(Taken from American Preachers of To-Day by Edgar DeWitt Jones, 1933)
The most preeminent pulpit of the Christian faith in America, if not the world, is that of Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick in Riverside Church, New York City. Given a ten-million-dollar cathdedral, complete to the smallest detail, occupying a commanding site on a magnificent boulevard, a dyanmic personality, possessing homiletic genius of a high order, safeguarded and empowered for the most efficient use of his preaching talent–and the possibilities stagger the imagination. Given another factor, the backing of a multimillionaire, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., by name, and no strings or conditions attached, but on the other hand the full liberty of prophesying–given these, and you have the most extraordinary preaching opportunity of modern times.
Millions knew Dr. Fosdick through his books before the world knew him through his pulpit achievements. Those little volumes, The Meaning of Prayer, The Meaning of Faith, The Meaning of Service, The Manhood of the Master and The Challenge of the Present Crisis, had a ministry all their own, vital and inspiring. The writing of these books was something more than the preparation of manuscripts–a great man was in training for a mighty service. Baptist though he is, and of course an independent, Fosdick became the minister of First Presbyterian Church, New York City, whereupon his pulpit fame grew apace. His sermon entitled “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” produced the livest kind of controversy. The newspapers gave the subject much space and played it up to the fullest. The denominational journals turned a barrage of criticism on the preacher, all of which but contributed to Dr. Fosdick’s reputation and provided a sounding board that made his every utterance the more distinct and sent his name the world around.
As a preacher, Dr. Fosdick combines realism with idealism. His pulpit material is modern, and he has the courage to use accepted facts in Biblical criticism, sociology and economics. His pwoer of clear statment is probably unexcelled in the American pulpit today. He can take a theme, say an appraisal of modern Protestantism, and in a series of pungent paragraphys bare to the bone every weakness, uncover and expose every blemish of organized Christianity, so that when he finishes there seems nothing left worth preserving. As you listen, you become alarmed, aprehensive, indignant. You say to yourself, “This man has gone too far; he has given his case away.” You are humiliated and chagrined, when lo! Fosdick begins an assessment of the world’s debt to Protestantism and what remains that is of priceless value, and marshals brilliantly the reasons for conserving the same. He becomes constructive; the man speaks with the fire of the crusader. Your heart beats faster, your cheeks are warm, something stirs within you in response to the preacher, and you feel that a real discipleship of Jesus Christ in these modern days is the mightiest challenge and the grandest thing in the world.
Listening to Dr. Fosdick, you do not think of the orator or the rhetorician. Yet his sermons are powerful and the result of painstaking toil. He does not go in for polish and literary beauty as does Joseph Fort Newton or Frederick F. Shannon. He does not range over so wide a field as Cadman, nor has he the charm of conversational eloquence of a Jefferson. He has not the serenity of a Gaius Glenn Atkins, nor the epigrammatical fire of Lynn Harold Hough. He is an able speaker who makes few gestures, talks right on and always to the point; comes to close grips with life; uses effectively illustrations taken not from books solely but from the dail experiences of men and women as they meet pain, disappointment and temptation. He is never “detached” or “remote” in his preaching. It is difficult to think of Fosdick as ever vague or “mystical.” No hangovers of theolgy trouble him, no traditions weigh him down. He is a free man in a free pulpit. Physically, there is nothing extraordinary about him, yet he is an arresting personality. His hair, once so abundant, is beginning to thin a little, but still stands up like a mop. Dr. Fosdick exudes vitality. Much worn as the world is, “dynaimc” best describes the man and his preaching.
How did Dr. Fosdick become the great preacher he is? By the hardest kind of work, unceasing, laborious toil, painstaking industry. For thirty years, approximately, since the days of his first pastorate in Montclair, New Jersey, he has spent the mornings of five days a week in his study. No messages get to him there, no telephone calls can reach him, no visitors are admitted. In such seclusion, he “toils terribly” over his sermons. This long practice, self-discipline, persistent, personal life program is the answer to the question, how did Fosdick become the great preacher he is?
Does he do any pastoral work? Practically none; in fact, he regards social visitation as a waste of precious time. But he responds to urgent requests from ill and ailing parishoners who ask to see him personally. He writes numerous notes of commendation for services rendered, remembers to do the courteous deed in person, where no one could represent him or serve by proxy. Yet he is jealous of his time, duplicates no service, makes no unnecessary motion, is as finely disiciplined as the head of a mammoth bank or industry, but keeps human, simple, patient, long-suffering.
Outside demands would crush this preacher if he permitted a tithe of them to sap his time and vitality. He goes from his pulpit only four times during the active preaching year, and then to speak at various colleges in the country, where he feels there is a special reason for his appearance. Yet Dr. Fosdick is not a scholarly recluse. He is accessible to those who have need to see him. The chinks of his busy afternoons are filled by carefully scheduled appointments, made at fifteen-minute intervals. Many of his evenings are spent with the organizational life of his church. Here he keeps in close and vital touch with the body of his congregation, assisted of course by an efficient and personable staff of expert associates, secretaries and staff visitors. He takes long and restful vacations, which are, however, devoted to reading, study and writing.
The budget of the Riverside Church is a wonder, both in its planning and carrying out, is indeed worthy of the most carefully directed business concern in the country. Here is an institution that balances its budget even in hard times. True, owing to the depression, the budget of Riverside Church for May 1, 1932, to April 30, 1933, was decreased one hundred and twenty-two thousand dollars. Nor is this all: this budget is balanced to a penny between current expenses and benevolences and missions; thus one hundred sixty-one thousand dollars for self, and one hundred sixty-one thousand dollars for others–the ideal that thousands of churches everywhere have dreamed of but few attained. Dr. Fosdick preaches an annual budget sermon which in its own way is as pungent and masterful as any of his famous discourses that are heard by throngs and widely circulated through various publications.
I asked the Rev. Eugene C. Carder, Dr. Fosdick’s able associate, to give me a “close-up” of the minister of Riverside Church. He told me that it was a joy for him to stress his admiration for Dr. Fosdick, as minister, first, last and all the time, assuring me that he never deviates from the main track, which is preaching. The heart of what Dr. Carder said in praise and interpretation of Dr. Fosdick is compressed in this most revealing paragraph:
“The more I see of this man, the more convinced I am that he is essentially a conservative. He does not now nor ever has owned an automobile. That is not due primarily to the fact that he lives in New York where taxicabs are to be had on every corner. Few New Yorkers have resisted the temptation to join the great majority and buy a car some time or other. He just is not susceptible to the influece of the crowd. A circumstance connected with the furnishing of his study and its present equipment amuses me every time I go in there to talk with him. I was chairman of the committee that furnished the building here and had a hand in selecting all of the furnishings, furniture, lamps, etc., in his study. In due course the desk was set in place and the equipment put on it, bookcases arranged, table, and what-not. He has been working in the study for two years now and in so far as I can see there hasn’t been a thing moved an inch from the place where it was put when we first set the room up. He simply moved in on top of the furniture we had placed there and went to work. Mr. Gandhi achieves his reputation for not being dependent upon things by divesting himself of all things, even his clothes. Dr. Fosdick achieves an even more significant independence of things by sitting down in the midst of all kinds of things, of everything he could possibly want, and proving himself to be absolutely independent of them by altogether ignoring them and doing his work, doing his work not because of them, but in spite of them. From this point of view, he is the most independnet spirit I have ever known. I confess he is a great challenge to me at this particular point.”
2ProphetU is an online magazine/website, started by Warren Wiersbe and Michael Catt, to build up the church, seek revival, and encourage pastors.