Harry Emerson Fosdick
The Preaching of “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”
In 1918, three Presbyterian Churches merged into one, taking on a long and unwieldy official name: “The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, Founded 1716 – Old First, University Place, Madison Square Foundation.”
The chief proponent of this merger was Arthur Curtiss James, a wealthy industrialist who was a major benefactor and a trustee of Old First.
The first service of the combined churches was held November 3, 1918, with Dr. Charles Parkhurst of Madison Square Presbyterian Church preaching. The other pastors present were Howard Duffield, of Old First, and George Alexander, of University Place Presbyterian. All three pastors were of retirement age, and two of them, Duffield and Parkhurst, retired soon afterward.
Parkhurst, in his sermon, said that all three merged churches were dead. “There were three parents in this case,” he said, “and they all died giving birth to this church – the New First Presbyterian Church.”
Each church contributed something important and unique. With the sale of the valuable property that Madison Square Church had occupied, a handsome endowment was procured. University Place Presbyterian Church had a sizable congregation, and Old First had the best location and building size, as well as a long and venerated history. Our former pastor John Macnab said once, tongue firmly in cheek, that the combining of these three important elements was an unusually wise decision for Presbyterians. One of our Elders, Eric Hilton, has said that he firmly believes that were it not for this merger, this congregation would not be in existence today.
At a meeting on January 8, 1919, of the committee appointed to select a new pastor, it was told to those present that Dr. John Timothy Stone of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago had declined the offer to become minister here, and that Harry Emerson Fosdick had also declined, saying he did not want to attend to administrative duties. He only wanted to preach. The realization came that no one pastor could manage all the duties required for such a large and vital congregation.
A novel approach was then suggested. George Alexander was to become senior minister, with Fosdick as associate preaching minister and Thomas Guthrie Speers as another associate. Speers had also come from the University Place Church and was to preach at the evening services and also handle the administrative duties. Alexander was 74, Fosdick was 41 and Speers was 28.
Fosdick wrote in his autobiography: “It was very attractive, I had had four years at large without a parish, the thought of having again my own congregation, with an opportunity for consecutive ministry and the chance to combine the two vocations I had always cared for most. I told the church that I knew nothing about Presbyterian law, that they must take full responsibility on that score, but that if such an arrangement as they suggested were permissible, I would accept.”
And he did accept. The unusual and progressively ecumenical (for the time) arrangement was enthusiastically supported by the congregation and presbytery.
The installation of the three was held on Wednesday, January 29, 1919. Dorothy Fowler, in her history of First Church, A City Church, says that Fosdick anticipated many years of service, combining two activities he most enjoyed: preaching and teaching.
In his autobiography, The Living of These Days, Fosdick says of his fellow ministers: “Dr. George Alexander was one of the most admirable and lovable men I ever knew and my relationships with him were completely satisfying. Along with Guthrie Speers, our colleague, we made a harmonious team.”
Dorothy Fowler writes, “The church was jammed with every pew rented. Fosdick’s early sermons were in no way controversial; he did not discuss complex theological questions. His emphasis was always on Jesus Christ. He felt religion had become involved in too many entanglements, that Christianity was simply Christ. Although some people preferred elaborate theological excursions, as Fosdick viewed matters, the important thing was the life of Christ as a way of life. He emphasized an individual’s relation to God and Christ.”
In his first year here, Fosdick’s sermons dealt in many instances with World War I. Former Pastor John Macnab writes, in an article in The Journal of Presbyterian History, that “for eight months, beginning in 1918, every sermon made extended reference to the war.” Fosdick’s support of American participation in the war began as early as 1914, and his support for the war was strong by November of 1918.
Macnab continues, “he was a one theme preacher, undoubtedly evidencing some of the inner struggle he was experiencing. His mind was changing.” Fosdick’s position was not unusual, however. Preachers throughout the country were almost of one mind in declaring the war a holy one. At Fosdick’s first parish, the Montclair (NJ) Baptist Church, he had preached a sermon, “Things Worth Fighting For.” He later called it “atrocious.” His 1917 book, The Challenge of the Present Crisis, defended war. It was the only book, he later said, he wished he had not written. Gradually, however, he stressed the need for reconstruction and particularly the need for the League of Nations as a way to avert another war. When the country stayed out of the League and retreated into isolationism, Fosdick became an ardent pacifist. He remained so for the rest of his life.
By the spring of 1919 it had become evident that First Presbyterian was too small to accommodate the crowds that had come to attend service. The choir loft to the west was then added, and the gallery on the eastern side where the choir used to be was used for more seating. Also, the door to the Eleventh Street building, the South Wing, as it is now called, was enlarged, seating another 200 people.
In the summer of 1921 Fosdick visited missions in China and Japan. He addressed several conferences and was disturbed by the divisions within the missionaries. There were essentially two camps: Fundamentalists in one and those of more liberal theological beliefs in the other. Says Fowler: “Instead of cooperating in the mission field the fundamentalists concentrated on attacking their liberal brethren.” “This experience may have influenced him,” says Fowler, “in his choice of title for his sermon – which rather than the contents was a gauntlet thrown down to the fundamentalists.”
The sermon was a plea for tolerance, and in it Fosdick argued for a church, as he says in his autobiography, “inclusive enough to take in both liberals and conservatives without either trying to drive the other out.”
His emphasis, however, pointed toward the Fundamentalists as the offending party. “These two groups exist in the Christian churches and the question raised by the Fundamentalists is: shall one of them drive the other out? Will that get us anywhere?” He effectively repeats this rhetorical question in slightly varied form after each argument for a different interpretation of three of the five “fundamentals”: the virgin birth, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the second coming of Christ.
Although the sermon was essentially a plea for tolerance, Fosdick did not mince words in defining the gulf of difference between the liberal and Fundamentalist theological points of view. “Too often,” he said, “we preachers have failed to talk frankly enough about the differences of opinion which exist among evangelical Christians, although everybody knows they are there.” He criticized the Fundamentalists, saying, “If they had their way, within the church, they would set up in Protestantism a doctrinal tribunal more rigid than the Pope’s.”
After explaining Christian liberals’ efforts to reconcile the Bible with the new scientific knowledge, he says: “the Fundamentalists are out on a campaign to shut against them the doors of Christian fellowship. Shall they be allowed to succeed?”
And at another point, after arguing the liberal interpretation on the virgin birth, he says: “the question which the Fundamentalists raise is this: shall one of them throw the other one out? Has intolerance any contribution to make in this situation?”
Fosdick, however, differentiates between Fundamentalists and Conservatives, saying, “All Fundamentalists are conservatives, but not all Conservatives are Fundamentalists.” In a further expansion to this tone of reconciliation, he later says, addressing those of the younger generation: “if some young, fresh mind here is tempted to be intolerant about old opinions, offensively to condescend to those who hold them and to be harsh in judgment on them, he may well remember that people who held these old opinions have given the world some of the noblest character and the most rememberable service that it ever has been blessed with.”
But as much as he pleads for an inclusive church, he has at the same time harsh and biting words for the exclusivist Fundamentalists.
At one point, making a plea for intellectual openness and Christian freedom, he says, “Science treats a young person’s mind as if it were really important. A scientist says to a young person: Come, study with us! See what we already have seen and then look further to see more, for science is an intellectual adventure for the truth. Can you imagine anyone who is worthwhile turning from that call to the church, if the church seems to say, ‘Come, and we will feed you opinions from a spoon. These prescribed opinions we will give you in advance of your thinking; now think, but only so as to reach these results.’ You cannot challenge the dedicated thinking of this generation to these sublime themes upon any such terms as are laid down by an intolerant church.”
“Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” was thus a plea for tolerance, deeply critical of those unwilling to accept, as Christians, others with different Biblical interpretations.
Fosdick’s plea for tolerance was meant to go beyond the walls of First Presbyterian Church. But the effectiveness with which it did go beyond the Church was totally unexpected. Ivy Lee, a public relations agent for the Rockefellers, published, with Fosdick’s permission, a slightly edited version of the sermon with a new title: “The New Knowledge and the Christian Faith.” It was mailed to all Presbyterian clergy in the country, about 130,000 copies.
It was also reprinted in at least three religious publications: The Christian Century, The Baptist, and Christian Work.
The result was the eruption of a fierce controversy that eventually ended in Fosdick’s resignation from First Church. Later, in his autobiography, Fosdick says, “If ever a sermon failed to achieve its object, mine did.”
“The conflict between liberal and reactionary Christianity had long been moving toward a climax.”
One criticism of the sermon, coming from the other pastors at Old First, was that the title sounded like a call to do battle. Conservatives and Fundamentalists reacted to the sermon not as a plea for good will among Christians, but as heresy, and a supreme challenge to their faith. Macnab writes, “The conservatives read his words as a challenge they could only accept. They responded with militant vigor.”
Fosdick explained the controversy this way: “The conflict between liberal and reactionary Christianity had long been moving toward a climax.”
Fosdick continues: “There were faults on both sides. The Modernists were tempted to make a supine surrender to prevalent cultural ideas, accepting them wholesale, and using them as the authoritarian standard by which to judge the truth or falsity of classical Christian affirmations.”
“The reactionaries,” he says, “sensing the peril in this shift of authority, were tempted to retreat into hidebound obscurantism, denying the discoveries of science and insisting on the literal acceptance of every Biblical idea, which even Christians of the ancient church had avoided by means of allegorical interpretation.”
The Philadelphia Presbytery met on October 16, 1922, in a special session. One of its members, Clarence E. Macartney, was a pastor in Philadelphia and an ardent Fundamentalist. He proposed at this special session to make an overture to the next General Assembly meeting in May 1923 to “direct the Presbytery of New York to take such action as will require the preaching and teaching in the First Presbyterian Church of New York City to conform to the system of doctrine taught in the Confession of faith.”
At the General Assembly in Indianapolis, in May of 1923, William Jennings Bryan was dealt an initial setback by losing the vote to be moderator to Charles Wishart, president of the College of Wooster, by 24 votes.
A committee report recommended against the proposal of the Philadelphia Presbytery. But despite this, and because of speeches by Bryan and Macartney, the proposal passed by a vote of 439 to 359.
The proposal not only directed the New York Presbytery to bring the preaching at Old First into conformity, it was also told to report in full its efforts in this direction in transcript form to the General Assembly of 1924.
A day after the vote, Fosdick handed in his resignation to the Session of First Church, writing, “The action of the General Assembly is such as to present to the Presbytery of New York and to the Session of the Church a perplexing problem which centers around my preaching. I wish you to have my resignation in your hands so that the Session may act upon it at any time, severing my relations with the Church.”
Ten days later, on June 3, the Session replied, refusing to accept the resignation.
The move by the Presbytery of Philadelphia against Fosdick was, in essence, a move against the New York Presbytery. It was an attempt to force the Presbytery to conform to the strict orthodoxy of Fundamentalist theology. Fosdick was targeted as the way through which they could do it.
After this directive by the General Assembly there was a long series of meetings, conferences and exchanges between the First Church Session, a special committee of the New York Presbytery and Fosdick.
Says Fosdick: “That next church season, 1923-1924, was one of the most strenuous I ever spent. The part of it which I recall with greatest distaste was the political maneuvering. I found myself caught in a long process of ecclesiastical intrigue which I thoroughly disliked.” “My mind and conscience were on the side of conciliation, but in the end, it involved more than I had bargained for.”
On January 14, 1924, the New York Presbytery presented a report supporting Old First and Fosdick. It said, in part, that it believed, “in the purpose and character of the preaching and teaching in the First Church,” and further expressed, “confident expectation that our brother of another denomination who enjoys the freedom of his pulpit will labor unceasingly and in all good conscience to promote the gospel and the spread of evangelical truth.”
The statement was disputed by 22 members of the New York Presbytery and consequently initiated a judicial proceeding against the Presbytery. At the General Assembly of 1924, Clarence Macartney was elected moderator and he chose as his vice moderator William Jennings Bryan. During this time there was considerable press attention. Fosdick was supported in editorials by John Finley of The New York Times.
Fosdick reports in his autobiography: “I never knew I had so many friends. A letter signed by several hundred professors and students of Cornell University strongly backed me up.” Letters of similar import came from institutions as far apart as Mount Holyoke College and Southern Methodist University. “One I especially valued was sent by five hundred and sixty professors and students at Columbia.”
From the other side of the fence, Fosdick was being attacked. “The Fundamentalists,” he reports, “grew increasingly vehement. In pulpits, magazines, pamphlets and mass meetings they assailed the liberals and called on them to leave the evangelical churches.”
The judicial commission viewed Fosdick’s preaching at First Church as “wholly without precedent, It is anomaly.” It further stated that if Fosdick wished to continue at First Church, “he should enter our Church through the regular method and become subject to the jurisdiction and authority of the Church.” Fosdick was to become a Presbyterian.
The decision was seen as a kind of compromise, and many at First Church were hopeful that this would be the solution. Fosdick, however, saw it differently. First, he had no intention of taking the Westminster creed. The interdenominational aspect of the arrangement with First Church was part of what attracted him to it. Secondly, he saw that if he were to become Presbyterian, the first time he uttered a theologically liberal conviction, he would be brought up on heresy charges. There were many conservatives in the church eager to do just that. Others thought they could fight such attempts.
“Altogether it was a hot situation for me, caught as I was between the attacks of my foes and the defenses of my friends…”
“Altogether it was a hot situation for me, caught as I was between the attacks of my foes and the defenses of my friends, and compelled Sunday after Sunday to face overflowing congregations expectantly awaiting some message worthy of the occasion.”
“At Old First Church I was unanimously sustained by a friendliness for which I can never be sufficiently thankful. My colleagues in the ministry there, Dr. Alexander and Mr. Speers, bore a heavy load on my behalf, and their loyalty never failed. Dr. Alexander was a great personality, more conservative than I in his theological opinions, but devoted to large-spirited, inclusive Christianity. Under his leadership the whole congregation rallied around my ministry, and amid the tumult on the outside, the parish within was not only harmonious but vigorously active in its work, as though the best answer to attack was not recrimination but a practical illustration of what a church like ours could mean in a modern metropolis.”
Fosdick, however, was concerned about the congregation, too. There had been talk of having First Church leave the denomination and become independent.
On October 22, 1924, the Session accepted, with regret, Fosdick’s resignation. Many were disappointed at the outcome, but one of the most important things in Fosdick’s mind was the survival of the congregation. He did not want to attract more controversy to First Church.
In his autobiography he wrote, “in order to give the church time to prepare for the inevitable break and in hope of guiding the church’s spirit into a constructive attitude. I agreed to preach for them until the first of the following March 1925.”
These are some of the most quoted parts of that Farewell Sermon:
“These are the things we have stood for: tolerance, an inclusive Church, the right to think religion through in Modern terms, the social applications of the principles of Jesus, the abiding verities and experiences of the gospel. And these are right. I am not sorry we tried this experiment. It was worth trying. We have lifted a standard that no one will put down. We have stated an issue that no man or denomination is strong enough to brush aside” And toward the end of the sermon he says, “They call me a heretic. I am proud of it. I wouldn’t live in a generation like this and be anything but a heretic. But I carry some of you on my heart in ways that heretics are not popularly supposed to do. I want you to be Christians. I want your lives for Christ. Always before this there has been a next Sunday when I could say that again. Now there isn’t any next Sunday. I want you for Christ now.”
The end of the service was a very tearful one. The New York Times reports: “A great wave of religious emotion swept over the crowded congregation of the First Presbyterian Church. Most of the women in the church were in tears, and many men struggled to hide their feelings. The closing hymn was ‘God Be With You ‘Till We Meet Again.’ Never before, probably, had any congregation anywhere sung a hymn with more intimate personal realization of its significance. Eighteen hundred voices rose in a magnificent chorus.”
Written by David Pultz, First Church Archivist, as part of an Adult Education lecture series sponsored by the Christian Education Committee, 1995-1996.