Christian Heroes: The American Liberal and Mr. Rockefeller

December 4, 1994


The American Liberal and Mr. Rockefeller

This morning, in the second of a three-part series on heroes of the Christian faith, I want to talk about the most famous and most influential liberal Christian min-ister of modern times. Last Sunday we looked at the remarkable life of Toyohido Kagawa, the small Oriental who went to live in the slums out of devotion to Christ. This morning we’ll meet someone who lived on the upper West side of New York City, and served Jesus in a different way. His mother could not have imagined when she named him Harry Emerson Fosdick that among religious fundamentalists his would be the most hated name in America through the 1920’s and ’30’s. When he finally resigned his pulpit at First Presbyterian Church in 1925, under pressure from fundamentalists all over the country, he said in his farewell sermon: “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.”
Among some other similiarities between that generation and ours was this one: for fundamentalist Christians the burning issue of the day was the teaching of evolu-tion in the public schools. Not much has changed. I was in Oklahoma City the other day to help baby-sit the latest grandchild while his parents were out of town, and I noticed that the Daily Oklahoman, which my son calls “The Daily Disappointment, was full of letters to the editor about the need to teach creationism in the schools — that is, the belief that the world and all its creatures were instantaneously created about 6,000 years ago, and that the fossil record and all those biologists who believe in evolution are involved in a secular humanist conspiracy. Almost 70 years ago, in the very year Fosdick decided to leave his Presbyterian pulpit, similar letters were appearing in newspapers and the anti-evolution fever climaxed in the famous summer trial of one John Scopes, a Tennessee teacher who was ridiculed in court by William Jennings Bryan and defended by Clarence Darrow. There was no doubt where Fosdick’s sympathies lay, and fundamentalists had even more reason to call him the anti-Christ.
The standard charge, then as now, was that no liberal cares about religion, but Fosdick always insisted he was a liberal because he had become more religious, not less. He felt that in abandoning the conservative position he had discovered a far deeper and more satisfying faith than the one he gave up. He knew, of course, that some liberalism can be as foolishly eccentric as some fundamentalism is rigidly fos-ilized. He recalled a woman who began by being a Methodist, went on to Christian Science, passed from there into Theosophy, wound up for a while with the Spiritual-ists, and when he last saw her had not the faintest idea where she was. Fosdick was not that kind of liberal. He knew that among fundamentalists who disagreed with him many were as good and decent as some others were vicious and unrelenting, and for childish faith he felt compassion. But he thought mature faith was better and he did not feel his compassion should make him timid. He thought it was ridiculous when a church that called itself THE CHURCH OF GOD split over a disagreement, and the new faction called itself THE TRUE CHURCH OF GOD, only to have still another faction split off which called itself THE ONLY TRUE CHURCH OF GOD! He thought that the inflexible rigidity of fundamentalism led inevitably to that kind of nonsense, and he said so.
But like so many other liberals, he grew up in a fairly conservative home. What changed things for him was a book he read as a college student, The History of the Warfare of Science with Theology. Written by the president of Cornell University (Andrew White), it showed how the assumed infallibility of Scripture had impeded research, fed the mania of persecution, and held up the progress of mankind. Two quick examples: the first lightning rods were ridiculed and boycotted by fundamen-talists who said no one has the right to circumvent the will of God if it pleases him to aim a bolt, and the use of chloroform in childbirth was denounced as wicked because a verse in Genesis has God saying to Mother Eve, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing.” Common sense and compassion eventually prevailed, probably through the power of women who said emphatically, “Forget what you think that verse means, George, and give me the chloroform!”
The book that cited such things turned Fosdick permanently against any religion which tossed reason out in favor of a blind faith. Not only did he stop believing in some things he been taught but, as he said, “I rose in indignant revolt against it.” As he did, from the pulpit, he created enemies all over America who believed absolutely that he was the anti-Christ, the hated symbol of everything they detested in liberal religion. Perhaps his liberalism was in the genes. His maternal great-grandfather had been a Baptist minister who was excommunicted because he did not believe in Hell. The kind of God who could make and operate Hell, he said, was too much for him. I have no idea how much of that crusty old gentleman’s ideas filtered into the Fosdick household, but I do know that Fosdick’s immediate family life was good and was remembered all through his life with gratitude. He loved his mother so much that in later years he said he agreed with the statement in the Jewish Talmud that because God could not himself be everywhere, he invented mothers, and the keenest regret of his life was that his mother died before he was able to repay her for the sacrifices she made to keep him in school. His father was fair, but stern when he thought it right to be. As he went off to work one morning he turned to his wife who was waving good-bye, and said: “Tell Harry he can cut the grass today, if he feels like it.” He took a few steps away from the house, and then he turned back and said: “Tell Harry he had better feel like it.” Fosdick said once in an article that this was among the best advice he ever got: that when sometehing needs to be done, and it is your responsibility, you had better feel like doing it.
When he went off to Colgate, he was shy and awkward socially, but he wanted to be like some of his sceptical peers and so he turned abruptly and strongly against religion. On a visit home one day, at the Sunday dinner table, he decided to shock his family with a grand announcement: “I have made up my mind that I believe in evo-lution.” There was dead silence for a moment, and then a response that took all the wind out of his sails. “Well,” his father said, “I believed in evolution before you were born.” When young Harry went back to school he began to question in earnest. His grandmother had told him once that if he did not believe that the whale swallowed Jonah, kept him down for three days without digesting or suffocating him, and then coughed him up on dry land, he should just give up the Bible and his faith.
So, for a while, he did just that. He dropped church and attacked people who went to prayer meetings, and it was sophomoric fun until he noticed that many of his professors, whom he idolized, were not only intellectually respectable men, but also men of Christian faith. Surely, he thought, there must be some way to be both intellectually honest and a Christian at the same time. As he began to discover how that was possible, his faith came back, in an altered form, and he decided to enter divinity school at Colgate, with future studies planned at Union Theological and Colum-bia. Unfortunately, he had to work so hard to stay in school, and study so hard to keep up with his own expectations of himself, that he had a nervous breakdown. One night, suddenly, he discovered that he could not go to sleep. He found himself out of control and came home, shattered and thinking at times of suicide. He spent four months in a sanitarium and when he got out the father of his fiancee sent him off to Europe for more rest and a change of scenery. It worked, and Fosdick always said later that Stratford was not for him just Shakespeare’s birthplace, but the town where for two nights in a row sleep came naturally.
After he came back and was ordained he took a pulpit at the Old First Church in New York City, made up of three Presbyterian churches that had combined and called him, even though he was a Baptist. His liberal views caused trouble, and when in the Spring of 1922 he preached a sermon entitled, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” the storm broke. He had expressed the modernist views about the virgin birth, about the Bible, and about the second coming of Christ. At the General Assembly of the Presby-terian Church in 1923, William Jennings Bryant, the great fundamentalist orator, de-nounced him. One Baptist minister in New York called him “a religious outlaw…the Jesse James of the theological world.” And if you’d like a sample of how rough his fellow Christian ministers could be, listen to this excerpt from the Western Recorder, a Baptist publication: “It will be remembered that the said Fosdick professes to be a Baptist minister, and is the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New York City. It goes without saying that Presbyterian cash looks good to him, and withal covers a multitude of Baptist doctrines….As is well known, Mr. Fosdick denies the virgin birth of Christ, the inspiration of much of the Bible, and believes he has brute blood in his veins” —— the last remark a slap at Fosdick’s acceptance of the theory of evolution.
But there were thousands of supporters as well. Hundreds of students and pro-fessors at Cornell signed a letter praising him as the “leading American interpreter of the Christian religion for men and women of scientific training.” Students and faculty at Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts, SMU in Texas, and Columbia in New York City wrote their support. The president of Princeton defended Fosdick in a baccalaureate sermon, as did the president of Brown. John Finley of the New York Times said that if the Presbyterians ran him out, the loss would be theirs and there would be other places for him to preach. Hundreds of other ministers around the country secretly admired him but were afraid of losing their jobs if they said so from their pulpits. My feeling about that is that, when truth is at stake, someone who won’t risk your anger at times doesn’t deserve your respect.
The Presbyterians did invite him to join their church, but he declined, knowing if he came into a church with a national hierarchy he would be hauled up for a heresy trial. While he was wondering what to do, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., invited him to lunch one day to ask if he would take over the Park Avenue (American) Baptist church, whose minister was retiring. Fosdick said no, because baptism by immersion was required for full membership, and he could not accept that restriction. “Would you come if that were changed? Rockefeller asked, and Fosdick said he would consider it, but would still have to say No. When his host asked why, he said it was because this church, seating about 800, was in a swanky residential area and he did not wish to become a chaplain for the financially privileged. Rockefeller said, “Suppose we move it to another location, would you come?” Fosdick doubted they would want to do this, since they had just built the church, but even then, he said, he thought he could not come. “Why not?” his host asked him again. “Because you are too rich, and I don’t want to be known as the pastor of the richest man in the country.” There was a long silence, and then Rockefeller said, “I like hour frankness, but do you think more people will criticize you on account of my wealth than will criticize me on account of your theology?” It was the right thing to say to a man like Fosdick, and the two became friends on the spot. To Fosdick’s surprise, Park Avenue Baptist met both conditions he imposed for it, and as for Rockefeller, he leaned over backwards to avoid dominating the church or influencing what his minister said. Fosdick said he knew him as a trustee to argue against a policy the board was considering, but then, when outvoted, to take the chairmanship of the committee appointed to put it into operation and work to make it succeed. As for his money, he put that into a capital fund which he gave outright and over which he gave up all personal control.
Fosdick spent the next five years with Park Avenue Baptist while the new Riverside Church was building on Morningside Heights in Manhattan, a church that was to become the most famous liberal Protestant church in America. Set on the banks of the Hudson river, on the upper West side, surrounded by Columbia, Teach-er’s College, Barnard, Union Seminary, Hebrew Union, and the Juilliard School of Music, the great Riverside Church was built as a citadel to the idea that Science and Religion could live in harmony. One of its unique features is a massive stone relief depicting a host of scientists and philosophers under an image of the triumphant Christ. When Albert Einstein landed in New York in 1930 he visited the church that same afternoon, looked at himself in the arch, the only one still living, and said: “This could not have happened anywhere except in America.” He liked the blend of reason and faith for which that great church was to become famous. Given my theology, I felt I was on a kind of pilgrimage when I visited Riverside Church a few years ago. And I came to have even more feeling for it 3 or 4 years ago when my son was one of the finalists in their search for a new Senior Minister. The Search Committee flew out to Oklahoma City, determined to be inconspicuous while hearing Robin preach. The chairman phoned from New York City to say that they would just “blend into the congregation, and try not to arouse any suspicion.” It didn’t work, because when the people of Mayflower Congregational Church looked around that morning at an audience about like ours, their eyes were drawn immediately to a tall, statuesque, strikingly handsome black woman wearing a bright red tailored suit and an enormous red hat…a familiar sight in the great church on the banks of the Hudson, but impossible to over-look at Mayflower.
Harry Emerson Fosdick believed that truth is not at war with itself, and that religion and science are not enemies. He would have liked our description of this church as a place where “head and heart are equal partners in faith,” because he deeply believed something that millions still have not been convinced of: that you can be as smart as you like, and never outgrow a grownup faith. Fosdick wrote the lyrics to one of our favorite hymns, God of Grace and God of Glory, with its stirring refrain to “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage” — two qualities this great American preacher had in abundance. It seems only right this morning to close with his words, so please open your hymnbooks to No. 366 and stand while we sing as a choral benediction verses l, 3, and 4.
That servant of yours whom we honor today, God of grace, said once that it is magnificent to grow old if only one stays young. May that happiness belong to each one of us, personally, and to this church through the long, long life we wish for it, through Christ our Lord, Amen.