Harry Emerson Fosdick’s A Pilgrimage to Palestine

Because I wanted to read about pilgrimages to the Holy Land, I read Harry Emerson Fosdick’s 1927 work A Pilgrimage to Palestine. This work described his 1923 four-month pilgrimage in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. By 1923, Fosdick was a well-known leader of liberal Protestantism from his Riverside Drive pulpit in New York.

Fosdick traveled in a less complicated age. Some important archaeological work such as the uncovering of the Herodian or the Qumran community had not occurred. Some important structures such as Nazareth’s Church of the Annunciation had not been built. The onslaught of mass tourism and ecumenical tourism whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, Coptic, or Eastern Orthodox, had not reached Israel.

A Pilgrimage to Palestine showed a thoughtful writer. I want to comment about his construing the Biblical text’s narrative to create his own pilgrimage text.  In the process, I’ll suggest that he clearly knows his own purpose for writing his A Pilgrimage to Palestine and that he pictures a certain type of audience as reading his text. Shaping the structure of his own text is an uncomplicated Biblical narrative as interpreted by an early 20th century version of the those Biblical narratives. Furthermore, he is an insightful observer in linking sights of 1920’s Palestine to those Biblical narratives. Finally, he links those Biblical narratives to powerfully passionate moral judgments and messages relevant to his contemporary society even if we might both admire, and find questionable, some of those judgments today.

Fosdick was a wonderful writer because he is clear about his own purpose for traveling to Palestine. In his preface, he stated his purpose: “I wish to share with others who may desire it as much of the pleasure and enlightenment of a pilgrimage to Palestine as I can convey in writing (vii).” Fosdick was not driven by a need “to find himself.” He was not a “searcher” in that sense because an assured sense of identity emerges from his work. He didn’t seem to be overly interested in his own personal “religious or spiritual highs” since he was focused upon the Palestinian world around him. He was not driven, as some evangelical restorationist Christians are, of only seeing their predetermined view of Israel as playing a role in a deterministic portrait of God’s ways with the world and with bringing that world to a final judgment.

As a writer, he knew his audience. He wanted to help his reader move beyond simplistic projections. Aware of other travelers, Fosdick wrote: “The casual tourist, whether Jew or Christian, has generally idealized it [Palestine]. It has been rather a symbol and an allegory than a country. The Jordan to him has been not so much a river of real water- muddy at that and narrow enough for a child to throw a stone across- but a mystic boundary over which hiss dead have gone into the Promised Land…And Jerusalem is the celestial city that comes ‘down out of heaven from God.’ (1-2).” Besides being aware that many travelers brought an idealized version of Palestine with them as they traveled, he was aware of that those travelers left unimpressed. “Many visitors leave Palestine disappointed, but I am sure the fault is not in Palestine. The traveler has not known how to make the trip or has been inwardly unfitted to make it or has been unable to take time (23).”

Besides his statements about ancient sites, his own characteristic concern to understand the contemporary world around him is striking. In the last chapter, Fosdick stated his deepest impression: “No observant traveler can visit Palestine today without being sure that the country has a future. The days of its living importance to humanity are far from ended and in it movements are afoot which may either contribute signally to man’s welfare or land the world in fresh confusions and alarms (271).” Little did Fosdick realize the truth of his words!

He was an insightful observer linking the ancient Biblical texts to contemporary life. Even though by the third page Fosdick has quoted a passage from Exodus, Fosdick inspires readers by what he saw in Palestine. Despite the phrase “a land flowing with milk and honey,” it is “not a fruitful land (5).” Since I have just driven from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, I can agree that much of that area was simply rocks and sand. The land is small. As he writes, “The state of Connecticut, with an area of 4965 square miles, is one of the smallest in the United States, and yet nearly all the events narrated in the Old Testament happened within an area no larger (10).” It is extraordinarily diverse. And like other more traditional cultures which value people interacting with each other and not sitting home alone in front of a television or computer, Fosdick notes that “it is only the out-of-doors that matters much …Palestinians lived their life constantly meeting each other outdoors.”

Fosdick let the reading of a text, the Biblical text, structure his chapters. Even though he was skeptical about whether events happened at a purported site, he exhibited a way of allowing the textual material to have significance. He wrote about Abraham in moving ways. He wrote about David and other kings, and the prophets that criticized them. Fosdick didn’t try to squeeze the prophets into some dispensational timeline that some Christian evangelicals do; he found in the prophets’ ethical guidelines for the present world. His reading is classic early 20th century in that he didn’t struggle with the “already and not-yet” of the prophets and he ignored the wisdom writings, probably because works like Proverbs and Job can’t be “placed” in the Palestinian landscape. Finally, he seems to assume the simple chronology of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, his life in Galilee, and the final weeks of Jerusalem. Fosdick’s innocent approach to the gospels narratives about Jesus contrast with how many of us approach those same narratives today. Contrary to Fosdick, we assume that the gospel writers were not primarily historians, the gospel writers were primarily religious and theological writers.

In a characteristically liberal theological way, Fosdick’s work included passionate moral judgments. Some of those judgments reflect his own age. Prior to the ecumenical movements of the twentieth century between Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodoxy, he stated in questionable manner: “One’s regret and even indignation constantly are stirred by this ecclesiastical desecration of holy places. Across the centuries, whether for pious or for mercenary reasons, the competing churches have surrendered to the passion for identifying sites until they will show you at least three tombs of Jonah … (20-21).” In his second to last chapter, he states from his perspective three powerful criticisms of contemporary Christianity, monasticism, militarism, and mummery.

After a few historical comments about early monasticism, Fosdick began his criticism. After conversing with two American monks at Mar Saba, he wrote the following: “They eat and sleep and drone their prayers and let the poor world wag- a dowdy brood of decadent men as eager for a few piasters bestowed by a visitor as any beggar by the roadside asking bakshish (252).” He moved on to militarism. Besides the obvious criticism of the crusades, he lamented “French guns bombarding Damascus and British airplanes menacing Arab villages (259).” Looking at Christianity from an Arab point of view, probably unusual for his time, he generalized: “We have claimed for ourselves a gospel of peace; they see us red-handed with history’s most colossal wars (259).”  Finally, he turned to criticize mummery. “It is not easy to judge with impartial fairness the Eastern churches, Greek, Syrian, Coptic, Armenian, whose religious life so largely has degenerated here into outward form with small ethical result (260).” One specific warrant for his attitude was Holy Saturday’s holy fire ceremony when the patriarch lights the candle which is passed to others. Interestingly, my friends at Tantur, both Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox, loved attending the ceremony!

Driving his criticism is a common presupposition, the distinction between the simple and accessible ethics of Jesus and the betrayal of that ethic by the churches. “The contrast between the spirit of Jesus on one side and historic Christianity on the other side is sufficiently appalling in any country, but it is natural that the disharmony between the two especially should shock the pilgrim in Palestine. Here the life of Jesus seems in many a place so vivid and so close at hand that one keenly feels the jar in passing from memories of him to the churches, creeds, and rituals which are supposed to represent him (246).”

His ethical passion included prescient words about Jews and Palestinians. In his final chapter after describing conversations with Zionists from the Ukraine, he wrote: “And here, too, are the lure and thrill of Zionism, where pioneers dedicate life to the rebuilding of the Holy Land (274).” He continued later: “The long-cherished dream of restoration to their ancient land has become the more alluring to Jewish people as the hardships of their life elsewhere, their confinement in European ghettos, their persecutions and pogroms, have shut against them other doors of hope…Even now for millions of Jews in eastern Europe life is hardly tolerable (275).” Wow! Years before the Holocaust he is recognizing the quality of European Jewish life.

Yet Fosdick was also aware of Arab Palestinians. “In the early stages of its development Zionism was advertised as the movement of a people without a land to a land without a people. Nothing could be more dangerously false than such simplification of the issue. Palestine is not without a people and no one understands the situation who does not see that over half a million Moslem Arabs, who easily constitute seventy-three per cent of the population, naturally regard with suspicion, if not with rage, the deliberate endeavor to make a ‘national home for the Jewish people’ in their country (279-280).”

In typical fashion, Fosdick was willing to state his opinion. “While tragedy is obviously possible, I personally hope that Zionism may succeed (292.) Aware of future problems, Fosdick gave advice. “The hope of Zionism, however, lies in its own moderation and wisdom. If it would be successful it must be unselfish. It must count Arab welfare as precious as its own (292).” Maybe conscious that his work would be read by ordinary and influential people, Fosdick ended his work with the words: “One hopes, although sometimes against hope, that they (Jews) may so handle their present penetration of their ancient land that future generations with good cause may be grateful for another contribution to mankind’s enrichment (294).” Wow!!

While the world of 2017 is no longer the world of 1923, Fosdick own pilgrimage to Palestine is a fascinating work where he tried to let his pilgrimage be structured by the Biblical text. I, obviously, am not Fosdick. If I had the time to take a four month tour of Palestine guided by Biblical narratives, I would want to be guided by other hermeneutical strategies concerning those Biblical narratives than his simple and overly direct reading of the text. In addition, I certainly have trouble with his moving to relate those narratives to contemporary life. For example, I cringe when I read his sweeping criticisms of monasticism and “mummery.” Furthermore, I would want to analyze the deeper currents which affect Israelis, Palestinians, Jews, Muslims, and Christians and which make contemporary Israel and Palestine such tragic lands. Yet, while I criticize Fosdick, I admire Fosdick. He was not content to dwell in an idealized version of the Biblical text. Fosdick allowed himself to make connections with the people he saw and with whom he conversed. We could do worse as pilgrims. I would love to hear his reflections if he took a pilgrimage in 2017.

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