Jerry Earl Johnston: Fosdick's 'fundamental' thinking still timely today

Published: Friday, May 20 2011 6:53 p.m. MDT

Next week marks the birthday of one of the most influential preachers in American history. His name was seldom up in lights, like the names of Billy Graham, Billy Sunday or Oral Roberts. His preaching style was never "Holy Joe" — flamboyant, loud and theatrical.

But Harry Emerson Fosdick had a deep influence on all those who followed in his wake. Some call him the most important Christian thinker of the first half of the 20th century.

Eugene Peterson, one of the most celebrated Christian writers of our time, once looked Fosdick up in the New York phone book and paid him a visit. Peterson left the meeting a different man, his goals for his ministry different goals.

I still see Fosdick's quotes in books here and there:

"A person wrapped up in himself makes a small package."

Or:

"Liberty is always dangerous, but it is the safest thing we have."

But his real calling card was his sermons.

Fosdick never had much use for hard-shell, Christian fundamentalists. He found them to be intolerant and short-sighted. His view of Christianity was one of progress. He felt that truth came to people a little at a time. He felt the faith was still developing, still growing, still making its slow way to perfection.

That point of view earned him the nickname of "The Jesse James of Faith" and cost him his job at one New York pulpit.

Not long ago, the American Library published a collection of what it considered the greatest sermons delivered in America (Joseph Smith's "King Follett Discourse" is in there). And while looking for Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Divinity School Address," I came upon Fosdick's sermon "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?"

Here are a few passages:

"We should not identify the Fundamentalists with the conservatives. All Fundamentalists are conservatives, but not all conservatives are Fundamentalists. The best conservatives can often give lessons to the liberals in true liberality of spirit, but the Fundamentalist program is essentially illiberal and intolerant. ... "My friends, nothing in all the world is so much worth thinking of as God, Christ, the Bible, sin and salvation, the divine purposes for humankind, life everlasting. ... (What) is needed, if we are to reach a happy solution of this problem, is a clear insight into the main issues of modern Christianity and a sense of penitent shame that the Christian Church should be quarreling over little matters when the world is dying of great needs."

Later, the title of the sermon would be softened, but the pointed jabs in it would not. And Fosdick's opinion cost him dearly. Some saw him as the anti-Christ.

Fosdick died in 1969 at the age of 91. He out-lived most of his critics.

I was 20 years old at the time.

Looking back, I wish I'd shown Eugene Peterson's presence of mind, taken a trip and paid him a visit.

EMAIL: jerjohn@desnews.com

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