Harry Emerson Fosdick, the founding minister of Riverside Church in New York City, was regarded by Martin Luther King, Jr., as “the greatest preacher of this century” (Papers 4:536). One of liberal Protestantism’s most influential voices, Fosdick was a proponent of ecumenical Christianity, pacifism, and civil rights, whose radio sermons and writings reached millions. King frequently drew on themes and passages from Fosdick’s sermons.
Fosdick was born in Buffalo, New York, and earned his BA at Colgate University (1900), his BD at Union Theological Seminary (1903), and his MA at Columbia University (1908). Fosdick became pastor of New York City’s First Presbyterian Church in 1919. He sparked national controversy in the 1920s for challenging Christian fundamentalism’s literal reading of the Bible and rejection of historical biblical analysis, and was forced to resign from First Presbyterian in 1925 because of it. After his resignation, millionaire John D. Rockefeller, Jr., asked Fosdick to head Park Avenue Baptist Church. When he declined because he did not “want to be known as the pastor of the richest man in the country,” Rockefeller responded: “Do you think that more people will criticize you on account of my wealth than will criticize me on account of your theology?” (Fiske, “Harry Emerson Fosdick Dies”). Fosdick accepted on the condition that the church be nondenominational, and the nonsectarian Riverside Church was born.
As Riverside’s pastor until 1946, and a professor of practical theology at Union Theological Seminary, Fosdick was a visible proponent of social gospel Christianity. Fosdick greatly influenced King’s commitment to the social gospel, and his mark is apparent in King’s sermons. King repeatedly echoed Fosdick’s call that the Christian church should “be a fountainhead of a better social order” and that “any religion that pretends to care for the souls of people but is not interested in the slums that damn them, the city government that corrupts them, and the economic order that cripples them” is, in King’s words, “a dry, passive do nothing religion in need of new blood” (Papers 6:176).
In a copy of his own 1958 memoir of the boycott, Stride Toward Freedom, King inscribed, “If I were called upon to select the foremost prophets of our generation, I would choose you to head the list” (King, November 1958). After receiving the book, Fosdick replied, “We are all unpayably in your debt, not only for what you did but for putting the story down where thousands of people can read it” (Papers 4:537).