Primary Sources for the Presbyterian Masses

The Modernist Controversy through a Journalist’s Eyes, Part VII (1933)

In Harry Emerson Fosdick, Modernism, Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., Samuel G. Craig on 20/06/2009 at 13:50

Part VII.

How far one paper went to rally Presbyterians to the defense of their heritage probably is still better shown in the events of 1922 and 1923. It was then that Drs. H.E. Fosdick, W.P. Merrill and H.S. Coffin, with a co-operating press within and without the Church, formed an apparently invincible leadership that threatened to break down permanently the Presbyterian Church’s corporate testimony to God’s Word. It is difficult to describe the turmoil and passion that culminated in this onslaught.

The Presbyterian focused attention upon reports of the ebb and flow of opinion. The words of evangelical pastors like John F. Carson, Maitland Alexander, Clarence E. Macartney and W.D. Buchanan were printed, imploring the Church to stand firm; and space was wisely given to the replies of their at last confident opponents. There was good news from mass meetings held for the defense of the faith, and bad news from sections of the Presbyterian Church which turned to Drs. Fosdick, Merrill and Coffin as the Children of Israel turned to Aaron at Mount Sinai. Letters from aroused and devoted Christians were as polemic as the Epistles of Paul and they were published in every number, five and six a week. Editorials were on fire with messages of faith and courage.

Both sides looked to the General Assembly of 1923 for a decision that should determine the question put by Dr. Fosdick, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” By “Fundamentalists” he meant orthodox Christians who believe the Bible, and by “win” he meant particularly the enforcement of Presbyterian standards upon ministers like himself who thought fragments of God’s Word contained the truth but considered a great deal of it, perhaps most of it, to be pious folk-lore and myth. We are not boasting of an understanding of the conscience of Dr. Fosdick and his champions but only their outstanding purpose. That purpose was ecclesiastical anarchy.

Dr. Fosdick was not a Presbyterian minister. Strictly speaking, he was a “guest-preacher” at the First Presbyterian Church in New York. But by reason of the notoriety usually attaching to shouts of defiance he had attracted a following and his pulpit had become a sounding-board, a national broadcasting station which Presbyterians throughout the nation were compelled to heed whether they wanted to or not. His supporters contended for Dr. Fosdick’s right to preach as he pleased to the constituency they had established for him. This was the Liberal proposal in 1923 and the prospect of securing for it at least the tacit approval of the General Assembly, was favorable. Strong influences were working in its behalf; against it stood The Presbyterian, immovable, unbending; backed by evangelical churchmen.

When the decision came at last, it was a sweeping vindication of Gospel preaching and teaching, and was all that earnest Christian people had prayed for. The General Assembly solemnly enjoined the Church to a strict observance of its basic law and reaffirmed every article in the Confession of Faith which Dr. Fosdick had disputed. When Dr. Merrill, a Fosdick leader, subsequently sought re-election to the Board of Foreign Missions, Dr. Carson was chosen in his stead and Dr. Fosdick himself presently withdrew to the welcoming and congenial fellowship provided by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., where he belongs and whence he needed never to have strayed. The crisis had passed.

The summing up of results in 1923 might stop with this resounding Presbyterian answer to Dr. Fosdick’s rhetorical question. It is the proper climax of the episode. A great denomination had been saved from open default to the most formidable and consequential invasion of unbelief in our times. If The Presbyterian owned a Covenanter flag, and if that flag floated from the office window on a certain afternoon in May, 1923, there was justification for it. On our earthly pilgrimage there are occasions when

“. . . .Strife is fierce, the battle long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.”

It is right to make the most of them.

macartneyOne minor incident, however, marred the ultimate results of the otherwise satisfactory General Assembly of 1923. Two ministers were candidates for Moderator in 1924, Dr. Clarence E. Macartney, who had honored the Church and distinguished himself in the Fosdick discussions, and Dr. Charles R. Erdman, who then was estimated as a man opposed to meeting the thrusts of Modernism with anything approaching Dr. Macartney’s positive action. Individually the two men were regarded with esteem by all evangelical Presbyterians; in policy they were accounted leagues apart.

Dr. Fosdick’s adherents and some staunchly orthodox Commissioners gave their voice and vote to Dr. Erdman’s candidacy, but Dr. Macartney, as unpliable in the situation as John Knox, manifestly was the man for the hour and he was elected Moderator. Sad to relate, the victory was bought at a price. From that day the friends of Dr. Erdman walked no more with the friends of Dr. Macartney. The next crisis in the Church was to find the former group aligned with President J. Ross Stevenson in the re-making of Princeton Theological Seminary. Upon this almost incredible contingency a tragedy was to take root and bear bitter fruit. The tragedy’s prelude was the rise of the Auburn Affirmation, and the white-washing of that heretical pronunciamento by the Committee of Fifteen appointed by Dr. Erdman when he attained the Moderatorship in 1925. Its aftermath is a weakened Church.

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