A few weeks ago I set out on a new series of articles through which I am scanning the history of the church—from its earliest days all the way to the present time—to examine some of Christianity’s most notorious false teachers. Along the way we have visited such figures as Arius, Pelagius, Joseph Smith, and Ellen G. White. As we move steadily closer to contemporary times we must pause to take a brief look at the life and ministry of Harry Emerson Fosdick, the foremost proponent and popularizer of theological liberalism.
Harry Emerson Fosdick
Harry Emerson Fosdick was born in Buffalo, New York, on May 24, 1878. As a young boy he claimed to have been born again, but even as a teenager rebelled against the “born again” movement known as fundamentalism. He developed an early interest in theology and chose to pursue ministerial training at Colgate Divinity School where he was influenced by William Newton Clarke, an early advocate of the social gospel. Upon graduating from Colgate he continued to Union Theological Seminary. In 1904 he accepted his first pastorate at First Baptist Church in Montclair, New Jersey, and four years later also accepted a faculty position at Union where he was to teach until 1946. Fosdick quickly proved himself a skilled communicator and compelling speaker and it would not be long before he would be known as America’s foremost minister.
In 1919 Fosdick was asked to become associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in New York City, though he was allowed to retain his baptistic convictions. He quickly gained a reputation as a leading Christian voice, and hundreds and then thousands descended on First Presbyterian to hear his sermons. It was here, on May 21, 1922, that he preached the sermon that came to define him: “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” In this sermon he proclaimed that there was a great battle in the church between the fundamentalists and the modernists or liberals, and that he was going to stand firmly on the side of the liberals. Because of his desire to modernize the Christian faith, he soundly rejected belief in a series of traditional Christian doctrines including Christ’s virgin birth, the inerrancy of Scripture, and the literal return of Jesus Christ. He decried the fundamentalists as being intolerant for demanding adherence to doctrines that science, reason, and a modern world could no longer sustain. John D. Rockefeller enjoyed this sermon so much that he had 130,000 copies printed and mailed to every Protestant pastor in the nation.
“Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” set off what would soon be called the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. We need to be clear that we cannot import into this battle a twenty-first century understanding of fundamentalism. When Fosdick battled the fundamentalists of his day, he battled nothing less than traditional or conservative Christianity. Fundamentalists were those who insisted upon the key tenets of historic, orthodox Christianity—what they defined as the fundamental doctrines of the faith.
Fosdick was by no means the only liberal theologian of his day, but he was the one to gain the widest acclaim and the broadest platform. While many others were pressing theological liberalism in the seminaries and the halls of academia, Fosdick was on the radio waves and in the bookstores, taking his message to the common people. His voice extended through his radio program, The National Vespers Hour, which was broadcast in the Northern and Eastern United States, and through many bestselling books which eventually sold in the millions. On two separate occasions he was on the cover of TIME magazine.
By the mid 1920’s Fosdick had established himself as the leading voice of twentieth-century liberalism. His stand for liberalism put him at odds with many of the conservative voices in Presbyterianism, and this led him to leave First Presbyterian Church in 1925 and to go instead to Park Avenue Baptist Church.
In the early 1920’s, J. Gresham Machen emerged as one of the foremost opponents of liberalism. His 1923 book Christianity and Liberalism was a strong, biblical response that drew comparisons between the Bible and liberal theology and showed that the two were in clear opposition. He rightly asked, “The question is not whether Mr. Fosdick is winning men, but whether the thing to which he is winning them is Christianity.” Others joined the battle as well. Fosdick remained firm in the face of such attacks, declaring “They call me a heretic. Well, ‘I am a heretic if conventional orthodoxy is the standard. I should be ashamed to live in this generation and not be a heretic.”
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.