Was Harry Emerson Fosdick the Original “Give ’em what they want to hear” Preacher?
April 28, 2012
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Harry Emerson Fosdick (May 24, 1878-October 5, 1969) was an American clergyman. As a liberal and modernist Baptist minister, Harry rose to prominence as the weekly preacher at New York City’s First Presbyterian Church (1918-1924). Fundamentalist Christians nationwide attacked his view that ‘modern Christians’ could doubt doctrines such as the literal truth of the Bible and the virgin birth of Jesus and still remain faithful. The modernists denied the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. Fosdick ultimately would not acknowledge the literal reality of God’s wrath toward impenitent sinners. To him, ‘the wrath of God’ was nothing more than a metaphor for the natural consequences of wrongdoing. His theology would not tolerate a personal God whose righteous anger burns against sin. To Fosdick, the threat of hell fire was only a relic of a barbaric age.
His sermons were often creative, inventive and topical-not that he denied everything in the bible. He cherry–picked the bits he liked to front his liberalism. The key was to centre the message on human needs and understand Christian ministry as a “helping profession” hence incorporated psychology into his teachings. Fosdick quickly provided a way to simultaneously hold to liberal assumptions and still have a version of the Christian religion.
This was the beginning- a churning of the silken threads that would later morph into a version of Christianity that was so friendly and suave in appearance leading to impressively astronomical numbers of church attendances and seekers. Mr Fosdick was described a “protean man” whose public talents needed no advertisement or apology and whose private life resembled “the rose without the thorn.”
After the modernist controversy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a huge upheaval in American Christianity. He was later hired as pastor of a Baptist church whose most famous member was Multi-millionaire John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who then funded the Riverside Church where Fosdick became pastor. As soon as the doors opened in October 1930, he became the Time magazine cover story on October 6, 1930. With wealthy benefactors like John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who was ubiquitous in Fosdick’s career, and prominent public-relations experts like Ivy Lee, Fosdick was retailed like “breakfast cereal through market analysis, mass distribution and image-building.”
These were the days when Christians literally beat down the doors to get into church. “Crowds Smash Door: Near Riot to Hear Fosdick” ran the headlines of a 1924 newspaper. It was not uncommon for people to wait in front of the church for more than two hours in what they called the “bread line” so that they could be fed at Fosdick’s table. Church members were ticketed to ensure seating, but others had to find fragments of nourishment where they could, with some sneaking into already packed balconies through fire escapes and other evasive subterfuges, and with Fosdick’s own seat filled by a standee as soon as he entered the pulpit. – Liberalism and Lost Days: Re Evaluation of Fosdick
So, was Harry Emerson Fosdick the original seeker sensitive preacher? Well, I don’ t think so but he sure did a lot of harm to the gospel and (yup!) his ideologies still do the same up to this day.