Harry Emerson Fosdick

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Harry Emerson Fosdick

Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969), American preacher, was a popular exponent of liberal Protestantism and a key figure in the struggle to relate the Christian community to its contemporary technological and urbanized culture.

Harry Emerson Fosdick was born in Buffalo, N.Y., on May 24, 1878, the son of a high school teacher. Reared to traditional religious sympathies, Fosdick questioned his faith while in college. By the time he graduated from Colgate University in 1900, his new religious views rejected biblical literalism in favor of "modernist" theological attitudes that coincided with the emerging scientific world view currently sweeping America.

Fosdick entered Union Theological Seminary in New York City to prepare for the ministry. A center of theological liberalism even at this early date, the seminary further confirmed his new religious commitments. After graduation in 1903, his first pastorate was in a Baptist church in Montclair, N.J. During his 11 years there, Fosdick advocated liberal views, both in the pulpit and in published articles. He also perfected a pastoral and preaching technique that made him a model minister for a generation of churchmen.

Fosdick first attracted national attention for his role in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s. Politician William Jennings Bryan and conservative churchmen attacked him, especially after a sermon in 1922 entitled "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" Efforts to remove Fosdick from the Presbyterian church in New York City where he was then minister were ultimately successful. The imbroglio led one of Fosdick's most famous parishioners, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to initiate the proposals that led to the establishment of a large, nonsectarian church where Fosdick would be the principal minister. Here, at Riverside Church, Fosdick's congregation became one of the most famous Protestant groups in the nation. Dedicated in 1931, the church provided for Fosdick's preaching a weekly forum until his retirement in 1946. The church symbolized his belief in interracial unity and a nonsectarian, ecumenical approach to church life.

Fosdick sought to adapt Christianity to the increasingly sophisticated urban milieu, stressing the intellectual respectability possible in Christian teachings and repudiating the theological obscurantism that had served as the basis of much popular, evangelical Protestantism in the 19th century. Fosdick was a prolific publicist, publishing 40 volumes in all. He preached to a nationwide audience each week on radio, and he influenced a generation of fledgling ministers as professor of homiletics at Union Seminary. Relatively undoctrinaire, he was capable of seeing the flaws in his own religious perspective, as evidenced in a sermon, "The Church Must Go beyond Modernism."

A supporter of America's intervention in World War I, Fosdick had become a thoroughgoing pacifist by the time of World War II. Above all, his sermons dealt with contemporary problems. He was perhaps the most widely known and respected preacher of his generation.

Further Reading

Fosdick's sprightly autobiography, The Living of These Days (1956), describes his career up to the mid-1950s.

Additional Sources

Miller, Robert Moats, Harry Emerson Fosdick: preacher, pastor, prophet, New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. □

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Harry Emerson Fosdick

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