Monday, April 23, 2007


5. Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969)

One of the most influential preachers of the century, Fosdick's ministry coincided with the growth of radio, contributing to his national prominence. As pastor of New York's Riverside Church, he was minister to the Rockefellers and other prominent business and civic leaders, yet he was known as an advocate of social change.

Considered by many to be the finest pulpit orator of his generation, Fosdick has had a continuing influence on the shape of American preaching into the present day. He was a practitioner of what he called "life situation preaching," a homiletical model which focused the sermon on human need and climaxed in a call to human action. Though his homiletical approach grew out of his own liberal theological views, his model gave a new shape to American preaching, including much evangelical preaching.


"My first introduction to Harry Emerson Fosdick was at Stetson University in Deland, Florida, while a student there. That was back in the days when chapel was required of students. Preachers from around the area were invited to speak. This was a good education for a young man preparing for the ministry because we heard many sermon styles and many forms of delivery. On one particular Wednesday morning, I was arrested out of my boredom during chapel by a particularly stimulating sermon brought to us by one of the leading "Fundamentalists" in our area. This sermon was thoughtful, incisive, communicated quite well, and used scripture in an unusually intelligent way. It was not like so many sermons I had endured in which the preacher had laboriously beaten us over the head with unexamined propositions, but rather it was focused directly upon our needs, took us by the hand and led us in to the scriptures as the answer to the needs the pastor was discussing.

After chapel, I was discussing the sermon with one of my professors. He acknowledged that it was an exceptionally good sermon. But he commented to me that it was unusual to hear that sermon coming from that preacher because the preacher had spent a great deal of his ministery fighting "modernism." Then he went on to tell me the other reason the sermon was so unusual; it was one of Harry Emerson Fosdick's sermons, and Fosdick was the leading "modernist" of the time. He proceeded to go to his library, pulled out a book by Fosdick and opened it to the exact page and showed me the sermon. I had trouble putting all this together but I did know there was something about this sermon that was different.

Later in seminary as we began to study great preachers, I discovered Fosdick as an oasis in a dry desert. I read everything by Fosdick I could get my hands on. I saw in Fosdick, not a source of sermons but a dimension of preaching that had been withheld from me in my early development. Here were delightful subjects, well researched, magnificently focused and artistically presented, from an obvious preacher who was profoundly committed to the Christian gospel and to the church of Jesus Christ.

Like other preachers, I have stolen my share of Fosdick's sermons. I'll admit it, but so has every other preacher, whatever his theological stripe may be. But there comes a time when you can't live off another person's work. You can't be David in Saul's armor. Fosdick taught me to lighten up, not to take myself too seriously, but to take the gospel and the preaching of the gospel very seriously, and to communicate. For this, each time I step into the pulpit, I know that in one way or another, my congregation owes a great debt to him. (William L. Self, Pastor, Johns Creek Baptist Church, Alpharetta, GA)


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