The Promise of Reinhold Niebuhr, Third Edition

The Promise of Reinhold Niebuhr, Third Edition

by Gabriel Fackre

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802866103
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 04/11/2011
Edition description: 3rd Edition
Pages: 142
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Gabriel Fackre is Abbot Professor Emeritus of ChristianTheology at Andover Newton Theological School. His numerousbooks include Christology in Context and TheChurch: Signs of the Spirit and Signs of the Times.Visit his website at

Read an Excerpt


By Gabriel Fackre

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2011 Gabriel Fackre
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6610-3

Chapter One


* * *

During his lifetime, North American graduate study had accepted more doctoral dissertations on the topic of Reinhold Niebuhr's theology than on any other twentieth-century theologian. Since then, books analyzing him, as well as retrospective notes by friends and colleagues, thicken card files. Though every crevice of his story seems to have been explored, this biographical chapter gives special attention to some qualities that mark Niebuhr's spiritual journey.

The Early Years

Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr was born in Wright City, Missouri, on June 21, 1892. His parents were serving a German-speaking congregation of the small Evangelical Synod, a denomination which mixed the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. The Reverend Gustav Niebuhr and his wife, Lydia, had other children — Helmut Richard, for some the "other Niebuhr," whom Reinhold always regarded as the better theologian; Hulda, a notable theologian, teacher, and writer affiliated for many years with McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago; Walter, a pioneering publisher and businessman; and Hubert, who died in infancy. Pastor Niebuhr had left his homeland in protest of Prussian rigidities, and therefore, while discipline was not absent, a warmth of give-and-take were very much part of family life. Reinhold frequently expressed his gratitude for the security, love, and openness of those family years.

"Reinie" grew up in Missouri and Illinois parsonages. One day he announced that his father was "the most interesting man in town." It came as no surprise, therefore, that he moved toward the professional ministry, entering the Evangelical Synod's Elmhurst College in suburban Chicago, then going on to Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Missouri. His academic achievements and eagerness to break loose from the tight web of German church life pressed him to continue his studies at Yale where his keen mind carved out a respected niche for himself among the Ivy League sophisticates, and he earned a B.D. and an M.A. degree. The renowned exponent of evangelical liberalism, Douglas Clyde Macintosh, exercised a particularly strong influence on him, although during the Yale years and later professor and student had animated exchanges on their differences.

Strong commitment to the Evangelical Synod which had nourished and encouraged him and a certain fatigue with prolonged intellectual incubation led Niebuhr in 1915 to accept the pastorate of a small congregation in Detroit. His mother, alone since the death of his father in 1913, accompanied him to the new charge.

1915 to 1928: Detroit

Niebuhr launched his ministry in the company of the eighteen families of Bethel Evangelical Church, "the little German church around the corner." A Detroit population explosion, powerful preaching, and the dedicated organizational labors of Mrs. Lydia Niebuhr sent the membership to nearly seven hundred over the period of his thirteen-year ministry and put the congregation in an imposing new building. Reinhold later paid tribute to his mother's unofficial assistanceship which allowed him to be a peripatetic religious apologist particularly on secular podia across the nation. He also began his lifetime practice of writing the short, feisty journal article which soon brought animated retorts and lively debates.

In Detroit, Niebuhr began to face the realities of industrial America. His congregation was a cross-section of the metropolis, including a sprinkling of wage workers, a varied middle-class majority, and a few millionaires. His pastoral rounds and civic activities brought him in contact with the unemployed, with those retired at the height of their working powers because of the automobile industry's age policies, and with those suppliers and competitors in the industry who were broken by its giant — Ford. Henry Ford had a world reputation, not only as a technological innovator but also as a humanitarian who trailed behind him a well-publicized record of high wages, the five-day week, and employment of the handicapped.

It was in the closeup view of the human ravages left by big business that Niebuhr's social conscience and realism took form. Behind the "high wages" lay Henry Ford's high profits. And behind that was a production genius which included efficiency-engineered speedups, model changeover, retooling with its long factory shutdowns and mass layoffs, a Charlie Chaplin assemblyline life, the shelving of aged workers, and an anti-union policy. Niebuhr's response ran the gamut from personal ministry to public protest. He sought jobs for individual cast-offs; in the face of sharp protests by the Detroit Board of Commerce, he welcomed representatives of labor into his church forum groups to tell their story; to the vocal displeasure of Ford enterprises, he filed periodic reports with The Christian Century on the machinations of the automobile industry. This on-location exposure to the gap between the pretension and the performance of an industrial barony contributed to Niebuhr's realism, particularly regarding collectivities. Further, tirades initially directed at Ford developed into more sophisticated analyses of structural weaknesses in the economy that later took shape as an attack on capitalism.

Detroit was a laboratory in racial learning as well as in labor conflict. With the supply of European immigrants cut off by the war, the automobile industry drew large numbers of black citizens from the south. Niebuhr was among the church leaders who early participated in their struggle for basic justice, serving as the first chair of a Mayor's Commission on Racial Relations and taking controversial stands on specific issues of racial injustice. His congregation had a self-declared open membership policy and four or five African American families did attend services, though none joined.

Niebuhr's parish ministry spanned the period of the "Great War." He served as a member of a denominational commission that visited many of the stateside army camps and in 1919 with YMCA leader Sherwood Eddy he went on an inspection tour of Germany's Ruhr industrial valley, the reports of which stirred the U.S. government to take relief action. While going along initially with American participation in the war and expressing regrets to his Yale classmates at not being able to be a chaplain, Niebuhr became more and more disillusioned with that war and with war in general. In 1923 he became a declared pacifist and several years later was an active member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR).

Niebuhr's involvement in economic, social, and political affairs was influenced to no small extent by prophetic figures on the Detroit scene. One of them was Episcopal Bishop Charles Williams. While other clergy ran for cover in controversy, Williams consistently supported worker rights, justice for black citizens, and peace movements. He stood as proof to Niebuhr that the church could still produce an Amos. And, echoing Williams, he learned that in matters of social witness, the biblical position was often represented more faithfully by heirs of the prophets in the Jewish community, such as Detroit's Fred Butzell, than by followers of Christ in the church. This early comradeship with latter-day Amoses was to remain constant in Niebuhr's later political involvements and in his views on Jewish-Christian relations.

While the prophet's role figured prominently in Niebuhr's Detroit ministry, he was also a pastor attentive to the personal needs of his congregation. Both his own reflection in Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (1929) on the tragedies and joys of his parishioners, and their own testimony as well, reveal sensitivity to the claims of personal life and faithfulness to individual Christian ministrations. In later years Niebuhr expressed regret that in the midst of his busy public life he could not have given even more attention to the tender and intimate dimensions of ministry.

The association and friendship with Sherwood Eddy drew Niebuhr into the orbit of national life. Eddy opened the way to a larger audience by helping to provide funds for an assistant at Bethel Church so that the growing number of invitations to speak at colleges could be met. Thus began the circuit-riding that took Niebuhr to hundreds of centers of higher education in years to come. Plunging him further into the national arena was the request by social reformer Jane Addams to assist in the 1924 presidential campaign of Robert LaFollette. Meanwhile, Niebuhr was also writing for The Atlantic Monthly and The Christian Century (serving for a while on its editorial staff ). In 1927 he wrote his first book, Does Civilization Need Religion?

As Niebuhr moved increasingly in circles beyond his local parish, the logic of a platform commensurate with this audience asserted itself. In 1928 he accepted a teaching post at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Here he would be positioned at the crossroads of American intellectual and political ferment, where the traffic from European church life also flowed. These factors exercised a significant influence on the subsequent texture and tone of Niebuhr's life.

1929 to 1945: From Depression to Conflagration

Seminary life allowed, even demanded, more rigorous intellectual confrontation with the human issues than Niebuhr had encountered in Detroit. He read Karl Marx and came in touch with the currents of radical social criticism. On top of that were poured more data from the economic cataclysm of 1929 and its sequel, a hungry and despairing America. In the pages of World Tomorrow, an organ of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and in such landmark volumes of the thirties as Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), Reflections on the End of an Era (1934), and An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (1935), capitalism was pinpointed as the source of our social sickness and Roosevelt's New Deal was dismissed as a mild injection that dulled the patient's awareness of approaching death.

At the opening of the decade, Niebuhr further asserted his anticapitalist commitments as a leading spirit in founding the Fellowship of Socialist Christians and editing its periodical, Radical Religion. He joined the Socialist Party and in 1930 appeared on its ballot as a congressional candidate from a local New York district. He became a familiar figure in radical circles as he lived out his declaration to "move politically to the left and theologically to the right."

That latter mobility, "theologically to the right," distinguished him from many who had made the political journey leftward in the depressed thirties. The theological right meant a thread of biblical realism which wound itself into the socialist fabric. On the one hand, it forbade a mild social protest confident of a simple trust in human goodness, in the methods of moral suasion and education, and in history's steady escalation upward. On the other hand, it led him to reject the utopianism of the orthodox Marxist that claimed to have seen and secured the future and expressed itself in the fanaticism of a Stalinist purge or the mindless rigidity of the American Communist Party. For these reasons he was found regularly in the first ranks of antiestablishment activists who at the same time carried on a second front against Marxist ideologues seeking to gain control of reform movements. This double battle was waged in such groups as the New York Teachers' Union and other New York and national movements.

Toward the end of the decade, Niebuhr's attention turned more and more to the issues of war and peace. Having served for several years in earlier pacifist days as chair of the FOR, he now began to grapple with the Nazi phenomenon. The main lines of his criticism of pacifism were laid down in An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. As Hitler rattled German sabers more loudly, and as the horrible fate of the Jews broke into the consciousness of the world, Niebuhr became an outspoken critic of appeasement. He was by this time an international figure in both lecture and committee rooms and he had personal as well as political acquaintances in England and on the continent. Friendship with such expatriates as theologian Paul Tillich and social philosopher Eduard Heimann, and with leaders in the Christian resistance movement like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, brought home to him the price being paid by inaction and dramatized, as well, the challenge to the church of the Nazis' "blood and soil" racism. While Niebuhr did not until 1941 plead radical intervention in terms of troops and a declaration of war, he backed many causes that aided refugees and supported the Allies materially, including the protection of cargo shipments.

As his antipacifist posture accelerated, so did his disengagement from the movements of another era whose commitments seemed obsolete. In 1940 Niebuhr resigned from the Socialist Party over its international policies and later helped to found the Liberal Party. While the Soviet bear and its American cubs gave off very ambiguous noises about the Nazis in this period, he took part in 1940 in the organization of the Union for Democratic Action (UDA) which sought to gather reformers around a common banner that excluded a doctrinaire Marxism.

All major political options were kept under critical review. The contest was among (1) a very imperfect form of Western democracy, (2) an all-out attack on the charter of human society itself (Nazism), and (3) a too-easy formulation of a new kind of humanism with demonic possibilities (Marxism). With these givens, Niebuhr was compelled to make the realignments cited above and more like them, often developing working relationships with those he had heretofore dismissed as captive to palliatives. For example, Eleanor Roosevelt, Elmer Davis, and others in left-wing Democratic Party activities became his close associates. Realignment brought with it access to the Luce publications and other major media. Although Niebuhr's still strong "politically to the left" leanings were hardly the company policy of Life and Time, his anti-Nazi posture and some of his theological insights were attractive to them. Moreover, the media could hardly ignore the position of a molder of international opinion. Redirection also eventuated in a new association with government policy-makers, in particular in the State Department, whose public statements sometimes bore an almost embarrassing similarity to Niebuhrian concepts and language. In this period of changing loyalties and associations, many of his co-workers in the Fellowship of Christian Socialists followed him; the temperature change itself in this circle was signaled by an organizational nomenclature shift to the Frontier Fellowship and, finally, to Christian Action.

Niebuhr's extensive writing in this period included the astute political commentary of his early Moral Man and Immoral Society, then later essays in The Nation, The New Republic, Harper's, Life, and in his own publication, Christianity and Crisis (successor to Radical Religion); and probing theological analyses in media as varied as the editorial pages of the Evangelical and Reformed Messenger and the massively researched two-volume The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941, 1943). This latter classic was given as the 1939 Spring and Fall Term Gifford Lectures, against the backdrop of Edinburgh air raid sirens during the latter. Its statement of the Christian doctrine of humanity marked Niebuhr (despite his own disclaimers to be a theologian) as one of the most fertile theological minds of the twentieth century. Paralleling the more formal academic and political commentary was the continuing flow of sermons and addresses which found their way into such collections as Beyond Tragedy (1937) and Discerning the Signs of the Times (1946).

While the life of the mind and the struggle of nations occupied much of Niebuhr's attention during these years, time was made for tender things as well. He often remarked that without the latter there would have been few resources for the former. Vivacious Oxford honor student Ursula Keppel-Compton came to Union Seminary in the fall of 1930. Reinhold and she were married in 1931. The relationship had its intellectual electricity as well as its warm personal dimensions. Ursula, demonstrating her own gifts as faculty member at Barnard College (ultimately heading the Department of Religion), proved to be one of the most astute critics of her husband's thought, influencing him significantly, as he testified in later years.


Excerpted from THE PROMISE OF REINHOLD NIEBUHR by Gabriel Fackre Copyright © 2011 by Gabriel Fackre. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Foreword to the First Edition, by Martin Marty....................x
Foreword to the Revised Edition, by Daniel Novotny....................xii
Preface to the Third Edition....................xvi
1. A Pilgrim on the Way....................1
2. Theological Roots....................21
3. Political Shoots....................43
4. Realism and Vision....................59
5. Niebuhrian Counsels and Correctives....................69
6. Promises Fulfilled: the 1990s....................83
7. Tall Tales about Reinhold Niebuhr....................101
A Selected Bibliography of Works by Reinhold Niebuhr....................109
Other Books by Gabriel Fackre....................113
About the Author and Contributors....................115

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