On May 21, 1922 – 100 years ago today – a minister noted for exceptional eloquence ascended the steps into the pulpit to deliver his message. His name was Harry Emerson Fosdick. Though Fosdick was a Baptist, he had for several years served as pastor of the historic First Presbyterian Church in New York City. On this particular Sunday, Fosdick fired a shot that has reverberated for generations. His sermon title: Shall the Fundamentalists Win? And in this message, Fosdick winsomely and systematically hammered away at nearly every distinctly Christian doctrine, musing aloud why Christians must hold to such ideas as the Trinity, the Virgin Birth of Christ, Jesus bodily resurrection, etc. To Fosdick’s mind, those so-called Fundamentalists were too rigid and narrow minded. He proposed that the Church should make room for both those who held to these historic and fundamental doctrines, and for those who held to a more evolved “liberal” or “modernist” view.
It is important to understand that the word “Fundamentalist” had a different connotation then than it does today. In those days of the early 20th Century, a “Fundamentalist” was essentially anyone who held to the fundamental doctrines historically held by Christians of all orthodox traditions. The idea of separation from the world and from anyone who associated with the “worldly”; the prohibitions against dance, drink, card playing, etc. that are most commonly associate with Fundamentalist Christianity today had yet to develop, at least it had not so developed to the degree that these were universally considered distinguishing marks, as they have been since the middle of the 20th Century.
But Fosdick’s message caused quite the stir. It is considered, by some, to have been the beginning of the Modernist vs Fundamentalist Divide that still exists to this day between Mainline and Evangelical Christians, though the roots of the theological liberalism that Fosdick espoused had been growing increasingly evident for years before this landmark message.
On this 100th year anniversary of Fosdick’s message, The Gospel Coalition has published a series of articles, both revisiting Fosdick and his message and exploring the effects still felt today:
- The Sermon That Divided America by Obbie Tyler Todd
- Did the Fundamentalists Win? by Thomas Kidd
- Liberalism Is (Still) a Threat to Fundamentalism by Kevin DeYoung
In addition to the articles in TGC, Reformed Faith & Practice, the journal of Reformed Theological Seminary, (the seminary from which I earned my Master of Divinity,) has dedicated the present issue, Volume 7.1, to explore the origins and continuing impact of the Fundamentalist vs Liberal debate and divide. There are ten excellent articles, reflecting both historic and theological perspectives.
Finally, for those interested in this subject, I commend the audio book of J. Gresham Machen’s classic Christianity & Liberalism, published in 1923, in the wake of this debate. The audio book has 7 chapters, and is found on YouTube: Christianity & Liberalism.