“Shall the fundamentalists win?”
The sermon that rocked America
“[I]t is true that just now the fundamentalists are giving us one of the worst exhibitions of bitter intolerance that the churches of this country have ever seen.” The preacher in the pulpit raved on: “Their apparent intention is to drive out” of Protestant churches “men and women of liberal opinions.”
Who among progressive Christianity clerics railed so against fundamentalism in American church life, you wonder, and when recently, and where did this reproach take place?
You may be surprised to learn that it occurred in New York City’s First Presbyterian Church; that this indictment was delivered during a Sunday service on May 21, 1922—over a century ago; and that it was delivered by an ordained Baptist minister. Harry Emerson Fosdick was “on his way to becoming the most celebrated preacher of his day,” Christianity Today affirmed last year, and his utterance was, according to public theologian Diana Butler Bass, “one of the most important and influential sermons of the 20th century.” (Please note: in 2016, CrossReach Publications issued this sermon, in full, as an 18-page pamphlet, which is now to be found—under Fosdick, Harry Emerson—in the SSUC Library.)
What Fosdick fumed about was what he called “the fundamentalist program,” which was, he insisted, “essentially illiberal and intolerant.” A few moments into his declaration, the cleric imagined, “If they had their way within the Church, they would set up in Protestantism a doctrinal tribunal” which would be “more rigid” than any such judiciary in Roman Catholicism. Why, “the fundamentalist controversy…threatens to divide American churches.”
After setting the stage, the troubled pastor explained his frustration. ”They insist that we must all believe in the historicity of certain special miracles,” and he mentioned four of these doctrines: the virgin birth; the inerrancy of scripture; the second coming; and “a special theory of the atonement—that the blood of the Lord, shed in a substitutionary death, placates an alienated Deity, and makes possible welcome for the returning sinner.”
After confronting head-on most of these understandings—“Let us face this morning some of the differences of opinion”; he then took over 1,300 words to do so—Fosdick wondered, “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?” And, “Has anybody the right to deny the Christian name to those who differ with him on such points, and to shut against them the doors of Christian fellowship? The fundamentalists say that this must be done.”
He insisted otherwise: “[W]e also must be able to think our Christian faith clear through in modern terms.” We ought not think “in ancient terms that leave ideas of progress out.” He called for “a spirit of tolerance and Christian liberty,” and wondered, “When will the world learn that intolerance solves no problems?” And again, “Nobody’s intolerance can contribute anything to the solution of the situation which we have described.”
He acknowledged that there are, in this kerfuffle, “many opinions” about 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.”
Just shy of his conclusion, Fosdick, bluff throughout, pulled out all the stops: “The present world situation smells to heaven!” He called for “a sense of penitent shame that the Christian Church should be quarrelling over little matters, when the world is dying of great needs.” Christians, engaged in the fundamentalist controversy, “play with the tiddledywinks and peccadillos of religion,” this “when the world is perishing for the lack of weightier matters of law, justice, mercy, and faith.”
In the end, even as he affirmed, “I do not believe for one moment that the fundamentalists are going to succeed,” Fosdick prayed: “God keep us…intellectually hospitable, open-minded, liberty-loving, fair, tolerant, [but] not with the tolerance of indifference, as though we did not care about the faith.”
“The greatest preacher” of the 20th century
Harry Emerson Fosdick [1878-1969] became, as one biographer put it, “the most influential interpreter of religion in his generation.” In a 1996 celebration of this orator, The New York Times described how his 1922 sermon “came to be considered one of the most famous religious addresses of the century, preached by one of the most eloquent clergy members produced by American Protestantism.”
A graduate of New York’s Union Theological Seminary, he was ordained a Baptist minister in 1903. [“The fundamentalists in later years have hated me plentifully,’ he once wrote, “but I started as one of them”—he grew up in a Baptist church in Buffalo, New York.] He and his ministry earned a Time cover story in October, 1930, which pegged him as “the least hated, and best loved heretic that ever lived”. Martin Luther King, jr., would come to regard him as “the greatest preacher of this century.” In a copy of his own memoir, Stride Toward Freedom, King inscribed, “If I were called upon to select the foremost prophets of our generation, I would choose you to head that list.”
While fundamentalists regarded him and his preachments as “rank apostasy” [Wikipedia], one biography lauds him as “a proponent of ecumenical Christianity, pacifism, and civil rights.” The author of 50 books, thousands of sermons, articles, and lectures, he was of a mind that, “The Lord was to be found in living experience,” Christianity Today affirms, “not at the end of some creed.” In spite of his worry about fundamentalism and its rise, “he remained confident about the future,” according to CT: “‘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.’”
Theologian Harvey Cox recalled—this in 1985 in The Washington Post—how, at the preacher’s memorial service, “1,500 people stood and sang one of the hymns Fosdick himself had written, ‘God of Grace and God of Glory’. Its third verse says, ‘…Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, lest we miss thy kingdom’s goal’. In the stirring cadences of this hymn, sung as much as any other one all over our nation today, the voice of Harry Emerson Fosdick continues to resound.”
And in the while since?
In the aftermath of this preachment, a wealthy benefactor helped spread Fosdick’s message. John D. Rockefeller, jr., so esteemed the sermon that “he asked his publicist, Ivy Lee, to print 130,000 copies, and send them to every Protestant minister in America,” The Gospel Coalition has reported.
Still, “within two years, fundamentalists forced Fosdick from his pulpit at New York’s First Presbyterian Church,” Butler Bass reports. This happened even as “each Sunday the church was swelled with people who came to hear him preach,” quakerquaker.org blogger Doug Bennett, emeritus president of Indiana’s Earlham College, mentioned in a 2012 message. Goodness, his “preaching lured so many New Yorkers…that the church installed loudspeakers so people who gathered outside could hear his sermons,” The New York Times reported in 1996.
Fosdick was defiant to the end: In the final sermon he preached there—this was in March, 1925—he asserted, “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.”
Then, once more, Rockefeller, himself a Baptist, came to his rescue: he built for Fosdick what Butler Bass pictures as “a glorious new liberal preaching cathedral—The Riverside Church in Morningside Heights.” Hard by Columbia University, this nondenominational church in NYC, which can hold 2,400 people, is modelled after the 13th-century cathedral in Chartres, and boasts the tallest steeple in North America. He became pastor as soon as the doors opened in October, 1930, and held the post until 1946.
Today, The Riverside Church includes on its website an essay [“The enduring timeliness of ’Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”] in which the author, Wallace Best, warrants that Fosdick’s sermon “marked American preaching as a hopeful enterprise that distilled the essence of the Christian gospel with a message of peace and unity for a better American society. […] [I]t provided a promising new direction for American Christianity, and a more socially focused set of religious institutional priorities.”
Professor of religion at Princeton University, Best continues: “Fosdick was known to be a very good preacher, but ‘Shall the Fundamentalists Win?’ was one of his best, in terms of sermonic craft. It was also a masterwork in oration, cultural interpretation, and scriptural interpretation from the ‘modernist’ point of view.” He mentions that the minister “never regretted preaching his most famous sermon.”
In it, Fosdick, “above all…stressed that Christianity should not be backward-looking, or even static,” according to the Peoria Project [this is a venture that “sponsors and cultivates the continuing search for the wisdom that deserves consent”]. In 2016, it pointed out that “Fosdick’s theology was well suited to the progressive, reformist politics of his day, and, in fact, was one of the driving forces behind the progressive movement….”
But more than that, it, taken together with the fundamentalists’ articles of faith, “show how the Christian synthesis that had guided America through the first hundred years of its existence dissolved into divisions of left and right, conservative and liberal,” and these “continue to characterize…American Christianity….”
Writing in 1985 in The Washington Post, theologian Harvey Cox, author of such celebrated works as Religion in the Secular City and The Future of Faith, affirmed, “Fosdick was a zealous celebrant of everything the modern world, especially in its American expression, stood for. He wanted faith not only to adjust to, but to doxologize reason, progress, science, democracy, and all the rest.”
Fosdick himself put it this way in this 1956 autobiography, The Living of These Days: “If the day ever comes when men care so little for the basic Christian experiences and revelations of truth that they cease trying to rethink them in more adequate terms, see them in the light of freshly acquired knowledge, and interpret them anew for new days, then Christianity will be finished.”
Back to The Gospel Coalition: “[A]s America’s chief popularizer of modernism, Fosdick embodied for many fundamentalists the very worst of theological liberalism, and evoked their collective disdain. In Christianity and Liberalism, published less than a year after the sermon, J. Gresham Machen argued that historic Christianity and modernism were not simply two shades of the same faith, but rather two completely different religions. Not surprisingly, he cited Fosdick’s sermon.”
Wallace Best explains Fosdick’s concerns this way: “Fundamentalists were distracted by small matters, and were distracting others from what truly mattered in a hurting world.” “But for fundamentalists, and most evangelicals,” as The Gospel Coalition essay makes plain, “Christ’s birth, death, and return, and the authority of the Bible, were not ‘little matters’.”
Anything but: those who judge the “fundamentals” of the faith “as doctrinal orthodoxy”—Best, again—“were the true believers, while all others were in serious doctrinal error, and, therefore, actually not Christians at all.” And, for many fundamentalist leaders, Fosdick, in his sermon, had “shown himself to be heretic, as well as a religious outlaw.”
“Anxiety and sorrow” in “the hearts of believers”
In a quick-to-follow rejoinder to the sermon, prominent conservative Presbyterian pastor Clarence Edward Macartney expressed the hope that Fosdick “will awaken to the…non-Christianity of his views, and return, like many another wanderer, to the Cross of Christ.” He challenged the modernist In a two-part article, “Shall unbelief win?”, which appeared in the weekly Presbyterian in July, 1922. His retort was described as a “defence of the cardinal doctrines of the Christian religion.”
Macartney, who reckoned that “the views held by Dr. Fosdick are subversive of the Christian faith,” and will have surely caused “anxiety and sorrow” in “the hearts of believers,” pointed up “the menace of the rationalistic and modernist movement in Protestant Christianity. The movement is slowly secularizing the Church, and if permitted to go unchecked and unchallenged, will ere long produce in our churches a new kind of Christianity, a Christianity without worship, without God, and without Jesus Christ.”
A question, an answer
That, all that, about one clergyman and one sermon he preached over a hundred years ago! And still the question posed in its title remains to be answered: shall the fundamentalists win?
Maybe they have.
Coyly, The Gospel Coalition observes, “Fosdick’s words do not appear to have aged well.” In another article, writer Jacob Lupfer references the cleric’s statement, “I do not believe for one moment that the fundamentalists are going to succeed,” then sniffs, “[C]ontra Fosdick’s forecast, ‘the modernists lost’.”
Even progressive Christianity adherent Barbara Brown Taylor admits the downthrow. What she characterizes as “a once-local theological tiff” has morphed into “an internationalist culture war”. Fundamentalists now brandish “social issues and politics like a divine sword”. And, ultimately, modernists have “lost the global war. With a century of hindsight, the answer to Fosdick’s question is startlingly simple: ‘Shall the fundamentalists win?’ They have.”
Todd Weir, a serving United Church of Christ minister in Massachusetts, declared in a 2022 sermon marking the 100th anniversary of Fosdick’s preachment: “‘Shall the fundamentalists win?’ captured the tensions within American Christianity a century ago, which persist today. […] The driving impulse of fundamentalism is to find a truth that is solid in a rapidly changing world, and the literal reading of scripture has been that grounding…. In the last century, fundamentalist thinking has spread to most religions. […] They [fundamentalists] tend to reject modernity, and desire to return to a prior golden age…. […] This usually leads to a desire for theocracy, which authoritarian leaders exploit…. Fundamentalism is the most potent global religious and political movement today.”
In agreement, Princeton’s Wallace Best attests, “If there is a sad part to the story of ’Shall the Fundamentalists Win?’, it is that 100 years later it remains so relevant. […] American Christianity is as divisive as ever, and now a brand of dangerous Christian nationalism is on the rise, seeking to marginalize or exclude all others in religious and political terms. […] Clearly, the country has not learned Fosdick’s lesson, that ‘intolerance solves no problems’. […] Intolerance and division cannot win because, ultimately, they have nothing to offer.
“Our only real hope is the road not yet taken—and, a hundred years ago, Harry Emerson Fosdick showed us the way.”
The Fundamentals: arresting “the drift of Protestant belief”
That against which Harry Emerson Fosdick squared off, that which he impugned—fundamentalism—is expounded in The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, which is a set of 90 essays published in 12 volumes between 1910 and 1915. “He used the title of the books to designate the people he was opposing,” the website Catholic Answers explains, “and the label he originated became commonly used to designate those who adhered to The Fundamentals.”
Brothers Milton and Lyman Stewart, whose wealth came from the oil industry, were responsible for underwriting publication costs, and for the distribution of 250,000 sets to pastors, missionaries, seminary professors and students, and lay church leaders in the English-speaking world. Addressing readers, they declared their “earnest desire,” which was “that you will carefully read it, and pass its truth on to others.”
Written by 64 different authors, representing most of the major Protestant denominations, the essays were intended “to arrest the drift of Protestant belief,” according to teachinghistory.org, and “to defend the ‘fundamentals of belief’ against the corrosive effects of liberalism that had grown within the ranks of Protestantism itself.” Their inception was “in reaction to theological modernism,” Britanica reports, “which aimed to revise traditional Christian beliefs to accommodate new developments in the natural and social sciences.” The “fundamentalist-modernist controversy” came to be “a full-blown culture war waged in America in the 1920s and 1930s,” Brewminate.com points out.
Evangelical Christians, you see, were “facing an unprecedented series of scientific, social, and intellectual challenges to their faith,” Biola Magazine reports. Theopedia explains, “[A] steady stream of very influential liberal theological thought” was, at the time, coming out of Germany, “much of it under the banner of ‘higher criticism’…. This was seen as a very real threat, a ‘clear and present danger’ to the souls of the faithful.” Fundamentalists would view such new understandings as “the sins of the age,” Douglas Sweeney wrote in Christianity Today in 2014.
To counter such “sins,” The Fundamentals uphold these five tenets, these basics of the faith, which Brewminate.com has synopsized: the inerrancy of the Bible; the literal truth found there; the virgin birth and divinity of Jesus; substitutional atonement; the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and his imminent return. Still, The Fundamentals did more than defend orthodox Protestant beliefs—it “attacked higher criticism, liberal theology, Romanism, socialism, modernism, atheism, Christian Science, Mormonism, [what came to be known as] Jehovah’s Witnesses, spiritualism, and what it called evolutionism.”
“However, the key threat perceived was the threat to the Bible and to its authority,” The British Academy has pronounced. “[T]he great bogey was…the subjection of the Bible to critical question.” As Britanica observes, “The issue of biblical authority was crucial to American Protestantism, which had inherited the fundamental doctrine of sola Scriptura [scripture alone] as enunciated by Martin Luther…. Thus, any challenge to scriptural integrity had the potential to undermine Christianity as they understood and practiced it.”
In a 2013 essay in The British Academy Review, James Dunn affirms that “the central role of the Bible as the infallible authority of Christian faith” is at “the heart of Protestant fundamentalism. As James Barr notes in his devastating critique of fundamentalism [his book is entitled simply, Fundamentalism], “‘the question of scriptural authority is the one question of theology that takes precedence over all others.’”
What underlies “the rise of Protestant fundamentalism is the desire for certainty,” Dunn, a professor of divinity emeritus at the University of Durham, writes in the Review. It was at his suggestion that, in 2013, this august body convened a conference on “What is fundamentalism, and what threats does it pose to today’s world?”.
The desire,” Dunn expounds, “is for a firm rock in a sea of otherwise constant change, for a truth unchanging in the face of so-called ‘progress’ with its seemingly endless confusion and dilution of moral standards. In a period marked by social, ideological, and political uncertainty, the appeal of such fundamental certainty is obvious, and goes a long way to explain the success of conservative and fundamentalist churches in evangelism and church planting. The focus in Protestant fundamentalism is on scripture precisely because written formulations hold out the promise of such certainty—certainty of historical fact, certainty of worship practice and ethical prescription, certainty of theological proposition.”
It should be noted that, as Theopedia puts it, in championing these beliefs, the contributors to The Fundamentals were, “for the most part, not guilty of the extremism that has come to mark” fundamentalism. In fact, historian George Marsden has observed, “Nearly everyone who reads The Fundamentals is struck by their relative moderation, compared with later fundamentalism.” Why, Amazon, in its marketing, describes it as “one of the finest and most widely distributed statements of Christian doctrine ever produced.”
Be that as it may, public theologian Karen Armstrong, writing in her book Battle for God, describes fundamentalism as “a religion of rage.” Patheos.com tells how, “In recent decades, Christian fundamentalism has…been characterized by its criticism of liberal social and political policies, most notably legalized abortion, evolution taught in schools, and gay and lesbian rights.” Catholic Answers, addressing the popularity fundamentalists are experiencing nowadays—it has “attracted a tremendous following”—suggests that, “Their success is partly due to their discipline. …there are perhaps no Christians who operate in a more regimented manner.”
Addressing its attraction in our times, The British Academy’s James Dunn concedes, “I cannot avoid the conclusion that the Protestant fundamentalism of The Fundamentals, with its focus on inerrancy and literal interpretation of the Bible, with its confusion of faith with certainty, and with its intolerance and unwillingness to compromise, is indeed a threat in today’s world.”