Christianity had become troubled by the conflict between Biblical creation and the new knowledge from Darwin’s discoveries. Harry Emerson Fosdick was a prominent spokesman for the anti-fundamentalist theological position that faith and science could co-exist. A pacifist and promoter of the League of Nations, he had joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in 1911 and was teaching there when he was invited to join the ministerial team of the newly organized First Church as “preaching minister.” He was a captivating preacher, and overflow crowds packed the church to hear him advocate tolerance and the liberal position. But as an ordained Baptist minister Fosdick was an odd person to find in a Presbyterian pulpit. He did not become a Presbyterian and so remained a guest in the church, and this was a factor in the controversy that surrounded his tenure.
In 1922, Fosdick preached a sermon with the title, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” It was a reasoned espousal of the view that science had a place beside faith. Widely circulated, it became a central document of the modernist movement, attracting the particular attention of church conservatives, among them the politician, William Jennings Bryan. Since Fosdick was not a Presbyterian he could not be reprimanded through the channels of church governance, but his position could be. Asked to become a Presbyterian or resign his First Church pulpit, he chose the latter. He submitted his resignation in 1923, but the Session showed its strong support and refused to accept it. The next year, however, he petitioned successfully, and he left First Church in 1925. His farewell sermon was so eagerly anticipated that, according to church lore, the marble floor of the central aisle in the sanctuary developed a crack from the weight of the over packed balconies. The crack is visible today.
From First Church Fosdick went to the Park Avenue Baptist Church where John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was a member. Rockefeller was instrumental in financing the establishment of the interdenominational Riverside Church in Morningside Heights. Fosdick’s liberal voice could be heard there from 1930 until 1946 when he retired.
HARRY EMERSON FOSDICK LECTURES
Learn more about Harry Emerson Fosdick’s ministry and influence on American Protestantism in a set of lectures written by archivist David Pultz:
Harry Emerson Fosdick and The Fundamentalist / Modernist Conflict
Theological Influences and Beliefs of Harry Emerson Fosdick
The Preaching of “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”
Purchase a collection of sermons preached by Harry Emerson Fosdick at The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York: