HARRY EMERSON FOSDICK Biography - Religious Figures & Icons


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Name: Harry Emerson Fosdick                                                         
Born: 24 May 1878 in Buffalo, New York United States                                 
Died: 5 October 1969 in Bronxville, New York                                         
Harry Emerson Fosdick (May 24, 1878-October 5, 1969) was an American clergyman.     
He was born in Buffalo, New York. He graduated from Colgate University in 1900,     
and Union Theological Seminary in 1904. While attending Colgate University he       
joined the Delta Upsilon Fraternity. He was ordained a Baptist minister in 1903.     
Fosdick was the most prominent liberal Baptist minister of the early 20th           
Century. Although a Baptist, he was Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church on       
West Twelfth Street and then at the historic, interdenominational Riverside         
Church (the congregation moved from the then-named Park Avenue Baptist Church,       
now the Central Presbyterian Church) in New York City.                               
Fosdick became a central figure in the conflict between fundamentalist and           
liberal forces within American Protestantism in the 1920s and 1930s. While at       
First Presbyterian Church, on May 21, 1922, he delivered his famous sermon Shall     
the Fundamentalists Win?, in which he defended the modernist position. In that       
sermon, he presented the Bible as a record of the unfolding of God's will, not       
as the literal Word of God. He saw the history of Christianity as one of             
development, progress, and gradual change. To the fundamentalists, this was rank     
apostasy, and the battle lines were drawn.                                           
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. (Northern) in 1923           
charged his local presbytery to conduct an investigation of his views. A             
commission began an investigation, as required. His defense was conducted by a       
lay elder, John Foster Dulles, whose father was a well-known liberal                 
Presbyterian seminary professor. Fosdick escaped probable censure at a formal       
trial by the 1924 General Assembly by resigning from the pulpit in 1924. He was     
immediately hired as pastor of a Baptist church whose most famous member was         
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who then funded the Riverside Church in Manhattan's       
Morningside Heights area overlooking the Hudson River, where Fosdick became         
pastor as soon as the doors opened in October 1930, prompting a Time magazine       
cover story on October 6, 1930 (pictured). In it, Time said that Fosdick "proposes   
to give this educated community a place of greatest beauty for worship. He also     
proposes to serve the social needs of the somewhat lonely metropolite. Hence on     
a vast scale he has built all the accessories of a community church gymnasium,       
assembly room for theatricals, dining rooms, etc...In ten stories of the 22-story   
belltower are classrooms for the religious and social training of the young...".     
Fosdick's brother Raymond ran the Rockefeller Foundation for three decades,         
beginning in 1921. Rockefeller had funded the nation-wide distribution of Shall     
the Fundamentalists Win?, although with a more cautious title, The New Knowledge     
and the Christian Faith. This direct-mail project was designed by Ivy Lee, who       
had worked since 1914 as an independent contractor in public relations for the       
Fosdick was an outspoken opponent of racism and injustice. Fosdick also             
supported appeasement of Hitler and argued "moral equivalence", i.e. that the       
democracies were largely to blame for the rise of fascism:                           
"The all but unanimous judgment seems to be that we, the democracies, are just       
as responsible for the rise of the dictators as the dictatorships themselves,       
and perhaps more so."                                                               
Harry Emerson Fosdick on the cover of Time magazine (1930).                         
Fosdick's sermons won him wide recognition, as did his radio addresses which         
were nationally broadcast. He authored numerous books, and many of his sermon       
collections are still in print. He is also the author of the hymn, "God of Grace     
and God of Glory".                                                                   
Fosdick's book A Guide to Understanding the Bible traces the beliefs of the         
people who wrote the Bible, from the ancient beliefs of the Hebrews, which he       
regarded as practically pagan, to the faith and hopes of the New Testament           
His brother, Raymond Fosdick, was essentially in charge of philanthropy for John     
D. Rockefeller, Jr.                                                                 
Fosdick had a daughter, Dorothy Fosdick, who was foreign policy adviser to Henry     
M. Jackson.                                                                         
He was the nephew of Charles Austin Fosdick, a popular author of adventure books     
for boys who wrote under the pen name Harry Castlemon.                               
Fosdick reviewed the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939, giving it       
his approval. AA members continue to point to this review as significant in the     
development of the AA movement.