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A "Singleminded" Theologian: George Burman Foster at Chicago

The son-in-law of Franklin Smith Lyon (1819 – 1906) and Harriet Amanda Johnson Lyon (1829 – 1900), and the father of Raymond Lyon Foster (1885 - 1901) and Helen Elizabeth Foster (1888 – 1910), all four of whom were buried in Forest Hill’s Lot 37 of Section V

by Edgar A. Towne

[The following has been excerpted in 2007 by Wendy Straight from Parts I and II of Professor Towne’s article, which appeared in Foundations: A Baptist Journal of History and Theology, Vol. XX, No.1, January-March, 1977 and Vol. XX, No. 2, April-June, 1977 (the journal is now the American Baptist Quarterly). Professor Towne is a Professor Emeritus at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. Wendy Straight is the archivist of the Fredonia Baptist Church.]

One of the most interesting and controversial figures of the early University of Chicago was Professor George Burman Foster of the Department of Systematic Theology in the Divinity School. In many ways a tragic figure, he was popular as a teacher and acclaimed as a scholar. His three major books originated in lectures delivered at Harvard, Berkeley, and Chicago. His appreciative and self-revealing book on Nietzsche was published posthumously, as were his sensitive studies of the work of the Norwegian playwrights Henrik Ibsen, Bjornstjerne, Bjornson, and the Belgian poet Maurice Maeterlinck. A Baptist all his life, he preached regularly in Unitarian pulpits and is regarded by many as a precursor, if not the founder, of religious humanism. His friend Clarence Darrow delivered the eulogy during his memorial service in the Garrick Theatre.

Foster’s work at Chicago and his theological impact undeniably were shaped by the human qualities and circumstances of his life, a not surprising thing if theology is considered to be an existential discipline. This study will focus on the juxtaposition in Foster’s career at Chicago of personal qualities and professional responsibilities.

It took President William Rainey Harper four years to secure Foster for the theological faculty of his new University. Foster [finally] began his teaching in Chicago during April, 1895. A friend of Foster’s from his boyhood days in southern West Virginia, Dr. C.E. Haworth, met Harper shortly after and said, "You have Foster, Doctor. What about him?" Harper replied without hesitation, "The greatest living thinker in his line." (See original Footnote 1.) It was but another instance of Harper’s celebrated (and disconcerting) persuasiveness and persistence when his mind was made up. There is no evidence that Harper ever changed his mind about Foster; but until his death in 1906 Harper’s judgment of Foster would subject him and the young University (until Foster’s death in 1918) to severe criticism from the school’s religious constituency and vexacious notoriety in the public press.

This criticism was due in part to the unsettling new ideas emerging from the liberal scholars in the biblical and theological fields at the time. Foster was one of these liberals, but he had deep conservative and evangelical roots. As he worked out his theology it was impossible for him to divorce his personal religious quest from his academic profession. This was the other reason he drew criticism to the University and the attention of the press. Paying tribute to Foster after his death, Gerald Birney Smith, his successor in the Divinity School, spoke of Foster’s "singlemindedness." He had "only one interest, and that was to explore religious experience with utmost thoroughness." He gave his students "his inner personal life." (See original Footnote 2.) All Foster could talk about, Smith observed, were "the profound themes that had been engaging his attention." (See original Footnote 3.)

Foster could not separate the profound themes that had been engaging his attention from his speaking and writing in Baptist assemblies and newspapers either, though he apparently was not sensitive enough to the ways his views were unsettling to some of the more conservative Baptist constituency. He once said, "In the pulpit I try to reveal my inmost faith, in the classroom my inmost doubt." (See original Footnote 4.) For many, Foster’s inmost faith was not faith enough, especially for a Baptist clergyman-professor. Harper and others in the University often wished Foster would confine his inmost thoughts about faith to the classroom where they might receive a proper interpretation.

But if in Foster the academic and the personal were of one piece in his thinking, it was also true that in his speaking so were the public and the private. It seemed to Harper and his associates in the Divinity School that Foster was always spoiling for a fight—a vexation to them but seemingly a delight to his fundamentalist adversaries. Nevertheless, in the decade after 1901 when Foster and his theology became increasingly a cause celebre, Harper and the University never forsook him or sacrificed him (or the Divinity School). (See original Footnote 5.)

[Foster’s Personal Background]

….From the beginning of his relationship with Harper and the new University of Chicago, Foster had to be concerned about the state of his finances. It seems clear that the prominence of this pecuniary interest was related to his responsibilities to his family and his struggle with the crises of his fate that centered in them. Harper and the Divinity School community, it seems clear from the correspondence, were appreciative of Foster’s difficulties and patient with him when they had their effect upon his theological struggles and upon his performance as a professor. In the spring of 1897 Foster and Harper discussed salary matters. Subsequently, he received a promotion and a salary increase effective October 1, 1897. (See original Footnote 43.)

… A flurry of letters during September and October, 1900, reveals a desperate Foster pressing Harper strongly for an increase in salary. His letters were laden with careful logic, evidence of his need and worth, and disclosed his anguish that such requests should be necessary. He wrote as if he felt his cause was lost before it was voiced. Requiring an increase "at least five hundred dollars or more," he cited in the first letter the "constant invalidism of my wife…." (See original Footnote 49.) [In a later letter, he explained,] "I simply have to do my best so to care for my family as to keep Mrs. Foster from the Insane Asylum which threatens her." (See original Footnote 53.)

George Burman Foster and Mary Lyon were married at Morgantown, West Virginia, on August 6, 1884. (See original Footnote 54.) At that time, according to Foster’s sister, Mary Lyon was a "pretty, vivacious girl" at West Virginia University where women had only recently been enrolled. (See original Footnote 55.) Her father, Franklin Smith Lyon, held the West Virginia chair of English at the University from 1867-85 (serving also as Vice President and acting President). He retired to Fredonia, New York, near his early home, in 1888 after a term as President of Broaddus Female College at Clarksburg, West Virginia. (See original Footnote 56.) Franklin and his father, Aaron Lyon, were devout Baptists. Six of Franklin’s sisters married preachers. He and Harriet Amanda Johnson Lyon had four daughters. Florence married the Rev. D.B. Purinton, President of Denison University and later of West Virginia University. Two daughter lived in Fredonia, one single (Elizabeth) and the other married to [Franklin Jewett] the head of the Science Department of the Fredonia Normal School, formerly Fredonia Academy when Franklin Lyon matriculated. Nine years before his death on March 16, 1906, Franklin Lyon was stricken with total blindness. (See original Footnote 57.)

It would be in Fredonia that George Foster would inter their son Raymond in July 1901; Mary at the time was undergoing treatment in Philadelphia and did not make the trip. Raymond drowned on July 10 at Lake Marie, Illinois, while visiting friends at a summer resort. Raymond Lyon Foster was sixteen years of age, the Fosters’ eldest son. "Thoughtful and scholarly beyond his years, his ability and brain power were remarkable, his character developing in many beautiful traits and he was a general favorite," so the local paper characterized him. (See original Footnote 58.) Foster was in Philadelphia with Mary when the tragedy occurred. He responded from Fredonia to Harper’s consolations on July 13:

I received the message at Philadelphia from yourself and Mr. and Mrs. Rockefeller, and I am deeply grateful to you for your sympathy in this greatest sorrow of my life. Raymond was the apple of my eye, exceptionally trustworthy in character and bright in his mind, and I had built my hope upon him. It is an irreparable loss to me, but I try to bow to Providence. Mrs. Foster sustains this shock with more strength and fortitude than I had even anticipated, and I trust that no permanent injury will result to her from it. We are both very grateful to you for your kindness in expressing a sense of sorrow with us. (See original Footnote 59.)

"A letter expressing the sympathy of the Faculty" and similar expressions from Foster’s classes were sent to "Miss Lyon" (Raymond’s Aunt Elizabeth) in Fredonia with condolences from Mrs. Hewitt and Miss Thompson, suggesting these be put in the hands of the pastor conducting the funeral. (See original Footnote 60.) The letter of the faculty to Foster spoke of Raymond’s promise and rejoiced in "his faith in Christ and in his Christian activity among his associates.

… By 1915, [one of Foster’s sisters] wrote sensitively of the grief of her brother, "he and Mrs. Foster had lost three of their five children and would in time lose all."

Death came to his eldest son just before his entrance to college, it took a lovely daughter, his favorite child, from her path to the marriage alter, [sic] it asked for a rendevous [sic] with his youngest son in a training camp for the World War. It came to another son and another daughter in that sad form wherein the body lives while the mind dies to the world. (See original Footnote 62.)

In 1919 when she had returned the ashes of her husband to West Virginia, Mary Lyon Foster wrote her friends, "My one prayer is that I may outlive my children so that so long as they live I may bring a little light through their darkened windows." (See original Footnote 63.) She died not long after.

[Foster’s Professional Legacy]

Foster had prepared an address that he delivered in many places over many years entitled, "The Ethics of Doctrinal Reform." When Harper heard it delivered at the Divinity School in October, 1903, even he reacted strongly. He wrote to Dean Hulbert.

I did not like the last part of Foster’s address this (Friday) afternoon. The first part was excellent. I can easily understand why the Harvard people enjoyed it. I do not believe that Foster himself meant what he said. The statements were entirely misleading and confusing. When he used the term "modern man" in many instances he contrasted it with the Christian man; in every case he put the word "we" after it. The effect of this could not have been good. I shall be glad to talk with you about it for I think I must talk with him. (See original Footnote 77.)

Harper was reacting in the way the more conservative brothers and sisters did, with resentment that Foster should suggest that modern men cannot be Christian men (which contradicted the felt experience of many who thought they were both); and what was worse—from Harper’s viewpoint—Foster conveyed the impression that he and the Divinity School Faculty were modern men, not Christian men. This occasion seems to have been the immediate cause of the course of events leading to Foster’s transfer to the Department of Comparative Religion in the Faculty of Arts, Sciences and Letters.

The address itself had an effect opposite of that intended by Foster, who argued that doctrinal reformers (as contrasted with revolutionaries) were the true conservatives. Employing the distinction between enduring "substance" and changing "form," a distinction whose place in theology is venerable, Foster argued that changing times required changing forms (i.e., language, doctrine) for the enduring substance (i.e., truth, content) of faith. Only by changing the forms of faith could the enduring truths of faith be conserved for our time. The enemies of doctrinal reformers (whose mistaken loyalties were to form and not substance), Foster said,

with diplomatic sagacity, unjustly take account of only the necessary negative side of their work and in this way seek to arouse popular prejudice against them. You might as well reproach a gardner [sic] with vandalism because he prunes and grafts his trees. (See original Footnote 78.)

… some conservatives who would later come to be called "fundamentalists" interpreted the transfer of Foster as a victory for their cause and would soon seek further victories at the expense of Foster and the University. That month the pastor of the Ruggles Street Baptist Church in Boston, Amzi C. Dixon, circulated stories that Shailer Mathews felt obliged to answer. (See original Footnote 104.) Some persons wrote to alert the Chicagoans to Dixon’s reputation in the East. (See original Footnote 105.) Others thought Mathews should not have answered, including the Editor of The Watchman, E.F. Merriam, for whose paper Lathan Crandall had felt obliged to report Foster’s views. (See original Footnote 106.) Now after Foster had been sacrificed, Dixon’s charges infuriated Crandall and he wrote Mathews: "If he [Dixon] answers back, knock him down again and then jump on him and smash him." (See original Footnote 107.) Dixon’s polemical spirit had a virulent contagion. The next year he would turn up in Chicago to lure liberals and conservatives onto a battlefield to his liking in the holy war he was preaching.

Foster’s friends were bothered by his refusal to be concerned about the tactics of doctrinal reform. His concern always was ethical rather than political. In the book he was writing at the time when his fate in the University of Chicago Divinity School was being decided, he wrote appreciatively of Luther, the Reformer. Luther "was a veracious and courageous man, and not a connoisseur in the new diplomatic art of modernizing Jesus." (See original Footnote 108.) This statement undoubtedly refers to President William Rainey Harper and Shailer Mathews, who were struggling to retain a constituency for the Divinity School among the Baptists. His hand trembled on December 14, 1905 when he could not face Harper and when he charged Harper with capitulation to "Milieu." (See original Footnote 98.)

Foster revealed his inner self in his books as well as in his classroom, his preaching, and his public speaking. Moreover, if we may understand an autobiographical reference in his appreciative statement about Nietzsche (see original Footnote 109) who, he thought, found rest in thinking, we can understand why his books are such remarkable combinations of intellectual power, closely-reasoned argument, clarity of thought, beauty of expression, and heat of conviction—the views of Johnston Myers to the contrary notwithstanding. In his books Foster, as we would say today, "had it all together." The pages of life, however, are more ragged and recalcitrant than those of a book; but Foster lived with the categories he employed in his thinking and writing. The spirits of Luther and Nietzsche, reformers of the church and her doctrine respectively, were embodied in George Burman Foster who aspired to the ideal of personality and communion with God that he saw exemplified in Jesus.

… In order to establish the finality of Christian faith, Foster had to presuppose the distinction between form and content (or substance). He was confident that substance (or content) can be expressed or embodied in changing historical forms without itself changing. This view is presupposed, for example, by the church’s doctrines of the Trinity, incarnation, and holy communion. Foster presupposed it in order to relativize these doctrines themselves, for form is always relative and contingent. Not only doctrine, but also myth (Foster cited "messianism") is an example of form. He thought religion probably required myth (just as it will express itself in doctrine), and concluded:

Whatever may be true with reference to these matters, one thing is certain: it is of absolute importance to the best life of the human spirit in all the future that the values which constitute the kernel of the messianic mythology be embodied in the new view of the world as the very essence of it also. To think through this point and set it forth should be the burden of modern theology … these divine values are original and organic in the natural and historical order—nay … they are indigenous to the soil and substance of reality itself. That this is true is the contention of this book, and the grounds of its defense of the finality of the Christian religion. (See original Footnote 116.)

As if to make sure that what he advocated was clearly understood, Foster wrote at the end of his book that "The form of his [Jesus’] faith in God, the God-idea, may be changed, but the content will hardly be surpassed." (See original Footnote 117.)

It is difficult to conceive a more vigorous affirmation or a more religiously-toned apologetic for Christian faith. But Foster’s orthodox adversaries, who believed form and content are indissolubly one in regard to the "fundamentals," saw in his book only an attack on the Christian faith. Foster wanted to debate the issues openly. He was frustrated by his colleagues who desired to avoid substantive theological argument, and by his adversaries whose tactics undid him.

Foster was sought out by the newspapers for statements, as were the other protagonists. He managed to respond with wit, sarcasm, and in ways which helped to fan the flames of controversy… As the controversy escalated, of nine Chicago papers I have consulted in the University of Chicago Archives, most covered it almost daily from June 8 to June 22, 1909. Foster also sought to interpret his views to the public, but his efforts were smothered by the polemical atmosphere when they did not succumb to it. Johnston Myers almost daily came up with new charges against Foster and the University, becoming often petty and vitriolic. He clearly lost credibility with at least one of the papers. (See original Footnote 149.) If he could not get Foster out of the ministry he would keep him out of Baptist pulpits. (See original Footnote 150.)

From the beginning of the controversy Foster indicated that he had no intention of demitting the Baptist ministry. Early in the debate he said he felt confident that the Hyde Park Baptist Church would not disfellowship him (he was correct); if it did, he said he would protest. (See original Footnote 151.) He compared Baptist and Unitarian beliefs (see original Footnote 152) and to the obvious question as to why he was preaching in a Unitarian pulpit, he replied that he preached Baptist doctrines and the Unitarians understood that. (See original Footnote 153.)

Foster had no intention of leaving his church or demitting the Baptist ministry; he was carried on the roll of ministers of the Chicago Baptist Association at the time of his death and his funeral was conducted in his church. (See original Footnote 158.) Having judged him no Baptist, Foster’s adversaries could not understand why he insisted that he was a Baptist and acted as though he was. I cannot avoid the conclusion that he regarded himself a Christian and a Baptist throughout. He wrote to his friend, Donald D. Maclaurin (in the pages of the Standard), that:

Never in my life have I denied the divineness of Jesus Christ; but that the doctrine thereof has to be restated and revalued in terms of modern thinking…Jesus is the best that we know, human or divine…the problem is not whether Jesus is as good as God is, but whether God is as good as Jesus is. That settles it. If the best that we know be not the divine to what else could we attach the predicate?

I repeat my assertion: I am a typical, loyal, old-fashioned Baptist; believing and trusting in the grace of God—that God whom Jesus reveals—and in the necessity of the inner renewal of the heart of us sinners by the Divine Spirit, if we are to be saved from sin at all. (See original Footnote 159.)

Foster’s restless spirit preferred that his colleagues should have to treat him as a heretic, if they so chose, but not as a Unitarian, humanist, or atheist. His determination kept him squarely in the Baptist church.

When the controversy died down Harry Pratt Judson, President of the University of Chicago and of the Northern Baptist Convention, wrote Professor Ernest Dewitt Burton, who had just arrived in San Francisco from the Orient:

Our Professor Foster has been causing more or less hubbub during the last few months. He wrote a book which some of the brethren regard as the sum of all villainies. I doubt myself whether many people understand what it means anyway. However, that being the case, anybody is at liberty to understand what he pleases from it. Possibly Mr. Foster himself understands it, although I regard that as a rather dubious proposition. Anyway, he was turned out of the Baptist Ministers’ conference in Chicago, and Dr. Myers has used a great deal of time in trying to extend his vocabulary with regard to Mr. Foster in particular, and the University in general. However, the world continues to revolve in its orbit. It is more or less of a tempest in a tea-pot. (See original Footnote 160.)

Foster was the butt of sarcasm by his friends as well as his enemies! Judson’s statement seems to sum up the views of managerial-minded liberals whose sensibilities were more genteel, who interpreted the controversy as merely a problem of church order, who were impatient with theological metaphysics and sought to avoid substantive theological encounter between advocates of liberal and conservative views in the churches and associations. (See original Footnote 161.) To such a mind Foster was an enigma, too much like the conservatives who opposed him. J. Spencer Dickerson felt much the same way when he wrote, "The whole Foster affair has been made to appear of too great importance." (See original Footnote 162.)

Judson and Dickerson were mistaken….Such controversies as engulfed Foster and his colleagues at the University of Chicago from that time would be termed "fundamentalist-modernist" controversies. The "vital center" that Foster struggled to preserve—the position of a critical and evangelical liberalism—would tend to become increasingly volatile due to pressure upon it from fundamentalists and humanists.

Pressure continued on the University for Foster’s dismissal and President Judson continued to refuse to accede to it. (See original Footnote 164.) In the nine years that remained to Foster it was natural that his circle of associates should widen, that he should appear thereby to be less and less a Baptist Christian and more and more a Unitarian, humanist, or even an atheist. His transfer out of the Divinity School would tend to require a wider scope of his work. Actually, most of his students continued to be from the Divinity School. He certainly was not welcomed by the Baptist Ministers Meeting though he was pleasing to Unitarians at Harvard, Chicago, and Madison, Wisconsin where he was pastor "for a number of years." (See original Footnote 165.)

Foster’s work deserves a careful and thorough reassessment today, for he understood clearly the issues of theistic religion that have often been obfuscated in the so-called "post-liberal" era, and he wrote not with the detached objectivity of the scholar but with the passion of a religious pilgrim.

George Burman Foster died in St. Luke’s Hospital, Chicago, on December 22, 1918. His funeral was held on Christmas eve, [J.V.] Nash tells us, "in the Baptist Church to whose fellowship he had clung throughout the years with a pathetic devotion." (See original Footnote 168.)

This remark of Nash’s is curiously sentimental and reflects the humanist perspective on Foster. It is sentimental because it presupposes that theism must be supernaturalistic in just the form it has historically assumed in western Christian thought. Theism, in effect, can have only one form and a bygone and discredited one at that! It is sentimental, also, because it conceded Foster’s defeat to the fundamentalists and was piteous of him, though he felt himself unvanquished. Humanism and fundamentalism agree philosophically about theism that it must be tied to supernaturalistic forms; to let loose these ties is for both to cast off (humanists) or to drift (fundamentalists) into the skies of Unitarianism, humanism, or atheism. Both fundamentalism and humanism fought over the spoils of their warfare, in this case Foster’s Baptist soul. One wanted him damned for his doubting faith and the other wanted him saved for his honest doubt; but both agreed he should not be in the Church.

… The ironic agreement between the fundamentalist and humanist assessment of the atheistic and ecclesiastical implications of Foster’s work (see original Footnote 173) suggests the nominalism and positivism they also shared.

Foster was struggling toward a new form of theism, as theology is still doing today; and that is another reason why his thought is significant for us. The humanist positivism is consistent with its underlying nominalism, but the fundamentalist positivism is not.

… In 1909 Foster spoke to the Haeckel Fellowship in Chicago, and, among other things, was quoted in the papers saying, "I am at peace with my own integrity. I as a frank agnostic…God is as good as Jesus…". (See original Footnote 175.) He surely could not have helped his cause by this remark; but it no doubt ingratiated him with his audience on that occasion.

… What we decide about these matters would be of no great moment to Foster, who had drunk from the fountain and knew the state of his inner certainty about his religious convictions. But we know that it caused him great pain to be misunderstood and to be denied full fellowship in the community he loved and of which he felt himself a part. (See original Footnote 186.) What one’s self-chosen community does to you and thinks of you happens to you. Foster’s theology had an organic view of man and his communities—and so of the church. Religion deals with the "evil state of the heart," he wrote. To set right "the bent of the will," he continued,

The agency to be employed is not now "sound doctrine," so much as sound personalities. As fire kindles fire, and not some theory about the nature of flame, so persons save persons. (See original Footnote 187.)

The fundamentalists could not and would not be a part of God’s plan for the salvation of George Burman Foster. A segment of Foster’s church turned on him and turned him out; and though they could not deny him his church or his ministry under God, they did remove him from the field of systematic theology despite his own and Harper’s best efforts. This probably cost Foster and the church his opportunity to develop a constructive theology—a new form of Christian theism. (See original Footnote 188.) There can be no doubt that he desired to complete this project, for he felt that a way of stating the crisis of religion was to state the choice: "Whether my religion shall be born of my own soul or whether I shall commit it to memory from the experience of another man’s soul." (See original Footnote 189.) The controversies revolving around Foster deprived the church of his developed system. They did not, however, deprive him of his faith, his Jesus, or his church, for the grace of God and his Baptist heritage of "soul liberty" sufficiently nourished his singleminded spirit.