Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969), a major icon of American Protestant liberalism, was a phenomenon. At the age of seven, he underwent an evangelical conversion experience, was baptized by immersion, and pledged himself to be a Christian missionary. He later said that he was “predestined to religion” from the beginning—this despite the fact that his entire adult life can be read as a revolt against the doctrine of predestination and the related teachings of creedal Christianity. He once boasted that he had never repeated the Apostles’ Creed. Fosdick was happy for certain doctrines, such as the virgin birth and substitutionary atonement of Christ to be, as Schleiemacher had put it, “entrusted to history for safekeeping,” which is another way of saying consigned to irrelevance.
Albert C. Outler once said that the story of Fosdick’s life was the biopsy of an epoch. It is certainly true that Fosdick cut a swath across the twentieth century, including both world wars and the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in between. By the 1920s, Fosdick had emerged as the major Progressive voice in the American Protestant pulpit. Millions were listening to his voice each week on the “National Vespers Hour,” and thousands were crowding to hear him speak. In 1924, a newspaper carried the headline: “Crowd Smashed Door: Near Riot to Hear Fosdick.” In response to such outpourings, John D. Rockefeller spent four million dollars to construct the Gothic Riverside Church as a marquee preaching venue for Fosdick. Fosdick was pastor of Riverside from its opening in 1930 until his retirement in 1946. Long before Norman Vincent Peale had developed his own distinctive brand of therapeutic preaching, Fosdick perfected his pulpit performance, a style of preaching defined as “personal counseling on a group scale.”
During his heyday, Fosdick did not lack for conservative critics. In 1936, the Pentecostal Publishing Company in Louisville published a scathing critique by Henry Clay Morrison, noted evangelist and founder of Asbury Theological Seminary, titled simply Follies of Fosdick. Acknowledging Fosdick’s wit, brilliance, and humor, Morrison questioned the biblical skepticism of “the doubting Doctor.” Even earlier, J. Gresham Machen had published both The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930) and his programmatic Christianity and Liberalism (1923), while glimpsing Fosdick in the rearview mirror, so to speak. “The question is not,” Machen asked, “whether Mr. Fosdick is winning men, but whether the thing to which he is winning them is Christianity.”
Fosdick, of course, saw himself as a champion not only of Christianity but of the best kind of Christianity, namely, the true Protestant faith of Luther and the other reformers. In 1952, he published Great Voices of the Reformation, a large anthology of major writers from John Wycliffe to John Wesley. Fosdick’s book cost five dollars, and it drew a review by Paul Ramsey in The New York Times. Long before the concept of a “long Reformation” had caught on among historians, Fosdick understood that the Reformation had a pre-history, and that it had not ended with Luther’s death in 1546 or Calvin’s in 1564. The usual worthies are represented in Fosdick’s collection, including Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox and Hooker. But so are two Quakers, George Fox and John Woolman. There are also six documents from the Anabaptist tradition. In the epilogue to this volume, Fosdick acknowledged that “denominational fission” was an unfortunate byproduct of the Reformation. But the impulse to divide was being overcome, he believed, by the engines of conciliar ecumenism extending from Protestant cooperation toward Protestant unity. The Catholic Church does not find a place in Fosdick’s narration of the Reformation.
The year 1952 may well have been the high-water mark of mainline Protestantism. As Fosdick’s biographer Robert Moats Miller put it: “It was a time when the nation was being washed by a torrential surge of piety.” The World Council of Churches had been established in 1948. In the Eisenhower era, the Protestant churches of America were full and the coffers fuller. The so-called fuddy-mentalists had not yet recovered from their losses during the decades following the Scopes Trial. In this moment, Fosdick encouraged his fellow liberal Protestants to face the future with ebullient optimism. The basic principles of Protestantism, he claimed, are the right of private judgment, freedom to differ, liberty to experiment and pioneer in new directions, and independence in discovering new truths. So long as these progressive principles are not breached, Fosdick predicted,
Protestantism … can never become rigid, cast into a permanent mold, static and stationary. It is not bound by its own past infallible decrees. It can face new truth, accept new light, adjust itself to new knowledge and new situations. The Protestant Reformation is still young … forward-reaching, independent, adventurous, and prophetic of a progressive future.
Fosdick then closes his Reformation anthology by quoting John Robinson’s famous Farewell Speech to the departing Pilgrims in 1620. On that occasion, Robinson is said to have declared: “The Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of his Holy Word.”
Fosdick is by no means the first person to co-opt Robinson’s address in support of an ideology far removed from its original Reformational and Puritan context. Robinson has often been extolled as a champion of conscience in the tradition of Socrates, Jesus, and Martin Luther—“One man standing before the whole world of ecclesiastical and imperial power.” Others have found Robinson even anticipating Rousseau’s view of representative government, the Declaration of Independence, and the speeches of Franklin D. Roosevelt! Thus Fosdick was in good company when he seized upon the “more truth and light” quotation as prophetic of his own special insights.
Fosdick’s construal of the Reformation will resonate with those who think that individualism is at the heart of the Protestant faith. But at the Diet of Worms, Luther did not extol his autonomous conscience. He did not say, “Here I stand—alone!” He said rather, “Here I stand. My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” And Pastor Robinson did not anticipate “more truth and light” as a form of continuous revelation divorced from the inspired word of prophets and apostles.
What is chiefly missing in Fosdick’s brand of Reformation theology is a steady grasp of the Gospel and a robust doctrine of the church. Without these, the Reformation as a movement of spiritual and ecclesial renewal will not endure.
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.