• The Social is Personal: Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Riverside Church, and the Social Gospel in the Great Depression

      Alpert, Rebecca T. (Rebecca Trachtenberg), 1950-; Raines, John C.; Rey, Terry; Watt, David Harrington; Bailey, Beth L., 1957- (Temple University. Libraries, 2014)
      This project follows recent scholarship that challenges an older paradigm of the social gospel tradition's demise after World War I. It undertakes a multifaceted analysis of Harry Emerson Fosdick, his local and national audiences, and his context of The Riverside Church--as building and as congregation--as a means of tracing the contours of the social gospel through the Great Depression. Fosdick was an internationally known liberal Protestant minister who was prominent in efforts to rearticulate the social gospel and maintain its relevance in the postwar period. He grounded his interpretation of the social gospel in personalist philosophy, which asserted individual personality as irreducible, yet also shaped within social networks. Personalism manifested liberal Protestantism's emphasis on experience, pairing well with the interest in psychology that burgeoned in the early twentieth century, and which was prominent in Fosdick's preaching and writing. I refer to this threefold convergence of liberal theology, social gospel critique and activism, and personalist philosophy as social gospel personalism. While social gospel personalism promoted activity to bring about social change, I find within it a rhetorical tendency to prioritize attention to the psychological development of personality as the primary means through which the aim of transforming society would be met. In this dissertation, I attend to the ways in which social gospel personalism as articulated by Fosdick and embodied in The Riverside Church was particularly classed, with attendant blind spots and limitations, while simultaneously serving to provide its white, middle class adherents with a religious grounding that helped them weather a period of acute social and economic upheaval. Recent scholarship on American religious liberalism seeks to move beyond the narratives of Protestantism, but I argue that Fosdick and Riverside, by virtue of their cultural prominence, represent an important attempt to find personal grounding amidst depersonalizing social currents, and a religious vocabulary for critiquing those social forces that diminished the person. To make this argument, I engage social gospel personalism from multiple angles. I begin with an analysis of Fosdick's preaching and writing, situating him within the social gospel tradition and tracing the presence of personalist thought throughout his message. I then consider Fosdick as a mediated phenomenon, allowing an examination of the ways in which his message was received and utilized by his multiple audiences, suggesting that the dynamics of mediation tended to heighten the individual, existential elements of Fosdick's message. In turning to the Riverside Church itself, I interpret the building as a site within which social gospel personalism was embodied and enabled, attending to the utilization of space as both reflective of and formative of religious practice. Finally, I analyze two of Riverside's programmatic responses to the vast unemployment engendered by the Great Depression as a means of illuminating the ways in which social gospel personalism was and was not prepared to meet the crisis.