What Frightened Fosdick?

Today, Harry Emerson Fosdick is most well known–at least among people who pay attention to this kind of thing–for his 1922 sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” in which he argued for the principle of tolerance in liberal Protestantism.  Fosdick’s sermon is often cited as one of the nails in the coffin of fundamentalism, although we can now recognize that that coffin was buried empty.

In a lesser-known piece, “Morals Secede from the Union,” published in the May 1932 Harper’s, Fosdick provided a glimpse into the roots of his determination to tie morality necessarily to religion.  He learned as a child that “supernatural sanctions of morality” that are promised in the next world are effective by reading Favell Lee Mortimer’s popular primer on the New Testament, The Peep of Day.  The efficacious passage that gave young Fosdick “such a devastating horror of hell”:

At last Jesus will sit upon a white throne, and everybody will stand round his throne.  He will open some bookish which he has written down all the naughty things people have done.  God has seen all the naughty things you have done. He can see in the dark as well as in the light, and knows all your naughty thoughts…

This is what God will do to those who do not love him. God will bind them in chains and put them in a lake of fire. There they will gnash their teeth and weep and wail forever…They shall not have one drop of water to cool their burning tongues.

Frightening indeed, but while this fate is indeed grim, it relies on the child’s ability to conceptualize a future state of punishment, remote from his or her own experience.  In addition, it is at the very end of the book!

Fortunately, Mortimer gets off to a quick start in scaring her tender readers. After a quick biology lesson (“God has covered your bones with flesh. Your flesh is soft and warm. In your flesh their is blood.“), she warns of all the ways a child’s body can become damaged: 

How easy it would be to hurt your poor little body!

If it were to fall into the fire it would be burned up. If hot water were thrown upon it, it would be scalded. If it were to fall into deep water, and not be taken out very soon, it would be drowned. If a great knife were run through your body, the blood would come out. If a great box were to fall on your head, your head would be crushed. If you were to fall out of the window, your neck would be broken. If you were not to eat some food for a few days, your breath would stop, and you would grow cold, and you would soon be dead.

These events seem much more likely to scare than the torments of hell.  Sure, all that weeping and gnashing of teeth in the lake of fire sound pretty bad, but you might be able to escape that if you’re good enough.  There’s no telling when a box will fall on your head or when a knife will run through your body so the blood comes out.

My favorite passage of hers, though, guaranteed to instill nightmares for years, is her musing on a sick baby, made even more immediate by her convention of speaking as though she were in the same room as the reader:

I have seen a sick baby. It had not round cheeks like yours, and a fat arm like this. The baby’s flesh was almost gone, and its little bones were only covered with skin.

You may have heard of Favell Lee Mortimer from the recently reprinted collection of her travel writing, The Clumsiest People in Europe. Her xenophobic, racist, and factually incorrect descriptions of places she had never visited were only a portion of her corpus. In addition to The Peep of Day, she produced many works designed to provide “the earliest religious instruction the infant mind is capable of receiving.”  The copies published numbered in the millions in the nineteenth century.  It’s good to know that she was just as off-putting to children as she was to the peoples of the world.

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