Ashamed Not To Be a Heretic: Harry Emerson Fordick

June 13, 2012

Reading the newspaper this morning, I came across this quotation from Harry Emerson Fosdick: “I should be ashamed to live in this generation and not be a heretic.”  That sentence, I learned later, is from the final sermon he preached at First Presbyterian Church in New York City, in March 1925.  The whole quotation is worth noting: “They call me a heretic. Well, I am a heretic if conventional orthodoxy is the standard. I should be ashamed to live in this generation and not be a heretic.”

Fosdick was giving his final sermon at First Presbyterian.  He had been forced from that pulpit because the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, at the urging of fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan, adopted a resolution asking the Presbytery of New York to take such action “as will require the preaching and teaching in the First Presbyterian Church of New York City to conform to the system of doctrines taught in the Confession of Faith.”

(That account comes from a remembrance of Fosdick on the centennial of his birth, Dean William Ferne, “The Living of These Days: A Tribute to Harry Emerson Fosdick,” Christian Century, May 3, 1978, pp. 472-474.)

The First Presbyterian Church in New York City did not want Fosdick removed.  Indeed, each Sunday the church was swelled with people who came to hear him preach.  After his removal from First Presbyterian, Fosdick moved to Riverside Church in New York City, a church whose building John D. Rockefeller largely financed to provide a pulpit for Fosdick once the Presbyterians had cast him out.

What provoked William Jennings Bryan and the Presbyterian fundamentalists to chase Harry Emerson Fosdick out of First Presbyterian was a sermon Fosdick delivered in 1922 called “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”

In this controversy I suppose we should say the fundamentalists did win, if winning was expelling Fosdick.  But of course thousands continued to hear Fosdick at Riverside Church and millions read his books.

Does all this sound familiar in Indiana Yearly Meeting today?  Ninety years later we appear to be struggling over the same issues.  Can some members insist that others toe the line of orthodoxy or hit the road?  Is the question of whether homosexuality is a sin a matter that should tear apart a worship community?

Here is a bit of Fosdick from “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”

“Has intolerance any contribution to make to this situation? Will it persuade anybody of anything? Is not the Christian Church large enough to hold within her hospitable fellowship people who differ on points like this and agree to differ until the fuller truth be manifested? The Fundamentalists say not. They say the liberals must go. Well, if the Fundamentalists should succeed, then out of the Christian Church would go some of the best Christian life and consecration of this generation—multitudes of men and women, devout and reverent Christians, who need the church and whom the church needs.”

And, said Fosdick in his autobiography, The Living of These Days (New York: Harper, 1956), “If the day ever comes when men care so little for the basic Christian experiences and revelations of truth that they cease trying to rethink them in more adequate terms, see them in the light of freshly acquired knowledge, and interpret them anew for new days, then Christianity will be finished.”

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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