Richard R. Crocker
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
II Timothy 4:1-8
I assume that you are at worship today because you find this experience real. It helps you. It is meaningful to you. If it were not, you would not be here – at least not on a regular basis. You would go somewhere else, where worship is practiced in a different way, or you would not go at all. People attend worship services only when they are meaningful and real to them. So what makes worship real and meaningful?
I want to explore this question by talking about a famous preacher, perhaps the most famous American preacher of his generation, Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969). Some of you have heard of him; many may have not. But Harry Emerson Fosdick has been my companion in ministry, sometimes consciously, sometimes subliminally, from the beginning. I want to tell you about him.
Fosdick became an issue in my first parish assignment, a small Presbyterian church in Ripley, Tennessee, where one of my elders – a very knowledgeable and very conservative man – refused to sing “God of Grace and God of Glory” because it had been written by the infidel, Fosdick. I had thought of Fosdick as a great preacher – not an infidel. So I set out to find our about him and became acquainted with his role in the fundamentalist controversies of the nine-teen twenties. His famous sermon in 1922 at New York’s First Presbyterian Church called “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” is perhaps one of the most famous sermons ever preached. Many Christians thought that sermon was the final word about fundamentalism. They were wrong. And since that question, “shall the fundamentalists win?’ has been a recurrent question in my ministry, Fosdick’s brave attempt to proclaim a gospel that was authentic but not fundamentalist naturally attracted my attention.
After leaving Ripley, TN, I became chaplain at Bates College in Maine and then Dean of Elizabethtown College in PA, but then I returned to the parish as pastor of the Central Presbyterian Church of Montclair, New Jersey. There I encountered Fosdick again, when I remembered, or rediscovered, that Fosdick’s first pastorate had been at the First Baptist Church of Montclair (1904-1915). His legacy in Montclair is written in three buildings there. The first is the old Baptist church building, now the Masonic Hall, where he began. The second is a grand and glorious building built for him in 1911 by his expanding congregation. After Fosdick left Montclair in 1915 to become professor of preaching at Union Seminary in New York City, the congregation gradually dwindled. Finally, the building was sold in 1994 to an independent charismatic congregation, known as Christ Church – about which I will say more later. The remnants of First Baptist Church moved into the chapel at my church, Central Presbyterian Church building, where they worshipped from 1994 until Easter Sunday, 2001, when the church, reduced to less than ten active members, dissolved.
When I was given the opportunity by a Lilly grant to spend a month at Union Seminary in New York, I delved into Fosdick – reading his autobiography, his published sermons, biographies, and his inspirational books. Most significantly, I was able to read through many of his private papers, including his voluminous ministry of correspondence. During that time, I also was able to visit the New York churches where his ministry unfolded – First Presbyterian Church of New York City, where Fosdick – although he was a Baptist, was called to be preaching minister, and where Fosdick’s sermons, especially “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”, caused such an uproar that the Presbyterian General Assembly voted that he must either become a Presbyterian, so that he could be disciplined, or that he should cease to be a minister at First Presbyterian church. He chose to remain a Baptist, where no one could discipline him, and promptly moved to the Park Avenue Baptist Church. There he attracted the loyalty and support of one of its members, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Because of the growing crowds, Mr. Rockefeller built Riverside Church, where Fosdick held forth as the preeminent preacher of American liberal Protestantism from its grand opening in 1930 until his retirement in 1946. He died at age 91 in 1969.
Although few recordings of Fosdick’s sermons remain, he was, in fact, a famous radio preacher, preaching on the “National Vespers” program on NBC radio for many years. These radio broadcasts attracted an international audience. His sermons at First Presbyterian Church were preached to congregations that lined up hours ahead for admission. Riverside Church, built to accommodate 3000 worshippers, was generally filled during his pastorate. This is all the more amazing when we realize that Fosdick was a convinced pacifist and staunch advocate of civil rights – positions that were certainly controversial.
Fosdick’s success as a preacher in New York contrasts with the pitiable end of his congregation in Montclair. He preached to capacity crowds in Montclair as well, but the crowds dwindled after the left. One must ask: what happened? Was the attraction simply personal? Was he such a phenomenal preacher that he alone was the attraction? Or was it a different time – the time of national church going? Is the demise due to a cultural shift that has occurred? Or was it his controversial status that made him so popular? Perhaps the answer to all these questions is yes.
For Fosdick, worship was traditional evangelical, reformed free-church protestant. It consisted of inspirational music, prayers, and, above all, a challenging sermon. The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper were distinctly subordinate. Indeed, often the sacraments were not observed at the morning worship service, but at the smaller evening service. Fosdick’s sermons were pointed – that is, they had a point. He built tension by asking a question and attempting to answer it. They were sometimes forty minutes in length, but they were all capable of being edited to less than a half hour, so that he could present them on the National Vespers radio program. Most of us mainline liberal protestant preachers are still traditional in the same sense as Fosdick was. We use the same techniques. We try to preach sermons like his – thoughtful, though with fewer poems and more inclusive language. Yet our churches are largely empty. So are his. First Baptist Church of Montclair is defunct. First Presbyterian of New York manages a decent attendance, but rarely a capacity crowd. One quarter full is typical. The old Park Avenue Baptist Church became part of Riverside Church, which under the energetic and sometimes charismatic ministry of preachers like Ernest Campbell, William Sloane Coffin, and James Forbes has continued to draw crowds, but much smaller ones.
Why? Why was a style of worship so compelling and real 70 years ago, yet so empty for so many people now? I continue to find Fosdick’s sermons compelling. I read them and say “Amen.” I like singing “God of Grace and God of Glory”, with a booming pipe organ. I like worship services where sermons, hymns, and prayers conspire to explore a theme that is intensely scriptural and intellectually engaging. I know some others do too – at my former parish in Montclair, about 100 people did, in a sanctuary built for 1000. So it is not that traditional free-church Protestant worship (meaning 19th and 20th century) has lost all its power, but its power seems quite diminished.
But consider Christ Church (formerly the Tabernacle of Christian Love, in its previous location) - the independent, charismatic inter-racial congregation that now occupies the glorious building built for Fosdick’s Baptist congregation in Montclair. It is a huge success story – so successful, in fact, that it is threatening to the equilibrium of staid and secular Montclair, most of whose residents say, “Well, they aren’t really from Montclair.” Maybe so., But on a summer vacation Sunday, I left my congregation in the care of a seminarian, while I walked down to Christ Church to find out what the big attraction was.
And it was indeed a big attraction. The sanctuary of Christ Church holds 800 people. It is full for four services – 7 AM, 9 AM, 11 AM, and 1 PM. People wait in the lobby between services. Technologically equipped ushers brandishing head-sets hold back the crowds while worshippers exit, then within minutes, the next congregation is seated, beginning at the front and working back – no empty seats, please. The service lasts one hour and fifty-five minutes. Only five minutes are allowed for the turnaround time. The congregation is significantly racially integrated. The traditional sanctuary, with its prominent, now false, organ pipes, now has video screens imposed upon the pipes, where words to music are displayed. An eclectic orchestra accompanies the congregation as it simply stands and sings for twenty uninterrupted minutes – one song after the other. The lyrics of the songs would be equally appropriate for teen-age romance (“I’m desperate for you!”) or, apparently, for declaring one’s love for God. The congregation is significantly racially integrated. Then there is a solo by a recording artist. The pastor, “Dr. David’, an African American man in his forties, begins a period of prayer. He announces his prayer concern – this Sunday for families. People stand to pray, lifting their hands. Then he asks people to form groups of four, introduce themselves, and pray together, joining their hands. We do. Everyone prays aloud. Then there are announcements about upcoming programs and a call for the offering, during which a soloist sings. And then there is a short scripture lesson (0ne verse: Matthew 18:19 - “And again I say unto you, that if two or three of you shall agree on earth as touching anything they shall ask, it shall be done for them by my Father which is in heaven.”) and a fifty minute sermon by “Doctor David”, who refers to this building as “the cathedral” while promoting plans to raise funds to build a “campus”, where the congregation of 4000 members can be more adequately accommodated and equipped for ministry. The sermon is anecdotal and fragmented; its point is that, in times of transition, it is important to agree. The main point of agreement to be sought is that the new campus should be built.
This is happening in the old First Baptist Church building - the place that was once filled to worship in the style of Harry Emerson Fosdick. Now Fosdick’s congregation is defunct and this is alive. It is definitely alive. And although I was very uncomfortable during the service and did not find it meaningful, I witnessed many people who obviously did want to be there and who seemed to find the spirit of God there.
So what are we to say? Just different strokes for different folks? Is that all? Or can we say that the traditional music, simple liturgy, and thoughtful preaching of reformed Protestantism have lost their power and this is what has replaced it? Is this the new reformation?
(I always like to some to preach here, because the building is usually nearly full. After years of preaching to small congregations in big buildings, this is a nice change. But even here – if we take the students at Dartmouth, most are asleep. They simply do not find worship meaningful. Of those who do attend worship, some are at Catholic mass. Others are at congregations that, in their style, are much more like Christ church than like this church. )
Today’s scripture lesson is very poignant. The Apostle Paul foresaw his own death coming and he wanted to encourage and admonish his companion, Timothy. “I solemnly urge you,” he wrote, “proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires…” When I hear these words, I think not only of Paul, but of Harry Emerson Fosdick, and of his encouragement to me, and of his challenge to the church, and of his continually relevant question: “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Because, you see, the sound doctrine which Paul preached and advocated is not to be confused with the simplistic answers that so many crave. Rather, if Christian faith is to endure, it must be thoughtful, patient, and loving. As Fosdick recognized, these are the true fundamentals that make worship real. Let us conclude with Fosdick’s words – the final words of his famous sermon (“Shall the fundamentalists win?”)
“Never in this church have I caught one accent of intolerance. God keep us always so and ever increasing areas of the Christian fellowship: intellectually hospitable, liberty-loving, fair, tolerant, not with the tolerance of indifference as though we did not care about the faith, but because always our emphasis is on the weightier matters of the law.”