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
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)
||Attended Elmhurst College, 1910, and Eden Theological Seminary
||Yale University, B.D., M.A.
|| Ordained to ministry of Evangelical Synod of North America (United
Church of Christ)
||Pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church, Detroit
|| Associate professor of the philosophy of religion, Union Theological
Seminary, New York
||Runs for United States Congress as a Socialist.
||Professor of Applied Christianity
||Marries Ursula Mary Keppel-Compton (a scholar-theologian)
||Graduate Professor of Ethics and Theology
||Vice-president of Union Theological Seminary
|| Professor emeritus
|1971 June 1
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
- Does Civilization Need Religion? A Study in the Social Resources
and Limitations of Religion in Modern Life: 1927
- Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic: 1929, 1976
- The Contribution of Religion to Social Work, Lectures:
- Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics:
- Reflections on the End of an Era: 1934
- An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, Lectures: 1935,
new preface by the author, 1956
- Beyond Tragedy: Essays on the Christian Interpretation of History:
- Do the State and Nation Belong to God or the Devil? Lecture:
- The Protestant Opposition Church Movement in Germany, 1934-1937,
- Christianity and Power Politics: 1940, 1969
- Christian Realism in Contemporary American Theology: 1940
- Europe’s Catastrophe and the Christian Faith: 1940
- Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist: 1940
- The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation,
Lectures, two volumes, 1941, 1943
- Jews after the War, Pamphlet: 1943
- The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication
of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defence: 1944,
- Discerning the Signs of the Times: Sermons for Today and Tomorrow,
- Faith and History: A Comparison of Christian and Modern Views
of History: 1949
- The Irony of American History: 1952, 1962
- Christian Realism and Political Problems: 1953, 1977
- Religion and Freedom of Thought, Lectures: 1954
- The Self and the Dramas of History: 1955
- Pious and Secular America: 1958
(In England: The Godly and the Ungodly: Essays on the Religious
and Secular Dimensions of Modern Life)
- A Nation so Conceived: Reflections on the History of America
from Its Early Visions to Its Present Power, with Alan Heimert:
- Man’s Nature and His Communities: Essays on the Dynamics and
Enigmas of Man’s Personal and Social Existence: 1965
- The Democratic Experience: Past and Prospects, with Paul
E. Sigmund: 1969
- Reminiscences, Oral History (film): 1972
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
Niebuhr, Reinhold; Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr:
Letters of Reinhold and Ursula M. Niebuhr (New York: Harper, 1991)