existential primer

Reinhold Niebuhr
social gospel meets existentialism

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Reinhold Niebuhr was a friend and colleague of Paul Tillich. Together, these men shaped liberal Protestant theology in the United States during the 1940s and 50s. Niebuhr presents a challenge to the notion that existentialism was the exclusive domain of atheists, notably Jean-Paul Sartre.

Revising Never Ends, Nor Should It…

Do not use this site as a study guide. The Existential Primer is a “living” academic project, unlike a static text. This primer is only a shallow introduction to the thinkers profiled. The incomplete nature of this website might result in misunderstanding the profiled individuals. These pages are revised often because scholarship is never ending. Consult any citations included because within them is where you will find the experts. Read their works!

NOTE: Citations are not in MLA or APA format to prevent “borrowing” from The Existential Primer. Full lists of citations appear at the end of each page. Present tense is used when referencing a published work, while past tense is favored on these pages because the major figures are… dead. Inline citations take the form (Author p. page) with no year. A title is included if there might be confusion as to the work. Quoted long passages appear indented with the <blockquote> tag and cited in the format:

Work; Author, p. Page


Reinhold Niebuhr was born 21 June 1892, in Wright City, Missouri to Gustav and Lydia Niebuhr. His father was a Protestant minister. According to several sources, at the age of ten Niebuhr decided that he wanted to become a minister like his father.

Niebuhr’s education was focused on theological concerns. He attended Elmhurst College and Eden Theological Seminary from 1910 to 1913. He then attended Yale University, from which he obtained both his undergraduate and master’s degrees in divinity. After graduating in the spring of 1915, Niebuhr was ordained by the Evangelical Synod of North America (today the United Church of Christ).

The church assigned Niebuhr to the Bethel Evangelical Church inDetroit, Michigan, where he served as pastor from 1915 to 1928. It was a small, close-knit congregation of workers. Serving the community, Niebuhr came to view modern industrialism as dehumanizing, making the individual subordinate to industrial production. Increasingly, Niebuhr was aligned with progressive politics and concerned with issues of social justice.

Though increasingly liberal, Niebuhr was also fearful of totalitarian governments. His distrust of Communism was more about the political practices he saw in the Russian Revolution and within the Communist Party than a disagreement with the philosophy of Karl Marx.

Niebuhr wrote:

Among the many weaknesses of the Protestant movement, surely its indifference to the social substance of human existence is the most grievous one. In an industrial civilization and in an age of nuclear terror, the renewal of the church must certainly include full awareness of the fact that we are all involved in the virtues and the vices, the guilt and the promises of our generation. In a sense it is true that we cannot be saved unless we are all saved.

In 1928, Niebuhr left Detroit for a teaching post at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He served as an associate professor of the philosophy of religion from 1928 to 1930. In 1930, he ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the United States Congress as a Socialist.

From 1930 until 1955, Niebur was a junior professor of applied Christianity. During this time he was increasingly involved in progressive causes and was, for a time, a avowed pacifist.

Niebuhr married Ursula Mary Keppel-Compton, a scholar and theologian in 1931.

Before the start of World War II, noted theologian Paul Tillich fled Germany and emigrated to the United States. Niebuhr was instrumental in Tillich joining the faculty of Union Theological Seminary. Tillich, like many intellectuals, had been dismissed from a teaching post by the National Socialists. It was increasingly clear that Hitler was an opponent of academic and personal freedoms.

Pacifism became untenable after the Nazi occupation of the Rhineland in 1936. Niebuhr urged U.S. intervention on behalf of the Allies. Niebuhr viewed the Hitler and his tactics as profoundly anti-Christian — and a threat to the Western democracies.

Through a series of promotions, Niebuhr steadily advanced his career at Union Theological. He was made a graduate professor of Ethics
and theology in 1955. Five years later, in 1960, he was appointed vice-president of the seminary.

Niebuhr remained politically active throughout his life. He was a co-founder of Americans for Democratic Action and also a co-founder of the Fellowship of Socialist Christians. Though he never doubted the need to respond militarily to Hitler, Niebuhr wondered what could be done to avert another such war. He was appointed a research associate at the Institute of War and Peace Studies, housed at Columbia University.

Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.

In 1960, a professorship was established and funded in his honor at Union Theological Seminary. Sponsors of the chair included T. S. Eliot and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Niebuhr died 1 June 1971.

1892 June 21 Born in Wright City, Missouri, to Gustav (a minister) and Lydia (Hosto) Niebuhr
1910–1913; Attended Elmhurst College, 1910, and Eden Theological Seminary
1914–1915 Yale University, B.D., M.A.
1915 Ordained to ministry of Evangelical Synod of North America (United Church of Christ)
1915–1928 Pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church, Detroit
1928–1930 Associate professor of the philosophy of religion, Union Theological Seminary, New York
1930 Runs for United States Congress as a Socialist.
1930–1955 Professor of Applied Christianity
1931 Marries Ursula Mary Keppel-Compton (a scholar-theologian)
1955–1960 Graduate Professor of Ethics and Theology
1955–1960 Vice-president of Union Theological Seminary
1960–1971 Professor emeritus
1971 June 1 Dies


It should be noted that many of the works listed are pamphlets and lectures, not texts or essays. Niebuhr’s political pamphlets are among his more important works, especially in light of his rejection of pacifism during World War II. And yes, many of his works have very long titles.


Reinhold Niebuhr is probably best known for his leftist politics, but he always considered himself a Christian theologian dedicated to the concept of social justice and equality. He viewed his political efforts as part of his Christian duty to help others. Niebuhr’s effort to integrate Christian beliefs with current philosophical trends, especially in political theory, appealed to a wide audience that included Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Dean Acheson, and James Reston.

Time magazine described Niebuhr as, “the greatest Protestant theologian born in America since Jonathan Edwards.” Edwards (5 October 1703 — 22 March 1758) was a leading Calvanist theologian whose writings influenced American theology for nearly 200 years. While Edwards was a fundamentalist, Niebuhr represented a more modern version of orthodox theology: conservative only in theological terms.

Niebuhr’s Protestant theology combined the teachings of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. Unlike the emerging liberal movement within the faith, Niebuhr adopted the traditional Christian view of man as flawed, condemned by the effects of original sin. He regarded liberal theologians as “utopian.” He rejected what he considered two extremes within Protestantism: total withdrawal from the secular, and total immersion into politics and the affairs of the world through “social gospel.” Niebuhr sought a middle course by developing a workable political philosophy built on the foundation of Christianity.

Politically, Niebuhr was described as socialist, liberal, and pragmatist. By the start of the twenty-first century, such a mixture of orthodox Christianity and liberal political beliefs might best be described as unusual.


Coming soon…


Niebuhr, Reinhold; Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr: Letters of Reinhold and Ursula M. Niebuhr (New York: Harper, 1991)

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