This Day in Church History: Birth of Reinhold Niebuhr
Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), called “Reinhold” or (by friends, family, and some students) “Reinie,” was born 21 June 1892 in Wright City, Missouri. The son of German immigrants, Reinie’s father, Gustav Niebuhr, was a leading minister in a small ethnic/immigrant denomination called the German Evangelical Synod which, shaped by the Heidelberg Catechism, united German Lutheran and German Reformed Protestantism. (In 1934 the German Evangelical Synod merged with the Reformed Church in the U.S., which also used the Heidelberg Catechism and had immigrant roots from Germany and Switzerland, to become the Evangelical and Reformed Church. In 1957, the E and R Church merged with the Congregational Christian Churches to form the United Church of Christ, just 50 years old this year. The Niebuhr family stuck with its denomination through all these ecumenical mergers.)
Reinie was born into an amazing family that produced church leaders. Among the latter, not only was his father Gustav a minister, but his mother, Lydia Hosto Niebuhr, served as unpaid, de facto co-pastor to her husband and, later, to Reinie during his extended bachelorhood. Reinie’s sister, Hulda Niebuhr, became one of the earliest ministers of education in American congregational life and served as Professor of Religious Education at McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago. Reinie’s younger brother, Helmut Richard Niebuhr, became a famous theologian, philosopher, and ethicist at Yale University Divinity School. When Reinie finally married, his wife, an Englishwoman (and one of the earliest women theologians from the Church of England) many years younger named Ursula Keppel-Compton, became Chair of the Department of Religion, Barnard College, although her own career was cut short when Reinie suffered a stroke. Reinie’s nephew (H. Richard’s son), Richard Reinhold Niebuhr, is Hollis Professor of Divinity Emeritus at Harvard Divinity School and an expert in the theology of Schleiermacher. (Harvard Divinity School has just announced the creation of a new Richard Reinhold Niebuhr Chair of Divinity whose occupants are expected to combine expertise in contemporary Christianity, ethics, and society.) H. Richard’s grandson, Gustav Niebuhr, is the religion reporter for the New York Times, combining the family’s church-related interests with the journalistic vocation of Reinie’s older brother, Walter.
Reinhold Niebuhr’s education showed the hardships of a Midwestern immigrant boy. Gustav encouraged education, but the family struggled financially. Reinie’s English was too bad for him to attend public schools, so he went to a boarding school run by his denomination. Then he went to Elmhurst College in Illinois, a denominational school. Today, Elmhurst is considered a very high quality church-related liberal arts college, but when Reinie attended it was little more than a junior college. He then went to Eden Theological Seminary, another denominational seminary that, at the time, did not even offer a degree program. He did well academically and managed to win admission to Yale Divinity School, but his first year there was probationary because of his poor English and because Elmhurst had left him several credits short of Yale’s normal admission standards. Although his early struggles with English gave Reinie initial troubles, his fluency in German quickly allowed him to catch and surpass his classmates in reading contemporary German theology.
After an early career as a politically-involved “Social Gospel” style pastor in Detroit, Niebuhr’s first book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, won him an appointment as Professor of Applied Christianity and Social Ethics, at Union Theological Seminary in New York. This was a presidential appointment that was resented by other faculty members since Reinie had no Ph.D. and his published work was considered “unscholarly.” Reinie referred to himself as a “mongrel among purebreeds” at Union.
Despite these inauspicious beginnings, Reinhold Niebuhr would become the most influential American theologian of the 20th C., writing over 20 books, at least 1,500 articles, founding at least 2 journals, and preaching in countless pulpits across the United States. In 1939, he delivered Scotland’s prestigious Gifford Lectures, which were published as The Nature and Destiny of Man (2 vols. 1941, 1943), his most important work. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964. Today, Elmhurst College has a Niebuhr Center and there are endowed chairs of Christian ethics named for Reinhold at both Eden Theological Seminary and Union Theological Seminary of New York.
Niebuhr’s “Christian Realism” attempted to recast the Social Gospel into a view of human nature and of sin and history more informed by Augustine, Luther, and Calvin than the optimistic versions of the Social Gospel were. Initially a liberal pacifist, Niebuhr’s experience in helping unions struggle in Detroit, and also working for racial progress, made him appreciate Marxist social analysis and the need for organized power. The rise of fascism in Europe led Niebuhr to break dramatically with pacifism and become the most influential apologist for Christian non-pacifism, but his later criticisms of post-war imperialism (Britain in India, France in Algeria, the U.S. in Vietnam, etc.) showed Niebuhr’s strong understanding of the limits of military power to shape history. Niebuhr believed that human sin would keep Christians from ever following Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount–which would remain as a judgment on all our efforts. Although I think he failed to understand the power of active nonviolence and that his view of history was not open enough to the ongoing work of God in the world, I always think my fellow pacifists need to read Niebuhr and learn from him. Optimistic pacifists (rather than ones grounded in biblical hope) are too easily “burned out.”
Niebuhr’s flaws and limitations are many, but his thought should not be quickly neglected.
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