In the early part of last century, Harry Emerson Fosdick, emerged as the greatest preacher of the modernist movement, which rejected the theological, biblical and spiritual restraints being imposed by the fundamentalist movement.
As a modernist, the New York-based Baptist rejected the notion that the Bible is perfectly accurate and embraced science including thoughts on evolution. An infamous sermon preached at First Presbyterian in New York City got him fired as associate pastor there. He was also teaching at Union Theological Seminary. His 1922 sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” essentially led to him being called to another congregation and he led the establishing of Riverside Church in Manhattan which was purposely built as an interdenominational congregation, unlike the “non-denominational” churches popular today.
His books included On Being a Real Person (1943) and A Faith for Tough Times (1952). Martin Luther King Jr. inscribed in one of King’s own books, given to Fosdick: ‘‘If I were called upon to select the foremost prophets of our generation, I would choose you to head the list.” Fosdick later replied, ‘‘we are all unpayably in your debt, not only for what you did but for putting the story down where thousands of people can read it’’
Fosdick visited the trenches of World War I in France and lived in or near New York City most of his life. In 1969, he died at the age of 91. Despite seeing the worst of humanity and being ridiculed for being a modernist, he remained a beacon of hope for thousands of Christians in America who were growing up in a new century filled with new inventions and discoveries.
He rejected a pessimistic Christianity that wallowed in sin or forecast doom for the planet. In spite of his experiences ministering in inner-city ghettos and the French trenches, he remained confident about the future: "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."
You can read more about Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick on Christianity Today.
Rev. Shane Whisler serves at Parish Associate at NorthPark Presbyterian Church. He holds a journalism degree from Oklahoma University and attended Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Together with his wife, he has two thoughtful teenagers and a menagerie of animals.