(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

How does one pray? How does prayer work? How can a believer create and cultivate a discipline of daily prayer to draw closer to God? These are the mysteries of faith that Harry Emerson Fosdick seeks to address in The Meaning of Prayer, a slim volume (194 pages) of daily devotions. Fosdick guides the reader through a ten-week cycle of everyday prayer, with each of the ten chapters addressing a different element of prayer. Each of the seventy devotions features a straightforward method for approaching God in prayer: an introductory Scripture passage, a theological reference or exposition by Fosdick on how prayer works, and a closing prayer to frame his daily theme. Fosdick’s approach to teaching how to pray is eclectic and was modern for its time. He draws on a wide breadth of scriptural allusions, literature, theology, and historic events and figures. A daily devotion might include a quote from the New or Old Testament and several paragraphs about Fosdick’s beliefs, interspersed with extended quotes from a wide array of spiritual thinkers, such as French theologian and mathematician Blaise Pascal, Saint Augustine, or the poet Robert Burns. Chapters then conclude with “A Comment for the Week” in which Fosdick digs more deeply into the prayer issue being presented and “Suggestions for Thoughts and Discussion,” questions for the individual or group reading the book.

To understand the significance of Fosdick’s treatise on prayer, it is important to recognize the context in which he preached, taught, and wrote. Born in 1878 in Buffalo, New York, Fosdick trained for ministry at Colgate University and New York City’s Union Theological Seminary and was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1903, the beginning of great turmoil within American Christianity. The Protestant church in the early twentieth century was just starting to split along conservative and liberal theological fault lines. Conservative Christianity held dearly to the doctrines of biblical inerrancy and authority. Because of an inherent distrust of all things new, the conservatives often viewed the emerging modernity of the United States (mass communication, the movement of women into the workforce, industrialization, urbanization, Roman Catholic immigrants pouring into the cities, and so on) as a direct threat to their “traditional Gospel.” The God preached by conservatives was a...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Fosdick, Harry Emerson. The Autobiography of Harry Emerson Fosdick: The Living of These Days. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956. Fosdick tells of his spiritual growth into the greatest and most famous American Protestant preacher and teacher of the first half of the twentieth century.

Fosdick, Harry Emerson, and Michael W. Perry. The Manhood of the Master: The Character of Jesus. Seattle: Inkling Books, 2002. For those who want to explore another book of Fosdick’s daily devotions, this book takes the reader through a twelve-week introduction to the life of Jesus.

Pultz, David, ed. A Preaching Ministry: Twenty-One Sermons Preached by Harry Emerson Fosdick at The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, 1918-1925. New York: The First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, 2000. This book contains basic biographical information about Fosdick, the birth of American Liberal Christianity and several of his most famous sermons. Of particular note is “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”