Miracles, Mormons, and Harry Emerson Fosdick: the challenge of inoculation

By April 27, 2008

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. [1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.”[5]

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?[6]

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.

[1]See Robert Moats Miller, Harry Emerson Fosdick: preacher, pastor, prophet (New York: Oxford, 1985) 128-40 on fundamentalism, 335 for King.

[2]Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Modern Use of the Bible (New York: MacMillan, 1924) 60.


[4]Fosdick, Modern Use, 97.

[5]J Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923) 6-7; Miller, 119.

[6] “Defending the Kingdom: how apologetics is reshaping Mormon orthodoxy” Sunstone (May 2004) 22-55.

Article filed under Comparative Mormon Studies Intellectual History Miscellaneous Theology


  1. Great, thoughtful essay, mb. Machen is the guy who wrote the New Testament Greek primer I used in college. his stance on Fosdick doesn’t surprise me–the lessons in my memory were like See Paul run. See Paul preach the true Gospel of Christ to a sinful world.

    I wonder to what extent change is inevitable in religious communities, though. It is possible that inoculation is one way to channel an already incipient change. In this sense the choice is not between coming to terms with more detailed and nuanced history or continuing with a primarily devotional history but between coming to terms and merely failing to come to terms.

    I struggle with this question personally as well. I don’t want to lose the supernatural, but I also want the intersections of supernature and nature to be credible in some important sense.

    Comment by smb — April 27, 2008 @ 9:06 pm

  2. A changed view of the Bible just changed how Christian preachers preached. A changed view of the Book of Mormon would change not only how LDS preaching is done but would also change the superstructure of divine authority that is built on the book and its accompanying story of angelic discovery and divine translation. So a Fosdick-style shift goes deeper for Mormonism than for Protestantism. Which is why FARMS finds the idea so threatening.

    Comment by Dave — April 27, 2008 @ 9:47 pm

  3. I don’t really have much to add, but I enjoyed the fine essay Matt. I do think that all the questions outlined in the paragraph that starts with, “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?” are pretty much self evident.

    Most Mormons are not aware of the issues. Those that are aware, do have differing perspectives and in the case of translation question, I don’t know anyone who maintains a tradition translation schema that understands the current evidence. But who believes that Joseph actually “translated” the Bible in a traditional sense?

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 28, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

  4. Matt,

    I appreciate this thoughtful essay on the stakes of inoculation. This is History at its best–the past employed to help understand the present. I completely agree with you about the possible benefits of inoculation as a spiritual revitalization–though I think it might require an engagement in the complexity of historical inquiry that many non-historians just do not want to make

    Comment by Joel — April 28, 2008 @ 1:02 pm

  5. Matt, you pose a lot of very interesting questions, but I suspect the answer to most of them is “no.” That is, I don’t think more widespread knowledge of the facts you mention necessarily brings about a new interpretation, and that the current interpretive framework is flexible and robust enough to deal with additional information.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — April 28, 2008 @ 1:42 pm

  6. Thanks for this engaging essay, Matt. I suspect that many in the CofC would see their transformations over the last three decades as a Forsdickian revitalization of faith, but in doing so they’ve left many church members on the wayside.

    Comment by David G. — April 28, 2008 @ 1:44 pm

  7. Thanks, folks –

    Sam, yeah, Machen’s Greek manual is still, so I hear, the standard. And I’m sympathetic to your sentiments.

    Dave – I think there’s something to that, though I’d be hesitant to minimize the degree to which Fosdick and other Protestant liberals did, in fact, reinvent Protestant Christianity; for one thing, they completely rethought what atonement meant – a doctrine that’s pretty fundamental to Christianity. I don’t know, actually (as Jonathan points out) that the problem of inoculation actually goes as deep in Mormonism as it does for these Protestants. In terms of Christianity in general, I suspect Mormons are pretty comfortable being basically theologically conservative Christians.

    Stapley – as to your question, I recommend ‘The Book of Mormon Movie.’ Also, the following pictures: here, here, etc. I was taught in Sunday School that ‘by the gift and power of God’ meant something similar to the gift of tongues helping out missionaries in the MTC to learn Spanish.

    Joel – thanks.

    Jonathan – I agree, actually, with the point about robustness; I think Mormonism is quite adaptable. This means, though, that adaptations are possible, and even likely.

    Dave – the CoC is an interesting test case. I think they’ve had something like their own fundamentalist/modernist crisis, complete with the sort of schism from old denominations like the one Machen led.

    Comment by matt b — April 28, 2008 @ 4:35 pm

  8. In the first picture, they are writing a letter to Emma.

    Comment by smb — April 28, 2008 @ 5:13 pm

  9. Matt,
    Interesting thesis. I am not sure you could easily take the Mormonism as understood by the general membership and Fosdickerize them. I think it would create too many problems.

    Second, I understand the points made and nod to a lot of them, within my own family and immediate relations there has been something of a change in attitude over the past few years on the history of the church and the humanity of the individuals within it.

    However, in saying that, I think if you head down the road of reducing the miraculous in Mormonism you will remove the spiritual centre and leave a protestant style church not entire dissimilar from the COC or the RLDS of the 70s and 80s.

    I think Bushman was the way to go with this, I see nothing wrong in suggesting that Joseph was effected by the magical world view of his time which may have helped him to have a more open view of visions and revelations than your modern fellow. The idea that he used “peepstones” to translate or big glasses or whatever does not take away from the miracle of translation. However if you start to chip away at the ancient text, or if you say that Prophets are just guys who were good leaders, Brigham wasnt really prophetic style prophet or that there was no first vision as such, then I feel the church would be unrecognizable.

    This is to some effect what Joseph did to Christianity with Mormonism he challenged the established “facts” of God with his own “facts” he created a whirlwind of change. If you then say it was mostly the vision of brilliant mind, well then is it easier to say the whole thing is just a lot of whoey?

    Zelph, Adam-ondi-ahman are not deal breakers, for me, but if the book of Mormon becomes a nice 19th century document does it not break the ideas of Mormonism?

    As you say, and I guess what I am pointing to, is that it is nearly impossible to seperate the miracles of Joseph from the religion and leave it whole. The CoC in my opinion have done that and it has shattered them to some extent.

    I think J. Stapley and his table he did a few years ago showing where people fell on a scale shows a concept of intellectual understanding of Mormonism. I think if you move the church to where Wendall White is on that scale you are going to have a greatly reduced faith.

    I say all this, a believer in limited flood, limited geography, evolution and understanding that Prophets and Apostles have human nature that does not seperate from them just because they are in a calling thus they are not always correct in all things but are correct in all the ones that matter.

    Comment by JonW — April 29, 2008 @ 12:21 am

  10. I just got back in town and caught up on your posts, Matt. Thanks for the thoughtful post. You raise some great questions regarding inoculation that deserve further attention. I hadn’t thought of it as a means of spiritual revitalization, but quite like the idea and echo Joel’s comment.

    Comment by Christopher — April 29, 2008 @ 12:26 am

  11. I think J. Stapley and his table he did a few years ago showing where people fell on a scale shows a concept of intellectual understanding of Mormonism.

    Maybe a different J.?

    I agree Matt that BOM translation is still grossly missunderstood.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 29, 2008 @ 12:00 pm

  12. Oops my bad Jonathan.

    I realize now that it is not midnight I meant Kevin Barney.

    Reflections on the Documentary Hypothesis
    Dialogue Spring 2000 Vol 33 No 1 page 57-99.

    I also noticed I called him Wendall when I meant O. Kendall White. And the table which puts White in the Secular Liberal range can be found on 62.

    Boot to the head.

    Comment by JonW — April 29, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

  13. link to the article

    Comment by JonW — April 29, 2008 @ 5:11 pm


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