Context: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Fosdick’s Sermon

Sean Michael Lucas
Chancellor's Professor of Church History
Reformed Theological Seminary

When Harry Emerson Fosdick stepped into the pulpit at First Presbyterian Church, New York City, on May 21, 1922, he undoubtedly reckoned that he was firing a broadside shot towards conservative religionists within the northern Baptist and Presbyterian denominations. After all, the Baptist preacher and homiletics professor knew that, in provocatively asking “shall the fundamentalists win,” he was building a case for them to be defeated. However, Fosdick probably did not reckon with how his sermon would serve as the point when, properly speaking, the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy reached its crisis moment. Perhaps it is only in retrospect that historians can see this was in fact the case.[1]

Stunningly, by 1925, the controversy would largely be over. Fundamentalists would be pilloried by the press, academia, and polite society over the Scopes Trial in Tennessee. In the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA), the denominational machinery would identify Princeton Seminary and, especially, one of its faculty members as the center of the unrest and begin to deal with that “problem.” And a year later, the Northern Baptist Convention failed to heed fundamentalists’ demands for doctrinal specificity and clarity. By the 1930s, several small fundamentalist denominations would split out of the two mainline bodies, but by all accounts, not only did the fundamentalists not win—as Fosdick wondered in 1922—but they were routed.

The Early Days of the Controversy

In the beginning days of the controversy, it did look as though the Fundamentalists would win. Though the northern Presbyterian church had embraced a limited revision of the Westminster Standards in 1903, conservatives had successfully forced Charles Briggs out of their denomination—though not out of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. A chief advocate for thorough confessional revision and professor of Old Testament at Union, Briggs drew furious conservative opposition to his understanding of the authority of Scripture. Briggs believed that the results of historical and scientific study, discovered by reason, were a second, and sometimes superior, source of authority that could supplement and correct Scripture. In fact, he taught, once believers gave up the idea that the Bible was the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God, they would come to see that the Bible was a (fallible) historical record of religious experience that mediated the same experience of God to those who encountered it. Conservatives were able to block Briggs’ appointment to a chair of biblical theology at Union Seminary, bring disciplinary charges against him, and eventually depose him from Presbyterian ministry. Further, conservatives used Briggs’ errors as the basis for the 1892 PCUSA General Assembly to declare as “fundamental doctrine…that the Old and New Testaments are the inspired and infallible Word of God. Our church holds that the inspired Word, as it came from God, is without error.” The net effect of this statement was to identify the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture as particularly contained in the ordination vows of elders and ministers. This “Portland Deliverance,” named after the city where the assembly was held, put the church on notice that Briggs’ errors would not be tolerated.[2]

This precedence of highlighting one doctrine as especially contained in one’s ordination vows began the process of identifying certain “fundamental” doctrines, which would give the movement its “fundamentalist” moniker. In the PCUSA, this process of identifying fundamental doctrines culminated in 1910. In response to the Presbytery of New York’s licensure of three men who denied the virgin birth, the General Assembly declared that one’s ordination vows committed oneself to belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Jesus, his substitutionary atonement and bodily resurrection, and the reality of supernatural miracles. These five “fundamentals” would be reaffirmed by the General Assembly in 1916 and 1923.

And these fundamentals would be picked up and championed across denominations through a series of booklets called “The Fundamentals.” Funded by erstwhile Presbyterians, Lyman and Milton Stewart, these twelve booklets published between 1910 and 1915 brought together a number of conservative pastors and scholars—with varying degrees of commonality—to defend a range of biblical truths that would come to represent mainstream evangelical theology in the twentieth century. These booklets served to highlight the transdenominational commitment to fundamental doctrines and to buttress those within the Presbyterian church in fighting for the faith. From the Briggs trial and from these repeated affirmations of basic biblical doctrines, it appeared that the fundamentalists were in fact winning.[3]

The Faith of Modernists

Appearances can be deceiving, though. After the 1892 General Assembly affirmed the inerrancy of the Bible and disciplined Briggs, the following year eighty-seven ministers and elders protested “the Portland Deliverance.” In 1894, the Presbyterian League of New York formed to advocate “a better declaration of the faith that it now possesses—if possible, in the form of a short and simple creed, expressed, as far as may be, in Scriptural language.” The League also longed for “the visible unity of the Church of Christ on earth,” which would be assisted undoubtedly by confessional revision and restatement. These three issues—the nature and authority of Scripture; the desire for confessional revision or even more a brief Christian creed; and ecclesial union—would be drivers for the developing controversy.[4]

For those who came to be known as modernists, creeds represented only the highest wisdom of a given time and place. The upshot was that when a later time and place arrived, that generation might have a different perspective or greater wisdom that would allow for a revision of the creed to better reflect the religious experience of the moment. Such a view of creeds had its roots in the thought the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. In his effort to appeal to religion’s cultured despisers, Schleiermacher held that when human beings experienced an absolute sense of dependence upon another, that was equivalent to being-in-relation with God. This central experience was what was fundamental about religion; theology was second-order reflection upon this first order religious experience. As a result, theology may shift and change over time as it struggled to account for the individual’s God-consciousness. As Schleiermacher’s views came to America, mediated especially by Romantic exemplar Samuel Taylor Coleridge, they found a ready exponent in Horace Bushnell. The Hartford, Connecticut, pastor argued that Christianity as given by Christ was pure experience and life; it was later corrupted by theology, which systematized experience into thought forms that were inadequate to represent it. While Bushnell would not abandon theology, he wanted to put it in its proper place: a second-order reflection on first-order religious experience. If Christians would see theology in its proper light, he declared, then they would be able to move beyond their distinctive creeds and confessional positions toward a Christian comprehensiveness rooted in a shared experience of Christ.[5]

As modernism took shape in the early decades of the twentieth century, it forthrightly embraced its experiential, non-doctrinal basis. For example, the dean of Chicago Divinity School, Shailer Mathews observed in his book, The Faith of Modernism, that modernism is a set of attitudes, not doctrines. “If the temptation of the dogmatic mind is toward inflexible formula, that of the Modernist is toward indifference in formula,” Mathews averred. If there were a “doctrinal” center for the Modernist, it was a confidence that “[Jesus’s] life and teachings reveal the divine purpose in humanity and therefore it is practicable to organize life upon his revelation of good will.” Human beings are fundamentally good; God’s Spirit is present in all humans of good will; and what was necessary was to experience the love of God in Jesus Christ and to move forward with the example of Jesus to do his work in the world. Since Christianity is bound together by a shared attitude and experience, not by shared doctrine, it made sense to modernists to work toward an ecclesial union that would set aside unnecessary distinctions and differences and allow Christian churches to bring as many as possible into the ineffable experience they offered. Such an experience would then equip people to live ethical lives that would bring the Kingdom of God to America.[6]

Perhaps the blasé attitude toward creedal difference was what led the session of First Presbyterian Church, New York City, to call Harry Fosdick to serve as stated supply of their church. After all, Fosdick was a well-known Baptist pastor and Union Seminary professor; yet his doctrinal differences with the Westminster Standards did not seem to matter when he began preaching at the church in 1919. In some ways, Fosdick represented the modernist ideal: a union of denominations based on a shared religious experience to rescue America from itself.

Unionism and Division

What Fosdick represented was being sought by many leaders within the Presbyterian church. In 1918, the PCUSA General Assembly formed a Committee on Church Cooperation and Union, which sought not only potential unions with other Presbyterian denominations, but the forging of a “united church of Christ in America.” When the doctrinal basis of the proposed church union was shared with the 1920 PCUSA General Assembly, several leaders, including Princeton professor J. Gresham Machen, protested the non-doctrinal basis of the church union. In fact, Machen observed that the failure of the proposed plan of union to take doctrine seriously represented “a denial of the Christian faith” all together. Such a denial was the offspring of “that naturalistic liberalism which is the chief enemy of Christianity in the modern world,” he held.[7]

In the end, the attempts to forge a single united church of Christ failed in the United States for the time being—though it would succeed in 1925 in Canada through the creation of the United Church of Christ in Canada. Yet men like Machen in the Presbyterian church, along with William Bell Riley among the Baptists, would constantly and consistently decry the denigration of doctrine in the effort to merge churches and do away with Christian distinctives. Perhaps the highpoint of this defense of doctrinal Christianity was Machen’s 1923 manifesto, Christianity and Liberalism. Representing the premier conservative scholarly defense of the faith, Machen arraigned liberalism against the standard of Christian orthodoxy, summarized in all its great creeds and especially in the Westminster Standards. For Machen, the key difference between theological modernism and historic Christianity was that historic Christianity asserted the logical priority of doctrine over experience. Presbyterians needed to stand on this point: that Christianity was a way of life based on doctrine.

However, within the PCUSA, this message of doctrinal particularity—which seemed to be what the denomination itself stood for in its “five fundamentals” affirmed the same year that Machen’s classic work was published—would receive a major pushback. On January 9, 1924, the Auburn Affirmation was released. Signed initially by 150 ministers (but ultimately signed by 1300 ministers and elders), the Auburn Affirmation defended the freedom of liberal Presbyterians to teach other interpretations of doctrines such as “the inspiration of the Bible, the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection, and the continuing life and supernatural power of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, the affirmation stood exactly on the territory that Fosdick staked out in his infamous sermon eighteen months prior.

When the 1924 General Assembly failed to discipline those who signed the affirmation and failed to deal with ministers who denied the virgin birth of Jesus, conservatives had to know that they already lost the controversy. By the following year, modernists and their moderate allies, determined to bring the unrest in the church to an end, sought to reign in Machen and his fellow conservatives within the Presbyterian church. And though the dénouement would take several years, division within the PCUSA would finally come in 1936 when the PCUSA deposed Machen from its ministry and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was formed. Among Baptists, there would be small secessions in 1932 and 1946 that produced more conservative bodies, the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches and the Conservative Baptist Association.[8]

Thus, the great irony of Fosdick’s sermon was that his central concern in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy happened, but not in the way he feared. His key troubling question was, “Has anybody a right to deny the Christian name to those who differ with him on such points and to shut against them the doors of the Christian fellowship?” In the end, because the fundamentalists lost, they ended up forfeiting their places in the Christian fellowships to which they once belonged. The doors would be shut for a generation, and even today there is question whether those who differ with mainstream Protestant leaders have a right to the Christian name. And this was all because the modernists won.

[1] Among the standard histories of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, see George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 3rd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022); Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); and Bradley J. Gundlach, “The Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy,” in The Oxford Handbook of Presbyterianism, ed., Gary Scott Smith and P. C. Kemeny (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 97-116.

[2] For solid treatments of the Briggs Controversy, see Mark S. Massa, Charles Augustus Briggs and the Crisis of Historical Criticism (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 85-109; Loetscher, The Broadening Church: A Study of Theological Issues in the Presbyterian Church Since 1969 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954), 47-62; Longfield, Presbyterian Controversy, 23-25; Minutes of the General Assembly of the PCUSA (1892): 179-180.

[3] R. A. Torry and A. C. Dixon, eds., The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth ([1917] Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).

[4] “The Presbyterian League,” The Outlook (16 June 1894): 1113-1114; Loetscher, Broadening Church, 68-69.

[5] For convenient summaries upon which this paragraph draws, see Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, Twentieth-Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1992), 39-51, and E. Brooks Holifield, Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 452-466. The best history of modernism remains William R. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism ([1976] Durham: Duke University Press, 1992).

[6] Shailer Mathews, “The Affirmations of Faith [A selection from The Faith of Modernism], in William R. Hutchison, ed., American Protestant Thought in the Liberal Era (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1968), 89, 91.

[7] The next several paragraphs rely in modified form upon Sean Michael Lucas, J. Gresham Machen (Darlington, UK: Evangelical Press, 2015), 40-43, 45-49.

[8] On the post-1925 struggles that Machen experienced, which led to the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, see Lucas, J. Gresham Machen, 79-116; D. G. Hart and John Muether, Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia: OPC, 1995), 15-39.