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The Sermon That Divided America

Harry Emerson Fosdick's ‘Shall the Fundamentalists Win?’

United Against Liberalism

In some ways, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” was a missile wrapped in a banner of peace. As a call for tolerance within the Presbyterian church, Fosdick’s sermon was also an offensive launched against those “illiberal and intolerant” Presbyterians who would expel him from their denomination for his beliefs (the heretical ones, not the Baptist ones). Consequently, the sermon helped conservatives to do what they’d been struggling to do on their own: unite.

By 1922, for instance, the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA), begun by William Bell Riley, “was already displaying signs of collapse.” Interdenominational cooperation didn’t come easy, and the name “fundamentalist” carried a stigma even inside the conservative ranks, particularly due to its association with “the premillennial reign of Christ.” But as America’s chief popularizer of modernism, Fosdick embodied for many fundamentalists the very worst of theological liberalism and evoked their collective disdain.

In Christianity and Liberalism (1923), published less than a year after the sermon, J. Gresham Machen argued that historic Christianity and modernism were not simply two shades of the same faith, but rather two completely different religions. Not surprisingly, he cited Fosdick’s sermon. Before quoting Fosdick on penal substitutionary atonement, Machen states, “Upon the Christian doctrine of the Cross, modern liberals are never weary of pouring out the vials of their hatred and their scorn.” Relatively speaking, Machen’s critique was rather mild. In the same month, one fundamentalist suggested that Fosdick was inspired by a demon.

In contemporary evangelicalism, the traditional narrative of Fosdick’s most famous sermon is that it was a modernist prophecy unfulfilled. Despite the capitulation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to theological liberalism, the rapid decline of attendance in mainline churches by the end of the 20th century means that Fosdick’s words do not appear to have aged well.

In 1947, when Harold John Ockenga, pastor of Park Street Church in Boston and the former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, published a short article titled “Can Fundamentalism Win America?” the Fosdickian question was as much a vindication of fundamentalism as a critique. Twenty-five years and another World War later, fundamentalism was still shaping American life. From radio shows to politics to youth movements, fundamentalists adapted quite well to the modern world. Today, with the rise of “neo-fundamentalism” and a renewed interest in theological retrieval, it seems that the fundamentalist spirit still indwells much of evangelicalism.