One hundred years ago, Harry Emerson Fosdick preached one of the most controversial sermons of the 20th century. Delivered on May 21, 1922, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” immediately ignited a national firestorm. Today, historians remember it as a defining moment in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920s. The occasion of the infamous message, however, has been largely forgotten.

Fosdick, reared in a conservative Baptist home, preached with the annual gathering of the Northern Baptist Convention—meeting just three weeks later—squarely in his sights. Formed in 1907, the Northern Baptist Convention was still a relatively young denomination in 1922. Yet tensions between the NBC’s fundamentalist and modernist factions had been escalating since the end of World War I. The modernists were eager to update the Christian faith with contemporary ideas about evolutionary science and the historical-critical study of the Bible. In the process, they radically altered or discarded many tenets of traditional theology, from the complete accuracy of the Scriptures to the bodily resurrection of Jesus. The modernist project had begun within Baptist colleges and seminaries in the late 19th century; by 1922, it had progressed into many of the denomination’s leading churches.

Standing in their path were the fundamentalists, described by their own Curtis Lee Laws as “aggressive conservatives who feel that it is their duty to contend for the faith.” Alarmed at the rapid advance of liberal theology in American culture and in their denomination (northern Presbyterians, led by J. Gresham Machen, waged
a simultaneous battle throughout the decade), a diverse assortment of these “aggressive conservatives” banded together after the Great War to recover what they had lost.

Both factions in the Northern Baptist Convention sensed that their 1922 annual meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, would determine the future of the denomination. The modernists had clearly been on the ascent for more than a decade, but many in their number, including Fosdick, feared a reversal in Indianapolis. To pull it off, the fundamentalists would need an orthodox confession of faith.

Decline of Baptist Confessionalism

By this time, Baptists on both sides of the Atlantic had adopted written summaries of their beliefs for centuries. In America, the most popular confessions included the Philadelphia (1742) and Charleston Confessions (1767), both restatements of the Second London Confession (1689). The more moderately Calvinistic New Hampshire Confession of Faith (1833) had also gained a wide following in the latter 20th century. There had always been some American Baptists who resisted the use of confessions on principle—especially those who had suffered under a state-enforced creed at the hands of some established church. But for many Baptists, written confessions were a standard feature of church and associational life, and provided a host of practical benefits.

Curtis Lee Laws attempted to educate the readers of the Watchman and Observer on the Baptist confessional heritage in 1921. “From time to time our Baptist fathers put forth confessions of faith, thus declaring and defining their principles,” Laws explained. In years past, Baptists had used confessions not as “creeds to which they demanded allegiance, but standards about which they might rally.” Baptist confessions were never meant to supplant the Bible, but to faithfully summarize its contents for instruction, for evangelism, for a bulwark against error and heresy. Laws, speaking for his fellow fundamentalists, called for a confessional renewal in the NBC. The time had come, he declared, “when Baptists should once again announce to the world their beliefs, when a standard should be raised.”

Of course, Laws knew that his proposal was controversial. Denominational modernists scorned the old confessions as useless relics. Generally speaking, they emphasized a universal religious experience over precise doctrinal formulations. Furthermore, the specific doctrines which the old creeds asserted were an embarrassment to modern men and women—either ridiculous (as with the virgin birth of Christ), or morally repugnant (as was the case with his penal substitutionary atonement).

In this progressive age, Baptist modernists gravitated toward the practical religion of the Social Gospel (promulgated by northern Baptist Walter Rauschenbusch) and the ecumenical impulses that gave rise to the Federal Council of Churches (1908) and the Inter-church World Movement (1918). Within this milieu, the dogmatism of the fundamentalists seemed rigid, mean-spirited, and just plain backward.

Two New Visions of Baptist Identity

Along with these common objections to confessions, Baptist modernists now frequently raised the issue of “soul liberty.” Since the days of Thomas Helwys and Roger Williams, Baptists had championed the sacred right of the individual to believe and to worship according to his or her own conscience, without interference from any coercive religious authority. After all, each man and woman must stand alone on the day of judgment, and acts of faith must be voluntary to be genuine. These deeply held convictions regarding “soul liberty” had compelled early American Baptists like Isaac Backus and John Leland to fight against the establishment of a state church, and for the free exercise of religion, as basic human rights.

By the 1920s, modernist Baptists were increasingly enlisting this heritage of soul liberty in their arguments against confessionalism. To require belief in any extra-biblical confession of faith, they argued, constituted the same religious coercion against which their Baptist fathers had contended.

Historian Barry Hankins recently pointed to Crozer Seminary president Milton H. Evans as an illustration. In 1921, fundamentalists attempted to oust liberal church history professor Henry C. Vedder from the Crozer faculty (Vedder had brazenly declared that “The whole ‘plan of salvation’ of the orthodox theology seemed a tissue of intellectual absurdities and ethical impossibilities.”). Yet Evans scoffed at fundamentalists who attempted to hold Vedder accountable to a confession of faith. “There can be no such thing as a heresy trial in the Baptist denomination,” he declared, for, unlike the Presbyterians, Baptists “have no authorized or standard confession of faith.” The rejection of creedalism in the name of individual soul liberty, he argued, was at the heart of Baptist identity.

Curtis Lee Laws would have none of it. “We desire here to declare that this matter of soul liberty is being tremendously overworked by some who reject the very principles of those who died to make soul liberty the heritage of our age,” Laws wrote. “Originally this principle guaranteed to men the right to worship God as they pleased. It emphasized the fact that in the Christian economy no man or group of men could exercise authority over the conscience of the humblest man on earth.” Pitting soul liberty against orthodox theology betrayed the Baptist heritage, he argued. “Our Baptist fathers had a very clearly defined system of truth, and this was put forth in many noble confessions of faith.They knew of no soul liberty which guaranteed to members of Baptist churches the right to believe what they pleased.”

In the hands of the modernists, the cherished Baptist doctrine of soul liberty had undergone a major redefinition. Though Laws stood among the “moderate” wing of Baptist fundamentalists, he readied himself in 1921 to fight for confessionalism. “To reject fundamental Baptist principles and practices while remaining a member of a Baptist Church and to use the doctrine of soul liberty in extenuation of such a course is to pervert the doctrinaire and to make it a menace to the Church of Christ.”

Two distinct visions of Baptist identity had clearly emerged, one rooted in historic orthodoxy, the other in a highly individualistic doctrine of soul liberty. In the Northern Baptist Convention, only one could endure.

The Fundamentalist Federation, 1920–1922

In 1920, conservative Northern Baptists rallied from across the convention to form what they called a “Fundamentalist Federation” and strategize against the denomination’s doctrinal drift. The coalition included fundamentalists of both a “moderate” and “militant” variety. In the former group, leaders like Laws and J. C. Massee of Boston’s Tremont Temple Baptist Church hoped to recover orthodoxy in the convention and remain in fellowship with the modernists.

The more militant fundamentalists included Southern Seminary graduates John Roach Stratton, pastor of New York City’s Calvary Baptist Church, and William Bell Riley of First Baptist Church in Minneapolis; they wished to drive every modernist from the NBC like the Canaanites before Joshua. These different approaches would become glaring in subsequent years. But in 1921, they all shared the goal of adopting a Northern Baptist confession of faith.

Gathering before the 1921 Northern Baptist Convention in Des Moines, the Fundamentalist Federation produced a seven-point statement of their beliefs, drawing from the Philadelphia and New Hampshire confessions. Yet, perhaps for strategic reasons, they chose not to promote it at the convention meeting. This failure to act resulted in a clear modernist victory. Afterward, the fundamentalists vowed to recapture their denomination at the next year’s meeting. This is when Fosdick entered the story.

“Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”

Harry Emerson Fosdick embodied the progressive journey of many northern Baptists in the early 20th century. After a traditional Baptist childhood, Fosdick attended Colgate College, where he encountered modernism under the liberal Baptist professor William Newton Clarke (Clarke recorded his own modernist transformation in Sixty Years with the Bible).

First under Clarke’s guidance, and then at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, Fosdick exchanged the Baptist dogmatism of his youth for the classic liberal emphasis on personal religious experience. He then demonstrated his new doctrinal flexibility by accepting the pastorate of New York City’s First Presbyterian Church in 1918. From the prominent pulpit of “Old First,” Fosdick’s modernist message drew massive crowds. In spring 1922, with the showdown within the Northern Baptist Convention looming, Fosdick shook the American Protestant world by preaching “Shall the
Fundamentalists Win?”

Seeking a biblical analogy for the controversy, Fosdick turned to Acts 5, where the insurgent Christian movement had run afoul of the angry Jewish establishment. Fosdick naturally cast his own modernist party in the role of Peter and John, leaving the fundamentalists to play the Pharisees: cranky, obstructionist, and obsessed with doctrine. The fundamentalists “insist that we must all believe in the historicity of certain special miracles,” Fosdick complained, singling out the virgin birth, an inerrant Bible, Christ’s atonement, and his literal return at the end of history.

By requiring allegiance to these hidebound ideas, fundamentalists endeavored “to mark a deadline of doctrine around the church” and repeated the sins of the church’s first enemies. Fosdick urged the fundamentalists to instead heed Gamaliel’s counsel of tolerance, patience, and an open heart to what could, in fact, be a great new move of God.
Fosdick claimed that he intended to promote peace and tolerance with his sermon. Instead, he inspired a flood of angry rejoinders, including Presbyterian Clarence E. Macartney’s famous “Shall Unbelief Win?” and Baptist John Roach Stratton’s “Shall the Funnymonkeyists Win?” Laws added an editorial of his own, entitled “Intolerant Liberalism.”

Fosdick’s smug tone and blatant rejection of traditional Christian theology had poured gas on the fundamentalist fire headed into the Northern Baptist Convention. J. C. Massee declared that “Modernism and modernists must go,” as they had declared “warfare against supernaturalism.” Massee announced his intention to fill the NBC boards with conservative men and women. “It is my hope that we shall there serve notice on the denomination that we are no longer tolerant of the drift from the ancient moorings.” The stage was set for the 1922 Northern Baptist Convention

The 1922 Northern Baptist Convention

As delegates crowded into the Indianapolis convention hall on June 14, it did not take long for the confession issue to take center stage. Presiding over the gathering this year was Rochester’s Helen Barrett Montgomery. A Wellesley graduate, social reformer, and Greek scholar (she would in 1924 translate the whole New Testament, the first American woman known to do so), Montgomery was the first female president of any American Protestant denomination. She acknowledged in her opening address the tension in the room over a confession of faith and stressed that the Northern Baptist Convention had no authority to enforce a confession if it were adopted. “For us Baptists to have an official confession of faith would come perilously near to abandoning one of our fundamental principles,” she declared. Like many modernist Baptists, Montgomery viewed confessionalism as a contradiction of Baptist principles.

The fundamentalists did not take long to challenge Montgomery. Later that day, they offered a resolution to form a committee comprised of Northern, Canadian, and Southern Baptists. This committee would produce a basic statement of Baptist belief, explicitly to stand against the “notorious instances of false and subversive teaching in certain of our schools and seminaries.” The recommendation set off a rowdy discussion in the hall, which ultimately went nowhere.

The critical turn came two days later, on June 16. Prominent pastor, evangelist, and conference organizer William Bell Riley had been frustrated by the previous year’s failure to bring a confession before the convention and determined not to repeat the same mistake this year. Riley moved that the convention adopt the New Hampshire Confession of Faith (1833) as its official statement. Unfortunately for Riley, the modernists were ready with a perfect response.

Amid the tumult Riley’s recommendation provoked, Cornelius Woelfkin stood to speak. Woelfkin, pastor of John D. Rockefeller’s opulent Park Avenue Baptist Church in New York City, was a leading spokesman for northern Baptist liberalism. He offered a substitute motion: “That the Northern Baptist Convention affirm that the New Testament is the all-sufficient ground of faith and practice, and that we need no other.”

It was immediately clear that Riley had been outmaneuvered, for Woelfkin had forced Northern Baptists to choose between the New Hampshire Confession of Faith and the New Testament. “Baptists have never been strong on statements,” Woelfkin reminded his audience; they were Bible people. It was an oversimplification, but a compelling one, and exceedingly difficult for the fundamentalists to refute from the floor.

J. C. Massee tried. He reasoned with the delegates. Massee reminded the hall that Woelfkin and other liberal Baptists had happily affixed their names to various interdenominational confessions in the name of ecumenism; their stance today was inconsistent at best, and hypocritical at worst. Further, the modernists’ “Bible alone” message was empty rhetoric, for of course the Bible must be interpreted, as witnessed in Baptist Sunday schools, seminaries, and mission efforts. A sound confession would guard Baptists from wandering into heretical interpretations. But it was all in vain.

Massee’s logic could not withstand Woelfkin’s charming stories of learning the New Testament—not the New Hampshire Confession!—at his mother’s knee. After the floor called for the question, Montgomery prayed, and the convention voted to adopt Woelfkin’s resolution 1,264 to 637. Northern Baptists would have no confession.

Turning Point

Though overshadowed by Fosdick’s infamous sermon, the 1922 Northern Baptist Convention proved to be the turning point in the denomination’s Fundamentalist– Modernist controversy. Northern Baptist fundamentalists could never again muster the same united opposition against convention liberalism. The ranks of the Fundamentalist Federation divided, as Massee and other weary moderate fundamentalists urged a renewed focus on soul-winning rather than theological disputes.

They began to distance themselves from their more aggressive brethren, seeking a path forward with the denomination’s modernist leadership. In subsequent years, efforts to hold missionaries and other leaders to the most basic standards of orthodoxy would be easily defeated.

Any lingering doubts about the modernist control of the Northern Baptist Convention were laid to rest in 1946. The aged William B. Riley led one final attempt to raise a confessional standard in the NBC, calling for a basic test of orthodoxy for all denominational officers. Instead, Northern Baptists overwhelmingly resolved, as they had in 1922, to “reaffirm our faith in the New Testament as a divinely inspired record, and therefore a trustworthy, authoritative, and all-sufficient rule of our faith and practice.” This time, even Riley got the message: Northern Baptists would have no confession. Riley finally resigned his membership in the NBC 1947 and died shortly thereafter.
Though Riley never could regain control of the NBC, his conservative doctrinal Christianity found wide success outside the denomination. He launched the alternative Baptist Bible Union in 1923, which later became the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches.

Popular audiences in the era also flocked to Fundamentalist Bible conferences, radio preaching ministries, and periodicals like the Sword of the Lord newspaper. And while they may have lost Colgate and Rochester Seminary, fundamentalism would flourish in a host of independent Bible schools and major academic institutions like Wheaton College, Dallas Theological Seminary, and Bob Jones University; Riley himself founded the Northwestern Bible and Missionary Training School in Minneapolis. There, from his deathbed in 1947, Riley asked a young evangelist named Billy Graham to accept its presidency, bestowing his imprimatur on the next great fundamentalist leader. Graham accepted, but then forged his own path, emerging as the leader of a less separatistic “neo-evangelicalism” associated with Graham’s own evangelistic ministry, Christianity Today magazine, and Fuller Seminary.

Meanwhile, in the SBC…

Southern Baptists followed a different course from their northern brethren, and the region’s cultural conservatism helped ensure a more limited audience for modernism. In the 1920s, Southern Baptists confronted the challenges of evolutionary science and liberal theology by adopting a new confession of their faith. Chairing the committee was E. Y. Mullins, the SBC’s leading theologian and the fourth president of Southern Seminary. Mullins, while relatively conservative himself, was also the person most responsible for elevating the doctrine of individual soul liberty among Southern Baptists, and thus was not particularly keen on Southern Baptists adopting a written confession.
When this could not be avoided, Mullins elected to lead the effort, steering Southern Baptists toward the broadest conservative statement possible, thus allowing for maximal diversity within the convention. Led by Mullins, Southern Baptists adopted the Baptist Faith and Message (1925) and avoided the convulsive fundamentalis–-modernist battles of the 1920s.

Under this wide doctrinal canopy, Southern Baptists grew into the nation’s largest Protestant denomination at mid-century. They found their unity in their vast denominational programs and institutions, even as fundamentalist and modernist elements within the convention grew further apart theologically. This continued for more than half a century past Fosdick’s notorious sermon and that fateful 1922 NBC meeting until, in 1979, doctrinal controversy finally descended on Southern Baptists. Near the heart of the debate was, of course, the old tension between confessional orthodoxy and individual soul freedom. This time, however, the outcome would be different.