Shall the Fundamentalists Win?

100th Anniversary of Harry Fosdick’s sermon                                                 May 22, 2022

Sermon note: Harry Emerson Fosdick spent summers here in Boothbay Harbor, where he wrote many sermons and books. He occasionally preached here at the Congregational church and many of our older members remember his sermons. Fosdick married our minister of music’s parents, and was often seen boating around the area. He often met with his good friend John D. Rockefeller at his Mouse Island home just offshore. According to their correspondence, the dream of Riverside Church was fleshed out on a walk through the woods here in Boothbay Harbor. So, this Sunday’s sermon celebrates his historic career, and the sermon that launched him as a national figure.

“Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” captured the tensions within American Christianity a century ago, which persist today. Instead of understanding the Bible as the literal truth of God about all matters, Fosdick believed Christians should embrace multiple ways of knowing, including science, psychology, and history. His sermon demonstrates more than one way to think about biblical doctrines such as the Virgin Birth and Resurrection. He valued scripture as a wellspring of wisdom, though he did not believe the texts were literally true. The sermon encourages Christians to be open to differences. Fosdick pleads for an “intellectually hospitable, tolerant and liberty-loving church.”  He did not say we need to stamp out fundamentalist thought or persecute people. Instead, he said, “Come study with us!”

I was struck by the end of his sermon when he said he had not seen any intolerance in his church, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, and didn’t think anyone was tempted by Fundamentalism. He resigned just over a year later. He would not be the only one who underestimated the appeal of Fundamentalism, as it has become a global religious force. The following controversy knocked Fosdick out of his church but into the national spotlight.   Two weeks later, a prominent Presbyterian pastor, Clarence Edward Macartney, preached a sermon titled, “Shall Unbelief Win?”  Macartney said his “earnest hope that Dr. Fosdick will awaken to the inconsistency of his position and the non-Christianity of his views, and return, like many another wanderer, to the Cross of Christ.”

It’s a nice way of saying, “You are not a Christian, and you are going to Hell if you don’t repent.”  The New York Presbytery launched an investigation into Fosdick’s doctrinal views, and he resigned from Fifth Avenue Presbyterian in 1924. He was quickly called by Park Avenue Baptist Church, where John D. Rockefeller attended. Rockefeller and Fosdick became friends, and they met for walks on Mouse Island and Seal Harbor. On Mouse, they dreamed of a new church for modern Protestantism, and Roosevelt donated the funds to build the cathedral-like Riverside Church in New York City. At Riverside, Fosdick became one of the most influential preachers of the 20th century and wrote numerous books, and produced a national radio broadcast.

I have eight Harry Emerson Fosdick books on my shelf. My favorite book, from 1943, is titled “On Being a Real Person.”  Fosdick pays attention to how prayer and spirituality guide us through emotional turmoil. Chapter titles include “Shouldering Responsibility for Ourselves,” “Dealing with Fear and Anxiety,” and “The Principle of Self-Acceptance .”  Fosdick not only interacted with the emerging field of psychology but also enhanced the discussion. Almost 20 years later, Carl Rogers, who taught at the neighboring Columbia University, revolutionized the field of counseling with a book titled “On Becoming a Person.”  You must think these two great thinkers had lunch at some point!

To better understand the context of Fosdick’s sermon, it’s helpful to list what Fundamentalist religion believes. The list of five fundamentals first emerged between 1910 and 1920.

There are four most agree upon:

1.     The most important doctrine is biblical literalism. The Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit to the point of being dictated, and therefore scripture is infallible on all matters, including morality, science, and history. (Remember that only three years after Fosdick’s sermon, the Scopes trial about teaching evolution in public school riveted the nation.)

2.     The Virgin Birth of Jesus – (Fosdick doesn’t say this is a wrong belief, but rather this is how ancient people thought about great leaders. Those who shaped history were divinely born, like Caesar Augustus, Plato, the Buddha, and Mohammad. Fosdick believed we could call Jesus savior, with or without a virgin birth.

3.     The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus

4.     The Substitutionary blood atonement for our sins on the cross. (This is a particular view of what the cross means. God was angry at our sin, and only blood sacrifice would satisfy God’s wrath. And only God’s son was worthy to die for our sins and be sacrificed. In seminary I learned this was one of 14 ways of thinking about what the cross means. I believe Jesus went to the cross not to satisfy God’s anger but to demonstrate God’s love. In Christ, Jesus fully identified with human suffering. He acted in deep solidarity with us so that we may know God’s love is always with us, even when we suffer. If all that makes your head spin, that is why Fosdick said don’t purge each other from church over these doctrines. Reflect and listen!

5.     Some say the fifth fundamental is the historical reality of miracles in the Bible, and others add the deity of Jesus as the second person of the Trinity. Others believe in different versions of the apocalyptic coming again of Christ and a fiery end times. Fundamentalists aren’t always unified in doctrine and are often divided.

I believe Fosdick would probably be surprised that Fundamentalism has grown rather than receded. Have we been too optimistic about progress and our faith in science, reason, and technology to make a better world? Progress has increased the potential for both good and evil, and we must take this seriously. Modern Fundamentalism is less about theology and more about worldview.

The driving impulse of Fundamentalism is to find a truth that is solid in a rapidly changing world, and the literal reading of scripture has been that grounding. (Of course, not every scripture is taken literally. I seldom hear “Go sell all you have and give it to the poor,” for example.)  In the last century, Fundamentalist thinking has spread to most religions; indeed, Islamic Fundamentalism blasted into our awareness on 9/11. Some Jewish fundamentalists are settling as much land in Israel as they can. The current government in India promotes Hindu Fundamentalism. Various fundamentalists may not like each other, but they are remarkably similar across cultures and religions. They tend to reject modernity and desire to return to a prior golden age defined by literal readings of scripture. The common thread between fundamentalists from Protestants, Russian Orthodox, and Shia Islam is a world view that God has ordained how the world is to be. Men are the head of the household; gay people are sinful and firm boundaries against outsiders. God has ordered the way the world is, and if you deviate, you are disobedient and chaotic and must be punished.

This usually leads to a desire for theocracy, which authoritarian leaders exploit, in diverse nations like Russia, India, Afghanistan,  and Hungary. Fundamentalism is the most potent global religious and political movement today.

What would Fosdick call us to do 100 years later? Given the end of his sermon, Fosdick was concerned that the church would exhaust itself fighting over theological issues less important than the crisis the world was facing. Fosdick wrote before the atomic bomb and climate change, so the stakes feel even higher now. Fosdick believed in the Social Gospel, and the church should address issues like racism, rights, and inequality. He took social stands, but most of his writing was about prayer, faith, and finding God. Fosdick appreciated the balance of pursuing the inward journey of the soul towards God. I think Fosdick would urge us to focus on aligning our inward journey towards God and our outward journey of concerns about social issues.

I agree with Fosdick’s appeal for an intellectually hospitable, tolerant, and liberty-loving church. So how do we get there?In the United Church of Christ and Congregationalism, we have three beliefs that help us move towards being the kind of church Fosdick desired.

First, the UCC looks at theology that values tradition and allows for growth and change. In founding UCC documents, it states creeds are testimonies, not tests of faith. We did not ask our new members to confess the Nicene Creed, Apostles Creed, or anything theological litmus test to join. If we were Lutherans or Episcopalians, we would ask new members and confirmands to study the creeds and affirm their beliefs before they could join. That does not mean we dismiss the historic faith as irrelevant. They are testimonies. I believe the Nicene creed was a thoughtful exercise to make Christianity intelligible to the Greek philosophy of the fourth century. It was possibly the work of the Holy Spirit in that time and place. The creeds can deepen our faith, but if they are litmus tests, they become limits to faith, even limits put upon God. This is what Fosdick meant by “progressive revelation.”  God’s truth is revealed over time and is a living, breathing process that each generation must renew. As a later Riverside Church preacher, William Sloan Coffin, said, “Doctrine is a signpost that points the direction, but love is the hitching post.”  To me, any Christian creed that does not mention “Love your neighbor,” cannot be our standard.

Instead of being held together by creeds, congregationalism is held together by covenant. This is a very Old Testament idea. The 10 commandments were a covenant between God and the people about how they were to act as a community. The earliest Salem Covenant in 1629 simply stated, “We do bind ourselves together to act in all of God’s ways.”  That’s it. Those words are in our BBH early church documents, and they are in our new member ceremony. It is more a promise on how we are going to be together than a doctrinal statement.

The third important pillar of congregationalism is our belief that the truth is to be discovered through sacred conversation within the local church. This is where we get our name as congregationalists. We are named by our belief that the best way to discern the truth of God is to gather and listen to each other. We look to scripture, pray, engage in dialog, and come to a consensus. And sometimes we don’t. It can be messy and time-consuming, even contentious. But it brings the search for truth and God right down among all the people; not a Pope, not a group of academics, not five or ten black and white fundamentals. It is a process. This is why we say, “God is still speaking.”  We don’t believe God said everything needed while Paul and the Apostles walked on this earth. Nor was God finished at the Apostles Creed, or the Protestant Reformation. We listen, but it is on us now. The church is your work.

As Fosdick wrote in his well known hymn:

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,

For the facing of this hour.

Thanks to Diana Butler Bass for this wonderful sermon idea. You can read more on her Substack blog here:

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