The Sermon That Divided America – Obbie Tyler Todd

To say that Harry Emerson Fosdick’s sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” (1922) ignited the fundamentalist-modernist controversy requires a bit of qualification. In truth, the lines had been drawn for at least a decade.

Between 1910 and 1915, a series of 12 paperback volumes called The Fundamentals had defended everything from the virgin birth to the deity of Christ to the inspiration of Scripture against those who sought to undermine the supernatural character of the Christian faith. In 1920, the term “fundamentalist” was coined by Baptist editor Curtis Lee Laws at the first meeting of the General Conference on Fundamentals to describe someone who held to the historic doctrines of Christianity. By 1922, a “militantly anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism” had already emerged in America. According to Fosdick’s biographer, “The sermon was not a stone dropped into denominational waters that would otherwise have remained calm.” In some sense, Fosdick did not create the fundamentalist movement. He just gave it a push.

New Orthodoxy

Fosdick, a Baptist who pastored the First Presbyterian Church of New York, was not the first person in the history of American evangelicalism to question the virgin birth, the inspiration of the Bible, the substitutionary atonement, or the second coming of Christ. But he was certainly one of the first to do so with the assurance that most evangelicals would soon agree with him.

Fosdick did not create the fundamentalist movement. He just gave it a push.

For fundamentalists, the most shocking aspect of Fosdick’s sermon was not simply the heresy, but the assumption that heresy (or the acceptance of heresy) was the new orthodoxy. “I do not believe for one moment that the Fundamentalists are going to succeed,” Fosdick declared triumphantly. The fundamentalist defeat was inevitable. Preaching from Acts 5:34–39, Fosdick was as confident of modernist victory as the Pharisee Gamaliel had been of the work of God.

Fosdick’s inflammatory sermon soon unleashed a torrent of responses from fundamentalists, who now had an adversary bold enough to meet them out in the open. In his reply to Fosdick titled “Shall Unbelief Win?” (1922), Clarence Edwards Macartney was struck by the fact that, unlike modernists of the past, Fosdick “leaves no reader or hearer in the least doubt what he believes, or disbelieves, about the cardinal doctrines of the Christian religion.” One might say that Fosdick finally turned a conflict into a controversy.

United Against Liberalism

In some ways, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” was a missile wrapped in a banner of peace. As a call for tolerance within the Presbyterian church, Fosdick’s sermon was also an offensive launched against those “illiberal and intolerant” Presbyterians who would expel him from their denomination for his beliefs (the heretical ones, not the Baptist ones). Consequently, the sermon helped conservatives to do what they’d been struggling to do on their own: unite.

The sermon helped conservatives to do what they’d been struggling to do on their own: unite.

By 1922, for instance, the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA), begun by William Bell Riley, “was already displaying signs of collapse.” Interdenominational cooperation didn’t come easy, and the name “fundamentalist” carried a stigma even inside the conservative ranks, particularly due to its association with “the premillennial reign of Christ.” But as 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 (1923), 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. Before quoting Fosdick on penal substitutionary atonement, Machen states, “Upon the Christian doctrine of the Cross, modern liberals are never weary of pouring out the vials of their hatred and their scorn.” Relatively speaking, Machen’s critique was rather mild. In the same month, one fundamentalist suggested that Fosdick was inspired by a demon.

In contemporary evangelicalism, the traditional narrative of Fosdick’s most famous sermon is that it was a modernist prophecy unfulfilled. Despite the capitulation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to theological liberalism, the rapid decline of attendance in mainline churches by the end of the 20th century means that Fosdick’s words do not appear to have aged well.

In 1947, when Harold John Ockenga, pastor of Park Street Church in Boston and the former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, published a short article titled “Can Fundamentalism Win America?” the Fosdickian question was as much a vindication of fundamentalism as a critique. Twenty-five years and another World War later, fundamentalism was still shaping American life. From radio shows to politics to youth movements, fundamentalists adapted quite well to the modern world. Today, with the rise of “neo-fundamentalism” and a renewed interest in theological retrieval, it seems that the fundamentalist spirit still indwells much of evangelicalism.

Fosdick’s Supporters

But sometimes lost in this telling of fundamentalist “victory” are those in 1922 who found Fosdick’s sermon appealing. “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” could be as inspiring to many Americans as it was repugnant to others.

For instance, liberal journals like the Christian Century, Christian Work, and The Baptist reprinted the sermon. John D. Rockefeller Jr. (who eventually built Fosdick a new church after he resigned his post due to the controversial sermon) enjoyed the sermon so much that he asked his publicist, Ivy Lee, to print 130,000 copies and send them to every Protestant minister in America. For Rockefeller, a fellow Baptist, Fosdick’s call for a tolerant, scientific faith needed to be heard by evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike. Uneasy with the contentious title, however, Rockefeller suggested an alternate: “The New Knowledge and the Christian Faith.” He explained, “The object in circulating this sermon is to get the views therein expressed widely read and not to stir up discord.”

Today, it seems that the fundamentalist spirit still indwells much of evangelicalism.

Fosdick had other notable supporters in his corner. In 1923, when the General Assembly charged his local presbytery in New York to conduct an investigation into his views, Fosdick’s defense counsel was John Foster Dulles, a lay elder in the Presbyterian Church who would eventually become Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Dulles had modernist leanings and objected to the idea that the General Assembly could compel doctrinal fidelity. Fosdick’s call for an “intellectually hospitable, open-minded, liberty-loving, fair, tolerant” Christianity clearly resonated with many evangelicals.

For this reason, by 1935, Fosdick himself was convinced that the fundamentalists had not won. In his second most famous sermon, “The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism” (1935), Fosdick boasted, “We have already largely won the battle we started out to win. . . . Fundamentalism is still with us but mostly in the backwaters. The future of the churches, if we will have it so, is in the hands of modernism.”

Game, Set, Match?

A century after Fosdick’s sermon, American evangelicals can appear just as fractured as they did in 1922. Issues of tolerance, science, history, and denominational identity continue to trigger intense debate, often at the expense of church unity.

Indeed, if evangelicals today are to “win” America in any meaningful sense, they’ll do well to avoid the same errors that Harry Emerson Fosdick seemed to commit in 1922, when education, influence, magazines, newspapers, historical optimism, and a sense of moral superiority were themselves mistaken for the will of God. Against the fundamentals of the faith, none of these prevailed. Without a confidence in the birth, atoning death, and return of Christ as revealed in the divinely inspired Word of God, his concept of victory was not nearly as victorious as it could have been.

However, Fosdick’s emphasis on the “weightier matters of the law” attracted widespread attention for a reason. At the heart of his disdain for fundamentalists was not their doctrine of the end times or their medieval view of science or even their conservative theology, but their immorality (at least as he saw it). When Fosdick criticized premillennialists in 1922, for example, he mocked those “who sit still and do nothing and expect the world to grow worse and worse until He comes.”

The most powerful rebuke of fundamentalism in Fosdick’s modernist manifesto remains arguably the most significant criticism of conservative evangelicals today: their ethics. Whether or not this critique is justified, Fosdick’s words continue to offer a challenge to those still holding to the faith once delivered to the saints: “Opinions may be mistaken; love never is.”

Ultimately, Harry Emerson Fosdick was mistaken. He carried a “sense of shame that the Christian Church should be quarreling over little matters when the world is dying of great needs.” But for fundamentalists—and most evangelicals—Christ’s birth, death, and return and the authority of the Bible were not “little matters.” They were the essence of the Christian faith. While Fosdick was right to remind us all of the “weightier matters,” he tragically overlooked the weightiest.

Read More

The Gospel Coalition