The 1920's in America was a decade of turbulence. During that period several facets of American society such as politics, education, culture and religion went through a period of rapid change which saw many hallowed traditions and customs challenged. One of the most affected areas of American society, during .the twenties, was religion. It was during that period that the fundamentalist-modernist controversy took place. The two protagonists were the fundamentalists, who organized to maintain and defend traditional Christian orthodoxy, and the modernists, who drew from the heritage of European and American liberal Protestantism and insisted upon reinterpreting Christianity in order to reconcile it to the extensive scientific and social developments which American society had undergone in the early twentieth century.
The "Fosdick Controversy" and the wider fundamentalist-modernist controversy took place simultaneously and both contested over many of the same issues such as the authority of the Bible, doctrinal questions, and the theory of evolution. It is the smaller Fosdick Controversy with which this thesis deals and in which the Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick emerged as the leading figure.
It would be well to give a brief summary of the main events in the controversy. Beginning in his college years Fosdick began to question orthodox Christianity and his theological education at Colgate and Union Theological Seminaries provided the environment of liberal Christianity. By 1918 Fosdick had become a popular preacher as well as an author of religious books. In that year the First Presbyterian Church of New York City invited Fosdick, an ordained Baptist, to become its minister. After much hesitation Fosdick accepted the invitation and began his ministry at the First Church.
As the fundamentalist-modernist controversy began to emerge in the twenties Fosdick preached a sermon at the First Church (on May 21, 1922) entitled "Shall The fundamentalists Win?" in which he outlined the major differences which existed between conservative and liberal protestants in America. After citing those differences he asked for an inclusive church that would tolerate varying theological points of view and thus avoid much contention within the church. However, instead of bringing harmony, the sermon provoked a long and bitter controversy within the Presbyterian Church.
The fundamentalists immediately responded to the sermon of May, 1922 by calling for Fosdick's ouster and by labeling him as a destroyer of evangelical Christianity. Fundamentalists insisted that in effect Fosdick's sermon had been a challenge to battle and thus they began a crusade to eliminate him from the pulpit of the First Church. It became evident that a major conflict had developed in the Presbyterian Church and in 1923 the General Assembly made the decision that Fosdick should be silenced and corrected. The modernists in the church Complained bitterly and protested the Assembly's action. It was in the General Assembly of 1924 that the heated conflict concerning Fosdick came to a head. After much deliberation it was decided that it would be impossible for him to subscribe to the Presbyterian creed and thus, for the second and final time, resigned as the associate minister of the First Church.
The controversy over Fosdick's position in the church lasted for almost three years. During that time it became evident that Fosdick had become the representative of religious modernism and the fundamentalists treated accordingly. The conflict provoked anger and excess and witnessed much vindictiveness by the fundamentalists who went beyond questioning Fosdick's theology and proceeded to attack his character and integrity.
This thesis develops the argument that the fundamentalists overreacted to Fosdick's modernism and thus were largely responsible for causing an extended controversy which, when considered as a whole, was detrimental to the church. However, going beyond the conduct of either side, this thesis argues that the Fosdick's Controversy was significant in that it exposed and brought into focus the differences that had long-since existed between conservative and liberal protestants in America.
The writer of this thesis contends that the Fosdick Controversy is important, and a study of it is justified, for the following reasons. Firstly, the controversy has gotten a disproportionate amount of attention considering the extensive publicity which it received. Secondly, the conflict was a significant part of the larger fundamentalist-modernist controversy ranking only below the Scopes trial in importance. Thirdly, the controversy was an important incident in the recent history of the Presbyterian Church for it not only marked the turning point in that denomination's gradual shift toward a more liberal theology but also sparked a greater degree of social concern within the church. Fourthly, the controversy witnessed the involvement of such important figures as John Foster Dulles, and importantly, William Jennings Bryan. And finally, the Fosdick Controversy can be seen as a microcosmic manifestation of the turbulent state not only of religion during the twenties but also of the society in which it developed.
Godfrey T. Anderson
Walter C. Mackett
Alonzo L. Baker
Master of Arts (MA)
Year Degree Awarded
Date (Title Page)
Library of Congress/MESH Subject Headings
Fosdick; Harry Emerson; 1878-1969; Modernist-fundamentalist controversy
Loma Linda University Libraries
This title appears here courtesy of the author, who has granted Loma Linda University a limited, non-exclusive right to make this publication available to the public. The author retains all other copyrights.
Vences, Harold H., "The Controversy Surrounding the Ministry of Harry Emerson Fosdick in the First Presbyterian Church of New York City, 1922-1925" (1972). Loma Linda University Electronic Theses, Dissertations & Projects. 741.
Loma Linda University Electronic Theses and Dissertations
Loma Linda University. Del E. Webb Memorial Library. University Archives