Junior Rockefeller Promotes Liberal Protestantism

  • Religion
  • 1922

In the early twentieth century, orthodox and liberal forms of Protestantism were competing for public favor. At the helm of the liberal ship was Harry Fosdick, whose views included denial of the divinity of Jesus. His 1922 sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” was a stinging critique of traditional Christian theology.

John Rockefeller Jr. had long been supportive of liberal religious causes, and as early as 1912 he was trying to recruit Fosdick away from his post at New York City’s First Presbyterian Church. When “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” was published, Junior provided the funds to distribute copies to every Protestant clergyman in the country, solidifying Fosdick as a leader among theological progressives. Then Junior made a big offer: he would build a great new interdenominational church on New York City’s upper west side if Fosdick would preside. The pastor accepted, and Junior donated $10 million to erect a grand Gothic cathedral in Morningside Heights that became known as the Riverside Church. The first services were held in 1930, and Riverside became what its donor intended: a bastion of modern liberal Protestantism.

  • Peter Paris, et al., History of The Riverside Church in the City of New York (NYU Press, 2004)