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Harry Emerson Fosdick

Harry Emerson Fosdick
Born May 24, 1878
Buffalo, New York United States[1]
Died October 5, 1969
Bronxville, New York[1]
Education BA, Colgate University, 1900
studied at Colgate Seminary, 1900–01
BD, Union Theological Seminary, 1904
MA, Columbia University, 1908[2]
Occupation Protestant Christian minister
Spouse(s) Florence Allen Whitney[1]
Children Elinor Fosdick Downs, Dorothy Fosdick[1]
Parent(s) Frank Sheldon Fosdick, Amy Inez Fosdick[1]
Church Baptist[2]
Ordained November 18, 1903[1]
Congregations served
First Baptist Church, Montclair, NJ, 1904–15
First Presbyterian Church ("Old First" of Manhattan), New York, NY, 1918–25
Park Avenue Baptist Church/Riverside Church, New York, NY, 1925–30/1930–46[2]
Offices held
pastor,[2] associate pastor[3]

Harry Emerson Fosdick (May 24, 1878 – October 5, 1969) was an American pastor. Fosdick became a central figure in the "Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy" within American Protestantism in the 1920s and 1930s and was one of the most prominent liberal ministers of the early 20th Century. Although a Baptist, he was a guest preacher in New York City, at First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan's West Village, and then at the historic, inter-denominational Riverside Church in Morningside Heights, Manhattan.[4][5][6]


Born in Buffalo, New York, Fosdick graduated from Colgate University in 1900 and from Union Theological Seminary in 1904. While attending Colgate University he joined the Delta Upsilon Fraternity. He was ordained a Baptist minister in 1903 at Madison Avenue Baptist Church at 31st Street, Manhattan.

He was called as minister to First Baptist Church, Montclair, New Jersey, in 1904, serving until 1915. He supported US participation in the First World War (later describing himself as a "gullible fool" in doing so[7]), and in 1917 volunteered as an Army chaplain, serving in France.

In 1918 he was called to First Presbyterian Church, and on May 21, 1922, he delivered his famous sermon Shall the Fundamentalists Win?,[8] in which he defended the modernist position. In that sermon he presented the Bible as a record of the unfolding of God's will, not as the literal "Word of God". He saw the history of Christianity as one of development, progress, and gradual change. Fundamentalists regarded this as rank apostasy, and the battle-lines were drawn.

The national convention of the General Assembly of the old Presbyterian Church in the USA in 1923 charged his local presbytery in New York to conduct an investigation into Fosdick's views. A commission began an investigation, as required. His defense was conducted by a lay elder, John Foster Dulles (1888–1959, future Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s), whose father was a well-known liberal Presbyterian seminary professor. Fosdick escaped probable censure at a formal trial by the 1924 General Assembly by resigning from the First Presbyterian Church (historic "Old First") pulpit in 1924. He was immediately called as pastor of a new type of Baptist church ministry at Park Avenue Baptist Church, whose most famous member was the industrialist, financier and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr.. Rockefeller then funded the famed ecumenical Riverside Church (later a member of the American Baptist Churches and United Church of Christ denominations) in Manhattan's northwestern Morningside Heights area overlooking the Hudson River and nearby Columbia University, where Fosdick became pastor as soon as the doors opened in October 1930, prompting a Time magazine cover story on October 6, 1930 (pictured). Time said that Fosdick

proposes to give this educated community a place of greatest beauty for worship. He also proposes to serve the social needs of the somewhat lonely metropolite. Hence on a vast scale he has built all the accessories of a community church—gymnasium, assembly room for theatricals, dining rooms, etc. … In ten stories of the 22-story belltower are classrooms for the religious and social training of the young…"[9]

Fosdick outspokenly opposed racism and injustice. Ruby Bates credited him with persuading her to testify for the defense in the 1933 retrial of the infamous and racially-charged legal case of the Scottsboro Boys, which tried nine black youths before all-white juries for allegedly raping white women (Bates and her companion Victoria Price) in Alabama.

Fosdick's sermons won him wide recognition, as, for example, The Unknown Soldier, preached at Riverside Church on Sunday November 12, 1933, immediately following Armistice Day. Many of his sermon collections are still in print, and he published numerous books. His radio addresses were nationally broadcast; he also wrote the hymn "God of Grace and God of Glory".

Fosdick's book A Guide to Understanding the Bible traces the beliefs of the people who wrote the Bible, from the ancient beliefs of the Hebrews (which he regarded as practically pagan) to the faith and hopes of the New Testament writers.

Fosdick reviewed the first edition of the book Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939, giving it his approval. AA members continue to point to this review as significant in the development of the AA movement.

Fosdick was an active member of the American Friends of the Middle East,[10] a founder of the Committee for Justice and Peace in the Holy Land, and an active "anti-Zionist".[11]

Extended family

Fosdick's brother, Raymond Fosdick, was essentially in charge of philanthropy for John D. Rockefeller, Jr., running the Rockefeller Foundation for three decades, from 1921. Rockefeller funded the nationwide distribution of Shall the Fundamentalists Win?, although with a more cautious title, The New Knowledge and the Christian Faith. This direct-mail project was designed by Ivy Lee, who had worked since 1914 as an independent contractor in public relations for the Rockefellers.

Fosdick's daughter, Dorothy Fosdick, was foreign policy adviser to Henry M. ("Scoop") Jackson, a United States Senator from Washington state.

He was the nephew of Charles Austin Fosdick, a popular author of adventure books for boys, who wrote under the pen name Harry Castlemon.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f
  2. ^ a b c d
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ Armistice Sermon, The Unknown Soldier, Riverside Church, November 12, 1933
  8. ^ .
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ .

External links

  • Works by Harry Emerson Fosdick at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Harry Emerson Fosdick at Internet Archive
  • A Guide to Understanding the Bible text online
  • articleEncyclopædia Britannica
  • Harry Emerson Fosdick at Find a Grave
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