Document: Harry Emerson Fosdick meets the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints

By April 24, 2008

Harry Emerson Fosdick was among the most popular preachers and writers of the first half of the twentieth century. He’s particularly known for a trilogy of devotional works called “The Three Meanings:” The Meaning of Prayer, the Meaning of Faith, the Meaning of Service. These books have sold millions of copies; there are reports that Gandhi read them in prison; and they’re still in print today.

Despite Fosdick’s high profile,* however, it was the RLDS, not Harold B. Lee or J. Reuben Clark, who stepped up to the plate to represent Mormonism to Fosdick. The below is from Series IIB, Box 2, Folder 10 in the Fosdick Papers at the Burke Library, Union Theological Seminary, New York City. It’s dated February 7, 1945, under an RLDS letterhead.

Reverend Sir:

Our attention has been called to a statement in your book, The Meaning of Faith. In writing concerning the Book of Mormon you say:

“As for the Mormon Bible, God buried the plates on which he wrote, said Smith, and then disclosed their hiding place, and his prophet translated them verbatim, so that the Mormon book is literally inerrant.”

We are sure you do not wish to be inaccurate, and so we call your attention to the fact that no claim was ever made that God either wrote on the plates or buried them. The plates were made by men and buried by men. The only claim of divinity is in respect to the translation, Joseph Smith alleging that God aided him by giving him the meaning of the characters used.

So far as the records are concerned, they themselves may have been in error, as all human effort is apt to be, although those who made the plates claimed to be priests of God and acting under inspiration of God.

Yours sincerely,

The First Presidency

Signed/F. Smith

Fosdick marked the letter “Keep, but no answer.”

——-
*More on this in a later post.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Comparative Mormon Studies From the Archives Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Fascinating document, Matt. Any idea how this compares with LDS discourses about the Book of Mormon during the 1940s?

    Comment by David G. — April 24, 2008 @ 12:39 pm

  2. Interesting, Matt. I was struck by the sincerity shown in the letter. I would hope that if a similar letter would have been sent by LDS leaders in that time period it would have been equally sincere and straight-forward.

    Comment by Ben — April 24, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

  3. I’m just curious as to what you mean by “represent Mormonism” to Fosdick. Are you implying that it would have been unlikely that LDS leaders would not have been aware of Fosdick’s books, and this one in particular that makes specific reference to Mormonism? Or is it likely that this reference simply escaped their notice? If the former is the case then it would appear that you find it odd that LDS leaders did not respond to Fosdick’s inaccurate retelling of the origins and the status of the Book of Mormon in LDS thought. If he wrote the book in the early 20th century and Mormons knew about the reference then it does seem a little strange that someone like BH Roberts did not write a long polemic to Fosdick in reponse. Of course, given Roberts’s reservations about Book of Mormon studies at the time, this may not be so very strange after all.

    Then again, perhaps there was an internal response by LDS leaders. I wonder if one perused official church publications from the time in question if we wouldn’t find this issue being addressed to the general church membership in some way. But even if church leadership was aware of Fosdick’s misrepresentation, it is not out of the way to suggest that they were being extra careful at this period in LDS history, within two or three decades of the official demise of polygamy, only a couple decades at most from the Smoot hearings. Given efforts at assimilation into mainstream American society at this time, they may not have seen it wise to engage a major liberal Protestant figure like Fosdick on something as controversial and conversation-stopping as Book of Mormon origins.

    But anyway, from what I read in your post, I’m not convinced that LDS leaders were even aware of Fosdick’s gaffe. I doubt a substantial number of LDS were reading liberal Protestant literature. Do you have any more info about the RLDS exposure to Fosdick’s work and the reason’s for their response? It’s still fascinating history…

    Comment by Jacob B. — April 24, 2008 @ 3:09 pm

  4. No clue, David, though I noted at once the hesitancy in the letter: words like “alleged,” and “claimed” makes me wonder how the RLDS were thinking about the BoM, even as early as the 1940s. This may be related to the sincerity that Ben sees.

    Fosdick also interests me; one thing his letters reveal is that he replied to everyone. Random people in Minnesota who wrote to say “I like your books” got a sincere and non-form letter reply. I wonder if this is a signal that Mormons (of any stripe) had not yet crossed the respectability threshold for him. He was, among other things, no fan of what he believed to be sectarianism; perhaps he saw that here.

    Comment by matt b — April 24, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

  5. Jacob – No sign yet of any mountain Saint response to Fosdick; I’m sure they were aware of him, but it’s entirely possible nobody bothered. I’m sure someone in SLC read it (even Heber Grant was reading Protestant devotional literature by this point), though. It’s possible, though, that those most likely to respond (like Roberts) didn’t bother with devotional books.

    The Meaning of Faith, it’s worth noting, was published some twenty years before this letter was written; that makes the RLDS rather late.

    Comment by matt b — April 24, 2008 @ 3:16 pm

  6. Fosdick would have been much more accurate had he characterized the Mormon view of scripture the same way he defined the “Christian idea of the Bible.”

    Comment by Justin — April 24, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

  7. Mr. Smith and Mr. Fosdick should have been very good friends.

    Comment by Todd Wood — April 24, 2008 @ 5:10 pm

  8. Interesting find — I like the “keep, but no answer” notation, especially.

    I wouldn’t think that Fred M. Smith’s use of words like “alleged” and “claiming” imply that he wasn’t a sincere believer in the Book of Mormon. Fred M. was highly educated and had a Ph.D. in a time when they were even more rare. I think he’s using this kind of language to illustrate that he’s an academic insider competent to make scholarly corrections when he sees errors.

    Comment by John Hamer — April 24, 2008 @ 6:58 pm

  9. That makes sense, John – it is noteworthy that Smith’s qualifications apply primarily to God’s role in the production of the book, but he is quite straightforward about assuming its historicity.

    Comment by matt b. — April 24, 2008 @ 7:20 pm

  10. Justin – want to say a bit more? I’d actually think most Mormons would be rather skeptical of Fosdick’s ideas about the Bible. (This is my next post, so I’ll leave my own elaboration to it.)

    Comment by matt b. — April 24, 2008 @ 7:29 pm

  11. Justin – want to say a bit more? I’d actually think most Mormons would be rather skeptical of Fosdick’s ideas about the Bible.

    Okay. I know very little regarding his ideas about the Bible. I’m referring to what he wrote in The Meaning of Faith immediately following his (mis)characterization of the Mormon view of the Book of Mormon:

    “Inspiration is never represented in Scripture as verbal dictation where human powers and limitations are suspended, so that like a phonographic plate the result is a mechanical reproduction of the words of God. Rather God spoke to man through their experience as they were able to understand him, and as a result the great Christian Book…represents alike the inbreathing of the Divine and the limitation of the human.”

    Comment by Justin — April 25, 2008 @ 11:34 am

  12. That’s very Mormon, true – even down to the D&C paraphrase. Where Fosdick ran with it, though – another story entirely. (To tease – he seems unwilling to take a stand on whether God’s voice ever actually appears unequivocally in scripture at all.)

    Comment by matt b. — April 25, 2008 @ 8:14 pm


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