This weekend is the 100th Anniversary of one of the most famous sermons in the 20th century. Harry Emerson Fosdick, a Mouse Island summer resident, preached the sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” on May 21, 1922, at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. Fosdick created a national religious controversy defending modern views of scripture which accept discoveries in science, history, and social sciences. Fosdick believed religious knowledge was not set in stone but progressed and grew like other fields of expertise. He thought the Bible revealed the ongoing understanding of God rather than a set of rules. The sermon was a plea for religious tolerance and what Fosdick called “an intellectually hospitable, tolerant, liberty-loving church.” The address for this Sunday, by Rev. Todd Weir, will reflect on how relevant Fosdick’s sermon remains today and explores how religious tolerance is possible in our polarized times.
Fosdick’s hope for understanding and tolerance was in vain. The following Sunday, a neighboring Presbyterian pastor, Clarence Edward Macartney, preached a sermon titled, “Shall Unbelief Win?” The New York Presbytery launched an investigation into Fosdick’s doctrinal views, and he resigned from Fifth Avenue Presbyterian in 1924. He was quickly called by Park Avenue Baptist Church, where John D. Rockefeller attended. Rockefeller donated the funds to build a new church, which became Riverside Church in New York City. At Riverside, Fosdick became one of the most influential preachers of the 20th century and wrote numerous books and a national radio broadcast.
Fosdick was a frequent summer preacher here at the Boothbay Congregational Church. We have a robe in our archives he gave to the church's pastor. His extended family purchased land on Mouse Island in 1919 and completed three cottages on the island in 1924. He spent summers reading and reflecting at Mouse and was known to be a decent boatman. Fosdick met many people in Maine who greatly influenced his career. John D. Rockefeller summered in Seal Harbor, Maine and the two visited each other frequently. They formed plans to build Riverside Church while the two walked through the woods on Mouse Island. Fosdick once wrote of Mouse:
"It is far enough from the mainland so that we can live an entirely unsophisticated life. That is to say; a man can put on a flannel shirt in the morning and go to bed in it at night if he feels like it."
Colleagues at Fosdick’s funeral said that he stayed humble despite his great celebrity, which allowed him to connect so well with people in his sermons. This common touch was likely influenced by his summers at Mouse Island, shaping his character and gifts.