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.