Harry Emerson Fosdick was born in 1878 at Buffalo, New York. He graduated from Colgate University in 1900, then went to Union Seminary in New York until 1904. He served as minister of the First Baptist Church in Montclair, New Jersey between 1904-1915, and at First Presbyterian Church in New York City from 1918-1925. He became pastor of Riverside Church in 1926 and remained there until he retired in 1946. He died in 1969.
Andrew Blackwood once said of Fosdick’s sermons: “If any young man wishes to learn what to preach, he may look elsewhere; but if he would learn how to preach, let him tarry here.” An editorial in The Christian Century some years ago said: “Until some new figure of comparable stature arises, the historian of the American pulpit will have to say that the three names which shine brightest are those of Henry Ward Beecher, Phillips Brooks, and Dr. Fosdick.” When Bishop Brilioth of Sweden discusses American preaching in his Donellan Lectures, Fosdick is among the six preachers whom he regards as sufficiently prominent and pivotal to deserve attention.
Fosdick’s influence may be attributed partly to his use of psychology and partly to his mastery of homiletics. His study habits were well organized. From the outset of his ministry he never let up in a steady, persistent program of reading and study. What is more, much of it was basic: the classics in the original, English literature, history, and sociology. This explains why he became eventually what W. G. Shepherd called “a preacher who reaches the heart through the intellect.”
He chose his subject early in the week, worked hard on it, wrote it out in full, and drew off an outline of it for use on Sunday. His sermons follow an orderly structure and abound in quotable sentences. Most of his sermons contain one central thought which is stated in the introduction. It is expanded, illustrated, repeated, and made concrete until the congregation is saturated with the idea.
In 1958, a collection of some of the best of the nearly six hundred sermons that Fosdick preached between 1930 and 1946 appeared under the title Riverside Sermons. Fifteen begin with a direct reference to Scripture or swing the argument to Scripture in the opening minutes. Everywhere is evident a love of, a faith in, and a profound knowledge of the Bible. Three sermons begin with some telling incident from the contemporary scene, ten begin with and keep close to some problem like handicapped lives. There is no pretentious oratory, no embellished phrasing, no needless repetitions.
Whatever he wrote always followed a logical outline. The theme is stated and developed systematically, and abundantly illustrated from a wide range of reading. His strategy in sermon construction was stated to an interviewer: “Tell them the truth you want to tell them right off. Climax is achieved by showing them the Matterhorn in the beginning, reshowing it again and again, and each time the Matterhorn gets bigger.”
The test of all preaching is what happens to the listener as a result. A member of Fosdick’s congregation said to him after the service: “I nearly passed out with excitement, for I did not see how you could possibly answer that objection which you raised against your own thought. I supposed you would do it somehow but I could not see how until you did it.” A sermon that takes hold of a listener like that cannot fail. John D. Rockefeller said that the greatness of Fosdick’s preaching lay in the fact that each person in his congregation thought he was speaking to them. “I never hear him but I say how did he know my problem.”
Fosdick once used as an illustration the story of a man lost for two nights and a day in a dense fog on the Welsh mountains when suddenly he heard a voice say: “I wonder if by any chance he could have come this way.” Commented Fosdick, “So may some such word come to someone here who thinks himself lost in the fog. May he hear a word out of the invisible that will put him on his feet.” A black minister whose wife had committed suicide once came to see Fosdick and after speaking to him for two hours said to his secretary as he left: “He has put the stars back in my sky.”
Fosdick owed his influence partly to his theory of preaching as “personal counseling on a large scale.” In July 1928 he wrote an article for Harper’s magazine, entitled “What’s the Matter with Preaching?” In reply he said: “it ought to be animated conversation.” In this kind of talk, with its give-and-take, you discuss what most interests the other person. You defer to his judgment. “Every sermon should have for its main business the solving of some problem.”
He criticized expository and topical preaching and rejected them both in favor of the project method. “This starts with a live issue, a real problem — personal or social, perplexing to the mind or disturbing to the conscience. It faces it squarely, deals with it honestly, and throws such light on it from the spirit of Christ that the people will go out able to think more clearly and live more nobly because of that sermon’s illumination.”
“The preacher must see clearly and state fairly what people other than himself are thinking on the matter. There is nothing that people are so interested in as themselves, their own problems, and how to solve them. The final test of a sermon’s worth is how many individuals wish to see the preacher alone. Every problem that the preacher faces leads back to one basic question: how well does he understand the thoughts and lives of his people?”
This kind of preaching is human-centered. Fosdick said: “I know what I want to say to myself before I get into the pulpit: there is in that congregation one person who needs what I am going to say. O God, let me get at him.”
William H. Hudnut, in a Christian Century article on Fosdick as teacher, tells us that in his preaching classes at Union Seminary he continually emphasized the importance of sermons that are vitally related to the everyday needs of individuals but firmly based in the great truths of Christian thought and experience. He would say: “Exhortation is hollow without exposition, but do not take it for granted that people are interested in what happened two thousand years ago. Begin by making the matter you are discussing live for your people, strike the universal note. The purpose of your preaching is not primarily to treat a subject but to influence individuals. An essay is concerned with elucidation, a sermon with transformation. Its aim is to send people out of church different from what they were when they came in.”
Fosdick likewise owed his influence to his message. He appealed mainly to the intellect. His ideal was to spend an hour in preparation for every minute he stood in the pulpit preaching. His mind had a finely disciplined quality. He gave a sense of wide-ranging and an understanding perusal of many books. Intellectual honesty, hard and patient investigation, and serious thought lay behind his sermons. His successor in the Riverside pulpit, Robert J. McCracken, in his book The Making of a Sermon says: “Dr. Fosdick has written every word of his sermons. He has labored long and hard over the writing of them — polishing phrases, sentences, paragraphs, spending several mornings over one sermon, then taking the finished product with him into the pulpit, where because so much work has been done on it, there is never any question of addiction to it or of reading it slavishly; it was preached spontaneously and freely, with vigor.”
In Fosdick’s book The Hope of the World, there are twenty-five sermons: fourteen concern the individual hearer, three have to do mainly with social problems, six combine both elements, and two are difficult to classify. The social element never predominates over the individual. In discussing a social problem one ought to show how it concerns the individual. In a 1932 sermon, “The Lord Speaks to the Preacher,” he said: “The social gospel is not modern. There has never been any genuine Christianity without it.” He argued that if one begins with the personal gospel, one must go on to the social gospel. If one begins with the social gospel, one must carry one’s thinking through to personal religion.
Fosdick owed his influence also to his practical psychology. He read the mind of the modern man. For many years he held a Protestant confessional, long clinical interviews with individuals, about which he wrote in his book, On Being a Real Person. He used the Bible freely and skillfully. For example, his sermon “Handling Life’s Second Bests” contains more echoes of the Bible than many preachers would have in a month. However, the Scriptures seem to afford a source of interesting materials rather than any kind of authority for Fosdick.
A. J. Gossip says in one of his sermons: “Dr. Fosdick is reported to have said that the business of the man in the pulpit is to preach on what is real and pressing to his hearer’s minds. An excellent counsel up to a point. But it is only a half-truth and half-truths are potentially dangerous. The biblical preacher is often compelled to begin with God rather than a life-situation and point out where the people should be if they want to know Christ.”
Fosdick owed his influence most of all to his homiletic ability. As a craftsman, he was a workman who needed not to be ashamed. If we may borrow and change one of his sermon topics, “The Fine Art of Making Goodness Attractive,” he shows how to make preaching attractive to people of culture. In reading his many books I do not remember running across a crude expression or a rhetorical infelicity. His topics are always appealing, as are the titles of his books. Consider these two topics: “Keeping One’s Footing in a Slippery Time,” and “Six Ways to Tell Right from Wrong.” No expert in advertising could improve on those titles.
His opening sentences usually prove arresting. If not in the first sentence, at least in the opening paragraph, he makes clear the problem in hand. As a rule the introduction is brief. Then follows a message with sturdy structure. Sometimes he calls attention to his headings; often he does not. But he always knows his route before he starts to speak. For developing the plan he uses the art of repetition.
In almost every sermon, he employs a wealth of facts. He is a master of the art of illustration and quotation. These facts he uses as building blocks rather than as windows. His central message is made clear and luminous by the use of specific fact. He lifts the lid and sees into the modern mind thinking or struggling with its confusions. Like Prospero to Caliban, he might say, speaking to individuals in the congregation: “I pitied thee, took pains to make thee speak, endowed thy purposes with words to make them known.”
This is one of the services that the preacher can perform for his people. This is preaching direct in its appeal, discerning in its insight, disarming in its intimacy, and deceptive in its simplicity. The preacher is not interested in sermon-making as a literary art or in the sermon as an object to be achieved, much less as an end in itself. He is interested in his people — in their problems, their perplexities, their dark doubts and drab dismay in the face of life as they have to live it. His style is simple, lucid, vivid, as transparent as light, leaving no cloud on his meaning and yet a style which, in spite of itself, speaks at times in stinging sentences and in epigrams which flash like lightning.
Edgar De Witt Jones says: “Listening to Dr. Fosdick, your heart beats faster, your cheeks are warm, something stirs within you in reponse to the preacher and you feel that a real discipleship of Jesus Christ in these days is the mightiest challenge and the greatest thing in the world. His sermons are powerful and the result of painstaking toil. 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 only from books but from the daily experiences of men and women as they meet pain, disappointment and temptation. He is never detached or remote in his preaching. His is exciting preaching which is not merely emotional but highly intelligent and spiritually powerful.”
In the preface to his book On Being Fit To Live With, sermons which sprang from and dealt with the conditions following the Second World War, he says: “Sermons are not meant to be read as essays are. The dominant factor in an essay is the subject to be elucidated; the dominant factor in a sermon is the object to be attained. A good sermon is direct personal address, individual consultation on a group scale, intended to achieve results. A sermon should certainly get things done, then and there, in the minds and lives of the audience. It should be a convincing appeal to a listening jury for decision. If a printed sermon is to seem real, the reader must read as though he were listening.”
Fosdick is a man for all seasons; he speaks to us as clearly today as he did at the height of his influence. He published more than thirty books in his career, perhaps the most important, in addition to his collection of sermons, being the trilogy published in his early years: The Meaning of Prayer, The Meaning of Faith, and The Meaning of Service; The Modern Use of the Bible, A Guide to Understanding the Bible, and his autobiography The Living of These Days.
Ralph Sockman was asked in an interview on television, “Will you in thirty seconds sum up Fosdick as a man and a minister?” This was his answer: ” He has helped to make religion intellectually respected, socially responsible, and spiritually redemptive. He has never sacrificed his intellectual integrity to curry favor with ecclesiastical critics or the popular crowd. He has kept his message so Christ-centered that he has been at the center of every vital social issue for four decades and has helped to make the Christian Church feel its corporate responsibilities. And how far his work has been spiritually redemptive is known only to the Divine Accountant who keeps the record of those helped by his counseling sessions, his radiant sermons, and his inspiring books. Perhaps for myself I can best sum up Fosdick by using the words of the memorable hymn: he has interpreted the “God of grace and glory” for “the living of these days.”