The concept of self in the preaching of Harry Emerson Fosdick

by Milioni, Dwayne, Ph.D., SOUTHEASTERN BAPTIST THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY, 2011, 231 pages; 3464015


Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878–1969) championed liberal, Protestant Christianity during the first half of the twentieth century. He was a preacher, professor, national radio spokesman, and writer. Fosdick lived in New York City, and his preaching ministry spanned the decades from the 1920s through the 1940s.

While in college, Fosdick revolted against the Protestant orthodoxy of his day. He chose a modern view of scripture and spent his life pursuing an intellectual justification for the Christian faith. He believed that the Bible should always be taken seriously, though not always literally. He would become the spokesman for the liberal side of the Fundamentalist controversy.

Fosdick developed an audience-centered approach to his preaching. He called it the "project method," and described it in his famous article, "What Is the Matter with Preaching?" He was convinced that sermons should tackle everyday problems and meet felt needs, much like personal counseling. Fosdick preached for faith, believing that every person had the potential to comprehend God. For Fosdick, faith was not defined as an orthodox system of theology, but as an individual, psychological experience.

With the financial support of John D. Rockefeller Jr., Fosdick became pastor of the Riverside Church in Manhattan. He led Riverside to become a "personality-centered" church. He taught that the genius of Christianity lies in its reverence for personality, and the best example of personality was modeled by Jesus of Nazareth. For Fosdick, Jesus possessed all the essential characteristics of what it means to be a real person. He did not accept Jesus as the Divine Savior, but rather as the central figure in the saving process of humanity.

Fosdick's person-centered approach to ministry is seen clearly in his individual counseling, which he considered a Protestant version of the Catholic confessional. Personal counseling was so important to Fosdick that he often considered it more valuable than his preaching. He did not receive formal training in psychology, but gained insight from the writings of psychologist William James. His understanding of self-concept developed over several decades and is evident in his books, Christianity and Progress, As I See Religion, and On Being a Real Person.

Fosdick employed certain concepts to describe his self-theory, which can be summarized by the terms: wholeness, progress, experience, self-regard, and realness. This study revealed how Fosdick, as one of the early synthesizers of self-theory, promoted a concept of self in his preaching. This was accomplished by analyzing Fosdick's sermon manuscripts to determine if a self-theory can be derived from them.

The sermon manuscripts used for this study came primarily from the Harry Emerson Fosdick Collection, located in the Burke Library Archives at Union Theological Seminary, New York. A total of 157 sermons were analyzed. Each sermon manuscript was listed on a grid, along with additional columns to identify where Fosdick employed his self-concept terminology. Once Fosdick's concept of self was determined from his preaching, Fosdick's legacy as a preacher was discussed along with a potential connection between the self-theories of Harry Emerson Fosdick and Carl R. Rogers.

AdvisersWayne McDill; Keith Harper
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsReligion; Religious history; Pastoral counseling
Publication Number3464015

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