Five years before the 1920s, a decade in which he did a least as much as John T. Scopes to instigate warfare between Protestant liberals and fundamentalists, and fifty years before Martin Luther King praised him as the greatest preacher of the century, the Baptist minister Harry Emerson Fosdick was appointed to the Jessup Chair in Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary. 
Fosdick was not really an original thinker, but he was a master teacher and popularizer. And, perhaps because of the agonies that he struggled through on his own route to faith, he had a powerful understanding of the anxieties that plagued his age. Because of the new Biblical criticism, Fosdick wrote,
The old use of the Bible became impossible to many preachers who, as much as ever was true of their fathers, believed in Jesus Christ as the world’s Saviour and wanted to proclaim his Gospel as the power of God unto salvation.
In other words, these preachers – like Fosdick himself – believed passionately in God revealed in Christ. But they no longer accepted the accuracy of Biblical history. And they did not know what to do.
They could not accept an Earth six thousand years old. They saw plot discrepancies among the Gospels, cultural contingency in Paul, and doubted the possibility of the Bible’s reports of certain miracles, of violence waged in God’s name, of Biblical prophecy. They secretly doubted if virgin births were possible, could not believe in the God who struck down the Amorites, and believed that there were two (or more) Isaiahs. And they wondered if they could still be Christians.
It was their faith that Fosdick sought, with the support of Union, to save. He set out what he called ‘the modern use of the Bible’ – a new intellectual construct in which the Bible could remain central and powerful. As Fosdick complained, these preachers now approached the Bible with fear, snipping out excerpts while evading the parts which made them uncomfortable and about which they had no idea what to teach.
Because of this timid use of the Bible, Fosdick mourned, Protestant preaching
has been intellectually loose jointed and rickety. It has evaded real questions. . . It has let the church drift before the breezes of inspirational preaching upon the rocks of intellectual confusion. We are paying for it in the loss of our intelligent young people.
Rather than tiptoeing around the problems of history, Fosdick proclaimed
Our first need as preachers is not that scholars should be easy on us, obscuring the contrasts of which we have been speaking. Our chief need is that scholars should make us so familiar with the contrasts that we shall take them for granted.
Such preaching, which openly engaged with the challenges of the new scholarship, would actually be more real and vital, claimed Fosdick, because it would force preachers to engage with the fundamental themes of the Bible rather than proof-texting or drawing simplistic didactic fables from it. Fosdick saw the Bible in developmental terms; it revealed the inspired evolution of human morality, from the tribalism and brutality of the ancient Near East to the transcendent life and awesome sacrifice of Christ; it invited us all upon a similar journey of faith. This neatly co-opted the threat of the new scholarship; it defanged the threat of history by assimilating it into the pulpit message itself, and – as Fosdick had hoped – it saved Christianity for thousands of Americans who believed themselves faced with an either/or dilemma.
But it would also subtly alter Christian theology, albeit in a way Fosdick found desirable. His Christ, as was typical of early twentieth century Protestant liberals, revealed God in his life as much as in his death; his Christianity was as much about morality, ethics, and self-actualization in one’s life as it was about being saved after one’s death. Thousands of conservative Protestants reviled Fosdick for this reinterpretation; some even branded him not a Christian at all. As the conservative Presbyterian J. Gresham Machen sniffed, Fosdick’s faith was “a religion so entirely different from Christianity as to belong to a distinct category.” Machen offered suggestions: “utter agnosticism,” “empty sentimentality,” “pragmatic skepticism.”
But what Fosdick was doing, clearly, was a form of inoculation. We’ve heard these themes before: the dissonance born of ignoring history; dissatisfaction with lessons that caricature or ignore the past; even fears that such strategies are costing the faith in membership. Mormon luminaries like Richard Bushman, Blake Ostler, and Kevin Barney advocate a deeper treatment of troubling historical issues within the friendly and authoritative arenas of the official Church and/or by prominent faithful members. The truth holds nothing to fear; indeed, it can even deepen and support the faith.
Fosdick’s story, however, demands us of a closer examination of what exactly inoculation accomplishes, and what Christianity at the other end might look like. Though we should be careful of too easily caricaturing his real and deep faith, Fosdick was prepared to sacrifice an Edenic creation, angelic messengers, miraculous healings, and the Resurrection; in short, to reconceive what it meant to be a Christian. He did not see this as problematic, ‘watered-down’ religion; rather, he argued he was penetrating to the heart of what faith meant, and stripping away superstition. He de-emphasized doctrinal orthodoxy (and such nettlesome accompanying issues like atonement theory, denominational barriers, and sacramental theology) in favor of Christianity as a Spirit-filled, virtuous, triumphant life within a sacramental community.
The leaders of Mormon inoculation have not come to Fosdick’s seemingly extreme conclusions about sacred history. But it’s interesting to wonder what effects inoculation might have on what Mormonism means to its members, and hard to not, perhaps, come to the conclusion that it may reduce and humble the robust claims of traditional Mormonism in the same way that Fosdick did those of traditional Christianity. I do not see the supernatural vanish from an inoculated Mormonism, let me be clear; but I do see reduced claims about it. Traditional Mormon history is providential; its prime inhabitant is God. In inoculated Mormon history, we must be prepared for humans to appear.
Would a more detailed knowledge of, say, the Chandler papyri force everyday Mormons to rethink the authorship of the Book of Abraham, or by extension, the word ‘translation’ and the nature of Joseph’s scriptures themselves? Would deeper dissemination of information about the failures of Joseph Smith or the repudiated theologies of Brigham Young spark a culture-wide rethinking of just how frequently prophets speak as such, and a more humble set of claims? Would thorough familiarity with peepstones and dowsing make us wonder about the ways the divine is mediated to us? Would a more thorough discussion of polygamy or the history of sealing shake our confidence in how well we know what eternal marriage is? Or, to refer to John-Charles Duffy’s example in a related topic (apologetics), how soon before all Mormons accept the limited geography thesis, and we have to explain away how Joseph Smith used the term ‘Lamanite’ as a matter of course?
In short, will inoculation inevitably narrow the Mormon sacred canopy; limit the omniscience and omnipotence of the faith of popular claims; make staunchly objective Mormons cede just an inch to the demon of historical contingency?
And in what way does this transform the faith? Perhaps not at all; perhaps in merely subtle ways.
Or, perhaps, positively; rather than reading inoculation as a defensive strategy, perhaps we can take a page from Fosdick’s book. It may offer a potential for a type of spiritual revitalization; one more humanistic than we are accustomed to. It may produce Mormons more deeply engaged with their own past as Fosdick hoped for Christians re-engaged with the Bible; Mormons with a living sense of their cultural and religious inheritance, with a sense of identity charged as much with an enriched and real genealogy as with the simple moral boundaries that today form so much Mormons’ sense of uniqueness. This was Fosdick’s dream for Christians – to awaken to the vitality of their faith in their personalities – and it is, I think, as good as any a reason to study and share our Mormon past.
See Robert Moats Miller, Harry Emerson Fosdick: preacher, pastor, prophet (New York: Oxford, 1985) 128-40 on fundamentalism, 335 for King.
Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Modern Use of the Bible (New York: MacMillan, 1924) 60.
Fosdick, Modern Use, 97.
J Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923) 6-7; Miller, 119.
 “Defending the Kingdom: how apologetics is reshaping Mormon orthodoxy” Sunstone (May 2004) 22-55.