Niebuhr, Reinhold

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NIEBUHR, REINHOLD (18921971), American theologian, ethicist, and political philosopher. Niebuhr was born in Wright City, Missouri, on January 21, 1892. His mother was a second-generation German-American; his father, a German immigrant, was a pastor in the Evangelical Synod of North America, the offspring of the Prussian Union Church, which was predominantly Lutheran with a strain of Calvinism. At the age of ten Niebuhr declared that he wanted to become a minister because his father was the most interesting man in town.

After studies at the denominational schools Elmhurst College and Eden Theological Seminary, Niebuhr entered Yale Divinity School, where he earned B.D. (1914) and M.A. (1915) degrees. He later enjoyed recalling that he was admitted to the M.A. program on probation because he had received his earlier education at unaccredited schools. Rather than embark on a program of doctoral studies, he accepted assignment to a pastorate in Detroit, partly for family financial reasons (his father had died in 1913), partly out of obligation to his denomination, and partly because he "desired relevance rather than scholarship."

During the thirteen years that Niebuhr served as pastor of Bethel Church, its membership grew from 65 to 650. The congregation reflected a broad spectrum of the American population, from automobile workers to two millionaires; during his pastorate Niebuhr drew a few black families into some activities of the church. The Detroit ministry plunged the young pastor into the problems of urban, industrial America. Niebuhr vociferously objected to the inhumanity of the automotive assembly lines, the forced unemployment during retooling, and the abject dependence of workers upon corporations that resisted unions. After a period of racial conflict, he chaired the mayor's Race Committee. Meanwhile he won a reputation as a lecturer and preacher, especially in colleges, and as a contributor to periodicals.

Niebuhr supported World War I with mixed feelings, opposing the mixture of German loyalty and quasi-pacifism common in his denomination. A visit to Germany in 1923 added to his increasing disillusionment with war and confirmed his growing pacifism.

In 1928 Niebuhr joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York. Although in point of fact there was no faculty opening, President Henry Sloane Coffin was interested in Niebuhr, and Sherwood Eddy, a leader in many Christian causes, located funds to support the appointment initially. The move enabled Niebuhr to expand his scholarly and organizational activities. Later he also joined the graduate faculty of Columbia University. He continued to preach almost every weekend in pulpits within and outside the city. He founded the Fellowship of Socialist Christians (1930) and its quarterly, Radical Religion (1935), later renamed Christianity and Society. He ran as a Socialist for the New York State Senate (1930) and for Congress (1932), but assured Coffin that he had no chance of winning and would continue his teaching without interruption.

In 1931 Niebuhr married Ursula Keppel-Compton, an English fellow at Union. They were a devoted pair and soon became parents. For many years students and friends, some famous and some unknown, crowded the Niebuhrs' apartment at their frequent "at-homes."

Niebuhr was active in countless organizations involving labor unions, tenant farmers, and liberal or left-wing causes. In a period of great political tensions, he struggled with conflicts between pacifists and those concerned about the menace of Hitlerism, as well as conflicts between conservatives, liberals, and communists. In 1933 he resigned from the executive committee of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation, of which he had been national chairman since 1931. In 1940 he resigned from the Socialist Party, and the next year he founded the biweekly Christianity and Crisis as an organ for relating theology to liberal anti-Nazi political policies. In 1941 he was a chief organizer, and then national chairman, of the liberal anticommunist Union for Democratic Action. In 1944 he helped found the Liberal Party in New York and became a state party vice-chairman.

Meanwhile, Niebuhr's eminence as a theologian was increasing. Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York, 1932) was an epoch-making contribution to social ethics. Niebuhr's international reputation flourished with his participation in the Oxford Conference on Life and Work (1937) and his delivery of the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh (1939).

When World War II broke out, Niebuhr advocated American support of Britain and France, short of armed intervention. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he supported the war but criticized mass bombings of German and Japanese cities. After the war, Niebuhr became an adviser to the State Department's Policy and Planning staff, headed by George Kennan. Although a strenuous critic of Soviet power, he emphasized the necessity, in a nuclear age, of international policies that would build "mutual trust and tissues of community." He was a frequent visitor to Europe on religious, scholarly, and governmental missions, and served as a major speaker at the first assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam in 1948. In 1949 he cochaired the founding conference of Americans for Democratic Action, an organization of the liberal left. The postwar years saw a stream of major lectureships and books.

In 1952, Niebuhr suffered the first of a series of strokes that sapped his strength for the rest of his life; from this point on, periods of severe illness alternated with periods of active life. In 1955 he became vice president of Union Theological Seminary; in 1958 he was a visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. After retirement from Union in 1960 he spent one year at Harvard. He made his home in New York, but later moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. In 1964 he was awarded the President's Medal for Freedom by Lyndon Johnson. In his final years he suffered great pain and disability, but a steady stream of visitors and correspondents helped him maintain ties with theological scholarship and public affairs. Death came on June 1, 1971.

Development of Niebuhr's Thought

Niebuhr was a man in motion, often (as he liked to say) tilting at windmills he himself had built earlier. His thought was an ongoing dialectical process: usually the new idea was both a criticism and a transformation of the old.

His earliest writingsposthumously published in Young Reinhold Niebuhr, edited by William G. Chrystal (Saint Louis, 1977)reveal a seminarian in the pietistic evangelical tradition, objecting to the politicization of religion and urging that the way to improve the world is "to make more men Christians and all Christians truer" (p. 42). At Yale Divinity School he imbibed liberal theology. The Detroit pastorate moved him to the left wing of the Social Gospel movement while intensifying his pastoral concern in ministry to the sick and the dying. His adoption of socialism was a pragmatic one, and indeed was initially almost innocent of Marxism.

Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York, 1932) established Niebuhr's reputation as a major thinker. The title, which Niebuhr admitted was an exaggeration for pedagogic reasons, expressed the book's theme: the gap between the behavior of individuals in their personal relations and in their human collectivities (nations, classes, corporations, and so on). The book was an assault on liberal hopes for the effecting of social improvement through rationality and religion. Rationality and religion, said Niebuhr, are more often instruments of power than correctives of it.

Two years later, Niebuhr described himself as moving to the left politically and to the right theologically. As he sometimes said, he was trying to relate Christian religion (which was politically deficient) to Marxist political realism (which was religiously false). The theological movement was guided above all by Augustine's conceptions of human nature and history. In the Gifford Lectures, published as The Nature and Destiny of Man (New York, 1941 and 1943), he added Kierkegaard's insights to those of Augustine, and he became more critical of Marx.

For his attacks on "liberalism," Niebuhr was often called "neoorthodox," a term that he disliked. He offended the orthodox by treating their fondest beliefs as "myths," and he offended liberals by taking those myths "seriously, but not literally." He provided fresh interpretations of Christian beliefs about the creation of humankind in God's image, the Fall, original sin, justification by faith, and the coming kingdom of God. Whereas he criticized liberalism for its optimism, its inattention to conflicts of power, and its utopianism, he was liberal in his acceptance of critical scholarship and his eagerness to relate Christian faith to the whole range of human knowledge. If university faculties saw Niebuhr as a critic of liberalism, average Americans regarded him as plainly liberalas he discovered when a flood of "hate mail" poured in after his public criticism of Billy Graham.

Although the Gifford Lectures stand as Niebuhr's greatest intellectual monument, they do not record his final position. In the years following the lectures, his pragmatic tendencies, significant from his Yale days onward, became more conspicuous as he criticized doctrinaire theology and political thought, including his own. The concept of grace, always important to his thought but often subordinated in discussions to the doctrine of sin, now became a major theme. Partly under the influence of his friend Erik Erikson, the psychologist, Niebuhr became more appreciative of self-affirmation. From the works of the eighteenth-century English statesman Edmund Burke he learned to consider the continuities and the organic characteristics of history as well as the historical conflicts and cataclysms that had always impressed him. But to the end the polemical fires still flared, particularly against idolatries of race, wealth, and political power.

Principal Ideas

Niebuhr frequently denied that he was a theologian. He sometimes described himself as a circuit-riding preacher with an interest in ethics. He had little interest in the niceties of doctrine. However, his chief insights have reverberated through the whole of theology.

To find definitive statements of his main positions is difficult. Niebuhr often wrote in polemical situations. If some extravagant statement he had made was quoted back to him later, he was likely to reply with a laugh, "That's one of the many foolish things I've said." He was too impatient to revise his own writings. Yet on many themes he was scholarly, subtle, and persistent. For the truest account of his opinions on a subject, one must look at his extended statements on it, then dig out the scattered self-corrections made over subsequent years.

Echoing Pascal, Niebuhr loved to speak of the grandeur and frailty of the human being. He saw the essence of selfhood as freedom, which included qualities of imagination, rationality, and foresightall captured in the biblical phrase "the image of God." Freedom brings anxiety: the awareness of insecurity and of the inevitability of death. Faith, in turn, can channel anxiety into creativity; without faith the creature strains for false security (the classical sin of pride) or tries to avoid risk in a less-than-human existence (sloth). Of these two, Niebuhr wrote far more about prideperhaps, as it is often said, because sloth was no temptation for him. Pride overcomes individuals as well as groups; in the latter it may appear as nationalism, economic domination, racism, or claims of gender superiority. Attempts to subdue pride by moral accomplishments usually reinforce it instead; the only answer is the intervention of divine grace, both the common grace known in many human experiences and the special grace known in Christ.

Niebuhr's doctrine of history began with the Old Testament prophetic faith in history as showing marks of divine judgment and grace. He qualified this with the New Testament belief that history finds its fulfillment only in the kingdom of God that is yet to come. Any effort to find the meaning of history within historysay, in the triumph of a nation or a religion or a social class or even the best of projected societiesis error and idolatry.

Niebuhr affirmed the biblical idea of a linear, rather than cyclical, history. But he rejected the "heresy," nourished in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, that transmutes the directedness of history into faith in progress. There are obvious evidences in history of progress in technique, in some kinds of rationality, and in social organization, but history as a whole is not a progressive story, and its achievements never eliminate the lurking threat and presence of sin. Thus Niebuhr became a constant critic of utopianism. Despite his excoriation of nationalistic idolatries, he objected to proposals for world government. World government represented to him either a "soft" utopia (relying on reason and goodwill, without attention to the painful realities of power) or a "hard" utopia (imperialistic conquest resulting in one power's hegemony over the world). Instead, he advocated the difficult effort to negotiate limited agreements among nations with attention to both morality and power.

Niebuhr's critics charge that anti-utopianism cuts the nerve of action. In fact, Niebuhr himself said the same in his earlier writings, but later he renounced that position. He affirmed that there are "indeterminate" possibilities for social improvement, but he held that those who neglect the persistent power of sin are most likely to misconstrue its workings in themselves and in history.

For Niebuhr the ultimate ethical possibility is love, which in mutuality enhances life and society, but which sometimes requires sacrifice, as represented in the cross of Christ. However, love is sentimental unless it finds realization in justice. Justice is the attempt to embody something of the responsibility of love in human institutions. Yet justice, with its legal and juridical forms, is at best an incomplete embodiment of love. And because justice requires enforcement, it readily becomes a contradiction to the free and voluntary nature of love. Whereas love gives freely, justice imposes and enforces obligations.

Thus love and justice interact in a continuous dialectic. They need each other: love that does not seek justice is unreal love, and justice without love is a graceless legalism that is not really just. Yet the two live together in tension, and no formula can relate them perfectly.

Faith and political activity meet in a comparable dialectical relation. Serious faith has implications for political life. Pretenses to the contrary, especially in a modern democratic society, are an evasion of responsibility and usually a tacit support of an unjust status quo. But faith (or religious beliefs) can never be embodied fully in politics. And the ultimate loyalties of faith relate only uneasily to the negotiations, the maneuverings, and the exercises of power that characterize politics. Niebuhr criticized those who try to keep faith uncontaminated by politics as well as those who give their political opinions divine sanction. As with love and justice, there is no easy way to combine faith with politics.


During Niebuhr's lifetime he was a powerful figure, an intimidating force in polemics, yet a friendly person known to many as "Reinie" (except to his wife, who called him Reinhold). The South African novelist Alan Paton in his autobiography, Towards the Mountain (New York, 1980), described Niebuhr as "the most enthralling speaker" he had ever heard. Niebuhr's style, despite many awkward sentences, was impetuous, biting, witty, reverent, and serene, often in the course of a single speech or sermon. His writings have been translated into many European and Asian languages. During his lifetime he set so many agendas that his critics, no less than his supporters, often acted on issues he enunciated.

Niebuhr advocated an ethical "realism" that searched out the moral issues in every controversy yet never imposed moral answers without giving due attention to the realities of power. The famous political scientist Hans Morgenthau in 1961 called Niebuhr "the greatest living political philosopher of America" (Landon, 1962, p. 109). Through friendships with Eleanor Roosevelt, George Kennan, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Hubert Humphrey, as well as with several labor leaders and journalists, he exercised some influence on public policyalthough he rebuked Vice President Humphrey for supporting the war in Vietnam.

Who continues Niebuhr's heritage? The question is a controversial one. In 1981 a bemused Senate committee heard tedious arguments on just this issue. Neoconservatives, pointing to his Burkean strain and his anti-utopianism, sometimes claim him as part of their heritage. On the other hand, he always regarded himself as left of center; and his final writings, produced in the years of pain and illness, were furious attacks against abuses of presidential power.

Niebuhr's influence is least among those who isolate their religious faith from political action and those who maintain any dogmatic religious and political position, whether reactionary or revolutionary. But where people struggle to relate faith to justice in a perplexing world, Niebuhr remains an important figure in the conversation.


Works by Niebuhr

Niebuhr's published books, articles, reviews, editorials, sermons, and prayers number about a thousand. An identification of all is impossible, because some were unsigned editorials. A diligent listing in 268 pages, including some publications about Neibuhr, is that of D. B. Robertson, Reinhold Niebuhr's Works: A Bibliography (Lanham, Md., 1983). What follows is a selective list of books that provide sustained expositions of his major ideas.

Moral Man and Immoral Society. New York, 1932. The innovative book that established Neibuhr's national and international reputation.

The Nature and Destiny of Man. Vol. 1, Human Nature, 1941. Vol. 2, Human Destiny, 1943. Reprint in one volume, New York, 1951. The Gifford Lectures and the most extensive exposition of Niebuhr's thought.

The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense. New York, 1944. A discussion of political and economic issues grounded in Niebuhr's understanding of human nature.

Faith and History: A Comparison of Christian and Modern Views of History. New York, 1949.

The Irony of American History. New York, 1952. A study of the ways in which American experience exhibits an inner logic, often contrary to its declared intentions.

The Structure of Nations and Empires: A Study of the Recurring Patterns and Problems of the Political Order in Relation to the Unique Problems of the Nuclear Age. New York, 1959.

Man's Nature and His Communities: Essays on the Dynamics and Enigmas of Man's Personal and Social Existence. New York, 1965. Niebuhr's last revisionalthough brief and written under great handicaps of illnessof the themes for which he was famous.

Works about Niebuhr

The two most personal books about Niebuhr, both rich in anecdotal memories, are: June Bingham, Courage to Change: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr (New York, 1961, 1972) and Ursula Niebuhr, ed., Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr: Letters of Reinhold and Ursula M. Niebuhr (San Francisco, 1991). The two most exhaustive biographies, written from clashing perspectives, are: Richard Wightman Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (2d edition, Ithaca, N. Y., 1996) and Charles C. Brown, Niebuhr and His Age: Reinhold Niebuhr's Prophetic Role and Legacy, New Edition with Foreword by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (Harrisburg, Penn., 2002). Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious Social, and Political Thought, edited by Charles W. Kegley and Robert W. Bretall (New York, 1956), includes twenty critical essays about Niebuhr, along with Niebuhr's short "Intellectual Autobiography" and his response to the critics. A later edition (New York, 1982) includes an essay by John C. Bennett on Niebuhr's social thought in his later years. Reinhold Niebuhr: A Prophetic Voice in Our Time, edited by Harold R. Landon (Greenwich, Conn., 1962), contains essays by Paul Tillich, John C. Bennett, and Hans Morgenthau, together with Niebuhr's response. Of the many books about Niebuhr, there are three impressive treatments of different aspects of his mature thought and activity: Ronald M. Stone, Professor Reinhold Niebuhr: A Mentor to the Twentieth Century (Louisville, Ky., 1992); Robin W. Lovin, Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism (Cambridge, U.K., 1995); and Langdon Gilkey, On Niebuhr: A Theological Study (Chicago, 2001). Other books are in process of publication.

Roger Lincoln Shinn (1987 and 2005)

Niebuhr, Reinhold

views updated Jun 11 2018

NIEBUHR, Reinhold

(b. 21 June 1892 in Wright City, Missouri; d. 1 June 1971 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts), influential theologian known for his application of Christian doctrine to contemporary social and political conditions.

The son of Gustav and Lydia (Hosto) Niebuhr, Reinhold moved with his family to Lincoln, Illinois, in 1902, where his father, an immigrant preacher in the German Evangelical Synod of North America, had accepted a pastorate. In 1907 Niebuhr enrolled in Elmhurst College and then studied for the ministry at Eden Theological Seminary. Upon graduating from Eden in 1913, Niebuhr was ordained and planned to attend Yale Divinity School. But his father's unexpected death, his limited mastery of English, and Yale's refusal to accept his degree from Eden temporarily dimmed his prospects. Niebuhr overcame these disadvantages and graduated with a master's degree in June 1915.

That same year he began his tenure as pastor at Bethel Church in Detroit. By the time he left Bethel in 1928 to join the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Niebuhr, with the help of his mother and his sister Hulda, had transformed the church from the smallest in the synod to a flourishing, vigorous congregation. While teaching at Union, Niebuhr elaborated and refined a theology of "Christian realism" in such major works as Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), The Nature and Destiny of Man (two volumes, 1941 and 1943), and The Irony of American History (1952).

Niebuhr argued that Christians were obligated to engage in the affairs of the world and even to resist evil by force and violence if necessary. At the same time, they had to realize that human progress was limited by the reality of sin. Individuals, classes, and nations, however confident of their virtue, repeatedly succumbed to arrogance, venality, and the will to power. To think that any one person or government possessed a monopoly on truth and, therefore, had the right to impose their vision on society was a treacherous and destructive manifestation of pride that Niebuhr called "utopianism."

A stroke in 1952 curtailed Niebuhr's activities and brought a steady decline in his health. By the early 1960s he had developed a chronic colon ailment, for which doctors never identified a physical cause. In addition, he endured severe bladder frequency. His slow recovery from a prostate operation in the fall of 1963 further darkened his mood. Yet, through the ongoing efforts of his wife, Ursula (née Keppel-Compton), whom he had married in December 1931, Niebuhr maintained as much a semblance of an active life as his health permitted.

Following his retirement from Union in 1960, Niebuhr held visiting appointments at Harvard during 1961–1962, at Princeton during the autumn of 1962, and at Barnard in the spring of 1963. Although he added nothing significant to the corpus of his writings during the 1960s, he offered extensive commentary on the major figures, issues, and events of the day. Niebuhr remained ambivalent about the Kennedy administration. Kennedy's sense of the responsibilities of power endeared him to Niebuhr, but some of Kennedy's policies did not. Niebuhr, for example, thought the Cuban embargo a mistake because, as he wrote, it "has enabled Castro to blame all his economic problems" on the United States.

Niebuhr's steadfast anticommunism was unwavering during the 1960s, even as he modified his position on the use of nuclear weapons. In the 1950s Niebuhr entertained the possibility of deploying nuclear weapons to halt Soviet expansion in Europe. By the 1960s, however, he declared that "the first use of the nuclear weapon is morally abhorrent and must be resisted." After unleashing the murderous power of nuclear weapons, Niebuhr asked, would a civilization, even in victory, "have enough moral health to survive?"

Tragedy haunted Niebuhr during the 1960s. The sudden death of his brother, Richard, in July 1961, only days before the wedding of Niebuhr's daughter, Elisabeth, left him distraught. Exhausted and sad, he abandoned in August 1963 the book about communism and democracy on which he had been at work for several years. Kennedy's assassination in November compounded his grief, even as it awakened him from his personal sorrows.

Niebuhr was consoled only that "Kennedy's sacrificial death" would promote the cause of civil rights, which for Niebuhr marked a crucial turning point in American history. Never preoccupied with race, Niebuhr nonetheless pleaded throughout the 1960s for an end to discrimination, insisting that blacks be accorded the respect to which all human beings were entitled. When in the mid-1960s black militants intensified their demands for justice and equality, Niebuhr cautioned against "violent rebellion" and championed the civil disobedience of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., as an alternative to the revolutionary ardor of Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. Niebuhr predicted, however, that the "despair and hopelessness" overwhelming young blacks would thrust American society into decades of racial tumult.

Regarding Barry Goldwater as a reckless fanatic, Niebuhr endorsed Lyndon Johnson for president in 1964 and that September received from Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But as early as 1965 Niebuhr began to admonish Johnson for escalating American involvement in Vietnam, a war Niebuhr believed the United States could not win. He considered "the policy of restraining Asian Communism by sheer military might… fantastic" and damaging to the "moral prestige" of the United States.

Niebuhr entered into one final public controversy in 1969, when Richard Nixon instituted Sunday worship services at the White House and invited ministers from various faiths to preside. In "The King's Chapel and the King's Court," which appeared in Christianity and Crisis on 4 August 1969, Niebuhr satirized political self-satisfaction and religious complicity. "It is wonderful," he wrote, "what a simple White House invitation will do to dull the critical faculties." Hate mail poured in from the disciples of Billy Graham, whom Niebuhr had singled out for special reproof and, at the insistence of Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, the FBI opened a dossier on Niebuhr.

Weakened by pneumonia and a pulmonary embolism, Niebuhr died peacefully at home at the age of seventy-eight. The moral life, he once suggested, was neither tranquil nor gratifying. "For me," he wrote, summarizing a lifetime of study, reflection, and prayer, "the experience of faith is a total attitude toward the mystery of God and life, which includes commitment, love, and hope … beyond the conscious designs and contrivances of men."

In addition to the sources mentioned in the text, see Ursula M. Niebuhr, ed., Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr: Letters of Reinhold and Ursula M. Niebuhr (1991). Richard Wightman Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (1985), is indispensable. Hans Hoffman, The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr (1956), Gordon Harland, The Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr (1960), June Bingham, Courage to Change: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr (1961), Ronald Stone, Reinhold Niebuhr: Prophet to Politician (1972), Paul Merkley, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Political Account (1975), and Dennis McCann, Christian Realism and Liberation Theology: Political Theologies in Conflict (1981), remain useful if flawed accounts of Niebuhr's life and thought. Two anthologies, Nathan Scott, ed., The Legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr (1975), and Charles W. Kegley, ed., Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social, and Political Thought (rev. ed. 1984), contain essays of great value. For a thoughtful analysis of Niebuhr's continuing relevance, see Wilfred M. McClay, "The Continuing Irony of American History," in First Things (Feb. 2002). An obituary is in the New York Times (2 June 1971).

Mark G. Malvasi

Reinhold Niebuhr

views updated May 29 2018

Reinhold Niebuhr

The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was a major figure in the "Neo-Orthodox" movement in Protestant theology, which reoriented the entire thrust of theological and biblical studies from the 1920s on.

Reinhold Niebuhr was born in Wright City, Mo., on June 21, 1892, the son of an immigrant German Evangelical and Reformed minister who served as pastor to German-American communities in small towns. Early deciding to enter the ministry, Niebuhr studied at Elmhurst College and Eden Theological Seminary and then spent 2 years at Yale Divinity School. After receiving his master of arts degree from Yale in 1915, he left the academic world to take his first and only pastorate—a small mission church in Detroit, where he remained until 1928.

At the time Niebuhr arrived there, the automobile industry was just beginning its rapid expansion, and Detroit was developing into one of America's major cities. Many of the employees of the Ford Motor Company lived in his parish. He had the opportunity to observe at firsthand the impact of industrial society upon the factory workers. As Niebuhr said much later, "The resulting facts determined my development more than any books I may have read." He watched the dehumanizing effects of assembly line speedups and irregular job opportunities upon workers unprotected by legal or associational powers. By the end of the 1920s he was questioning seriously the basic assumptions of liberal Protestantism and the Social Gospel, on which he had been nurtured. In public he urged churchmen to examine critically the capitalist social order, and he pressed for greater realism concerning the pervasiveness and subtlety of human pride or sin. His first book, Does Civilization Need Religion? (1927), reflected these attitudes.

In 1928 Niebuhr moved to New York City to join the faculty of Union Theological Seminary, where he remained until his retirement in 1960. He reached New York just as the Depression began and found all about him confirmation of his ideas concerning the severe strictures of capitalism. For a time he became a Socialist, influenced strongly by the Marxist critique of a floundering capitalist society; but at the same time his theological perspective was becoming more conservative, and he was reaching back to recover and reassert the classic formulas of Christian doctrine.

Niebuhr was not a systematic theologian. He was pragmatic, stressing a dialectical, problematic approach in his intellectual inquiries. In a series of important books published during the 1930s and early 1940s, his mature reflections on the relationship of the Christian faith to the industrial, technological world gradually unfolded. Moral Man in an Immoral Society (1932) was a full-scale attack upon liberal Protestantism, especially its lack of understanding of the nature and use of power in modern society. In Interpretation of Christian Ethics (1935) he replaced his largely critical and destructive polemics against liberalism with an attempt at a constructive restatement of the relation of ethics to politics. In Beyond Tragedy (1937), a series of essays that originally had been sermons, Niebuhr reasserted the centrality of human sinfulness in explaining and understanding the human predicament and offered Christ's crucifixion as the most profound means of transcending that human condition. He also stressed the importance of myth as a method for making comprehensible to modern man the biblical world view, which he now so vigorously espoused.

All of Niebuhr's previous work was knitted together in more comprehensive and systematic form with the publication of the Gifford Lectures, which he delivered in Scotland in 1939, under the title The Nature and Destiny of Man (2 vols., 1941, 1943). This work was his principal intellectual achievement. Nearly all of his subsequent books sought to expand upon selected aspects of this richly varied material. The central concern of the work was an inquiry into the nature of selfhood. Niebuhr demonstrated that his vision of human existence was, at its core, ambiguous. Man was "both free and bound, both limited and limitless." Moreover, it was the Christian faith, above all other world views, that perceived most clearly this ambiguity and proposed means to cope with, and perhaps even to overcome, the anxiety that was inevitably a product of that ambiguity.

Niebuhr persistently tried to relate his religious insights to the concrete political and social problems of the contemporary world. He involved himself actively in politics, once as a Socialist candidate for local office, later as one of the founders of Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal study group within the Democratic party. He preached often on college campuses throughout the nation, involved himself in the ecumenical movements of national and international church bodies, and produced an endless stream of articles for popular journals, both religious and secular. He also continued to publish more serious studies in theology and politics. Two especially important analyses of democracy, Children of Light and Children of Darkness (1944) and The Irony of American History (1952), appeared at a time when the Western democracies were facing fundamental ideological and spiritual challenges.

The flirtation with Marxism and support of pacifism characteristic of Niebuhr in the early 1930s gave way to disenchantment with communism and a willingness to support "realistically" the use of force in international politics as the world was engulfed in World War II. Urging the participation of the United States in the power politics of the postwar period, Niebuhr became a major influence on the thinking of high-ranking academicians and government officials. (Consistently enough, the massive extension of American power into Southeast Asia provoked criticism from Niebuhr comparable to that directed against the Communists in the immediate post-World War II period.)

His health seriously impaired by a stroke in 1952, Niebuhr was forced to limit his activities. He died in Stock-bridge, Mass., on June 1, 1971. He was one of the major spokesmen for Protestant theology in the 20th century.

Further Reading

An important statement by Niebuhr concerning his intellectual and personal development is included among a series of illuminating essays by many scholars edited by Charles Kegley and Robert Bretall, Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social, and Political Thought (1956). An engaging, perceptive biographical study is June Bingham, Courage to Change (1961). Ronald H. Stone, Reinhold Niebuhr: Prophet to Politician (1972), emphasizes his political philosophy. A useful, brief pamphlet that analyzes the salient points in Niebuhr's system of ideas is Nathan Scott, Reinhold Niebuhr (1963).

Additional Sources

Bingham, June, Courage to change: an introduction to the life and thought of Reinhold Niebuhr, Lanham: University Press of America, 1993.

Brown, Charles C. (Charles Calvin), Niebuhr and his age: Reinhold Niebuhr's prophetic role in the twentieth century, Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992.

Clark, Henry B. (Henry Balsley), Serenity, courage, and wisdom: the enduring legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr, Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1994.

Fox, Richard Wightman, Reinhold Niebuhr: a biography, New York: Pantheon Books, 1985; San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987, 1985.

Stone, Ronald H., Professor Reinhold Niebuhr: a mentor to the twentieth century, Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992. □

Niebuhr, Reinhold

views updated May 09 2018


Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr (June 21, 1892–June 1, 1971) was the most significant American-born Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, and during the Depression an important political activist, thinker, and writer. Son of an immigrant minister of the German Evangelical Synod of North America, Niebuhr grew up in Missouri and Illinois and attended the Synod's Eden Seminary (Bachelor of Divinity, 1913) and Yale Divinity School (B.D. 1914, M.A. 1915). His studies confirmed him as a liberal and a modernist in theology—both anti-Calvinist and anti-supernaturalist. During World War I he was an ardent supporter of Woodrow Wilson's liberal internationalism and a militant Americanizer within the German-American community. In the 1920s, while serving as pastor of the middle-class Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, he became a leading voice of liberal Protestantism. A determined foe of Henry Ford's labor policies, he preached social justice and racial tolerance from pulpits around the country and in the pages of the national weekly magazine The Christian Century.

Even before leaving Detroit in 1928 for a professorship in Christian ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, Niebuhr had embraced a gradualist socialism. Once in New York he became a main contributor to the socialist weekly The World Tomorrow. In 1930 he ran for the state Senate on the Socialist Party ticket, and in 1932 he was a Socialist candidate for Congress (both were "educational" campaigns that garnered few votes). But with the rise of fascism Niebuhr moved toward the New Deal coalition, voting for Roosevelt reluctantly in 1936, and enthusiastically thereafter. During the Depression he wrote his most influential books, while also laboring tirelessly as a political organizer and journalist. Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), Beyond Tragedy (1937), and The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941) were pivotal works in the rethinking of American reform politics in relation to Protestant theology. He blended the liberal hope for expanded justice and equality with "the tragic sense of life," a sensibility usually associated with conservatism. Niebuhr effected the same ideological merger in founding the Fellowship of Socialist Christians (1931), the Union for Democratic Action (1941), and Radical Religion (1935) and Christianity and Crisis (1941) magazines. By the time he appeared on the cover of Time's twenty-fifth anniversary issue in 1948, the word Niebuhrian had come to mean a persistent commitment to social responsibility in a world of chastened expectations.



Beckley, Harlan. Passion for Justice: Retrieving the Legacies of Walter Rauschenbusch, John A. Ryan, and Reinhold Niebuhr. 1992.

Fox, Richard Wightman. Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography. 1997.

Lovin, Robin. Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism. 1995.

Meyer, Donald B. The Protestant Search for Political Realism, 1919–1941, 2nd edition. 1988

Richard Wightman Fox

Niebuhr, Reinhold

views updated May 14 2018


Protestant ethicist and educator; b. Wright City, MO, June 21, 1892; d. Stockbridge, MA, June 1, 1971. He was the son of Gustave and Lydia (Hosto) Niebuhr and elder brother of H. Richard Niebuhr. After attending Eden Theological Seminary, Webster Groves, MO, he went to Yale University and received the B.D. in 1914 and the M.A. in 1915. He was ordained in the Evangelical Synod Church and undertook pastoral duties in Detroit, MI. The struggles of the labor movement in Detroit came to Niebuhr's attention, and his involvement in them was the basis for his later work in Christian social ethics. In 1928, Niebuhr took an academic post at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and married Ursula Keppel-Compton in 1931.

At first an ardent pacifist, Niebuhr shared the optimism of the social gospel movementan optimism that had its secular counterpart in the thought of John Dewey. However, by 1932, with the publication of Moral Man and Immoral Society, he argued against the "Social Gospel" that the law of love would never lead to social perfection and against the disciples of Dewey that expertise should never replace wisdom. An adequate social ethic needed more than moral piety or scientific intelligence. This realization led Niebuhr to a renewed appreciation of some biblical themes which had been neglected by the regnant liberal theology. In particular Niebuhr emphasized the doctrine of original sin. Human pride is everywhere at work and especially in the political order with the temptations of power. He thus supported political policies that carefully delineate the limits of power. His works include Does Civilization Need Religion? (1927), The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2 v. (1941 and 1943), and Man's Nature and His Communities (1965).

See Also: niebuhr, helmut richard.

Bibliography: c. w. kegley and r. w. bretall, eds., Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social and Political Thought (New York 1956). g. harland, The Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr (London 1960).

[w. hayes]

Niebuhr, Reinhold

views updated Jun 08 2018

Niebuhr, Reinhold (1892–1971). Christian theologian, reflecting especially on social and political issues. After twenty-three years in a Detroit working-class church, he moved to Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he became professor of Christian ethics, remaining there until his retirement. Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) already anticipated his Gifford Lectures, The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941–3). What he looked for was ‘a combination of moral resoluteness about the immediate issues with a religious awareness of another dimension of meaning and judgement’, thereby grounding politics in realism about human frailty.

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