Monday, October 5, 2015

For the Living of These Days

October 5, 1930, was a big day for Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City. It was the first worship service in Riverside’s new church building, one of the most magnificent structures in the United States. 
Although I have attended a Sunday service at Riverside only once, and that was probably around 30 years ago, I still remember being greatly impressed by the size and beauty of the building—as well as by the service itself.
(Sometime I’d like to tell you the story of how I rented a bicycle and peddled through Central Park and then through Harlem on my way to Riverside, near the bank of the beautiful Hudson River.)
Pastor Fosdick wrote a hymn for that dedication service, which was 85 years ago today. Here is the second verse of that hymn, “God of Grace and God of Glory,” which I assume many of you have sung:
Lo! the hosts of evil round us

scorn the Christ, assail his ways!
From the fears that long have bound us
free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the living of these days,
for the living of these days.

Fosdick, who was born on May 24, 1878, was one of the most influential pastors of the first half of the 1900s. Martin Luther King, Jr., characterized him as “the greatest preacher of the twentieth century.”
In 1922 Fosdick preached a sermon for which he is still widely known: “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” He was one of the first vocal opponents of Christian fundamentalism—and was a primary target of the fundamentalists.
But Fosdick was also an opponent of liberalism, back when it was called “modernism.” In 1935 one of the most significant sermons he preached at Riverside Church was “The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism.”
While rejecting both fundamentalism and extreme liberalism, Fosdick was an advocate of the Social Gospel. Two years before the dedication of the new church building, Fosdick declared that a church
"that pretends to care for the souls of people but is not interested in the slums that damn them, the city government that corrupts them, the economic order that cripples them, and international relationships that, leading to peace or war, determine the spiritual destiny of innumerable souls’’ would receive divine condemnation (Hope of the World, p. 25).
Fosdick died on October 5, 1969, on the 39th anniversary of that notable first Sunday at Riverside Church, where he served as pastor until 1946.
One of Fosdick’s successors was William Sloane Coffin, who was the Senior Minister at Riverside from 1977 to 1987. (See my blog article about him here.) On Oct. 5, 1980, Coffin preached at the 50th anniversary of Riverside Church. Near the end of that sermon he declared, 
“Dearly beloved parishioners, we have no choice, we must work for the redistribution of wealth. We must abridge our luxuries for the sake of others’ necessities, in this city, in this land, and in the world” (The Collected Sermons of William Sloan Coffin: The Riverside Years, 2008, I:358).
Wealth had long been an issue at Riverside, for the new edifice, whose construction began in 1927, was largely funded by business magnate John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The dedication of that magnificent building, though, was almost a year following the beginning of the Great Depression.
So the powerful words of prayer in Fosdick’s hymn had great meaning in 1930: “Give us courage, give us wisdom, for the living of these days.” 
That’s still a good prayer for us today.


  1. I remember climbing up to the belfry when we visited there 30 years ago. It is an impressive church, all right. Even more impressive is the courage Fosdick and Coffin had in proclaiming Jesus' teachings about the care of the poor and oppressed.

  2. Enjoyed reading this. His hymn text is one of my favorites. So, Leroy, who is the prophetic voice today that Fosdick was 85 years ago?

    1. Good question, David. The first name that came to mind was Jim Wallis. But I couldn't think of a pastor who seems to be in the same league as Fosdick or Coffin. Maybe some readers can help us along this line.

  3. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson writes,

    "Fosdick is worthy of your high estimation, Leroy. He was deeply influenced by another great soul of his era, Rufus Jones, a Quaker, and did a splendid book on Jones. Among other things, they shared Quaker pacifism."

  4. Bravo, Br. Leroy! It is an excellent thing to be reminded on this day of these two men and the church they pastored. And what a fine prayer. It's short but it covers so much ground.

  5. I received the following email from Thinking Friend Scott W., a member of Rainbow Mennonite Church:

    "Fosdick's prayer 'We Ask Not for Easy Lives' has been a favorite of mine for many years.

    'O God, come to us, we pray thee, with the resources of thy power, that we may be strong within. We ask not for easy lives, but for adequacy. We ask not to be freed from storms, but to build our houses on rock that will not fall. We pray not for a smooth sea, but for a stout ship, a good compass, and a strong heart; in the name of him who faced enmity and death without flinching, the Son Jesus Christ our Savior.'”

  6. Your blog set me off on a so-far fruitless search of my house for a biography of Fosdick I read some years ago. I was particularly looking for the quote that most struck me, where Fosdick set off on a speaking tour of England, and received the largest crowds of any visiting preacher since Henry Drummond. Well, it was the only time I had seen anything about Drummond on the loose, as it were, in literature. For the last half-century Henry Drummond the man has been quite overshadowed by Henry Drummond the fictional character in "Inherit the Wind." This character ends the play by clasping together a Bible and Darwin in his hands. Today it is a largely missed salute to the historical Drummond, who sold millions of copies of "The Greatest Thing in the World and Other Addresses" and no doubt helped inspire the famous play by publishing "Natural Law in the Spiritual World" in 1883.

    I did find a candidate for David's prophet inquiry above. In 1996 R. Kirby Godsey, President of Mercer University, published "When We Talk About God...Let's be Honest." I so failed to appreciate that a Southern Baptist would write what he did that I systematically misread the book about a third of the way through before I realized he really meant what he said. So I had to go back and start all over to really understand what he meant. I found the book so powerful that I volunteered to teach a series of discussions on the book during Lent. Here is one quote I found in my old notes with the book, from page 23, "It is bad faith and poor discipleship that discourages the young from asking their questions. Furthermore, it dangerous and unwise. Refusing to face questions leads either to a deadly religion of guilt or eventually to discarding religion as irrelevant and out of touch with where they live."

    Thank you, Leroy, for nurturing the discussion of questions of faith.

  7. Craig, Fosdick published his autobiography in 1956 under the title "The Living of These Days." I enjoyed reading it years ago.

    I also have read Godsey's book "When We Talk About God . . . ." And while it deals with important issues, I am not sure that I would consider him particularly prophetic and I certainly don't think he has had the broad influence that Jim Wallis has had.

    The Godsey quote that you shared, and which I hadn't particularly remembered, reminded me of what Joan Chittister wrote in the book I recently read--and referred to in the previous blog article.

  8. Thanks for this recollection, Leroy. Fosdick was an early and avid supporter of World War I. He, along with 60 other leading clergy, castigated President Wilson for attempting to negotiate the European conflict, saying that a just God, "who withheld not his own Son from the cross, would not look with favor upon a people who put their fear of pain and death... above the holy claims of righteousness and justice and freedom and mercy and truth."

    But while touring the European battlefields in a gesture of pastoral support for the war, the carnage he encountered was so devastating that he renounced his support not just for that conflict but all pretense to any redemptive value of war. In 1939, sensing again the growing global antagonism, and sensing that Christians committed to nonviolence would suffer disdain and even legal sanction, he and a number of other (Northern, later "American") Baptist clergy formed what was originally called the "Baptist Pacifist Fellowship," later renamed Baptist Peace Fellowship, enlarged again in 1984 when Southern and American Baptists advocates joined forces and enlarged the tent to Baptists of many different separate bodies in Canada, the US, Puerto Rico and Mexico.

    1. Thanks so much for your significant comments, Ken. They helped me, and others, get a fuller understanding of Fosdick.

      It's interesting to see how his Fosdick's ideas were just the opposite of Reinhold Niebuhr, who was a pacifist for the first half of his life and then in 1940 wrote the essay "Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist."

      I like the way Fosdick changed much more than the way that Niebuhr changed.