The U.S. Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School at Riverside Church in WWII

Reverend Harry Emerson Fosdick, a Union Theological Seminary graduate and professor as well as the founding pastor of Riverside Church, was a pioneer of liberal theology, an outspoken opponent of racism and injustice, and a fierce pacifist. The Burke Library is very fortunate to have been the archival recipient of Rev. Fosdick’s personal papers, some 67 boxes containing sermons, lectures, correspondence, drafts, reviews, and bibliographic material spanning his life and career. (For more information on the Fosdick collection at the Burke and a link to its finding aid, see here.) Given Rev. Fosdick’s importance as an American theological leader for more than half a century, the papers in his archive are all fascinating and worthy of examination but for the purposes of this post I chose to focus on his support of American servicemen and women during WWII in spite of his pacifist objections to war.

Having witnessed the horrors of WWI firsthand on a visit to the European trenches under the auspices of the Y.M.C.A., Fosdick returned to the United States with an altered view of his theology and an impassioned commitment to a lasting peace. In a 1921 sermon, “Shall We End War?”, Fosdick preached that “we cannot reconcile Christianity with war anymore,” as war continued to divide rather than unite the world. Fosdick continued to rail against war from the pulpit, refining his pacifist stance and leading the swelling Protestant anti-war movement in the 1920s and 1930s. His pacifism reached its apotheosis on November 12, 1933, when he delivered an impassioned sermon from the Riverside Church pulpit, “Unknown Soldier,” concluding dramatically by declaring, “I renounce war and never again, directly or indirectly, will I sanction or support another!”

Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, courtesy of The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection. The New York Public Library.

When WWII erupted in 1939, Fosdick remained a steadfast pacifist, and even after the bombing at Pearl Harbor in 1941, when anti-war sentiment plummeted in the face of patriotic support for American involvement in the war, Fosdick never abandoned his pacifism. In spite of his moral opposition to the war, however, Fosdick and the entire congregation of Riverside Church opened their doors to the U.S. Naval Reserve’s Midshipmen’s School, based at Columbia University, from 1942-1945. In the Fosdick papers, one sees an incredibly warm, respectful correspondence between Rev. Fosdick and Captain (later Commodore) J.K. Richards, the Commanding Officer of the Midshipmen’s School, as the two men discuss how best to support the midshipmen and even what it means to be in the military but not to idealize war.  In one of his earlier letters to Rev. Fosdick, dated March 15, 1943, Captain Richards describes his thoughts on soldiers’ views of war:

“We, of the military, have never idealized or glorified war. Having been trained in war, it is to us a grim, harrowing tragedy; but to safeguard the doctrines of Democracy and our way of life is a sacred trust. Called by our Country to its defense, it becomes a “Sacred Cause.” And we further believe that those of our citizens, who sacrifice themselves for those principles we hold to be self-evident, should be idealized.”

Captain Richards goes on to implore Rev. Fosdick “to help guide and fortify our young fighters; so that when this war is over the peace won will be a proper peace.” In 1944, after receiving a check for $2,000 from Captain Richards to support the church’s community efforts, many of which were aimed at the midshipmen, Rev. Fosdick wrote gratefully:

“We are so happy here to be of use to you, and would so gladly do it from our own funds that we all of us feel as if you ought not to contribute to our budget. Nevertheless, of course, a check of this kind is very convenient in these days when we are trying to carry on a piece of work that sometimes strains our resources, so that I suspect our gratitude will, as last year, overcome our embarrassment. I do want you to know, however, that the privilege of serving the Midshipmen’s School is a very dear treasure to all of us here at Riverside Church. A finer group of men never were gathered together, and anything that we can do for you we do with all our hearts.”

The folder with materials on the Midshipmen’s School in the Fosdick collection also includes letters to and from members of the public who are interested in Riverside’s services for the midshipmen (particularly the Saturday night dances held in the church’s gymnasium) and even clergymen who question how Fosdick, as a staunch and vocal pacifist, could permit the military to use the church, particularly for their graduation exercises. In a letter to Rev. Donald R. Lemkau of Little York, Illinois, dated Dec. 7, 1942, Fosdick defends Riverside’s hospitality to the midshipmen, whom he describes as “grand fellows, the pick of our homes, schools and churches,” and a “magnificent body of American young men; many of whom of course have been fighting and are still fighting a difficult battle in their own consciences with reference to participation in the conflict.” He also refers to a statement published by fellow theologian Dr. Lathrop in a recent issue of Fellowship, “where a pacifist minister must say not, This is my church, but, This is our church, and must recognize the right of his non-pacifist brethren to their judgment.”

At the conclusion of the war, the Midshipmen were so grateful to Riverside for being their home away from home throughout the war that they inscribed a message of thanks at the back of the nave to commemorate the kindness and hospitality shown to them during such a difficult period. Rev. Fosdick, in spite of his unwillingness to support the war itself, was a compassionate and devoted servant to those who served in the war, ensuring that Riverside Church, founded on ecumenical principles, was a sanctuary to all during the trying years of the 1940s.

I encourage anyone with an interest in liberal theology, Riverside Church, or Rev. Fosdick himself, to spend some time with this archival collection. I certainly plan to dig in deeper in the near future so stay tuned for more blog posts on one of Union’s most illustrious alumni!

 

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  1. Pingback: “Our Spiritual Industry Will Go on Uninterrupted…”: The Construction Fire at Riverside Church, 1928 | The Burke Library Blog

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