Church History

Lessons from Riverside Church

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Tim Challies posted a piece about the history of Riverside Church, in his digital walking tour on objects that explain American religion. The post made me think of a visit I made on a Sunday morning to that church, pastored years ago by the titanic liberal Harry Emerson Fosdick, some years ago.

The service that morning included all sorts of items that were almost parodies of progressive Christianity, the announcement that the Native American/Indigenous LGBTQIA Eco-Feminist Sunday School class (or something like that) would host a potluck in the fellowship hall, etc.

The guest preacher that morning was the chaplain for an abortion rights advocacy organization, and the message was from Acts 2/Joel 2 on the Spirit poured out on “all flesh.” I suppose I was expecting an egalitarian interpretation of “your daughters shall prophesy,” but that was too obvious to need mentioning here. Instead, the sermon applied the “all flesh” to “all the skin on your body” and the preacher said this included, of course, the reproductive flesh. And so, the freedom of the Spirit, he said, means “reproductive freedom.”

It’s easy to see the ridiculous leap from a biblical text to something quite, in my view, wicked. But this isn’t simply a temptation for a place as from-the-beginning “progressive” as Riverside Church, built as it was on Schleiermacher’s theology and Rockefeller’s money. The devil is always happy to see a “Christianity” that trades in the gospel for a cause, any cause. If progressing toward something that’s not Christianity won’t work, then conserving something that’s not Christianity will. The power of the air doesn’t mind, as long as the gospel is subdued, eclipsed, or erased.

Challies quotes “fundamentalist” J. Gresham Machen about “modernist” Fosdick: “The question is not whether Mr. Fosdick is winning men, but whether the thing to which he is winning them is Christianity.” That’s a warning to all of us, in every church in every age.

image credit: Tim Challies




We live in a fearful and cowardly time. The crisis we face is not a crisis of clarity but a crisis of courage.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Public Theologian at Christianity Today and Director of Christianity Today’s Public Theology Project.