The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Riverside Church

From a small home in a Los Angeles neighborhood, we now travel clear across the continent to Morningside Heights in New York’s Upper Manhattan. At the corner of 120th Street and Riverside Drive, looking out on the Hudson, is a massive stone building called Riverside Church. Built in the Neo-Gothic style, its spires reach 392 feet into the air, making it the tallest church in America. Riverside Church was the product of a collaboration between industrialist and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and the controversial preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick. In the twentieth century Fosdick emerged as a central figure in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy and one of the leading liberal preachers and theologians. Because liberalism was, and remains, such a powerful force in Christianity, Riverside Church stands as a symbol of its enduring influence. It is the next of the twenty-five objects through which we are tracing the history of Christianity.

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FosdickHarry Emerson Fosdick was born in New York on May 24, 1878 and had a conversion experience at the age of 7. Even as a teenager he rejected Calvinism and fundamentalism, trusting instead in personal spiritual experience. In 1903 he was ordained a Baptist minister and subsequently served as both a pastor and a seminary professor (at Union Theological Seminary). In 1919 he settled in New York City and became associate pastor at the First Presbyterian Church, though he remained a Baptist by conviction. It was at this church, in 1922, that he preached his most famous sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”

In “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Fosdick defined and defended modernist theology, denying that the Bible was God’s literal Word, and stating it was actually a recording of the unfolding of God’s will. He held “belief in the virgin birth was unnecessary; the inerrancy of Scripture, untenable; and the doctrine of the Second Coming, absurd. Though he ended on a note of reconciliation, in the sermon he castigated fundamentalists as ‘bitterly intolerant.’” John D. Rockefeller, Jr. enjoyed the sermon so much that he had 130,000 copies printed so one could be sent to every Protestant minister in America. The battle lines had been drawn, and the modernists were now identified as the foe of the fundamentalists and of orthodox Christianity.

Many Presbyterians were appalled by this sermon and called for Fosdick’s presbytery to dismiss him from First Presbyterian Church. Eventually Fosdick would resign. In May he became pastor of Park Avenue Baptist Church, and then, soon after, moved to Riverside Church, which had been funded by Rockefeller, Jr. He would remain at Riverside for 16 years of ministry and 28 years of retirement. During that time millions of people from Boston to Chicago would hear his sermons on the radio program “National Vespers Hour.” He authored fifty books, preached thousands of sermons, and taught in a wide variety of seminaries. He was a pioneer in Christian counseling and sought to integrate the teachings of Freud and Jung into his counseling methodology. Twice he was even on the cover of TIME magazine (September 21, 1925 and October 6, 1930). His influence extended around the nation and around the globe.

The Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy had begun within Presbyterianism but soon spread to other Protestant denominations, leading to today’s division between “mainline” and “evangelical” Protestant churches. It was precipitated by the new wealth of knowledge that modern science was uncovering. There were many in the church who were willing to accommodate the teachings of Scripture to the more “progressive” theories of the universe and of man that were gaining popularity in the society at large.

J. Gresham Machen emerged as a towering figure to oppose modernism. In 1923 he penned Christianity and Liberalism in response to the rise of modernism. The book drew careful comparisons between Scripture and Modernist (or Liberal) theology and showed that these forces were the greatest rival to true Christianity at his time. Modernism questioned the essential beliefs necessary to be a Christian and began to challenge long-held, orthodox Christian beliefs such as the virgin birth, the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, and the return of Christ Jesus. In 1929, Princeton, once a bastion of Reformed thinking and teaching, was reorganized under modernist influences. Almost immediately four Princeton professors who held to the Reformed faith (Robert Dick Wilson, J. Gresham Machen, Oswald T. Allis, and Cornelius Van Til) withdrew from Princeton and established Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in order to continue upholding the faith Princeton once defended. If the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy was begun with Fosdick’s sermon in 1922, if was effectively cut off among conservative churches in 1929 with the departure of those professors.

Riverside still looks out upon the Hudson and is still as liberal as the day it was founded. Fosdick’s church was meant to reflect his liberal, modernist values, and it does this even into the twenty-first century. The church is known for its focus on inclusivity and environmental stewardship. They have a LGBT Ministry known as Maranatha and have marched in New York’s Pride Parade every year since 1978. They participate in the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and were involved in Occupy Wall Street. They continue to draw large numbers and, as of 2007, had a staff of 130 and a budget of $14 million.

In the early part of the twentieth century, Machen wrote, “The question is not whether Mr. Fosdick is winning men, but whether the thing to which he is winning them is Christianity.” Time has answered the question: Fosdick was leading people directly away from true Christianity, just as his Riverside Church does today.
Riverside Church

More in The History of Christianity in 25 Objects:

  1. The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Introduction
  2. The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Augustus of Prima Porta
  3. The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Rylands Library Papyrus P52
  4. The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Alexamenos Graffito
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