Reinhold Niebuhr, the son of an immigrant minister, was born in Wright City, Missouri, in 1892. After studying at Eden Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School, he became in 1915 the pastor of the Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, where he took an active role combating racial prejudice and supporting labor’s right to strike. In 1928, Henry Sloane Coffin offered Niebuhr a teaching position at Union Theological Seminary in New York; Niebuhr remained there until his retirement in 1960.
Although Niebuhr continued his social activism while at Union, he also became famous as a writer and as a professor of Applied Christianity. He wrote more than twenty books and 1,500 articles, reviews, and editorials. Among his important topics were liberalism and fundamentalism, and the nature of faith in the light of history and science. Perhaps his most significant contribution to American social ethics was in his rethinking of the social gospel, a religious movement prevalent in early twentieth century American theology that optimistically held that people, through their efforts to reform society, could help God bring his kingdom to Earth in the near future.
Niebuhr did not think that the problems of society could be easily solved, for to him, social decisions presented themselves as choices between relative evils. In his writings, he focused on the limitations imposed by evil. Niebuhr argued that, although individuals were capable of moral behavior and development, nations, corporations, labor unions, and other such collective entities were not, because pride more easily manifested itself in groups.