(Taken from American Preachers of To-Day by Edgar DeWitt Jones, 1933)
I put the inevitable question to Dr. Fosdick, “How do you prepare your sermons?” He answered with pithy brevity.
“I choose a subject early in the week, work on it hard, think about it all I can, write it out in ful, draw off an outline of it for Sunday morning, and do as well as I can, talking from the outline.”
Asked his opinion of present-day preaching, Dr. Fosdick placed in my hands a reprint of his article from Harper’s Magzine of July, 1928–“What is the Matter with Preaching?”–saying, “This will give you my idea about sermons, what they are for, and how to get at them.” This pamphlet is solid stuff, made luminous by the use of short staccato sentences, direct and unconventional statements; the whole atmosphered with a buoyant enthusiasm for the preacher’s task. Reading and reflecting on this treatise, for such it is, I speculated on the great good that might be accomplished if a copy could be put in the hands of every young man in America who is thinking of the ministry as a career. Two paragraphs, only, do I quote, but they are sufficient to indicate the style and the passion of the author, and something of the tang he has imparted to type.
“Throughout this paper we have held up the ideal of preaching as an interesting operation. That is a most important matter, not only to the audience, but to the man in the pulpit. The number of fed-up, fatigued, bored preachers is appalling. Preaching has become to them a chore. They have to ‘get up’ a sermon, perhaps two sermons, weekly. The struggle at it. The juice goes out of them as the years pass. They return repeatedly to old subjects and try to whip up enthusiasm over weather-beaten texts and themes. Their discourses sink into formality. They build conventional sermon outlines, fill them in with conventional thoughts, and let it go at that. Where is the zest and thrill with which in their chivalrous youth they started out to be ministers of Christ to the spiritual life of their generation?
“Of course, nothing can make preaching easy. At best it means drenching a congregation with one’s lifeblood. But while, like all high work, it involves severe concentration, toil, and self-expenditure, it can be so exhilarating as to recreate in the preacher the strength it takes from him, as good agriculture replaces the soil it uses. Whenever that phenomenon happens one is sure to find a man predominantly interested in personalities and what goes on inside of them. He has understood people, their problems, troubles, motives, failures, and desires, and in his sermons he has known how to handle their lives so vitally that week after week he has produced real changes. People have habitually come up after the seromon, not to offer some bland compliment, but to say, “How did you know I was facing that problem only this week?,” or “We were discussing that very matter at dinner last night,” or, best of all, “I think you would understand my case–may I have a personal interview with you?””
Somebody has said that Dr. Cadman is preaching to people over sixty, Fosdick to those over forty, and Niebuhr to those in their middle twenties. A statement of this kind needs to be qualified, and yet there is something in it. If Fosdick’s appeal is to middle life isntead of flaming youth, then I should say that those in mid-channel who continue to hear or read Fosdick will find it difficult to think complacently the thoughts they used to think, and are due for a rebirth at a period when most people are in a mental groove. I incline to the belief, however, that Fosdick, as was Beecher, is able to preach to all ages with almost equal power.
One of my preacher friends, who is also an intimate friend of Fosdick, confided in me that he never fails to pray each day for Harry Emerson Fosdick–prays for his success, his health, his ever-widening fame! Said this friend, “Modernism has its stake in Fosdick. If he should fall, Modernism would fall. If he keeps going, rising in power and influence, Modernism will rise with him and prosper even as he prospers. Therefore I pray daily for Harry Fosdick. He must not fail.” Ver fine, but I refuse to believe that any cause worthy of living depends upon any man, however potent his ministry, or necessary he may seem in the progress of emancipatory movements. Yet I can understand and appreciate this friend’s concern and greatly admire his prayerful support of one of our day’s most prophetic souls. Such support, I doubt not, means more to Dr. Fosdick than the pristine splendor of the cathedral in which he preaches and the terrible money power that encompasses him about.
2ProphetU is an online magazine/website, started by Warren Wiersbe and Michael Catt, to build up the church, seek revival, and encourage pastors.