Sunday, May 24, 2009

Harry Emerson Fosdick

Harry Emerson Fosdick (May 24, 1878 - October 5, 1969) was one of the most famous ministers of his time. Born in Buffalo, NY, he graduated from Colgate University and Union Seminary and was ordained in the Baptist church in 1903. He was widely acclaimed for his preaching and was hired as pastor by the First Presbyterian Church in NYC even though he was a Baptist.

At First Presbyterian his preaching drew crowds to the church-- sometimes there was a two-hour line to get in. However, in 1923 a sermon titled Shall the Fundamentalists Win? was not well-received by the Presbyterian hierarchy and Fosdick resigned in 1924 to avoid formal censure at a church trial. He was immediately hired by the Park Avenue Baptist Church largely due to the influence of philanthopist
John D. Rockefeller Jr., who envisioned an important future for that church. Funded by Rockefeller millions, the Park Avenue Baptist Church under Fosdick's leadership became the interdenominational Riverside Church, moving into a vast new building (pictured below) overlooking the Hudson River in 1930.

Today's hymn was written by Fosdick for the dedication service of Riverside Church and has become one of the most widely-known and loved hymns of the twentieth century. I randomly pulled out six or seven hymnals of the last twenty years from varying denominations and every one included this hymn. Its message of social justice is as timely today as when it was written.

God of grace and God of glory,
On thy people pour thy power.
Crown thine ancient church’s story,
Bring its bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the facing of this hour,
For the facing of this hour.

Lo! the hosts of evil ’round us,
Scorn thy Christ, assail thy 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.

Cure thy children’s warring madness,
Bend our pride to thy control.
Shame our wanton selfish gladness,
Rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Lest we miss the Savior’s goal,
Lest we miss the Savior’s goal.

Set our feet on lofty places,
Gird our lives that they may be,
Armored with all Christ-like graces,
In the fight to set us free.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
That we fail not earth nor thee,
That we fail not earth nor thee.

Save us from weak resignation,
To the evils we deplore.
Let the search for thy salvation,
Be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Serving thee whom we adore,
Serving thee whom we adore.

Harry Emerson Fosdick, 1930; alt.
John Hughes, 1907

This hymn was first sung to the tune REGENT SQUARE by Henry Smart, but John Hughes's CWM RHONDDA (previously seen and heard on the blog) has become the accepted tune, used perhaps as early as the Methodist Hymnal of 1935. Though Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote three other hymns they are all but unknown today. His autobiography took its title from this text: The Living of These Days (1956).

Fosdick remained at Riverside Church until retiring in 1946. His radio program, The National Vesper Hour was heard across the country for nineteen years. He published more than forty books and sermon collections and several are still in print today. Though conflict over a sermon had driven him from the First Presbyterian Church, today on their website they honor his preaching ministry.

He did become more conservative in later years, believing that the Great Depression, the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin, and World War II raised questions about the essential goodness of humanity, and that modernism could "water down" the reality of God. "What Christ does to modern culture is to challenge it," he wrote, though this was not really in opposition to the words of his famous hymn: Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.

One Year Ago: Emily Divine Wilson


Leland Bryant Ross said...

One of my favorites, and the first text I learned to Cwm Rhondda (it was years before I learned the second, "Guide me, O thou great Jehovah"). Fosdick was a hero in the liberal Baptist circles I was raised in, and I still have a couple of his books I inherited from my dad.

Dorothy said...

Riverside Church! Another well remembered landmark from my nursing school days at St. Luke's! Thanks for filling in some of the history of it, C.W.S. I wasn't quite so interested in that back in those days.

Oh, and I love that hymn!