Article abstract: The leading American formulator of Neoorthodox theology, Niebuhr used the political and social arenas to place the Christian faith in the center of the cultural and political world of his day.
Reinhold Niebuhr was born June 21, 1892, in Wright City, Missouri, the fourth child of Lydia and Gustav Niebuhr. Lydia was the daughter of an Evangelical Synod missionary, and Gustav was a young minister for the denomination. Reinhold later said that his father was the first formative religious influence on his life, combining a vital personal piety with a complete freedom in his theological training. This combination reflected the stance of the German-originated Evangelical Synod with its “liberal” de-emphasis of doctrine and its stress on heartfelt religion. Although he never exerted pressure, Gustav began early to talk to his son about the ministry, and by the time he was ten Reinhold had made the decision to be a preacher.
In 1902, the Niebuhr family moved to Lincoln, Illinois, where Gustav became pastor of St. John’s Church. It was there that Reinhold experienced an incident which he was later to recount as a great influence on his thinking about the nature and destiny of humankind. During a recession, a local grocer for whom Reinhold worked, Adam Denger, had extended considerable credit to a number of unemployed miners. Embarrassed by his generosity and unable to pay him back, many of them moved away without even saying good-bye. Despite Denger’s belief that God would protect him if he did what was right, he went bankrupt, and his young assistant, Reinhold, grew up to preach against sentimentality and reliance on special providence.
Niebuhr attended Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois, and Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, both Evangelical Synod schools, but he found himself uninterested in any specific academic discipline. While Niebuhr was at Eden in April, 1913, his father, Gustav, suffered an attack of diabetes and died. Niebuhr went on to Yale Divinity School and received his M.A. in 1915, but rather than continue his graduate studies, he chose to accept a parish of the Evangelical Synod.
The board of the Evangelical Synod chose for Niebuhr a newly organized parish in Detroit, Michigan, the location of the Ford Motor Company. That institution came to have a powerful impact on the thinking and actions of Niebuhr taking on symbolic proportions and illustrating the tyranny of power.
Niebuhr experienced the problems common to all young ministers, many of which are told in his delightful Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (1929), a kind of diary of his years as parish minister. This book marked the beginning of a transition in Niebuhr’s thought which eventually led to a rejection of all the liberal theological ideals with which he had ventured forth in 1915.
He said that the theological convictions he later came to hold began to dawn on him in Detroit
because the simple little moral homilies which were preached in that as in other cities, by myself and others, seemed completely irrelevant to the brutal facts of life in a great industrial center. Whether irrelevant or not they were certainly futile. They did not change human actions or attitudes in any problem of collective behavior by a hair’s breadth.
The problems of collective behavior to which he refers were the extreme working conditions and financial insecurity of the mass of industrial workers, especially employees of the Ford Motor Company, contrasted with the complacency and satisfaction of the middle and upper classes. People from all these groups were found among the membership of Niebuhr’s church. He began to agonize about the validity and practicability of the optimistic liberal ideals which he was preaching each week.
Niebuhr’s sermons began to contain more and more references to social and political issues, and he became more involved in social activity, speaking on behalf of the industrial workers in Detroit and other cities and lobbying for the formation of labor unions. Although he was not directly involved in World War I, the tragedy of that event led him to join and ultimately to become the head of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation. He was also instrumental in organizing the Fellowship of Socialist Christians in the late 1920’s.
In 1928, Henry Sloane Coffin, then president of Union Theological Seminary, offered Niebuhr a teaching post at Union. Although he considered himself inadequately prepared for teaching, particularly theology, he accepted Coffin’s offer to teach “just what you think,” with his subject area labeled “Applied Christianity.” The thin, eagle-eyed, balding minister soon became one of the most sought-after professors on the Union campus as he brought his experiences with world political and religious figures to the campus. He continued to preach, traveling every weekend to colleges and universities around the country, and he continued to take part in an ever-increasing number of religious and secular organizations, besides his full-time teaching.
In 1931, Niebuhr married Ursula Keppel-Compton, daughter of a doctor and niece of an Anglican bishop, who...
(The entire section is 2173 words.)