See biography by R. M. Miller (1985).
Fosdick became a central figure in the conflict between fundamentalist and liberal forces within American Protestantism in the 1920s and 1930s. While at First Presbyterian Church, on May 21, 1922, he delivered his famous sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”, in which he defended the modernist position. In that sermon, he presented the Bible as a record of the unfolding of God’s will, not as the literal Word of God. He saw the history of Christianity as one of development, progress, and gradual change. To the fundamentalists, this was rank apostasy, and the battle lines were drawn.
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. (Northern) in 1923 charged his local presbytery to conduct an investigation of his views. A commission began an investigation, as required. His defense was conducted by a lay elder, John Foster Dulles, whose father was a well-known liberal Presbyterian seminary professor. Fosdick escaped probable censure at a formal trial by the 1924 General Assembly by resigning from the pulpit in 1924. He was immediately hired as pastor of a Baptist church whose most famous member was John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who then funded the Riverside Church in Manhattan's Morningside Heights area overlooking the Hudson River, where Fosdick became pastor as soon as the doors opened in October 1930, prompting a Time magazine cover story on October 6, 1930 (pictured). In it, Time said that Fosdick "proposes to give this educated community a place of greatest beauty for worship. He also proposes to serve the social needs of the somewhat lonely metropolite. Hence on a vast scale he has built all the accessories of a community church — gymnasium, assembly room for theatricals, dining rooms, etc...In ten stories of the 22-story belltower are classrooms for the religious and social training of the young...". Fosdick's brother Raymond ran the Rockefeller Foundation for three decades, beginning in 1921. Rockefeller had funded the nation-wide distribution of Shall the Fundamentalists Win?, although with a more cautious title, The New Knowledge and the Christian Faith. This direct-mail project was designed by Ivy Lee, who had worked since 1914 as an independent contractor in public relations for the Rockfellers.
Fosdick was an outspoken opponent of racism and injustice. Fosdick also supported appeasement of Hitler and argued "moral equivalence", i.e. that the democracies were largely to blame for the rise of fascism:
"The all but unanimous judgment seems to be that we, the democracies, are just as responsible for the rise of the dictators as the dictatorships themselves, and perhaps more so."
Fosdick's sermons won him wide recognition, as did his radio addresses which were nationally broadcast. He authored numerous books, and many of his sermon collections are still in print. He is also the author of the hymn, "God of Grace and God of Glory"
Fosdick's book A Guide to Understanding the Bible traces the beliefs of the people who wrote the Bible, from the ancient beliefs of the Hebrews, which he regarded as practically pagan, to the faith and hopes of the New Testament writers.
His brother, Raymond Fosdick, was essentially in charge of philanthropy for John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
He was the nephew of Charles Austin Fosdick, a popular author of adventure books for boys who wrote under the pen name Harry Castlemon.
Fosdick reviewed the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939, giving it his approval. AA members continue to point to this review as significant in the development of the AA movement.