this one, too, and would have been proud that the Riverside Church now courageously houses a Salvadoran Catholic refugee family despite the harassment of our own government.
Fosdick died in September 1969, his last words a gentle joke to his grand-daughter Dorothy. At the memorial service, 1,500 people stood and sang one of the hymns Fosdick himself had written, "God of Grace and God of Glory." Its third verse says:
Cure thy children's warring madness,
Bend our pride to thy control;
Shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
Rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Lest we miss thy kingdom's goal.
In the stirring cadences of this hymn, sung as much as any other one all over our nation today, the voice of Harry Emerson Fosdick continues to resound, and Miller has given us an unforgettable portrait of the man to whom God gave that great voice.