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"The Ethical Problems of Neutrality: A Columbus Day Sermon of Rediscovering America"

Fosdick Sermon
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

In the American Christian tradition, sermons are the literary style used for interpretation of biblical texts and are typically read at Sunday worship services. As they craft their sermons, pastors aim to make them relevant to parishioners' lives. Often, these writings are infused with guidelines for aligning one's actions with one's religious values, at the same time addressing the pressing social and political concerns of the day. 

In the fall of 1939, as the United States was abuzz with debates over entering another European war, a well-known Baptist minister named Harry Emerson Fosdick1 delivered this sermon at Riverside Church in New York City.2 Although American Protestants were especially divided on the issue of American intervention in Europe, Fosdick earned a reputation as a pacifist—perhaps due to his regrets about supporting US participation in the First World War. The sermon, titled "The Ethical Problems of Neutrality," cautions those on both sides of the debate not to base their views on the currents of popular opinion. The minister also argues that inaction in the face of horrific violence must be critically evaluated and rooted in morality. Speaking of "many in the American majority," he notes that "their reasons for staying out are too superficial, too selfish, not deeply grounded, not ethically defensible enough."

For Fosdick, like many other leading Christian voices during the early years of the war, Christianity forms an important element of American national identity and politics. Further, it is notable that, while pastors read sermons only once—for a particular congregation on a particular Sunday—this reading received a print release only three months later. What might have motivated its publication?

Harry Emerson Fosdick was born in 1878 in New York. First ordained as a Baptist minister, he served as a military chaplain during the First World War. In 1933, Fosdick delivered a sermon titled "The Unknown Soldier," which drew national attention for its stance on pacifism and raised Fosdick’s profile as a leading Christian moral and ethical voice on issues of war and peace. Fosdick was also one of the most outspoken US preachers in 1933 about the Nazi persecution of the Jews. For more on Fosdick, see Robert Moats Miller, Henry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985). 

In 1930, Fosdick opened an interdenominational church in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. Built with financial support from the industrialist John D. Rockefeller, who was a member of the congregation, Riverside Church was located near both a Christian and a Jewish theological seminary.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Accession Number 2004.220.1
Date Created
October 15, 1939
Author / Creator
Harry Emerson Fosdick
New York, USA
Document Type Religious Text
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