It is said that people often stood in line for two hours on Sunday mornings for the chance to hear Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) deliver a sermon. Fosdick, an ordained Baptist minister, was the most famous liberal pastor of his day.
When John D. Rockefeller, Jr. offered to build a cathedral, Rev. Fosdick insisted that it be interdenominational and located, not in one of New York City’s swank neighborhoods, but on the edge of Harlem. And so the massive gothic Riverside Church was built — the tallest church in the United States.
When it was completed in 1930, Rev. Fosdick sat down to write a bold Social Gospel hymn for the dedication celebration — “GOD OF GRACE AND GOD OF GLORY.”
Congregants were shocked when he used the happy occasion to list human shortcomings and societal sins: our “warring madness,” “pride,” selfishness that leaves us “rich in things and poor in soul.”
A “Social Gospel” hymn for peace and justice activists
The cornerstone of Fosdick’s hymn is this plea: “Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.”
Writing during the Great Depression, Rev. Fosdick knew how hard it is to “fight the good fight,” (as Paul wrote to Timothy). We get tired of the struggle. Why bother to challenge racism and sexism, organize to dismantle systems of economic inequality, fight for the environment, work for peace? What difference will our small efforts make?
Overwhelmed, it’s easy to throw up our hands, give in to resignation, feign world-weary indifference, adapt a defeatist attitude and just go shopping or put our feet up and watch TV.
This hymn, both a prayer and a challenge, is nothing less than a call to conscience.
As we greet a new year and make our resolutions, let us pray with the hymnist that God will grant us wisdom and courage for the facing of this hour, for the living of these days.
TO GO DEEPER
Hymn lyrics, music, and background, Hymnary. org
Hymn Story from Lectionary.org
“Harry Emerson Fosdick: Liberalism’s Popularizer” Christianity Today website. 8/8/2008
Books by Harry Emerson Fosdick, posted on GoodReads
“God of Grace and God of Glory” sung at the First Plymouth Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, September 2013, with spectacular organ accompaniment by Jeremy Bannkson!
21 seconds inside The Riverside Church