Reinhold Niebuhr

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Reinhold Niebuhr

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Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr (June 21, 1892 – June 1, 1971) was a Protestant theologian best known for his study of the task of relating the Christian faith to the reality of modern politics and diplomacy. He is a crucial contributor to modern just war thinking.


Personal history

Niebuhr was born in Wright City, Missouri, USA, the son of a liberal-minded German Evangelical pastor, Gustav, and the older brother of Helmut Richard Niebuhr. Both sons decided to follow in their father's footsteps and enter the ministry. Reinhold Niebuhr attended Elmhurst College, Illinois (where today stands a large statue of him), and graduated in 1910. Then he went to Eden Seminary, in St. Louis, Missouri. Finally, he attended Yale University, where he received his Bachelor of Divinity Degree in 1914 and was a member of Alpha Sigma Phi Fraternity. In 1915, Niebuhr was ordained a pastor.

The German Evangelical mission board sent him to serve in Detroit. The congregation numbered 65 on his arrival and grew to nearly 700 by the time he left in 1928. The increase reflected the tremendous growth of population attracted to the automobile industry centered there.

During his pastorate, Niebuhr was troubled by the demoralizing effects of industrialism on the workers. He became an outspoken critic of Henry Ford and allowed union organizers to use his pulpit to expound their message of workers' rights. Niebuhr documented inhumane conditions created by the assembly lines and erratic employment practices.

Niebuhr also spoke out against the Ku Klux Klan, which during the 1920s had a revival in several major Midwestern and Western cities, including Detroit. Half of Michigan's 70,000 Klan members lived in Detroit at the height of the group's power. A Klan candidate nearly won the race for mayor in 1924. Under pressure of white and African American migrants from the South, and greatly increased immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, the city had an especially volatile social mixture. The Klan had most support among lower class whites who had to compete directly against other new residents. Niebuhr said the Klan was "one of the worst specific social phenomena which the religious pride of peoples has ever developed."[1]

In 1923 Niebuhr visited Europe to meet with intellectuals and theologians. The conditions he saw in Germany under the French occupation dismayed Niebuhr and reinforced the pacifist views he had adopted in disgust after World War I.

In 1928, Niebuhr left Detroit to become Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he remained until 1960. Before arriving at the seminary, Niebuhr captured the meaning of his personal experience at his Detroit church in his book Leaves From the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. While teaching theology at Union Theological Seminary, Niebuhr influenced German minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church.

In 1931 Niebuhr married the English theologian Ursula Kessel-Compton. They had a son and a daughter.

He served as editor of the magazine Christianity and Crisis from 1941 through 1966.

Political efforts

During the 1930s Niebuhr was a prominent leader of the militant faction of the Socialist Party of America. He promoted adoption of the United front agenda of the Communist Party USA, a position in sharp contrast to that which would distinguish him later in his career. According to the autobiography of his factional opponent Louis Waldman, Niebuhr even led military drill exercises among the young members.

During the outbreak of World War II, the pacifist leanings of his liberal roots were challenged. Niebuhr began to distance himself from the pacifism of his more liberal colleagues and became a staunch advocate for the war. Niebuhr soon left the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a peace-oriented group of theologians and ministers, and became one of their harshest critics. This departure from his peers evolved into a movement known as Christian Realism. Niebuhr is widely considered its primary advocate. Christian Realism provided a more tough-minded approach to politics than the idealism held by many of Niebuhr's contemporaries. Within the framework of Christian Realism, Niebuhr became a supporter of US action in World War II, anti-communism, and the development of nuclear weapons.

Philosophical writings

In 1952, he wrote The Irony of American History in which he shared with his readers the various struggles (political, ideological, moral and religious) in which he participated. His writings reflect a penetrating criticism of the social gospel liberalism of his youth and his search for alternatives. For a while he tried to synthesize various elements of Marxism and Christianity. Both his political experience and his deepening Christian values, however, caused him to abandon the work in favor of an ideology he called Christian Realism. These views meshed the Augustinianism of the Reformation with his own hard-won political wisdom. His concepts were crystallized in the Gifford Lectures of Edinburgh University in 1940 as The Nature and Destiny of Man, which is his magnum opus. In it he comes as close as he ever did to a systematic presentation of his theology.

Niebuhr made insightful observations on the human condition, emphasizing its social and political aspects. No other theologian has made such a deep impact upon the social sciences. For more than two decades, his ideas were the most important influence on theology in American seminaries.

The writings of Niebuhr are placed squarely in the middle of a very painful time in the history of the world and of America. Having suffered one World War and the Great Depression, Niebuhr wrote about the injustice of humanity and the need for people to tear down the systems that increased the injustice in the world. In the rise of fascism and the horrors of World War II in Europe, Niebuhr saw an evil which demanded opposition by force, even by Christians. Taking this lesson further, he wrote concerning the need for a form of democracy that would empower people and rid the world of the human sin of lording power over others. In the beginnings of his work as a vocal social justice proponent, he was a strong democratic socialist. Having once railed against Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal as being unattainable, after the war he saw his writing as too idealistic and began to fall into line with the New Deal and the Vital Center of the Democratic Party. Niebuhr’s work was a great voice within the rising tide of welfare capitalism.

Influence and honors

Niebuhr was read widely by Christian leaders in the postwar years. Among the most famous was the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who gave credit to his influence. Niebuhr was one of the major thinkers who contributed to the evolving postwar American national identity. His work inspired an American psyche that evoked a mythological worker of justice in the world—a notion that he stressed was a vision of what might be, not a description of America at the time. Niebuhr saw America as moving in the direction of justice, despite failures of racial equality and foreign policy in Vietnam. Writing about class equality, he said "We have attained a certain equilibrium in economic society by setting organized power against organized power". Niebuhr was also the author of many colloquialisms, including, " to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable."

Despite the accolades Niebuhr received during his lifetime, after his death his politics and theology fell sharply out of favor among many mainline Protestants. They embraced many if not all of the tenets of liberation theology that derived in part from the camp of a rival neo-orthodox thinker, Karl Barth. Still others, reacting negatively to the pessimism and supposed militarism which Niebuhr's thought seemed to endorse, returned to liberalism, beginning with the "Death of God" movement in the mid-1960s. The increasingly dominant conservative evangelicals in the U.S. have never addressed his thought much at all, probably in parallel to the majority of the church-going public.

Nonetheless, some politicians and thinkers continue to esteem the theologian highly. Recently, Sen. Barack Obama cited Niebuhr as "one of his favorite philosophers." Obama told journalist David Brooks "“I take away .. the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naļve idealism to bitter realism[2].”

Niebuhr was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Niebuhr was the author of the Serenity Prayer used by Alcoholics Anonymous (in a slightly different form from the version he wrote). An Alcoholics Anonymous website reports: "What is undisputed is the claim of authorship by the theologian Dr. Rheinhold [sic] Niebuhr, who recounted to interviewers on several occasions that he had written the prayer as a 'tag line' to a sermon he had delivered on Practical Christianity. Yet even Dr. Niebuhr added at least a touch of doubt to his claim, when he told one interviewer, 'Of course, it may have been spooking around for years, even centuries, but I don't think so. I honestly do believe that I wrote it myself.'"[3]

His claim to authorship was supported in detail by Elisabeth Sifton in The Serenity Prayer (2003), but some believe it to be a paraphrase of Oliver J. Hart (1723-1795).[citation needed]

New York City named the section of West 120th Street between Broadway and Riverside Drive, Reinhold Niebuhr Place in his honor. This is the location of Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan.


  • Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Richard R. Smith pub, (1930), Westminster John Knox Press 1991 reissue: ISBN 0-664-25164-1, diary of a young minister's trials
  • Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study of Ethics and Politics, Charles Scribner's Sons (1932), Westminster John Knox Press 2002: ISBN 0-664-22474-1
  • Interpretation of Christian Ethics, Harper & Brothers (1935)
  • Beyond Tragedy: Essays on the Christian Interpretation of Tragedy, Charles Scribner's Sons (1937), ISBN 0-684-71853-7
  • The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, from the Gifford Lectures, (1941), Volume one: Human Nature, Volume two: Human Destiny, 1980 Prentice Hall vol. 1: ISBN 0-02-387510-0, Westminster John Knox Press 1996 set of 2 vols: ISBN 0-664-25709-7
  • The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, Charles Scribner's Sons (1944), Prentice Hall 1974 edition: ISBN 0-02-387530-5, Macmillan 1985 edition: ISBN 0-684-15027-1
  • Faith and History (1949) ISBN 0-684-15318-1
  • The Irony of American History, Charles Scribner’s Sons (1952), 1985 reprint: ISBN 0-684-71855-3, Simon and Schuster: ISBN 0-684-15122-7
  • Christian Realism and Political Problems (1953) ISBN 0-678-02757-9
  • The Self and the Dramas of History, Charles Scribner’s Sons (1955), University Press of America, 1988 edition: ISBN 0-8191-6690-1
  • Love and Justice: Selections from the Shorter Writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, ed. D. B. Robertson (1957), Westminster John Knox Press 1992 reprint, ISBN 0-664-25322-9
  • Pious and Secular America (1958) ISBN 0-678-02756-0
  • The Structure of Nations and Empires (1959) ISBN 0-678-02755-2
  • The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, (1987), Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-04001-6
  • Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr. Letters of Reinhold & Ursula M. Niebuhr, ed. by Ursula Niebuhr (1991) Harper, 0060662344


  1. ^ Kenneth T. Jackson, The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930. Oxford University Press, 1967; reprint, Chicago: Elephant Paperback, 1992, pp.129,134-138, 142.
  2. ^ Brooks, David. "Obama, Gospel and Verse", The New York Times, April 26, 2007. Retrieved on May 7, 2007. 
  3. ^ The Origin of our Serenity Prayer. Retrieved on 2007-10-09.

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