Fosdick: Case Study in "Successful" Public Address

"His belief that preaching must be audience centered meant to him that a sermon must be an 'animated conversation.'"

Arnold Kurtz is professor of church organization at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.


FOR A good part of the first half of this century Harry Emerson Fosdick was regarded by many as the most important popular figure in the Protestant pulpit. His theology was controversial—to the point that some warned: he "is no authentic representative of the Christian religion." 1 That he was an eminently successful public speaker few would deny. It was suggested that he occupied "in New York . . . something of the position that Henry Ward Beecher occupied in Brooklyn";2 others saw him as "the true successor of Phillip Brooks." 3 Through most of his active career, admission to hear him speak was by ticket only. His sermons, lectures, and essays, bound into books, sold in excess of a million copies. His radio audiences, constituting millions of listeners weekly for approximately two decades, together with his extensive reading audience, imply the conclusion that his speeches were works of art, deserving of recognition as such.

A fundamental requirement of Fosdick's theory of public address was success. Successful preaching for him did not countenance empty pews. His theory was shaped by what, in his perception, drew people to hear preaching. The stress on success is seen in the following quotation taken from his famous article appearing in Harper's Magazine (1928), "What Is the Matter With Preaching?":

"There is nothing that people are so interested in as themselves, their own problems, and the way to solve them. That fact is basic. No preaching that neglects it can raise a ripple on a congregation. It is the primary starting point of all successful public speaking, and for once the requirements for practical success and ideal helpfulness coincide."

For him, the one indispensable quality of successful preaching was interest: "One obvious trouble with the mediocre sermon, even when harmless, is that it is uninteresting. It does not matter. It could as well be left unsaid." 4

Fosdick's sermons have been carefully scrutinized with a view to isolating those factors that make them particularly interesting to the hearer. Three such factors will be discussed below; the last two were apparently applied to preaching by Fosdick in a unique way.

1. Successful preaching is interesting because it moves from the general to the particular, the abstract to the concrete. Fosdick's audiences in general ranked above the average in education. This fact, coupled with his problem-solution approach to preaching, might well have resulted in closely reasoned lectures or arguments—"too intellectual," as one friendly critic thought,5 to constitute the best in preaching.

Although he argued in the framework of his messages, he was not argumentative in the details. Rather than pile up fact on fact, Biblical text upon text, to buttress a point, he seized upon illustrations, analogies, figures of speech, to magnify and bring his propositions into focus.

Frequently he employed montage—a compression of incidents to clarify a point: the Wright brothers fighting derision and defeat; Helen Keller rising to victory over tremendous odds; Cyrano de Bergerac, crushed and dying, but able to say, "One thing without a stain . . . my white plume"; Socrates taking the cup; Jesus on the cross—the great successes of history springing from defeats, all pressed into a single para graph.6 Fosdick's illustrations were usually very brief and were nearly always brought to a climax by a well-selected quotation.

He knew the economy of a metaphor or simile. His more vivid pictures were products of his own imagination: he thought modern industrial society was a "good deal like the subway—it throws men together in physical proximity without uniting them in spiritual sympathy." 7 "The mind," he said, "always walks as uneasily in new ideas as the feet in new shoes." 8 Occasionally he would compress his thought into a cryptic epigram: "You never can cleanse the water of a well by painting the pump." More often, he employed the rhythms of antithesis: "Unless we manage well in handling change, change will manage ill in handling us."

Ranging widely in his search for illustrative material, he was resourceful in seeing unusual relationships or looking at an old event from a new angle. Without apology he drew freely from his personal experience. He remembered with vivid detail the bucket of raspberries his mother made him pick or the pool of water he and other boys made by damming a little stream. 9 He read widely from biography—Phillip Brooks, Daniel Webster, Thomas Jefferson, Gladstone, Elizabeth Fry, Henry Ward Beecher, and scores of others. (It required infinite pains and prodigious energy to be specific instead of general, to cite an exact line from biography or history rather than to paraphrase vaguely, but it paid off in audience interest.)

Occasionally, he picked up a dramatic incident from the newspaper: the woman who, in housecleaning, disposed of her old books to a ragman, only to remember too late that one of them contained four thousand dollars—she had "sold something very valuable very cheap." 10

He loved music and drew upon it as he did upon poetry for illustrative purposes. He turned to music to convey the indescribable emotions of religion: Toscanini and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, so conducted "that we come down from hearing it as from a transfiguration mountain, trailing glory into the common street." 11

Fosdick understood well that to create and hold interest a speaker must turn men's ears into eyes.

2. Successful preaching is interesting because it focuses upon the interests and needs of the listener. Certainly the most significant and distinctive element in Fosdick's theory and practice of public address was his emphasis on the audience, not only as the focal point of all preaching but also as the main determinant of method in both composition and delivery. He came to think of every sermon as a project in counseling the members of his congregation regarding their personal needs.

His concern for the audience finds its expression in the introductory portion of every sermon. He wanted his listeners always to say to themselves, not only at the end of the introduction but also throughout the sermon, "He's bowling down my alley." 12

"Every sermon," he said, "should have for its main business the solving of some problem—a vital, important problem puzzling minds, burdening consciences, distracting lives—and any sermon which thus does tackle a real problem, throw even a little light on it, and help some individuals practically to find their way through it cannot be altogether uninteresting. My ideal of a sermon," he explained, "is one that carries up this interest and directness of attack on real problems into the pulpit and discusses real questions with real people in a real way." 13 For him, the object of the sermon was prior to the subject. He found it difficult to get a sermon under way until he had clearly in mind some difficulty that people were facing, some question that they were asking, some sin they were committing, some con fused thinking they were engaging in.

In the actual delivery of his sermons Fosdick, who had been schooled in gesture, posture, and inflection, disapproved of conscious technique as insincere and artificial. He believed that the welling thoughts within aroused by the visible audience should dictate the behavior of voice and body. His belief that preaching must be audience-centered meant to him that a sermon must be an "animated conversation" with an audience concerning some vital problem of the spiritual life. The total effect must be one of talk—plain, straightforward, illuminating, helpful talk—between the preacher and his congregation. Audience-centered preaching, Fosdick believed, required that the preacher should, above all else, know, under stand, and care for his people.

3. Successful preaching is interesting because the arrangement of thought is psychological rather than logical. Here again Fosdick moved away from what he perceived to be the standard homiletic pattern. If the preacher is more interested in satisfying the spiritual needs of people than in detailed exposition of a passage, he will not tack on a few practical applications to his exposition. Instead, he will begin with the practical applications. So important is the arrangement or ordering of thoughts in a sermon that Fosdick declared, "He need not have used any other text or any different materials in his sermon, but if he had defined his object rightly he would have arranged and massed the material differently. He would have gone into his sermon via real interest in his congregation." 14

Because of Fosdick's problem-solving approach in preaching, that portion of his sermon recognized as Introduction by present-day speech authorities was considerably larger than generally advocated—perhaps a fourth of the total length of the sermon. His introductions normally served at least four purposes: (1) the statement of a problem that was real in the minds of his hearers; (2) stressing the importance of the problem by showing how it concerned nearly everyone, or most of the major areas of life; (3) relating the problems to life as presented in the Bible; (4) clearly stating a major truth (central idea or con trolling theme). This big truth (only one) became the center around which the message was organized.

Designed to Persuade

This approach was well designed to persuade. Once a preacher has wrought his congregation into a sufficiently high state of tension over a problem, he has rendered them amenable to the solution he has to offer.

Fosdick was careful to relate the central truth to each main supporting point (usually three). These main points were clearly marked with signposts: "in the first place," "for one thing," "consider again," "and still another." He moved from point to point with clear transitional sentences. Frequently the transitional sentences that followed the first or second main point were internal summaries, containing both a review of the previous point or points and a preview of the next point to be developed.

Many of his sermons contain three ideas subordinate to the main theme. His justification for this was that audiences simply cannot grasp more than three at one sitting. When pressed as to why he designed his sermons so that his first point was longest, and strongest in intellectual appeal, he explained that this makes sense because of the audience's increasing familiarity with the subject as well as their growing fatigue, and the speaker's naturally increasing emotion. "Tell them the truth you want to tell them right off. . . . Climax is achieved by showing them the Matterhorn in the beginning, re-showing it—and each time the Matterhorn gets bigger." 15 The culmination of a sermon should be based on "a principle of emotional climax in appeal and of moral impressiveness rather than a climax of ideas." 16 Fosdick held deeply the conviction that arrangement of sermon materials was vital for successful preaching.

Evangelical Christians would not agree with Fosdick's rather casual use of Scripture in preaching. Nor would those who insist that true preaching must be Biblical preaching disagree with his view that the tedious, labored exposition of Scripture commonly associated with "expository preaching" does not hold the interest of people today. However, evangelical preachers today are demonstrating that Biblical preaching and interesting preaching are not incompatible.

Clearly, there is a price to be paid. In 1933 Edgar DeWitt Jones wrote of Fosdick: "For thirty years ... he has spent the mornings of five days a week in his study. No message can get to him there, no telephone call can reach him, no visitors are admitted. In such seclusion, he 'toils terribly' over his sermons." 17 The general process of sermon preparation caused him to read "every first-rate book that comes out in almost every field." He wrote, "Without such consecutive, continuous, well-organized study I do not see how any man can grow in his ministry in general or in his preaching in particular." 18

Regardless of one's theological position, it cannot be denied that this preacher, who year in and year out drew congregations that had to present tickets for admission, who "could preach in a theatre or a car-barn and get his audience," 19 must have had a theory of communication worthy of our study.


1 Catholic World, CXXXIV, 799 (October, 1931), p. 100.

2 Current Opinion (December, 1924), p. 756.

3 Roy C. McCall, "Harry Emerson Fosdick: a Study in Sources of Effectiveness," from Harry Emerson Fosdick's Art of Preaching, Lionel Crocker, ed. (Springfield, 111.: Charles C. Thomas, Publisher, 1971), p. 115.

4 Harry Emerson Fosdick, "What Is the Matter With Preaching?" Harper's Magazine, CLVII (July, 1928), pp. 131- 141,

5 Joseph Fort Newton, ed., If I Had Only One Sermon to Preach (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1932), p. 108.

6 Fosdick, The Hope of the World: Twenty-five Sermons on Christianity Today (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1933), pp. 83, 84.

7 Ibid., p. 105.

8 Fosdick, Adventurous Religion (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1926), p. 244.

9 The Secret of Victorious Living; Sermons on Christianity Today (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1934), pp. 2,89.

10 The Hope of the World, p. 79.

11 Successful Christian Living: Sermons on Christianity Today (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1937), p. 76.

12 McCall, "Harry Emerson Fosdick: Paragon and Paradox," Quarterly Journal of Speech, XXIX (October, 1953), p. 286.

13 Fosdick, "What Is the Matter With Preaching?" loc. cit.

14 Lionel Crocker, "The Rhetorical Theory of Harry Emerson Fosdick," Harry Emerson Fosdick's Art of Preaching, Lionel Crocker, ed., p. 234.

15 McCall, op. cit, p. 288.

16 Edmund H. Linn, "Harry Emerson Fosdick and the Technique of Organization," Anthology, Lionel Crocker, ed., p. 234.

17 Edgar DeWitt Jones, American Preachers of Today (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1933), p. 29.

18 Linn, op. cit., p. 119.

19 McCall, op. cit., p. 286.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus
Arnold Kurtz is professor of church organization at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

March 1977

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

There Shall Be No Alps

The President's Page

Christ Our High Priest

Sin, Salvation, and the Sanctuary

Literary Structure—a Key to Interpreting the Revelation

How does the literary structure of Revelation contribute to understanding the book's content.

Evolution: The Ocean says No

On science and religion.

The Good and the Bad of TM

"If a person meditates with out religious content——"If a person meditates with out religious content——leaving himself with an empty and susceptible mind—there is a grave danger that satanic influences will take over." ——Billy Graham.

Salt, Diet, and Exercise

An interview with Gabe Mirkin

The Clergyman as Health Educator

Clergymen can be prepared to adequately meet the emergency challenges in health education.

Biblical Archeology

The 1976 Excavations at Biblical Heshbon

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - SermonView - Medium Rect (300x250)

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - IIW-VBS 2024 (160x600)