Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

An Appreciation of the Family Niebuhr

UPDATE:  For some reason I felt like reposting this appreciation of the Niebuhrs before writing the next section of my biblical case for Christian pacifism.  I know, I know. A pacifist is not supposed to have good things to say about the ardent opponent of Christian pacifism, Reinhold Niebuhr.  And someone influenced by an Anabaptist view of the church and its relation to wider cultures is not supposed to have much good to say about H. Richard Niebuhr, who (mis)labeled this perspective as “Christ against culture,” and helped so many write off Anabaptists off as “sectarians.”  I share these and numerous other critiques of the Niebuhr family. 

But as I was thinking about the history of 20th C. North American Christianity today, I realized what an amazing family the Niebuhrs were–and what a gift they were to the Church, flaws and all.  Very few Christian families had so many members contributing so much to the Church and the world. ( The Wesleys come quickly to mind–including the parallel of the smarter younger brother overshadowed by the dominant older one–; the Booth family in the Salvation Army; father and son Thomas and Alexander Campbell; the Judson-Boardman family among American Baptists; the King family in National/Progressive National Baptist circles; the Poteat family among progressive white Baptists in the South–but only the Wesleys even approached the influence of the Niebuhrs.)

So, here is an appreciation of the Family Niebuhr by an Anabaptist-influenced Christian pacifist. Although I look forward to saying, “I told you so” about many things when meeting them in the Coming Kingdom (or not–presumably I’ll be cured of that sin), I would be foolish not to recognize the gifts God gave them for the Church universal and the way even their errors clarified terms of debate–a gift in itself.

Rev. Gustav Niebuhr (1863-1913). A minister and church planter for the German Evangelical Synod (today absorbed by the United Church of Christ), an American immigrant denomination created by the 1817 union of Reformed and Lutheran churches in Prussia (using the mediating Heidelberg Catechism), who emigrated from Germany to the U.S. in 1881 at the age of 18.  Gustav’s faith combined pietist evangelical commitments with openess to the new liberalism.  He read Schleiermacher and Harnack, voted for Teddy Roosevelt, and studied the Bible in Hebrew and Greek.  He was a vigorous leader in his denomination, planting churches in the West and Mid-west, pushing the small denomination to hold services in English (though the Niebuhrs spoke German at home) and to support a liberal arts college (Elmhurst) and a theological seminary (Eden) for an educated, progressive ministry.  His influence on his family must have been profound since 3 of his 4 children went into the ministry.  Gustav had his faults: He shared the patriarchal views of his era & he discouraged his daughter, Hulda, from pursuing higher education. (She did anyway.) He also played favorites with his children, driving the oldest son, Walter, away, favoring middle son, Reinhold, and being very cold to youngest son, H. Richard.  And he treated his wife, Lydia, as a combination of unpaid co-pastor and domestic servant.  But, despite these serious flaws, theology, music, learning, and service were values that flourished in his home and seem never to have left the family that bears his name.  In 1902, Gustav took up his final parish, St. John’s Evangelical Church (now UCC) in Lincoln, IL, where Gustav also became an administrator of Deaconess Hospital. (See this article on the Deaconess Movement in 19th C. American Christianity.)  He died unexpectedly in 1913 at age 50.

Lydia (Hosto) Niebuhr (1869-1961). Little is known of her private life, but she served in numerous unpaid church positions throughout her husband, Gustav’s, ministry, and became the de facto unpaid co-pastor of the Detroit parish of her (then-bachelor) son, Reinhold.  I think her influence was probably strongest on Hulda and H. Richard, but it was clear that she also influenced Gustav’s favorite, “Reinie.” The “Susannah Wesley” of the Niebuhrs, I wish I knew more about her. I suspect she was an amazing person and I would probably have liked her better than her husband.  Unfortunately, like most women throughout history, she barely peaks out of the shadows of her husband and her famous sons. Lydia’s sister, Adele Hosto, was a consecrated Deaconess in the German Evangelical Synod and her father, Edward Hosto, was a missionary with the German Evangelical Synod.

Hulda Niebuhr (1889-1959). The oldest of the Niebuhr children and the only daughter, Clara Augusta Hulda Niebuhr was a pioneer far beyond the expectations of her father, who shared his generation’s views about women’s education and limited sphere beyond the home.  Although Hulda was very bright, her father discouraged her from seeking education beyond high school since she “obviously wouldn’t need it.” When she graduated high school in 1906 (near the top of her class), she, at first, respected her father’s wishes. She followed her mother’s example and did unpaid church work in both her home church in Lincoln, IL (St. John’s Evangelical Church) and, later, her brother, Reinhold’s Detroit parish. But when her father died in 1913, Hulda decided to apply for college work.  She earned an A.B. and M. A. at Boston University, and became one of the first 3 female assistant professors at B.U. in 1927.  In 1928, she moved to New York City and began work on a Ph.D. at Columbia Teacher’s College (now part of Columbia University). She never completed her Ph.D., but became one of the earliest “Ministers of Education,” (actual title, Director of Religious Education) in the nation in 1930, serving in that capacity from 1930-1945 at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, NYC.  This was, as Hulda put it, the “practical work of the church.”  During the years at Madison Avenue PC, Hulda wrote creative materials for use in Sunday School and published two books on how drama and story might be used in the education ministries of the churches.  In 1945, the Presbyterian College of Education (associated with and now part of, McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago) hired Hulda as Associate Professor of Religious Education. In 1953, Hulda Niebuhr became the first woman to hold the rank of full professor at McCormick Theological Seminary.  She continued to pioneer in the field of religious education. She died in 1959 at age 70, having never married.  She deserves to be more widely known, especially by advocates for women in ministry and by religious educators.

Walter Niebuhr, second child and firstborn boy, was a slight rebel, becoming the only surviving Niebuhr child not to become involved in church work. Although he remained a faithful Christian, he became a journalist and businessman–and was the financial savior of the family when Gustav died.

A second son and third child, name unknown, died in infancy–an all too common pattern in those days.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr, 4th Niebuhr child and 3rd son, was father Gustav’s favorite and destined to become the most famous (and, for pacifists, infamous!) member of the Niebuhr clan. He was clearly, for both good and ill, among the handful of most influential theologians in 20th C. America.  Born in Wright City, MO, Reinie emulated his father and decided early to follow him into the ministry.  He was intellectually bright (but not brilliant like his younger brother), but more passionate than disciplined and he struggled with school. He was educated at Elmhurst College, the denominational college, not then qualified to give out baccalaureate degrees, functioning more like a German gymnasium (U.S. high school and first year college level) or what would later become a junior college level. From there, he attended Eden Seminary, which was, at the time, unaccredited and functioning more as a pastoral and missionary finishing school than a post-baccalaureate seminary.  Reinie’s grades were good, but uneven, and he was surprised to find himself accepted at Yale Divinity School.  He was intimidated by the cultured elite students at Yale, but he had an advantage over many: he was fluent in German. (In fact, he was more fluent in German than in English!) He finished his B.D. (equivalent to a modern Masters of Divinity) in 2 years and his professors encouraged him to pursue doctoral work, but Reinie was out of money.

In 1915, Reinie was ordained by his father’s church, St. John’s Evangelical Church, Lincoln and called as the pastor of a small mission, Bethel Evangelical Church–in the Detroit of Henry Ford.  Bethel had 65 members when Reinie arrived and over 700 when he left in 1928.  Thanks to his mother, Lydia, living with him and assuming domestic duties, plus serving in much of the routine work of the congregation, Reinie was able to become a very active, Social Gospel style pastor, even involving himself in the politics of the city.  This experience was to shape the rest of his life and ministry.  He became convinced that sermons telling rich bosses to love their workers more were ineffective. Justice would need stronger weapons. Although at this time a pacifist, he threw himself into the Labor struggle, though the labor movement was considered “violent” by most pacifists of that day. (They did not just view those labor actions which degenerated into riots as violent; most Christians, pacifist or not, saw the very act of striking or work slowdowns, etc. as violent. No wonder Reinie considered them naive.) He also, unlike many of the white Social Gospel ministers of the time, spoke out against racism and became partly influenced by Karl Marx (without the atheism and materialism).  During this period of time, Reinie wrote one of his most famous (and most Marxist) books, Moral Man and Immoral Society which began his break from the Social Gospel and the formation of his school of “Christian Realism.” It also brought him to the attention of Henry Sloan Coffin, Presbyterian minister and President of the (once Presbyterian, then independent) Union Theological Seminary.

Coffin wanted to hire Reinie as Professor of Christian Ethics, but the faculty balked since he had no earned doctorate. So, Coffin raised Reinie’s salary from private donations and brought him on anyway.  From 1928 until his retirement in 1960, Reinie taught at Union. Union became his base of operations from which he launched a flurry of writings (books, articles, newspaper articles, etc.), preached in pulpits across the nation and overseas, spoke at universities and in public fora and became one of America’s few public intellectuals. He broke with pacifism and the Fellowship of Reconciliation over Hitler’s rise to power and urged American entry into the War long before Pearl Harbor. But, unlike some militarists who claim his mantle today, Reinie remained profoundly aware of the limits of military power and the temptations of all nations, the U.S. definitely included, to idolatry and self-delusion. He wrote nearly a book a year, founded the Liberal Party of New York, was a Time “Man of the Year,” and founded two journals, Christianity and Society, and Christianity and Crisis. He has been considered the bane of theological liberals (though he admitted in old age to sharing more liberalism than he previously thought), pacifists of all stripes, fundamentalists and most conservative evangelicals, and “sectarians” (in his view) who took the church, rather than the nation-state, as the primary locus of the redeeming work of God.  He has deserved at least 75% of the criticisms directed at him–but I admit to trusting post-Niebuhr pacifists or pacifists who have wrestled with Niebuhr’s challenge more than knee-jerk anti-Niebuhrians. He died in 1971. Union Theological Seminary has endowed a Reinhold Niebuhr Chair of Theology and Christian Ethics and today, one of the cross-streets on which Union sits at the edge of Harlem is known as Reinhold Niebuhr Place.

H(elmut). Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962), the last of the Niebuhr children was the most brilliant and is often overshadowed by Reinie.  Born in Wright City, MO, the shy and quiet youngest son had a much more difficult relationship with his father than did his older brother, Reinie. In his old age, Reinie was surprised to find that Richard considered their father cold and tyrannical.

HRN would begin life in the family tradition, but he learned from his elder brother’s pathbreaking. He graduated Elmhurst College in 1912 and Eden Seminary in 1915.  Knowing the difficulties Reinie had faced with inadequate preparation, HRN obtained an M.A. in philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, MO in 1918 before earning his B.D. &  Ph.D. from Yale in 1923 & 1924 respectively–the only member of the family to finish a doctorate.

HRN was dedicated to the church and his ecclesiology, while having problems (from my own Yoder/McClendon/Hauerwas viewpoint), was far stronger than Reinie’s. Richard was ordained by the Evangelical Synod in 1916 and from 1916-1918, he was pastor of an Evangelical Synod congregation in St. Louis, MO. While pursuing his Ph.D., HRN served as pastor of a Congregationalist church in New Haven, CT.  In 1934, the Evangelical Synod merged with the German Reformed Church in the United States, another denomination of German immigrants based on the Heidelberg Catechism, becoming the Evangelical and Reformed Church.  In 1957, the Evangelical and Reformed Church merged with the Congregationalists (most of them) to form the United Church of Christ.  The Niebuhrs all approved of these unions, but HRN was instrumental in each step.

The education of ministers was a primary concern for HRN. He served as President of his denomination’s Eden Theological Seminary from 1919 to 1931 (upgrading its faculty and teaching standards and leading it to be able to offer truly post-baccalaureate theological education) with a four year leave of absence to serve as interim president of Elmhurst College (1924-1927), bringing the latter up to full accreditation as well.  From 1931 until his death in 1962, HRN taught at Yale Divinity School rising to the rank of full professor and eventually serving in the endowed chair, Stirling Professor of Theology and Christian Ethics. But his concern for ministerial education did not stop there because in 1954-55, HRN chaired a task force studying and recommending changes in theological education across the United States, editing its report and leading to his book, The Purpose of the Church and its Ministry.

HRN wrote much less than Reinie, but he remains an enormously influential theologian to this day.  He helped to found the sociological study of church life with his The Social Sources of Denominationalism. He has influenced the “theocentric” approach of James Gustafson and others with his The Responsible Self and Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (his most problematic book in my view) and helped to found the “narrative theology” of the “Yale School” (even influencing his critic Stanley Hauerwas in this way) through The Meaning of Revelation.  His most influential work, with great strengths and glaring flaws, Christ and Culture remains a standard textbook in Christian ethics in seminaries and divinity schools throughout North America, over 50 years since its publication. 

Ursula Niebuhr (1908-1997), born in Southampten, UK (as Ursula Kessel-Compton), she became one of the first female Anglican theologians, graduating from Oxford and earning a fellowship to study for a post-graduate year at Union Theological Seminary in New York.  She met and married (1931) the much older, Reinie, and was overshadowed by him–as was nearly everyone in Reinie’s orbit! But Ursula founded the religion department of Bernard College in the 1940s and was its chairwoman for years.  She curtailed her career after Reinie’s stroke and edited collections of his shorter writings after his death.  She remained a committed Anglican/Episcopalian, never agreeing with the congregational and pietist ecclesiology of her husband.  She pushed him to work harder for women’s rights in church and society, too.  Together, they raised a son (Christopher) and 3 daughters. I have been unable to find the names of the other two daughters, but the youngest, Elizabeth Sifton, is a book publisher and has written a book on her father’s most famous prayer, the Serenity Prayer, used so much by Alcoholics Anonymous groups.

Richard Reinhold Niebuhr (no dates found) is the son of H. Richard Niebuhr.  He taught for years at Harvard Divinity School and is now Hollis Professor of Divinity Emeritus at Harvard.  Although he published little, he edited some of his father’s unpublished works as Faith on Earth and has become a well-known expert on F.D.E. Schleiermacher.  He has also sought to recover a way to affirm Christ’s resurrection in a world governed by Troeltschian historical forces.  In 2006, a gift by an alumnus allowed HDS to create the Richard Reinhold Niebuhr Chair of Divinity and, in June of this year, Mark D. Jordan leaves Emory University (where he has been Asa Griggs Candler Professor since 1999) to become the first Richard Reinhold Niebuhr professor of Divinity.

Finally, R. Gustav Niebuhr (no dates found) continues in both family traditions by combining careers in journalism and religion. A longtime religion editor for the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times, today R. Gustav Niebuhr has dual appointments at Syracuse University: Associate Professor of Newspaper Journalism in the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Education and Associate Professor of Religion and the Media in the Religion Department.

All that from one family–with maybe more to come.  Whatever our personal theologies, all Christians ought to give God thanks for the gift bestowed on the Church universal in the form of the Family Niebuhr.

November 22, 2009 Posted by | church history | 7 Comments