Reinhold Niebuhr rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most spellbinding preachers and influential theologians of his time. During the 1920’s, Niebuhr in many ways was to intellectuals what Billy Sunday was to the masses. Throughout his life, Niebuhr was a much sought-after preacher and was looked upon by many as the thinking man’s theologian.
Born in rural Wright City, Missouri, to a clergyman in the German Evangelical Synod and his wife, Niebuhr grew up speaking German more than English. The family moved to Logan County in Illinois when Niebuhr was a small child, and he grew up around simple farm folk. He learned a considerable amount about the evangelical style of preaching from hearing his father’s sermons.
Niebuhr attended Elmhurst College in Illinois and Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, before matriculating in the Yale Divinity School, from which he received a bachelor of divinity degree in 1914 and a master of arts degree in 1915. Niebuhr quickly became a rousing preacher with an ever-expanding following, first in Detroit, where he had a church in a middle-class neighborhood, and later, as his fame spread, across the entire nation. Niebuhr traveled from his base at Union Theological Seminary to churches throughout the country to bring his special brand of Christian socialism to the people.
Richard Fox, a professor of history at Reed College, has drawn from a broad range of primary sources in preparing this well-balanced, meticulously researched biography. Not only has he read and provided critical commentary on all of Niebuhr’s books, but he has tracked down as well a huge mass of Niebuhr’s voluminous correspondence, sermons, letters to the editor, and articles and essays, many of which appeared in journals not readily available to the public. Working from this staggering quantity of material, Fox has written an engaging and lively biography that combines scholarly rigor with popular appeal.
Fox is a discriminating critic. He greatly admires his subject, but not to the point of losing his objectivity about him. Niebuhr was a prolific writer, and his books are uneven in depth and quality. Fox recognizes this unevenness and assesses Niebuhr’s output with objectivity and intellectual integrity. The Niebuhr who emerges from his study is a many-sided, fascinating man.
Indeed, Niebuhr’s life was filled with contradictions and ironies. He had essentially a populist view of society during his years as pastor of the Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, from 1915, the year in which he received his master’s degree from Yale, to 1928, when he left to assume his post at Union Theological Seminary. Niebuhr liked to think of the congregation of the Bethel Evangelical Church as working class. The church had served a middle-class neighborhood, but under Niebuhr’s pastorate, the congregation grew to six times its original size, attracting many factory workers from Detroit, who were moved by Niebuhr’s attacks on such industrialists as Henry Ford. Niebuhr, a Socialist, favored the collective ownership of industry by the workers.
Niebuhr came to Bethel at a difficult time. Germany was at war with England and France, and the United States was in danger of being drawn into that war. Niebuhr, preaching to, largely, German-Americans, called for them to support the Allied cause in this conflict, although to do so meant repudiating their allegiance to their closest ties. Despite his pacifism, Niebuhr supported his country’s engagement against Germany in both World War I and World War II.
It was during his period at Bethel that Niebuhr began to emerge as a social critic—a role for which he was known during his long and distinguished tenure at Union Theological Seminary. Niebuhr was sometimes simultaneously the darling of the political Right and the political Left. His basic posture was that of a liberal, but he was quite aware of some of the limitations of liberalism. He was fervently anti-Communist, believing that Communism destroyed the very roots of a free society, and he went so far as to suggest that right-wing extremism, when directed against Communism, was less dangerous to an open society than Communism was. Such sentiments gained for him a substantial following among conservatives and neoconservatives.
Niebuhr’s growing national reputation as an outspoken social critic prompted Henry Sloane Coffin to seek Niebuhr out for a...
(The entire section is 1824 words.)