Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) was born in Buffalo, New York, graduating from Colgate University in 1900 and Union Theological Seminary in 1904. He had already been ordained a Baptist minister a year prior at Manhattan’s Madison Avenue Baptist Church.
The year he graduated, he was called to the First Baptist Church in Montclair, New Jersey (now called Christ Church), and served there until 1915. During World War I, Fosdick became an army chaplain and went to France – years later repenting of his support for the war. He returned to the US in 1918 and accepted a call to New York’s First Presbyterian Church.
Two things were happening that would determine the course of his future life. In 1921, his brother Raymond started a 30-year stint as director of the Rockefeller Foundation. This brought the young minister to the attention of John D Rockefeller, whose Court Preacher he essentially became.
The second was Fosdick’s intervention in the Modernist/Fundamentalist controversy then roiling American Protestantism. As a Union Theological Seminary graduate, Fosdick was most certainly in the former camp, and in 1922 delivered a highly controversial sermon – “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” – in which he declared that the Bible was not the literal Word of God but a record of man’s self-revelation; he also championed evolution.
He escaped a trial by the Presbyterian Church through resigning his charge two years later, and Rockefeller immediately installed him as pastor of his own church, Park Avenue Baptist Church (as well as printing and distributing Fosdick’s sermons nationwide).
In 1930, Rockefeller built the interdenominational Riverside Church and appointed Fosdick as head of that congregation. Seven years later, Fosdick conducted Rockefeller’s funeral. Fosdick wrote numerous books, and his sermons were broadcast across America.