Evangelicalism After Fosdick: Macartney as a Case Study

John R. Muether
Professor of Church History
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

Harry Emerson Fosdick was clearly picking a fight, as Kevin DeYoung writes, when he delivered his sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” on May 21, 1922. At the same time, the fundamentalists themselves “welcomed the sermon” because it graphically exposed the liberal agenda and would force “moderates to take sides.”[1] This was certainly true of the first conservative to respond, who wrote, “one cannot but feel glad that Dr. Fosdick has spoken so frankly as he has.” Clarence Macartney (1879-1957) was pastor of Arch Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia when wrote a series of two articles, “Shall Unbelief Win?” that appeared in the weekly Presbyterian in July 1922.[2]  Macartney anticipated J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism (published in the next year), as he pressed readers to see that Fosdick was commending a faith completely incompatible with historic Christianity:

Those who, above all others, ought to read this sermon, are not the conservatives and not the rationalists, but the middle-of-the-road people who are fondly hoping that these schools are divided only by a difference in words and names, and that the two positions can and will be reconciled. Dr. Fosdick’s sermon shows the impossibility and the non-desirability of such reconciliation.[3]

Macartney went on to defend the doctrinal points that Fosdick challenged: the virgin birth of Christ, the inspiration of Scripture, the return of Christ, and the atonement. He urged his readers to take on the burden “to contend earnestly and intelligently and in a Christian spirit, but nevertheless, contend, for the faith.”[4] Specifically, it was the duty of the church to demand fidelity from its pulpits to the church’s doctrinal standards:

Dr. Fosdick is not a Presbyterian, but he stands in a Presbyterian pulpit and gets his bread from a Presbyterian congregation. In view of this fact how can his holding the purely naturalistic account of the stories of the birth of Jesus be in harmony with his preaching in the pulpit of a Church whose Creed, never revoked, declares (The Confession of Faith, Chapter VIII, Article XI), “The Son of God—when the fulness of time was come did take upon Him man’s nature—being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance”? This article of the creed may be impossible for the “modern” mind to hold; it may be myth or rubbish. But myth or fact, truth or rubbish, it is a solemn declaration of the Church from which Dr. Fosdick takes his bread.[5]

Early Returns

Conservatives gained momentum when Macartney’s response was also widely distributed. In October 1922, Macartney led the Philadelphia Presbytery to overture the General Assembly to direct the Presbytery of New York “to require that the preaching and teaching in the First Presbyterian Church of New York City conform to the system of doctrine taught in the Confession of Faith.”[6] When this was passed by a majority of the following General Assembly in May, 1923, it was hailed as a great victory for confessional orthodoxy (although delays by the New York Presbytery did not bring about Fosdick’s resignation until nearly two years later).

A further sign of conservative strength was Macartney’s election as moderator of the General Assembly in 1924. (At the age of 42 he was the youngest moderator in the history of the church.) At the close of that Assembly, vice-moderator William Jennings Bryan crowed, “we have won every point” and “we will not have any preacher in our church who is not within reach of our stick.”[7] Bryan was not alone in that assessment. As strange at this may seem to contemporary students of the conflict, most participants and observers by mid-decade shared a common expectation of the likely result of the warfare: eventually a small number of modernists would follow Fosdick in being forced to leave the church. Albert Dieffenbach, a liberal German Reformed minister who turned Unitarian, insisted that this was the only logical outcome. “If our spirit goes over completely to Dr. Fosdick for his spirit, our intelligence goes over quite completely to Dr. Macartney for his impregnable defense of the orthodox Presbyterian faith.”  Dieffenbach accused Fosdick of deception by claiming to be an “evangelical liberal” as those were “mutually exclusive terms.”[8]

According to George Marsden’s account, the liberal Christian Century claimed that the fundamentalists had “outmaneuvered” the liberals, and the secular press, riveted to this unfolding controversy, opined that if modernists “contradicted the creeds that denominations had always affirmed, then it would be only gentlemanly to withdraw and found denominations on some other basis.”[9]

The forced exodus of modernists did not take place, of course, and that owes in large part to what the 1924 General Assembly failed to do. Many had anticipated that the Auburn Affirmation (originally signed by 150 Presbyterian ministers and later supplemented by 1000 additional ministers) would command the Assembly’s attention. Fosdick did not author the Auburn Affirmation but it faithfully articulated his position: the so-called fundamentals of the faith were merely theories and not essential Biblical truths that ministers were bound to believe and teach. Yet no disciplinary action was taken against the signers of the Auburn Affirmation, a failure that many have pondered. One explanation was a naïve sense on the part of some that the spirit of the Affirmation died with the departure of Fosdick.[10] Perhaps a better explanation is found from Macartney himself. In “Shall Unbelief Win?” he counseled against ecclesiastical trials of modernists in the church:

I am coming to think less and less of excision and excommunication as a means of preserving the church from false teaching not because of any base or ignoble fear on the part of those who might so proceed of being called “heresy hunters,” “medieval,” etc., but because I am convinced that the far more useful course to pursue is to declare the whole counsel of God so clearly and fearlessly that the whole world may know there is a difference between what is and what is not Christianity.[11]

Whatever the reason for this missed opportunity, it allowed for counter-maneuvering by Henry Sloane Coffin, then pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York and, like Fosdick, a self-styled “liberal evangelical.” Coffin’s threat of a liberal walk-out at the 1925 General Assembly redirected the denomination’s attention to the “causes making for unrest” in the church, namely Princeton Seminary, whose confessional theology was regarded as out of touch with the Presbyterian Church. This was a victory, in Macartney’s judgment, of a “coalition of modernists, indifferentists, and pacifists.”[12]

With the 1929 reorganization of Princeton Seminary that included signers of the Auburn Affirmation on the seminary board, Macartney resigned his Princeton Seminary board membership and joined Machen to become the most prominent member of the board of Westminster Seminary, which opened its doors in September.

But the controversy was beginning to take its toll on Clarence Macartney, who in 1927 had accepted a call at First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. In 1936, he would regret as “sad, lamentable, tragic, and unthinkable” the way in which Machen was cast out of the fellowship of the Presbyterian Church.[13] But he refused to join with Machen, fearing that Machen’s response to the crisis had become too radical, and he opted instead to continue to serve at First Presbyterian for two decades, maintaining membership in that denomination for the rest of his ministry.

He also withdrew from the Board of Westminster Seminary, and in the same month that Machen formed a new denomination, he was elected President of the League of Faith, a short-lived effort to restore the Presbyterian Church USA to doctrinal fidelity by “reform from within.”

Conservatives and Liberals Together

As firmly as Macartney opposed the modernism of Fosdick, his approach to the controversy shared similar features with Fosdick. Consider, first, the appeal for tolerance in Fosdick’s sermon. “The fundamentalists,” he bellowed, “are giving us one of the worst exhibitions of bitter intolerance that the churches in the country have ever seen.” (145). A decade later conservatives began to display an attitude unrecognizable from Fosdick’s description. One Auburn Affirmationist, J. A. MacCallum observed in 1939, “the conservatives are not so conservative, or at least not so militant …as a few years ago.”[14]  In that same year, Macartney returned the compliment in kind. In an article he wrote in the Christian Century on “how his mind had changed,” Macartney identified renewed health in the church. “I am glad to note,” he wrote, “what seems to be a decided swing back from the extreme modernist position toward what may be described as the conservative or evangelical position. Certainly the modernism of the pulpit today is not so loud, confident, aggressive and arrogant as it was ten or fifteen years ago.”[15]  Modernism might still be incompatible, but Macartney found it more tolerable.

Secondly, Fosdick may have been prescient about the obsolescence of the Confession of the Faith in the Presbyterian Church. For his part, he never disguised his distaste for creedal Christianity. As he explained years later, his “long-standing and assured conviction” was that “creedal subscription to ancient confessions of faith is a practice dangerous to the welfare of the church and to the integrity of the individual conscience.”[16] Among conservative voices, the Confession was never the object of ridicule, but it was undergoing more subtle decline in the changing character of conservative rhetoric. Allegiance to a system of doctrine often took a back seat to a defense of “evangelical essentials.” It was particularly revealing that Macartney’s posthumously published autobiography limits any reference to the Westminster Standards to a few cites in the chapter dealing with the Fosdick controversy. The Confession of Faith does not come to bear otherwise in the conduct of his pastoral ministry.

Finally, Fosdick in his own autobiographical reflections described himself as a “convinced interdenominationalist.” What he loved about his tenure at “Old First” was the “new freedom with which Christians could disregard denominational lines and work together.”[17]  If in 1923, Macartney warned that many were beginning to turn away from the call to protest and appeal the established unbelief in the denomination,[18] by the time of his 1939 Christian Century article his mind had changed significantly:

I value less the whole ecclesiastical structure, and feel that more and more for the true witness to the gospel and the Kingdom of God we must depend on the local church, the individual minister and the individual Christian. Between such believers and such Christians there is indeed a real church unity. Hands of fellowship reach over the separating walls of denominational barriers and voices of mutual encouragement echo in the hearts of those who fear the Lord.[19]

In sum, the “reform from within” strategy adopted by Macartney and other conservatives who remained in the Presbyterian church reverted into a functional congregationalism, without obligation to the corporate witness of the denomination beyond the local church. This may be most clearly evident in the story of a colleague of Macartney’s, Wilbur Smith, who maintained his post as a Presbyterian minister in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, with the claim that “there is no reason at all for bringing division into a church such as that of Coatesville, which was evangelical, missionary-minded, and loyal to its pastor.”[20] Although he too abominated modernism, he observed that retaining his membership in the Presbyterian church afforded him freedom as “if I were the pastor of a church entirely independent of any ecclesiastical organization.”[21]

At First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Macartney developed an influential pulpit and radio ministry. He could be considered the grandfather of the neo-evangelical turn in mid-century American evangelicalism as the mentor of a generation of gifted leaders coming of age. Most notably, Macartney “shone forth as a beacon of light in the midst of perilous storms” for Harold J. Ockenga when the young Westminster graduate interned briefly under him at First Presbyterian before his 33-year tenure at Park Street Church in Boston.[22]

It is uncharitable, therefore, to dismiss Macartney in the way one Lutheran described him a decade after the crisis. “He often mediates between Christian confessionalism and liberal concessionalism,” wrote J. Theodore Mueller.[23] But what does seem to characterize Macartney’s ministry is the atrophying of ecclesiological categories in his posture against theological liberalism.

Historian Bradley Longfield has suggested that the controversy in the mainline Presbyterian church was followed by a brief and fragile peace that was shattered by “theological fragmentation” by the 1960s. Ultimately it reached the point where a 1988 General Assembly report wrote “our unity is merely formal and our diversity is divisive,” owing to the lack of clear biblical and creedal boundaries.[24]

Observers of contemporary evangelicalism have identified similar fragmentation as it also struggles with the erosion of doctrinal boundaries and the decline of confessional identity. If Macartney’s effort to sustain a coherent conservative opposition to liberalism proved inadequate, it may suggest that there are still lessons from Fosdick’s sermon and its aftermath that the church needs to learn a century later.

[1] Robert Moats Miller, Harry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 116.

[2] Clarence E. Macartney, “Shall Unbelief Win? An Answer to Dr. Fosdick”, pp. 323-43 in William S. Barker and Samuel T. Logan, Jr., Sermons that Shaped America: Reformed Preaching From 1630-2001 (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003). Macartney’s response has often been referred to as a sermon, and Macartney described it as such. See his The Making of a Minister: The Autobiography of Clarence E. Macartney, ed. J. Clyde Henry (Great Neck, NY: Channel Press, 1961), 184. But I have found no evidence that it was preached at Arch Street Presbyterian Church or elsewhere. The sheer length of the response argues against its original form as a preached sermon: it is over 7600 words compared to 4700 words by Fosdick.

[3] Macartney, “Shall Unbelief Win?” 332.

[4] Macartney, “Shall Unbelief Win?” 331.

[5] Macartney, “Shall Unbelief Win?” 335.

[6] Edwin H. Rian, The Presbyterian Conflict (Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian of the OPC, 1992), 18.

[7] Quoted in Miller, Fosdick, 171.

[8] Quoted in Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Living of These Days: An Autobiography (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1956), 166.

[9] George M. Marden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 175.

[10] The Presbyterian Conflict (p. 34) cites that argument from The Presbyterian, September 4, 1924.

[11] Macartney, “Shall Unbelief Win?,” 343.

[12] Rian, The Presbyterian Conflict, 45.

[13] Rian, The Presbyterian Conflict, 127.

[14] Quoted in Rian, The Presbyterian Conflict, 190.

[15] Clarence E. Macartney, “Warm Hearts and Steady Faith,” The Christian Century 56 (March 8, 1939), 318.

[16] Fosdick, The Living of these Days, 172.

[17] Macartney, “Warm Hearts and Steady Faith,” 173.

[18] Macartney, “The Great Defection”, The Presbyterian 93 (September 20, 1923), 9.

[19] Macartney, “Warm Hearts and Steady Faith,” 317.

[20] Wilbur Smith, Before I Forget (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), 116.

[21] Quoted in George M. Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 42-43.

[22] Harold Lindsell, Park Street Pulpit: The Story of Harold Ockenga (Wheaton: Van Kempen Press, 1951), 32.

[23] J. Theodore Mueller, review of Christian Faith and the Spirit of the Age, by Clarence E. Macartney. Concordia Theological Monthly 11 (1940): 878-79.

[24] Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, & Moderates (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 234-35.