The Niebuhr Legacy

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The Supreme American Theologian

His seminal work focused on the persistent presence of evil in human affairs.

Reinhold Niebuhr was a leading American theologian whose profound influence on the political and theological discourse of the twentieth century continues to be felt today.

The son of a Midwestern pastor of German heritage, Niebuhr graduated from Elmhurst College in 1910 and went on to study at Eden Seminary and Yale Divinity School. He was ordained a minister in the German Evangelical Synod of North America, a forerunner of the United Church of Christ. In 1928 he became professor of the philosophy of religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

Niebuhr’s work as a Protestant theologian focused on the persistent presence of evil in human affairs. He warned against the tendency toward sinful pride, self-righteous crusades and claims of political or religious perfection. He also insisted that moral individuals were obliged to work for social justice.

His dynamic lectures made him a national figure, with particular impact in the worlds of religion and politics. His work deeply influenced some of the most prominent moral, intellectual and political leaders of his day, including Martin Luther King Jr., Dean Acheson, George F. Kennan, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Hubert Humphrey and Jimmy Carter. Schlesinger called him "the supreme American theologian of the 20th Century."

Niebuhr was the author of a number of articles and books, including The Nature and Destiny of Man, Moral Man and Immoral Society and The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. In 1943, he wrote a small prayer for a church service in Massachusetts that has become known around the world as the Serenity Prayer.

He died on June 1, 1971 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Additional Resources

Favorite Theologian
CNN analyzes how Reinhold Niebuhr shaped Obama's first year in office.

A Man for All Reasons
In the November 2007 Atlantic Monthly, Paul Elie explores how a wave of Reinhold Niebuhr revivalism has made the theologian subject to claims of ownership from across the political spectrum.

Obama, Gospel and Verse
In October 2007, David Brooks's New York Times column tells how a shot-in-the-dark question about Niebuhr that he put to Barack Obama illicited a surprisingly enthusiastic and thorough response.

A Man on a Grey Horse
One year after the terrorist attacks of September 11, an essay by David Brooks in The Atlantic Monthly calls for a re-examination of the ideas of Reinhold Niebuhr.

Obama and Niebuhr: A Conversation
David Brooks and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne discuss Reinhold Niebuhr and Barack Obama at Georgetown University in 2009. The conversation was moderated by American Public Media's Krista Tippett.

Forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr
In this 2005 essay published in The New York Times, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. asks why America's greatest 20th century theologian seems to have dropped out of the public discourse.

Niebuhr's Long Shadow
The centennial anniversary of Reinhold Niebuhr's birth prompted this New York Times essay by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in which he reflects on the considerable influence his friend cast on American thought and the public discourse.

What You Can Learn from Reinhold Niebuhr
The New York Review of Books considers a new edition of The Irony of American History in light of America's contemporary political environment.

Reinhold Niebuhr Obituary
From the June 2, 1971 edition of The New York Times.

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