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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 212

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This is the grave of Harry Emerson Fosdick.

Born in Buffalo in 1878, Fosdick graduated from Colgate in 1900 and then from Union Theological Seminary in 1904. He was a Baptist and got his first parish in Manhattan in 1903. He only stayed there a year before leaving for a church in Montclair, New Jersey, where he remained until 1915. He was a big booster of World War I, a fact he later regretted very much, and volunteered as an Army chaplain in France. During this period, he converted to Presbyterianism. He also became a staunch liberal. Now, we don’t think much about liberal Protestantism in terms of our larger religious life. LGM readers may be an exception, as I assume many commenters are liberal Protestants. But they are mostly erased or marginalized in our larger national conversation on religion, which is dominated primarily by white evangelicalism and Catholicism, with some attention paid to the black churches, to Islam, and to Judaism. Liberal white Protestants? Who are they?

Of course, the United States has a long tradition of liberal white Protestantism and Harry Emerson Fosdick became its greatest champion. This is really important. In the 1920s, the Scopes Trial made famous the evangelical case against evolutionary theory, which was of course absurd and which discredited evangelicalism in respectable circles for a long time, but which also was actually very powerful and has taken over much about our public conversation about Protestantism. But it’s also very much worth remembering that the religious response to Darwin and further research on evolution was quite varied. For liberals such as Fosdick, what this meant was that humans had advanced far enough that God was now revealing his true methods to us. The creation story was a metaphor for simple people. Humans had now advanced far enough that in God’s eyes, we had earned the right to know more of His ways. In 1922, Fosdick delivered his most famous sermon on these lines, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Here, Fosdick laid out his ideas of the Bible as metaphor and as God’s will as opposed to the Word of God.

This of course got him in big trouble with the Presbyterian Church, which in the end is still a descendant of Puritanism. John Foster Dulles, whose father was a liberal Presbyterian minister, conducted his defense but Fosdick resigned in 1924 when it looked like he would lose anyway. He sort of switched back to the Baptists and John D. Rockefeller Jr. funded a technically nondenominational church for Fosdick, the famed Riverside Church in Manhattan. Here, Fosdick pushed his consistently politically and theologically liberal views, helped out in no small part by his wealthy parishioners. He took on racism directly, doing what he could to help out the Scottsboro Boys, for instance. And it made a difference. Rudy Bates, one of the women who accused those young men of rape, recanted her testimony and credited Fosdick for convincing her to do so. He was arguably the most famous minister of his day, with his sermons broadcast live on national radio and an appearance on the cover of Time in 1925. Fosdick published many, many books, beginning with The Second Mile in 1908 and continuing until The Secret of Victorious Living in 1966.

Fosdick was also a major peace activist, trying to expunge the guilt of his support for World War I. He became committed to peace in the 1920s, lobbied for the U.S. to join the World Court, and was a big supporter of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, outlawing war, in 1928. One of his most famous sermons came in 1933, when he delivered “The Unknown Soldier,” expounding on the horrors of war and vowing to never support another armed conflict. Obviously that got complicated as World War II began. He hated the Nazis and criticized them repeatedly. But he opposed armed conflict. America First wanted him on their board. He wasn’t having any of that fascist-lite stuff.

Fosdick was also central to creating Alcoholics Anonymous. The AA pledge is pretty eyeroling today and secularists and atheists hate it, but AA has probably saved a whole heck of a lot of lives over the decades. Fosdick reviewed the first edition of the AA book in 1939, giving it the publicity it needed to survive and prosper. Fosdick later took up the cause of the Palestinians, when the nation of Israel was created and an apartheid state resulted that unjustly recreated the conditions Jews had fled in Europe on the people whose lands were stolen. He was a founder of the Committee for Justice and Peace in the Holy Land, which lobbied in opposition to the creation of Israel as a Jewish state and an active member of the American Friends of the Middle East, the pro-Palestinian organization that formed in 1951. Fosdick also had close ties to Jewish congregations in the United States and spoke to the American Jewish Congress frequently, especially during the 1930s, as well as at anti-Nazi rallies at conferences at their invite. He retired from Riverside Church in 1946, but remained active for the rest of his long life. He continued with his pacifism, stridently opposing the peacetime draft while also opposing the Stalinist occupation of eastern Europe. Under his influence, Riverside Church would be a site where activists could feel comfortable and where big civil rights gatherings would take place. At the end of his life, Fosdick notably called the Vietnam War, “one of the most tragic and deplorable mistakes in American history.”

Fosdick remains hated among evangelicals today. In fact, a large percentage of Google hits that come up on Fosdick are from evangelicals trying to discredit him.

Harry Emerson Fosdick died in 1969. He is buried in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York.

If you want this series to profile more figures from the history of American religion, you can donate to cover the required travel here. I’m sure a visit to see Aimee Semple McPherson or Walter Rauschenbusch would be exciting. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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