By John R. Erickson, World Magazine.
In 1967, John R. Erickson, now the author of 66 Hank the Cowdog books, then a theology student at Harvard Divinity School, interviewed the grand old man of American socialism, Norman Thomas (1884–1968). This previously unpublished article shows how Thomas, a six-time Socialist Party candidate for president, built his socialist beliefs on the pre–World War I social gospel, and tried to erect a hopeful ideology on a vague theology. —Marvin Olasky
Three generations of Americans knew Norman Thomas as a socialist and as a reformer. But because he published very little on the subject of religion, it is not so well known that Thomas began his career as an ordained Presbyterian minister, that he later lost his Christian faith, and as a result, he became, in his own words, a “disappointed man.”
When he graduated from Princeton in 1908, Thomas decided to study for the ministry as his father and grandfather had done before him. But instead of choosing an orthodox Presbyterian seminary, as his father hoped he would, he elected to study at Union Theological Seminary in New York. It was at Union that Thomas discovered the “social gospel.” He read Walter Rauschenbusch and William James. He listened to the sermons of Harry Emerson Fosdick and Henry Sloane Coffin, and gradually he moved away from the orthodoxy of his childhood toward a position of liberalism. But even though his thinking changed substantially, he maintained his close ties with the Presbyterian church, and in his senior year he applied to the Presbytery of New York for ordination. Even at this early date, Thomas had enemies among the conservative clergymen in New York and there was even some talk of bringing heresy charges against him. His chief opponent was a certain John Fox who bore down particularly on Thomas’ unwillingness to affirm positively the virgin birth of Jesus. But the conservatives lost the struggle and Thomas was ordained on Jan. 25, 1911.