Harry Emerson Fosdick and the Fundamentalist Controversy

By 1925, Modernism had fundamentally changed the world. It changed our thinking, our politics, our everyday life. In this series, I am trying to show how it has also changed our faith. This is more than just historical interest. These events are the reason we think and approach faith the way we do today. Today, we’re looking at the fundamentalist controversy and how it continues to influence conversations within the church.

This change didn’t happen easily. As we saw in the reflection on the Roman Catholic Church, there was a strong backlash. This backlash happened in the North American Protestant church as well. Today, I want to look at one figure at the heart of these controversies in the early 20th century: Harry Emerson Fosdick, a New York City pastor who sought to answer the fundamentalist controversy. In the next one, we will turn to a man who influenced Fosdick: Walter Rauschenbusch, the founder of the Social Gospel Movement.

Harry Emerson Fosdick

Whenever such a [new] situation has arisen, there has been only one way out—the new knowledge and the old faith had to be blended in a new combination

Harry Emerson Fosdick

Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) is best remembered for a famous sermon that got him thrown out of his church. Even so, this sermon moved John D. Rockefeller so much that he had thousands of copies published and built a new church for Fosdick to preach in.

The sermon was called Shall the Fundamentalists Win? By the time Fosdick preached this sermon in 1922, he was already one of the most famous preachers in the United States. He had become a liberal Christian early on, and had built his reputation on six devotional books that sold in the millions. He was convinced that the new learnings were true, and that Christianity could accommodate them.

As a preacher, he rejected a pessimistic Christianity that looked forward to the end of the world and found peace only in heaven. He was optimistic about how God was working out God’s purposes in history: “I believe in the personal God revealed in Christ, in his omnipresent activity and endless resources to achieve his purposes for us and for all men [sic].”

In the Thick of the Fundamentalist Controversy

Fosdick preached this famous sermon because of a major dispute rocking the Presbyterian church: The Fundamentalist Controversy. At the end of the 19th century, liberal Christianity was on the rise. The ideas of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl had become profoundly influential. As William Hordern put it, “If we might describe the situation in the terminology of the boxing ring, we might imagine it like this: At the close of the round, traditional Christianity was hanging on the ropes, and the crowd was cheering for the knockout.” As you might expect, there was a backlash.

Fundamentals of Belief

In the late 19th century, groups of conservative Christians started holding Bible conferences to dispute the emerging ideas of evolution and biblical criticism. At a gathering in Niagara in 1895, they issued a statement of belief. In it, they listed five articles that were widely seen as the irreducible minimum for belief:

1) The verbal inerrancy of Scripture

2) The divinity of Jesus Christ

3) The Virgin Birth

4) The substitutionary theory of the Atonement

5) The physical resurrection of the Jesus Christ and his bodily return to judge the world

Out of all of these, their main complaint was against historical criticism, and their main weapon was the Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy. Inerrancy is based on a simple logic: the Bible is God’s word; because God is perfect, God cannot err. Therefore, God’s word, the Bible, cannot err. It cannot err in matters of geography, history, or science. One cannot question the Bible. It is perfect. The fundamentalists were convinced that the church had been infiltrated by subversives who were determined to destroy Christianity from within. They saw liberal Christianity as a cancer.

Fighting for Truth and Influence

And so the battle was on. The fundamentalists were determined to purge all of the denominations and major seminaries of liberal influence. Theological battles erupted in every denomination within churches, governance meetings, seminaries, and even in the daily paper. The fundamentalist controversy was front-page news.

A few years ago we couldn’t have imagined the United States eagerly awaiting the news from some church convention. There wasn’t any news in a church convention… The break came suddenly, about two years ago. What had happened no one seems to know; but the Virgin Birth presently began to run neck and neck with murder and politics for front page layouts, even in such newspapers as the New York Times. Ever since then religion has been the liveliest news there is. A few years ago the country waited eagerly while the Presbyterians actually took a ballot on the Virgin Birth.”

Charles Wood in The Nation magazine, 1925

In His Own Words

In the middle of this controversy, Fosdick preached his famous sermon. It was both a plea for tolerance of different beliefs within the Christian church and a defense of liberal Christianity. Here are some quotations:

The Fundamentalists see, and they see truly, that in this last generation there have been strange new movements in Christian thought. A great mass of new knowledge has come into man’s [sic] possession… Now, there are multitudes of reverent Christians who have been unable to keep this new knowledge in one compartment of their minds and the Christian faith in another. They have been sure that all truth comes from the one God and is His revelation. Not, therefore, from irreverence or caprice or destructive zeal but for the sake of intellectual and spiritual integrity, that they might really love the Lord their God, not only with all their heart and soul and strength but with all their mind, they have been trying to see this new knowledge in terms of the Christian faith and to see the Christian faith in terms of this new knowledge.

The question is—Has anybody a right to deny the Christian name to those who differ with him on such points and to shut against them the doors of the Christian fellowship? The Fundamentalists say that this must be done. In this country and on the foreign field they are trying to do it.

Is not the Christian Church large enough to hold within her hospitable fellowship people who differ on points like this and agree to differ until the fuller truth be manifested? The Fundamentalists say not. They say the liberals must go.

The first element that is necessary is a spirit of tolerance and Christian liberty. When will the world learn that intolerance solves no problems?

There are many opinions in the field of modern controversy concerning which I am not sure whether they are right or wrong, but there is one thing I am sure of: courtesy and kindliness and tolerance and humility and fairness are right. Opinions may be mistaken; love never is.

Science treats a young man’s [sic] mind as though it were really important. A scientist says to a young man [sic], “Here is the universe challenging our investigation. Here are the truths which we have seen, so far. 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 any man [sic] 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.”

This sermon is a classic in mainline Protestant homiletics and deserves to be better known. (You can read the full sermon here.) In our own day, we take for granted the idea that the mainline churches are big tent churches with space for many different theological ideas. But we ought not to take it for granted. We need to see that these truths were hard-won by the men and women who fought for them through the fundamentalist controversy and others. They come out of our history.

From the Fundmentalist Controversy to the Modern Church

In the end, the fundamentalists lost the battle. This was partly because the famous Scopes Trial in 1925 discredited them in the eyes of the public. It was also partly because the fundamentalists realized they couldn’t force liberals out of the church. So they retreated into new parallel denominations and seminaries.

This is not to say that the debate was over. The fundamentalist controversy is still very much with us today. In a future reflection, we will see how some of the fundamentalists left their churches but did not become liberals. Instead, they started a new movement called Evangelicalism. But from Harry Emerson Fosdick’s point of view, that is still in the future.

Post Script

It is well worth reading up on the career of John Gresham Machen. He was a member of the fundamentalist church, though he eschewed the label. He shows us clearly that the fundamentalists were not uneducated and unsophisticated. Machen was one of the most respected Christian scholars of his day. On a personal note, when I learned New Testament Greek at the liberal Yale Divinity School, we still used Machen’s Greek textbook, almost eighty years after it was published.

Please follow and like us:

5 Replies to “Harry Emerson Fosdick and the Fundamentalist Controversy”

  1. Two comments.

    1. My earliest memory of Fosdick is hearing him excoriated as a heretic in the 1960’s in the conservative evangelical church I grew up in. My more recent experience, a couple years ago, is inheriting my mother’s copy of Fosdick’s devotional, “The Meaning of Prayer”, and finding him a well-read, articulate, and heart-warming author and scholar. I said to my wife, “I wish I’d had a pastor like that, who understood the intellectual difficulties modernity posed to conservative faith, and who could have guided my thinking.”

    2. The liberal-fundamentalist controversy continues today, though the battle lines are differently drawn. Witness the departure of St. John’s Shaughnessy (Vancouver) and Christ the King (Edmonton) to join ANC (Anglican Network of Canada). If we value tolerance as Fosdick did (“Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”), is our tent large enough and our relationship skills deep enough to tolerate those we deem intolerant? And are they able to tolerate us, believing as they do that we have abandoned basic tenets of the faith?

    1. Hi Daniel, thanks for taking the time to read and reply! I do appreciate it. It’s funny, I didn’t grow up hearing about Fosdick at all. He was an unknown to me. It was after reading him much later that I was surprised I hadn’t known of him. I started reading his little devotional book on faith because I found it in a little library box on someone’s front lawn!

      As to your question, I think this is so important! You have asked the crucial question because it is about the central dynamic that seems to animate all of our conversations for decades. I wish I had an answer! But I don’t. I think we just have to work it out over time.

      For what it is worth though: I think the debate has evolved since the 1920’s. (As you can tell, how this evolution happened is something of my passion!) I personally don’t think that the liberals today are the same liberals as they were in 1922-25. I think they learned some humility over the course of the 20th century. And I think that the conservatives in our church are not the same fundamentalists as the ones in the 1920’s. They learned some stuff too and evolved into Evangelicals (I will tell both those stories.)

      As to whether our tent is big enough? I think it will be. But we have to work that out.

  2. Very interesting. I did not know of the fundamentalist rise and push back in such recent times. Thank you

    1. It was a surprise to me too! And yet still with us. The fact that history takes so long to work out, and has such a long impact still surprises me.

  3. What a shame that the best popular movie ever made about this—the Scopes trial film “Inherit the Wind”—has such a slanted script. The fundamentalists and their spokesman William Jennings Bryan are given precious little dignity. Still I recommend it for the superb acting of Spencer Tracy and Fredric March. They made it again in 1999 with Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *