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 and priests aim to make them relevant to parishioners' lives. These writings often include guidelines for aligning one's actions with one's religious values. They also address the pressing social and political concerns of the day.
In the fall of 1939, as Americans were debating entry into another European war, a well-known Baptist minister named Harry Emerson Fosdick1 delivered the featured sermon at Riverside Church in New York City.2 Fosdick had developed a reputation as a pacifist—perhaps due to his regrets about supporting US participation in the World War I. The sermon, titled "The Ethical Problems of Neutrality," cautioned those on both sides of the debate not to base their views on popular opinion. Fosdick also argued 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 formed an important part of American national identity and politics. It is notable that, while pastors and priests read sermons only once—for a particular congregation on a particular Sunday—this reading received a print release just three months later. What might have motivated its publication?