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Reinhold Niebuhr

Professor of Ethics and Theology, Union Theological Seminary, New York
1892 to 1971

Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr was born 21 June 1892 in Wright City, Missouri, to Lydia Hosto and Gustav Niebuhr, a minister of the German Evangelical Synod of North America. At age fifteen Niebuhr entered the Synod’s proseminary, Elmhurst College. Three years later he enrolled at Eden Theological Seminary, where he received his B.Div. and was ordained a minister in 1913.

Having served briefly as interim pastor of his father’s church, Niebuhr attended Yale Divinity School, receiving a second B.Div. (1914) and an M.A. (1915). He then pastored the Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, leading the struggle against Henry Ford’s industrial policy. In 1928 Niebuhr joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he served until his retirement in 1960. In 1931 he married Ursula Keppel-Compton, a theology student from England.

Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), Niebuhr’s first major book, represented a profound critique of liberal Protestantism. For Niebuhr an adequate social ethic cannot be constructed around agape but must be built on an understanding of justice. Because society is comprised of power blocs, justice, while always to be judged in the light of agape, can be achieved only through an equitable balancing of power. Though love is the fundamental rule for individuals, the highest ethical ideal for groups is justice.

Niebuhr was concerned that modern liberal Protestantism did not take seriously the depth and pervasiveness of sin. The Nature and Destiny of Man has as its major theme the need for a synthesis of Renaissance and Reformation insights about the possibilities and limits of human existence, in light of Christian understanding of grace and forgiveness. In The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944), which deals with democracy, and Faith and History (1949), which explores the meaning of history, Niebuhr elaborated more completely on themes found in volume 2 of The Nature and Destiny of Man. Niebuhr ran for Congress, advised the U.S. State Department and served as a delegate to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

He suffered a stroke in February 1952 and died in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, 1 June 1971.

Other books by Niebuhr include: Does Civilization Need Religion? (1927); Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (1929); Reflections on the End of an Era (1934); Beyond Tragedy (1937); Christianity and Power Politics (1940); The Irony of American History (1952); Christian Realism and Political Problems (1953); The Self and the Dramas of History (1955); Pious and Secular America (1958); The Structure of Nations and Empires (1959); and Man’s Nature and His Communities (1965). A bibliography of his writings is D. B. Robertson, ed., Reinhold Niebuhr’s Works: A Bibliography (1983) Biographies include Charles C. Brown, Niebuhr and His Age: Reinhold Niebuhr’s Prophetic Role in the Twentieth Century (1992), and Richard Wightman Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (1985). For an informative discussion of his thought with responses to contributors by Niebuhr see Charles W. Kegley, ed., Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social, and Political Thought (1984).

  • Larry Pullen